Sadly it is no exaggeration, no hyperbole, to say that Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared a holy war on LGBT people, LGBT equality, and LGBT rights on Monday.
He declared war on anything that could be perceived to trespass on the "religious freedom" or "religious liberty" of Christians—which is loosely defined enough to be construed as trespassing on pretty much anything he and his allies choose it to mean.
Sessions said this was because there was a “dangerous movement” to erode the Christian right to worship.
There isn’t, of course; it’s an invented bogeyman for a ravenously-pursued ideological crusade. Women, religious minorities, LGBT people: Prepare to fight for your bodies, your rights to worship, your wedding cakes.
Sessions’ announcement of a “Religious Liberty Task Force” at a “Religious Liberty Summit” follows President Trump’s religious liberty executive order of May. It also follows the Department of Health and Human Services' announcement in January of a new “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” to be housed within the agency’s Office for Civil Rights.
The “Religious Liberty Task Force”—which summons up images of a pirate ship filled with the staffs of the ADF, Liberty Counsel, and Family Research Council, sallying forth and liberating prejudiced bakers everywhere—will apparently ensure that everything Sessions laid out in his “religious liberty” memo of last October is pursued to the letter. That memo outlined how multiple government agencies should seek to uphold “religious liberty” even if it conflicts with existing anti-discrimination policies.
The “task force” will be co-chaired by Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Beth Williams, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy.
However, as evidenced in his speech today, it is clearly Sessions who is behind it, and he appears intent to use the Department of Justice to advance this holy war, and he wants to wage it against trespassers of ‘religious liberty’ across government departments. Church and State have never appeared so poisonously intertwined.
The Trump administration is already winning in its battle to erode the few civil rights that LGBT people have. The Supreme Court, if the Trump administration has its way, soon will be replete with justices to rubberstamp whatever kind of discrimination it chooses to pursue. Loading the dice in this fundamental way apparently isn’t enough for Jeff Sessions.
Today, at the “Religious Affairs Summit” held at the Department of Justice, he was not really talking about "religious freedom" or "religious liberty," or any of the other soft-sounding codewords he and his ilk use. Sessions was talking about how the government will support you as a Christian if you choose to discriminate against someone based on your religious beliefs.
If you are opposed to marriage equality or just dislike or disapprove of LGBT people generally, the Trump administration just gave you the green light to go ahead and refuse to serve them in your businesses, or help them with their medical care. If an LGBT person wants or needs to use your service, no problem—tell them to shove off. The attorney general is right behind you.
Sessions, who made this announcement at an event attended by a host of groups whose business it is to foster discrimination against LGBT people, said openly on Monday how he and the administration supported the baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, and whose case went to the Supreme Court.
Let that sink in: the attorney general of the United States just celebrated discrimination. Not only that, he said he wants to use his office—an office that is allegedly about ensuring justice for all—as a formal mechanism to allow this discrimination to happen more. He is being absolutely open about this.
“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,” he said. (Note: the right to discriminate against LGBT people is now "brave.")
The dogma jab was in reference perhaps to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) who, at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for 7th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Amy Coney Barrett last September, said the "dogma lives loudly within you," to the Catholic candidate. Or perhaps Sessions was referring to to Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who not only skewered Sessions’ appalling record on LGBT rights at his confirmation hearing, but also grilled Mike Pompeo at his secretary of State hearing about whether he considered homosexuality to be “a perversion” as his previous comments had suggested.
Booker’s question was not just well-asked, it was vitally relevant; as secretary of State, part of Pompeo’s job is focused around LGBT rights on a global stage, and America’s part (or not) in helping to uphold them.
The real shame is that the Department of Justice has been co-opted to fight Sessions’ faith wars against groups he so clearly despises.
Jeff Sessions was not speaking up for Christians, who have total freedom to worship whatever it is they want to. Instead, he framed himself and other Christians as the victims, which is patently ludicrous and shows just how weak their position is.
“Let’s be frank,” Sessions said. “A dangerous movement undetected by many is challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt, it’s no little matter, it must be confronted intellectually and politically and be defeated. This past election gives us a rare opportunity to arrest these trends and to confront them.
“We’ve gotten to the point where courts have held that morality cannot be a basis for law, where ministers are fearful to affirm holy writ from the pulpit, and where one group can actively target religious groups by labeling them hate groups," he added. "This president and Department of Justice are determined to protect and advance our heritage of freedom of religion.”
Stripped back of its dime-store sermonizing, Sessions' message means empowering the law to foster fear and loathing of—and discrimination against—LGBTQ people and other minorities.
"We have your back," he was telling future bakers who fear that their discrimination may, one day, land them in court. But he was also talking about the freedom to use religion to restrict a woman’s right to choose; about using religion and faith as an instrument and weapon of the Department of Justice, when—surely—keeping both separate is vital to ensure equality for all citizens.
That is the most shocking gaslighting of Sessions’ creepy speech and event. He is giving yet more power to abuse to the already powerful, while doing nothing to protect the already-imperiled rights of LGBT people, women, and religious minorities—which should be a cornerstone of his job as a public servant.
Sessions said the new task force would help “implement religious liberty guidance by ensuring all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in 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 our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith.”
Translated: the license to discriminate goes deep, and we will ensure it is followed to the letter.
Addressing his LGBT-hating compadres, he continued, “As people in this room know, you have to practice what you preach, so we are going to remain in contact with religious groups across America to ensure their rights are being protected. 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.”
But this isn’t in question; of course people already have the right to worship. What "religious freedom" and "religious liberty" mean to Sesions and his ilk are totally different. It means seeking to restrict the freedoms and equality of those whose lives you, as a Christian person, disapprove of. That is not an exercise of faith, it is an exercise in prejudice and discrimination.
“This approach has served this country well,” Sessions said. “We are perhaps the most religiously developed nation in the world, and can take pride in respecting all people as they fully exercise their beliefs.”
But if that was the case, Sessions and the DoJ would be supporting equality for all LGBT people when it came to accessing services and justice in the courts. But the “religious liberty task force” isn’t in service for all; it’s for entirely for one, already powerful group.
What is motivating Sessions in his crusade is fear; and it is not simply a fear of LGBT people and equality. It is a fear of how he and other Christians feel their faith has been diminished, rejected, and impinged upon. Like much of the Trump agenda, it feeds on those feeling aggrieved and embattled by a changing world.
LGBT people, and those damned feminists wanting control of their bodies, are convenient scapegoats when it comes to blame for why fewer people want to follow Christian teaching to the letter; and why "holy writ" authority from the pulpit just isn’t what it was.
“We must not let it depart from this noble tradition,” Sessions said of our nation.
That’s where this animus comes from, the "task force" that will go out unto the land to insist on religious "liberty" and "freedom." Sessions and his ilk feel "their" nation—such an arrogant sense of ownership—is receding from them, becoming too varied and multiple; and so the bully losing the attention of the mob enlists a new, bespoke mob—a "Task Force" no less, to impose an old world order.
It’s a frightening move, for sure, and one streaked with prejudice. It is a charter for discrimination, now sanctioned by the president, the legislative branch, and—if Trump and Sessions have their way—the courts. We can take a very small comfort in the fact that it also smacks of pathetic desperation.