Photo via U.S. Dept. of Defense
United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new Department of Justice (DOJ) initiative dubbed the “Religious Liberty Task Force” on Monday, responsible for "helping the department fully implement our religious guidance."
Though common sense might suggest that defending Americans’ right to religious freedom should probably include protections for Muslim and Jewish communities among other faiths, Sessions’ task force announcement did not explicitly mention those frequently persecuted practices, instead focusing on expanding the definition of “freedom” as broadly as possible, including protecting Christians’ right to legally discriminate against LGBTQ communities. Understandably, Sessions’ limited view of religious freedom and muddling of church and state has been met with swift and strong rebukes from both human rights organizations and concerned Americans.
Speaking at the DOJ’s Religious Liberty Summit in Washington, Sessions described America as a Christian nation under attack from secular forces, and offered the new task force as a front-line defense against those supposed anti-religious attacks. The new group will enforce a 2017 DOJ directive telling law enforcement of all kinds to protect “religious freedom” at all costs.
"A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom," Sessions said in his speech. "There can be no doubt. This is no little matter. It must be confronted and defeated."
“This President and this Department of Justice are determined to protect and even advance this magnificent heritage,” Sessions continued.
But while Sessions was adamant about the supposedly growing threat to America’s Christian status quo, a number of high-profile court cases over the past year alone have repeatedly upheld even the most morally repugnant religious freedoms, including a baker’s right to deny service based on sexual orientation and national chain Hobby Lobby’s ability to refuse employees health care that covers birth control. In a report for Vox, reporter Tara Burton noted that all of the most controversial religious freedom cases in recent memory sided with Christian defendants.
“[Sessions] is advocating for the kind of Christian nationalism — blending patriotism and evangelical Christianity — that the administration has consistently used to legitimize its aims and shore up its evangelical base,” writes Burton.
Given Sessions’ track record of dog-whistle discrimination and staunch social conservatism, progressive advocacy groups across the country spoke up with concerns about the new task force’s underlying goals.
“Reminder: Religious freedom protects our right to our beliefs, not a right to harm others,” the ACLU wrote on Twitter. “The Department of Justice has no business licensing discrimination against LGBT people, women, and religious minorities.”
In his speech Monday, Sessions claimed that “Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds are concerned about what this changing cultural climate means for the future of religious liberty in this country,” but in practice, the Attorney General’s concept of “variety” stops after Christian denominations are covered.