Anti-LGBT hate group linked to new Trump administration ‘task force’

A listed anti-LGBT hate group has been linked to the Trump administration’s new religious freedom task force, which activists fear will be used to undermine equal rights protections.

Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the formation of a “religious freedom task force” at a Religious Liberty Summit hosted by the Justice Department on Monday.

In his speech Sessions affirmed his belief that individuals and business owners should be free to discriminate based on religious beliefs, and announced he is setting up a task force “which will help the department fully implement our religious liberty guidance.”

President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Win McNamee/Getty)

It has now been alleged that the new body has links to a listed anti-LGBT hate group, Alliance Defending Freedom.

In his speech, Sessions said the panel was the product of “listening sessions… [with] religious groups across America.”

Media Matters reports that it appears the the Justice Department collaborated with the ADF on the launch, with the ADF breaking the news of the task force’s creation in its press release.

A panel at the event was led by media affairs specialist Kerri Kupec, who worked at ADF for four years before joining DOJ in January this year.

Extremism watchdog the Southern Poverty Law Center ascribes the hate group label to the ADF, noting that the group has actively supported the criminalisation of homosexuality in Belize. ADF leaders have previously linked homosexuality and paedophilia.

President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Alex Wong/Getty)

The group primarily works to undermine LGBT anti-discrimination protections through a series of court battles, most notably representing baker Jack Phillips – and arguing that religious freedom gives him the right to discriminate against gay customers.

Under Sessions, the Justice Department has frequently weighed in on court battles on the side of the ADF, filing a brief to the Supreme Court supporting Phillips.

In its release, the ADF said: “Religious liberty is our most precious gift as humans and our most cherished and protected freedom as Americans.

“We highly commend President Trump and Attorney General Sessions for following through on the most vital promises of their public service: the preservation and protection of religious liberty.

“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.”

Sessions alluded to the ADF in his speech, saying: “Let us be frank. A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt. This is no little matter. It must be confronted and defeated.

“This election, and much that has flowed from it, gives us a rare opportunity to arrest these trends. Such a reversal will not just be done with electoral victories, but by intellectual victories.

“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 labelling them a ‘hate group’ on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Mark Wilson/Getty)

Phillips, an ADF client, spoke at the event and was repeatedly praised by Sessions.

LGBT activists have expressed fears over the implications of the task force.

Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said: “This taxpayer funded task force is yet another example of the Trump-Pence White House and Jeff Sessions sanctioning discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“Over the last 18 months, Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions have engaged in a brazen campaign to erode and limit the rights of LGBTQ people in the name of religion.

“The Attorney General standing shoulder-to-shoulder this morning with anti-LGBTQ extremists tells you everything you need to know about what today’s announcement was really all about.”

Democratic National Committee LGBTQ media director Lucas Acosta said: “From supporting the right to refuse service to same-sex couples to banning military service by transgender individuals to removing mentions of LGBTQ issues from the White House website, Attorney General Sessions’ creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force is just the latest assault in this administration’s continued campaign against LGBTQ people and our civil rights.

“By creating this task force, Sessions is establishing a unit dedicated to undermining LGBTQ rights and giving anti-LGBTQ far-right extremists like task force head Jesse Panuccio a taxpayer-funded platform to push their anti-equality agenda.

“Rather than ensuring every person has equal protections and opportunities, Sessions is shamefully doubling down on bigotry.

“This action is further proof that Republicans continue to push forward an agenda completely out of step with the American people and our values. Democrats will continue to focus on how to improve opportunity for all Americans regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or income.”

FALLS CHURCH, VA - OCTOBER 12: Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers a speech titled "the crisis facing our asylum system." at the Executive Office for Immigration Review, on October 12, 2017 in Falls Church, Virginia. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Getty)

Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD said: “Though freedom of religion is a core American value, religious exemptions from adhering to non-discrimination protections are not.

“Sessions’ announcement today is yet another example of the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda as they seek to weave protections for those seeking anti-LGBTQ religious exemptions into the government.”

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said: “Today’s event by the Justice Department offends the true meaning of religious freedom.

“The event was clearly designed to advance the Trump administration’s twisted and dangerous view of religious freedom, one that uses religion to discriminate and harm others.

“This event exposed the administration’s real agenda: to preserve the power of Christian fundamentalists.”

Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE, said: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement of a so-called Religious Liberty Task Force at the Department of Justice is one more effort by this Administration to obliterate anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

“LGBT elders – who rely on religiously affiliated providers for non-discriminatory care — have played a huge role in the ‘changing cultural climate’ that the Attorney General condemns. They will not go back into the closet so that this Administration can pander to the forces of intolerance and bigotry.”