A week after announcing a mysterious new “religious liberty task force,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions once again addressed the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on Wednesday. He assured them that he does not believe they are a hate group for constantly advocating for discrimination against LGBTQ people, and then claimed that his Department of Justice does not “partner with any groups that discriminate.”
Sessions previously spoke to ADF last June, and his at-the-time secret address caused quite a backlash as many in the media pointed out that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has identified ADF as an anti-LGBTQ hate group. His remarks were later made public, and ADF took a conservative media tour to claim that they were a victim of this false accusation.
This time, Sessions addressed the controversy head on. After mentioning “the ordeal faced bravely by Jack Phillips,” the baker ADF represented in Supreme Court who blatantly discriminated against a same-sex couple, Sessions told the group that people of faith are facing “a bigoted ideology which is founded on animus towards people of faith.”
“You’ll notice that they don’t rely on the facts,” he said. “They don’t make better arguments. They don’t propose higher ideals. No, they just call people names—like ‘hate group.'”
Sessions claimed that groups like the SPLC wield the “hate group” designation to “bully and intimidate” conservative groups “that refuse to accept their orthodoxy and choose instead to speak their conscience.” He noted, for example, that the label led Amazon to disqualify ADF from its Smile fundraising program.
“You and I may not agree on everything — but I wanted to come back here tonight partly because I wanted to say this: you are not a hate group,” he said.
Contrary to Sessions’ claims, there are ample facts to substantiate ADF’s designation as an anti-LGBTQ hate group — so much so that it’s pure gaslighting to say otherwise. The group has defended wedding vendors challenging nondiscrimination laws, parents and schools that want to reject transgender students, and businesses that want the right to refuse to even employ LGBTQ people. They have even repeatedly advocated for the criminalization of homosexuality. Media Matters recently published a massive report cataloging the litany of ways ADF has demonized LGBTQ people and lobbied against their basic civil rights.
Sessions had made similar remarks about hate group designations at last week’s religious liberty summit, and the SPLC responded. In a letter to Sessions, SPLC President Richard Cohen highlighted some of the facts that led to hate group designations for groups like ADF and the Family Research Council (FRC). “Linking the LGBT community to pedophilia as the FRC and the ADF have done is not an expression of a religious belief,” he wrote. “It is simply a dangerous and ugly falsehood. As you know, FBI hate crime data show that the LGBT community is the minority group most likely targeted for violent hate crimes.”
“If the ADF had its way, gay people would be back in the closet for fear of going to jail,” Cohen wrote. “It’s inappropriate for the nation’s top law enforcement officer to lend the prestige of his office to this group. And it’s ironic to suggest that the rights of ADF sympathizers are under attack when the ADF is doing everything in its power to deny the equal protection of the laws to the LGBT community.”
Sessions may also have been trying to protect his own reputation. In the same speech to ADF, he also insisted that the DOJ “will not partner with hate groups. Not on my watch.”
But of course the DOJ partners constantly with ADF. The Trump administration has backed ADF’s position in multiple cases, ADF’s representatives were front and center at last week’s religious liberty summit (including former ADF staff who now work for the DOJ), and Sessions even consulted with ADF when drafting the “religious freedom” guidance that the new task force will enforce. It’s just that Sessions himself has long advocated against LGBTQ equality, so he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong or hateful when it comes to taking such positions.
Anti-LGBTQ conservatives were quite flattered to have the U.S. attorney general’s support. The Heritage Foundation and The Federalist, as examples, were quick to praise Sessions’ remarks and join the pile-on to smear the SPLC. Rather than respond to the detailed critiques the SPLC provides about their prejudiced positions, anti-LGBTQ hate groups have instead campaigned to besmirch the historic civil rights organization’s reputation.
With Sessions constantly catering to these groups, they have only been more emboldened to express their discriminatory beliefs — further confirming the legitimacy of the SPLC’s designations.
UPDATE, 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time: The Southern Poverty Law Center released a new statement from its president, Richard Cohen, to reporters Thursday afternoon addressing Sessions’ latest comments:
During his campaign, President Trump promised to be ‘a real friend’ to the LGBT community. Yet, yesterday, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, lauded the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a group that vilifies the LGBT community and promotes discrimination against it in the name of religion.
What’s more, Sessions attacked the SPLC for calling the ADF what it is – a hate group that would like to push the LGBT community into the closet if not into jail. Sessions’ words and actions reflect what is painfully obvious: Contrary to Trump’s campaign promise, his administration is no friend of the LGBT community.
The ADF richly deserves the hate group label. It supports the criminalization of sexual relations between consenting adults abroad. It opposes anti-bullying policies that provide protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It says that the American Convention on Human Rights should not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It promotes the myth that there is a link between homosexuality and pedophilia despite the fact that the weight of scientific authority has debunked the claim.
Linking the LGBT community to pedophilia as the ADF has done is not an expression of a religious belief. It is simply a dangerous and ugly falsehood. FBI hate crime data show that the LGBT community is the minority group most likely to be targeted for violent hate crimes. Demonizing the LGBT community and portraying it as a danger to children is likely to exacerbate the hate crime epidemic it is facing.
Just as religious beliefs would not be a defense to a hate crime prosecution, vilifying others in the name of religion should not immunize a group from being designated as a hate group. It’s ironic – and utterly hypocritical – for the attorney general to suggest that the rights of ADF sympathizers are under attack when the ADF is doing everything in its power to deny the equal protection of the laws to the LGBT community.
Sessions has made much of the fact that, under his watch, the Department of Justice has been committed to prosecuting hate crimes against transgender persons. Yet, at the same time, he seems oblivious to the fact that his other actions send the message that LGBT people are not worthy of the law’s protection. He issued a memo to U.S. attorneys, for example, arguing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not protect transgender workers from employment discrimination, and his Department of Justice has argued that the Act does not protect any workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The nation’s top law enforcement officer should not be lending the prestige of his office to a group that wants to enshrine its bigotry into law. And he should not attack the SPLC for pointing out the group’s bigotry. The LGBT community deserves respect, not demonization.