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Jeff Sessions announces religious liberty task force

Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred to nuns being "ordered to buy contraceptives."

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Religious Liberty Summit at the Department of Justice July 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Religious Liberty Summit at the Department of Justice July 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department has formed a task force to implement religious liberty guidance it introduced last year. Sessions made the announcement during a “Religious Liberty Summit” at Justice Department headquarters.

When the guidance was issued in October, saying that the government can’t punish anyone for acting or not acting “in accordance with one’s religious beliefs,” civil rights organizations worried it could be used to excuse individuals and groups who refuse to provide services to people in the LGBTQ community and people who want reproductive care. Indeed, Sessions specifically mentioned LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights in his announcement of the task force.

“We’ve seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives,” Sessions said on Monday. “We’ve seen U.S. senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about dogma—even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office. We’ve all seen the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips.”

Jack Phillips is the Colorado cake artist who told a same-sex couple he would not make them a wedding cake because it is against his religious beliefs in the U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In his critique of senators’ questions for judicial and executive branch nominees, Sessions may be referring to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) questioning then HUD Secretary nominee Ben Carson about whether he supported LGBTQ rights or senators asking judicial nominee Wendy Vitter about her past anti-reproductive rights actions.

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Phillips was present at the announcement Monday and was a panelist at the summit, which was backed by the Alliance Defending Freedom. The ADF has defended state-sanctioned sterilization of transgender people, supports a recriminalization of homosexuality in the United States, and has tried to link queer people to pedophilia, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The Attorney General standing shoulder-to-shoulder this morning with anti-LGBTQ extremists tells you everything you need to know about what today’s announcement was really all about,” Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said in a statement on the organization’s blog.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, tweeted that the task force is for using “religion to mask their discriminatory goals.”

The guidance includes protections for businesses that discriminate by saying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 applied to businesses as well as people. This Justice Department guidance came after Trump issued an executive order in May 2017 for agencies to work on “promoting free speech and religious liberty.” The order contained the words “deeply held beliefs” which concerned advocates in the LGBTQ community because they have also been used in bills that enable discrimination.

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Sessions announced that the task force would be co-chaired by Jesse Panuccio, acting associate attorney general, who was a lawyer for supporters of Proposition 8, the California ban on same-sex marriage, and assistant attorney general for DOJ Office of Legal Policy, Beth Williams. Williams has decried “limitless injunctions” and “the dogged determination” with which she said they have “been employed against this President.”

The Department of Health and Human Services recently created a new division within the Office for Civil Rights, called the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom. This division was created to ensure health care providers don’t have to provide services they object to morally or religiously. Roger Severino, who is in charge of the Office for Civil Rights, once said health care providers shouldn’t have to help transgender people transition.