Sessions: We Will Keep Fighting for Religious Liberty, and ‘We’re Going to Keep Winning’

By Melanie Arter | July 30, 2018 | 2:39pm EDT
Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Screenshot)

( – Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the formation of a task force to ensure that the Department of Justice (DOJ) upholds religious liberty in the cases the government brings and defends, its court arguments, and DOJ policies, regulations, and operations.

“The task force will help the department fully implement our religious liberty guidance by ensuring that all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations. That includes making sure that our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith,” Sessions said in a speech at the Justice Department’s (DOJ) Religious Liberty Summit.

“As the people in this room know, you have to practice what you preach. We are also going to remain in contact with religious groups across America to ensure that their rights are being protected. We have been holding listening sessions and we will continue to host them in the coming weeks,” Sessions said.

"This administration is animated by that same American view that has led us for 242 years: that every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith in the public square. This approach has served this country well. We are perhaps the most religiously developed nation in the world and can take pride in respecting all people as they fully exercise their faiths. It is clear that these policies have furthered peace, prosperity, freedom, lawfulness, and clarity,” he added.

The Alliance Defending Freedom reacted to Sessions’ announcement about the Religious Liberty Task Force by commending President Donald Trump and Sessions “for following for following through on the most vital promises of their public service: the preservation and protection of religious liberty.”

“Religious liberty is our most precious gift as humans and our most cherished and protected freedom as Americans,” Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Vice President of U.S. Legal Division Kristen Waggoner said in a statement.

“Too many of the clients ADF represents are risking their businesses, their life savings, and their safety to follow their conscience. All Americans should be free to peacefully live and act consistent with their convictions and faith without threat of government punishment. Freedom of speech and religion aren’t subject to political and cultural whims; they are constitutional guarantees, and we are grateful that this administration recognizes that reality and is taking serious steps to correct injustice and protect the freedom of religion,” Waggoner added.

Trump heard the concerns of those who wonder what the “changing cultural climate means for the future of religious liberty” in the U.S., which is one reason why he was election, the attorney general said.

“In substance, he said he respected people of faith and he promised to protect them in the free exercise of their faith. He declared we would say ‘Merry Christmas’ again. The Department of Justice has settled 24 civil cases with 90 plaintiffs regarding the previous administration’s wrong application of the contraception mandate to objecting religious employers,” the attorney general said.

“Last month, a district court in Colorado issued a permanent injunction in the case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who serve the elderly poor. This is a permanent injunction and a major victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor and religious freedom. The government has no business telling the Little Sisters that they must provide an insurance policy that violates their sincere religious beliefs,” Sessions said.

Protecting religious liberty is something that the president has delivered on since day one of the administration, Sessions said.

“Soon after taking office, President Trump directed me to issue explicit legal guidance for all executive agencies on how to apply the religious liberty protections in federal law. Our team embraced that challenge. I issued that guidance in October, and it lays out 20 fundamental principles for the Executive Branch to follow,” he said.

“Those include the principle that free exercise means a right to act—or to abstain from action. They include the principle that government shouldn’t impugn people’s motives or beliefs. We don’t give up our rights when we go to work, start a business, talk about politics, or interact with the government. We don’t give up our rights when we assemble or join together. We have religious freedom as individuals and as groups,” Sessions added.

“In short, we have not only the freedom to worship—but the right to exercise our faith. The Constitution’s protections don’t end at the parish parking lot nor can our freedoms be confined to our basements. Under this administration, the federal government is not just reacting—we are actively seeking, carefully, thoughtfully and lawfully, to accommodate people of faith,” he said.

“Religious Americans are no longer an afterthought,” Sessions said. “We will take potential burdens on one’s conscience into consideration before we issue regulations or new policies, and this Department of Justice is going to court across America to defend the rights of people of faith.”

The attorney general said the DOJ is “aggressively and appropriately enforcing our civil rights laws, our hate crimes laws, and laws protecting churches and faith groups.”

To this end, since January 2017, the DOJ “obtained 11 indictments and seven convictions in cases involving arson or other attacks or threats against houses of worship.” The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division “has also obtained 12 indictments in other attacks or threats against people because of their religion, and we are not slowing down.” Sessions said.

“Three weeks ago, we obtained a jury verdict against a man who set fire to a mosque in Texas and sentenced for a man from Missouri for threatening to kill members of a mosque. In addition to protecting the safety of people of faith, we are also protecting them against unjust discrimination,” he said.

“In January, we filed a brief in a Montana court to defend parents who claim that the state barred their children from a private school scholarship program because they attend a religious school,” Sessions added.

“We also filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., which was refused advertising space for having a religious message—including ‘joy to the world’ on Merry Christmas,” the attorney general said. “And, of course, we were proud to file a brief in support of Jack Phillips,” the Christian baker who was sued for refusing to design a cake for a same-sex wedding.

Sessions announced the Place to Worship Initiative in June. “Under this initiative, the Department of Justice is holding public events across America and improving training for federal prosecutors about legal protections for houses of worship,” he said.

As attorney general, the DOJ has not hesitated to use a law that Sessions helped pass while serving in the U.S. Senate. It’s called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, whereby the DOJ “can file a civil action in court when religious groups are discriminated against in zoning laws.”

“In June, we filed suit against a town in New Jersey that had refused over and over again—for eight years—to let an Orthodox Jewish congregation buy land for a synagogue, and just last week, we filed a brief in federal court supporting the case of a Hindu temple in Maryland that claimed to have suffered discrimination in its attempts to purchase land,” he said.

“We are going to keep going to court, and I believe that we’re going to keep winning.” Sessions added.


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