US Attorney General Jeff Sessions defends ‘religious freedom’ of anti-LGBT hate groups

The Trump administration’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions has insisted people of faith should have freedom to discriminate based on their beliefs.

Sessions, one of the strongest opponents of LGBT rights in the Trump administration, has filed multiple court briefs since coming to power arguing for the right to discriminate against gay people based on faith.

He cemented his view in a speech to a Religious Liberty Summit hosted by the Justice Department today, attended by anti-LGBT activists from evangelical lobbying groups that push an extreme message.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty)

Calls for gay people to be imprisoned and comments linking homosexuality to paedophilia have led several fundamentalist groups – the Liberty Counsel, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council – to be designated hate groups by extremism watchdog the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In his speech, Sessions lashed out at the designation of the groups as hate groups in a speech that thinly-veiled attacks on the LGBT community.

He said: “Let’s be frank. 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 labelling them hate groups. This President and Department of Justice are determined to protect and advance our heritage of freedom of religion.”

He alluded directly to the case of ‘turn away the gays’ baker Jack Phillips, and hit out at Senator Cory Booker for questioning Trump administration nominees about their espoused homophobic beliefs.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Sessions said: “In recent years the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith. Many Americans feel their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack, and it’s easy to see why… we’ve seen US Senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about dogma, even though their constitution explicitly prohibits a religious test for public office.

“We’ve all seen the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips. Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds are concerned about what this changing cultural climate means for the future of religious liberty in this country.

“President Trump has heard this concern… he promised to protect them and the free exercise of their faith.”

He added: “The President 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 and it lays out principles to follow. Those include the principle that free exercise [of religion] includes the right to act or abstain from action. They include the principle that government shouldn’t impugn one’s motives or beliefs. We don’t give up our rights when we go to work or start a business.

“This Department of Justice is going to court across America to defend the rights of people of faith… and we were proud to file a brief in support of Jack Phillips.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 13: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrives to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill June 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation and he was later discovered to have had contact with the Russian ambassador last year despite testifying to the contrary during his confirmation hearing. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Win McNamee/Getty)

He continued: “Today I am announcing a Religious Liberty Task Force, which will help the department fully implement our religious liberty guidance, by ensuring all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies they adopt, and how we conduct our operations.”

Sessions, a hardline opponent of LGBT rights, has worked to undermine protections for LGBT people across the federal government, in a series of decisions reversing Obama administration guidance.

He issued a directive protecting “the right to perform or abstain from performing certain physical acts in accordance with one’s beliefs”, granting an unlimited license to discriminate against LGBT people based on religion.

Under his leadership, the Justice Department has rolled back civil rights protections for transgender people, and has also made an uninvited intervention into discrimination cases to argue that it’s legal to discriminate against gay employees.

The department has also sought to undermine civil rights laws protecting LGBT people in court filings.