U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced the creation of a task force on religious liberty in the U.S. Justice Department. The special unit will be responsible for ensuring that the Department’s policies, regulations, and operations are prioritizing the principles of religious freedom. “This Administration is animated by the same American view that has guided us for 242 years,” Sessions said in announcing the establishment of the task force. “Every American has the right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith in the public square. We take pride in respecting all people as they fully exercise their religious beliefs.”
Sessions said the Religious Liberty Task Force will help implement 20 principles of religious free exercise that he enunciated last fall. That guidance instructed Justice Department officials, other federal agencies, and U.S. Attorneys across the country to incorporate those principles in the cases they bring and defend, and the arguments they make in court.(You can read about those principles in the archives of the Jeff City Update in our November 20th, 2017 edition on our website.) The Attorney General stated that the Department of Justice was prepared to stand up to “a dangerous movement [that is] challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom…We are going to remain in contact with religious groups across America to guarantee that their rights are being protected.”
“We don’t give up our rights when we go to work, start a business, talk about politics or interact with the government,” Sessions continued. “We don’t give up our rights when we assemble or join together. The Constitution’s protections don’t end at the parish parking lot nor can our freedoms can be confined to our basements.” Sessions deplored previous actions by federal courts and the federal government that demonstrated religious intolerance. “We’ve seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives. We’ve seen the ordeal faced so bravely by baker Jack Philips. We’ve seen U.S. Senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about their religious dogma, even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office.”
“No government should impugn people’s religious motives or beliefs,” Sessions observed. “We will take potential burdens on a person’s conscience into consideration before we issue new policies, and go to court across America to defend the rights of people of faith.” The latest action by the Justice Department on the religious liberty front comes on the heels of another initiative announced earlier this summer. In June Attorney General Sessions revealed the establishment of the “Place to Worship” project in the Justice Department. The initiative is designed to protect houses of worship from discrimination in instances such as the issuance of government grants and local land use and zoning laws.
As part of that initiative, the Department of Justice recently took legal action against the New Jersey community of Woodcliff Lake. The town has for the last eight years blocked a group of Orthodox Jews from moving their meetings out of a single-family home into a new building. The city has rejected construction permits, and then seized property that Valley Chabad tried to purchase for a school.
Attorney General Sessions shared how the Justice Department has been taking aggressive action to enforce civil rights laws protecting churches and faith groups. He said that DOJ in the last year and a half has obtained eleven indictments and seven convictions in cases involving arson or other attacks or threats against houses of worship. One of those involved a Missouri man who threatened to kill members of a mosque in Georgia.The wholesale overhaul of the Justice Department’s approach to religious liberty concerns has been the result of an executive order issued by President Trump shortly after taking office which instructed federal departments and agencies to take concerted action to defend religious freedoms.
Kristen Waggoner, Senior Vice-President of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), commended the current Administration for protecting religious liberty as “the most cherished and precious freedom of Americans.” “Too many of the clients ADF represents are risking their businesses, their life savings, and their safety to follow their conscience. Freedom of speech and religion aren’t subject to political and cultural whims; they are constitutional guarantees, and we are grateful that serious steps are being taken to correct injustice and safeguard religious liberty.” Waggoner is the attorney who recently represented Colorado baker Jack Phillips in his successful appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. Phillips had been charged with discrimination by a Colorado civil rights commission for declining to decorate a cake for a same-sex union ceremony. The High Court ruled that Phillips was a victim of the commission’s overt hostility to religion.