Civil Rights Groups Question New Religious Liberty Task Force

August 4, 2018
Protesters and counter-protesters hold signs at the women's march

During the Justice Department’s Religious Liberty Summit Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force” designed to interpret and enforce a set of religious liberty guidelines instituted under the Trump administration.

“A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” Sessions said Monday. “We have gotten to the point where courts have held that morality cannot be a basis for law; where ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit; and where one group can actively target religious groups by labeling a ‘hate group’ on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The Religious Liberty Task Force, headed by Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy Beth Williams, will serve to combat these perceived threats by equipping the federal government to compel citizens to abide by the religious freedom guidelines issued as the result of an executive order by Donald Trump in May 2017.

The October 2017 guidelines recommend protecting religious freedom “to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law.” The executive order that spurred them explicitly mentions protecting “conscience-based objections” to the Affordable Care Act’s preventative care mandate—a thinly-veiled allusion to ongoing debates about Christian employers seeking exemption from providing contraceptive coverage to employees.

In his speech Monday, Sessions offered “nuns [being] ordered to buy contraceptives” and Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips’ “ordeal faced so bravely” of refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple as examples of the types of religious freedom issues the task force would take on in the future.

“President Trump heard this concern,” Sessions said. “He declared we would say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

A number of faith leaders have responded to the news of the task force’s creation with trepidation, expressing concerns that the task force will have an outsized focus on pet issues for conservative Christians.

Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, argued that the task force was part of an ongoing attempt by the federal government to “redefine religious freedom [as] a means to provide privilege to one particular sect of Christianity and to force the government to sanction discrimination on their behalf.”

“Followers have been manipulated into believing their religious freedom trumps all others and they are the victim when barred from fulfilling their God-given rights,” Ryan wrote.

Christian writer and speaker Rachel Held Evans tweeted, “The Religious Liberty Task Force exists because many white evangelicals have confused sharing the public square with oppression and encountering disagreement with persecution.”

Meanwhile, civil rights groups have indicated their fear that the task force will give federal backing to discriminatory practices against women and LGBTQ people.

“This task force’s agenda isn’t consistent with religious freedom,” American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling told NBC News. “Religious freedom protects our right to our beliefs, not a right to discriminate or harm others.”

“The Trump Administration is working to systematically provide cover to those who seek to discriminate against LGBTQ people, women seeking reproductive health care, and other minority groups, said Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, told Bustle. “In short, it’s a license to discriminate under the thinly-veiled guise of religious exemptions.”

While conservative Christians have vocally opposed many legal gains by LGBTQ persons and women seeking reproductive rights, their views are not representative of the vast majority of people of faith in the United States. As of 2017, a majority of American Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Muslims supported same-sex marriage according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas.

In a 2016 poll from the Pew Research Center, less than 8 percent of Catholics, White evangelicals, Black Protestants, and White mainline Christians responded that using contraceptives is morally wrong.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Women’s March by Peter Cedric Rock Smith. Via Flickr Creative Commons.