“Religious freedom for some” critics say of new DOJ Task Force

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WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions has formed the Religious Liberty Task Force to help implement the various legislation and policies that were put into place last year. The task force will be co-chaired by acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Beth Williams, who is the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy.

[credit: Mr. Gray/Flickr]

At a July 30 meeting on religious freedom this year, Sessions told attendees, “A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt. This is no little matter. It must be confronted and defeated.”  He then goes on to list various public cases in which religious freedom was at the core of the debate:

But in recent years, the cultural climate in this country—and in the West more generally—has become less hospitable to people of faith. Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack. And it’s easy to see why.  We’ve seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives. 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.

Sessions adds, “President Trump heard this concern. […] He declared we would say “Merry Christmas” again.”

The newly established task force was formed as part of the way in which the Trump administration is “confronting and defeating” the “movement” that is allegedly “eroding” our tradition of religious freedom. The task force will enforce several policies and structures put into place over the past year. Those include new religious freedom guidelines  for federal offices implemented in 2017. As we reported:

The new Department of Justice guidelines outline 20 different principles in which religious liberty might be affected, such as in health care as seen with the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, in hiring practices, the expression of religion on public property, and in workplace accommodations, to name just a few. The document also outlines, or seeks to clarify, points made by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was originally signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed changes to strengthen its established “conscience protections.”  As we reported:

The thrust of the rule is to strengthen HHS’ ability to police the regulations already in place and to give OCR and its new division the “overall” authority to do so. Within the proposed rules, HHS specifically singles out certain medical cases that typically illicit conscience- or religion-based objections. These procedures and medical related actions include, abortion, sterilization, assisted suicide, any ACA mandates, the execution of advance directives, exemptions from compulsory health care and screenings including vaccinations and mental health treatment, and religion-based, non-medical treatments. “With this proposed regulation, the Department seeks to more effectively and comprehensively enforce Federal health care conscience and associated anti-discrimination laws,” the rule reads.

The new task force also correlates to a new executive order May 3 that concerns U.S. faith-based and community organizations. The executive order establishes the “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative,” which replaces similar faith-based strategies already created by former presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The basic concept is to remove barriers that prevent full governmental support for faith-based and community organizations that uniquely provide for the needs of people at the local and personal level.

The task force is the fourth big mission supporting the administration’s religious freedom agenda. Sessions said in the July 30 summit meeting, “[The Founding Fathers] clearly recognized that an individual’s relationship to God is a natural right and precedes the existence of the state, and is not subject to state control.” This statement ties the agenda to the “Make America Great, again” campaign.

Shortly after the announcement, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council stated, “I commend President Trump and AG Sessions for safeguarding the freedom to live out one’s faith in all areas of society without government punishment or intimidation. History makes clear, religious freedom is the key to a strong, stable & successful nation.” Founded in 1983, the FRC’s mission is to “advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview.”

While FRC and other similar Christian advocacy groups support the administration’s latest move, civil rights organizations spoke out firmly against it.

Liz Hayes of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) wrote in a blog post: “What Sessions really means is that the Trump administration is committed to an agenda of preserving the power of the Christian fundamentalists who carried Trump into office and who want to use their religious beliefs as justification to discriminate against women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and anyone else who doesn’t conform with their narrow vision of Christianity.”

Hayes joined others in noting obvious similarities in the cases mentioned in Sessions’ speech. Rachel Laser, president and CEO of AU, said in a press release, “The event by the Justice Department offends the true meaning of religious freedom. Far from seeking to safeguard religious freedom, Trump, Sessions and their allies are hard at work trying to destroy that precious right by favoring the religious views of a select few at the expense of religious freedom for all Americans. They seek religious freedom for some, not for all.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD agreed, stating: “Though freedom of religion is a core American value, religious exemptions from adhering to non-discrimination protections are not. Sessions’ announcement today is yet another example of the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda as they seek to weave protections for those seeking anti-LGBTQ religious exemptions into the government.”

Freedom from Religion Foundation‘s Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel wrote, “Until we get a president and attorney general who understand the Constitution and are willing to defend it against religious privilege, the Freedom from Religion Foundation will continue to guard the wall of separation that is so vital to our secular republic.”

Religious liberty has now openly taken on a new meaning, writes Washington Post writer Jonathan Merritt. “In the hands of the Trump administration, the phrase connotes freedoms and privileges granted mostly to Christians — specifically, the white conservative Christians who form a vital part of the Republican base. Instead of inclusive pluralism, it now stands for exclusive primacy of the Christian faith.”

This latest move in the administration’s so-called religious freedom agenda comes just as concerns are being raised over Trumps’ Supreme Court’s pick, Brett Kavanaugh. Civil rights organizations are warning that Kavanaugh, a devout Catholic, has a voting record that demonstrates a disregard for the separation of church and state implied in the Constitution. They believe that he is yet another proponent of the religious agenda put forth by Sessions in his July 30 speech. While there are some complaints by Republicans that Kavanaugh is not conservative enough, his opponents are not convinced; and will continue to raise their concerns as they have over the past year with the cascade of legislation that allegedly protects religious freedoms.