WASHINGTON (RNS)—Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced during a Department of Justice summit in Washington he is creating a religious liberty task force to challenge what he called a dangerous movement “eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.”
While affirming some of Sessions’ remarks, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty took him—and the Trump Administration in general—to task for “sowing division where there should be unity” in regard to religious freedom.
The task force is an outgrowth of President Trump’s executive order directing agencies to protect religious liberty, Sessions said. It will help Justice Department employees remember their duty to accommodate people of faith, he asserted.
“This administration is animated by that same American view that has led us for 242 years—that every American has a right to believe and worship and exercise their faith in the public square,” Sessions said at the summit.
Sessions alluded to the fears of some Americans that the freedom to practice their faith has been under attack. He spoke of nuns “ordered to buy contraceptives,” a reference to an Obama-era contraception mandate. While the mandate did not force the nuns to buy contraceptives, it required them to cover the costs of contraceptives in their employees’ health plans.
“Religious Americans are no longer an afterthought,” he said. “We will take potential burdens on one’s conscience into consideration before we issue regulations or policies.”
Speaking at the summit alongside Sessions were a host of religious leaders, including Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who chairs the Committee for Religious Liberty at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who won a Supreme Court case after refusing to design a cake for a gay couple’s wedding reception.
Personal religious liberty battles described
During a panel discussion, a host of religious leaders described their personal religious liberty battles. They included a Chabad rabbi who fought opposition to his building a synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla., a Sikh lawyer who refused to shave his beard and take off his turban to accept a job and Phillips, an evangelical Christian.
The summit examined the controversial issue of religion-based service refusals to LGBTQ Americans head on.
Sessions praised Phillips for his “bravery” in his Masterpiece Cakeshop legal challenge. Others, including Kurtz and Heritage Foundation executive Emilie Kao, said the country ought to defend the rights of faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to allow same-sex couples to adopt children.
Without ever referring to LGBTQ people explicitly, Kurtz alluded to the need to protect faith-based adoption agencies’ desires to deny service to gay or lesbian couples because of the Catholic faith’s opposition to same-sex relationships.
“When activists try to force Christian ministries into violating their consciences, they force Christians into a bind,” Kurtz said. “We cannot reject our commitments to service, nor can we turn away from our commitment to the truth about the human person.”
The Alliance for Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm that defended Phillips, immediately issued a release congratulating Sessions and his religious liberty initiative.
“Too many of the clients ADF represents are risking their businesses, their life savings and their safety to follow their conscience,” the statement said. “All Americans should be free to peacefully live and act consistent with their convictions and faith without threat of government punishment.”
‘Sowing division where there should be unity’
Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, affirmed some of Sessions’ remarks, noting particularly his references to freedom of conscience and the Department of Justice’s prosecution of “attacks and threats against houses of worship and people because of their religion.”
However, she took issue with the attorney general for “oversimplification of unsettled legal questions involving the free exercise of religion and the near told omission of any concern for government promotion of religion, which the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits.”
“I agree that we find ourselves in a perilous moment, but I fear that what is most in jeopardy is widespread support for religious liberty for all. And the actions of this administration, including the announcement of a one-sided Religious Liberty Task Force, are only exacerbating the problem,” Tyler said.
“In aligning the government closely with a narrow viewpoint on religious freedom—which fails to balance concern for protection of the rights of others with the right to exercise one’s religion—the Trump administration is sowing division where there should be unity on our first freedom.”
The Baptist Joint Committee “will continue to call for a full understanding of religious liberty for all, which demands that government neither inhibit nor promote religion and its practice,” she added.
“If religious freedom is going to survive—let alone flourish—in our pluralistic and rapidly changing society, we must all advocate for a more complete and inclusive understanding of religious liberty for people of all faith traditions and those who do not adhere to any religion,” Tyler said.
With additional reporting by Managing Editor Ken Camp.