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Jeff Sessions Is Trump's Punching Bag. Sessions Deserves the Abuse

Sessions and Trump

The attorney general is feeling his boss's ire, but he deserves the wrath of LGBTQ people and many others.

No matter how much abuse Jeff Sessions gets from Donald Trump, there's still no reason to feel sorry for him.

Yes, even liberals might be inclined to sympathize with the attorney general, given the many slings and arrows launched at him by the president. "I don't have an attorney general right now," Trump told The Hill in a Tuesday video interview. He denounced Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, and he expressed unhappiness with Sessions's handling of several other matters, including border enforcement, which is surprising because the attorney general has taken a fairly tough (some would say inhumane) stance on that.

But as angry as Trump may be with Sessions, LGBTQ people and their allies are justified in being even more angry with him -- as are women, immigrants, people of color, and more. As a U.S. senator from Alabama and in previous positions, Sessions compiled a long record of being anti-LGBTQ and antichoice. His nomination for a federal judgeship in the 1980s was rejected because of, among other things, accusations of racism (from no less than Coretta Scott King, for one) and apparent sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan (Sessions has since said a positive remark he made about the KKK was a joke). And consider his record since becoming attorney general, in which capacity he leads the Department of Justice.

As one of his first actions in office, in February 2017, he joined in rescinding guidance issued by the Justice and Education departments under President Barack Obama advising schools to let transgender students use the restrooms and locker rooms of their choice, in addition to calling them by their preferred names and pronouns. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos went along too, although she was reported to be reluctant about it. Even before the guidelines were revoked, the Justice Department had backed off from defending them in lawsuits.

Under Sessions, the Justice Department has said federal civil rights law doesn't ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination. During Obama's presidency, the department had interpreted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban such discrimination as part of its prohibition on sex discrimination, and several courts have interpreted it this way as well. But Sessions begs to differ, and the Justice Department has even argued in court that the law shouldn't be read this way. The department is also defending Trump's attempt to bar transgender people from serving in the military.

Speaking of courts, the U.S. solicitor general, who is part of the Justice Department, argued before the highest court in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court, that Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips had a right to refuse a gay couple's order for a wedding cake because of his rights to religious liberty and freedom of expression. The court did hand Phillips a qualified victory -- it ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had shown insufficient respect for his beliefs when it found him guilty of violating state antidiscrimination law, and so the high court overturned that decision. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, did assert that gay people must have legal protections from discrimination.

Sessions has also said the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Phillips, is not a hate group, as it has been called by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He even gave a closed-door speech to the group on the topic of religious freedom, which in his interpretation seems to be more about the freedom to discriminate than anything else.

Last fall, under a directive from Trump, Sessions released guidelines for federal government bodies on enforcing religious liberty that threaten the rights of LGBTQ people, women, and more. Among the guidance memo's provisions are "Religious employers are entitled to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers' religious precepts" and "As a general matter, the federal government may not condition receipt of a federal grant or contract on the effective relinquishment of a religious organization's exemptions or attributes of its religious character."

Then this year, he announced the formation of a Religious Liberty Task Force to implement the guidelines. He said the task force will reverse a trend of what he sees as hostility to religion. "We've seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives," he said, referring to a case involving the Affordable Care Act's mandate for contraceptive coverage in employee health insurance plans. "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." The task force is cochaired by Jesse Panuccio, now an associate attorney general, who in 2010 was an attorney for supporters of Proposition 8, the voter-approved measure that temporarily revoked marriage equality in California.

That's a roundup of Sessions's actions targeting LGBTQ rights and reproductive freedom. His Justice Department is guilty of a multitude of other sins as well. It has been separating immigrant children from their parents at the borders, and Sessions has used the Bible to justify this action. He has reversed the department's Obama-era policy of not using privately run prisons, which are often criticized for civil rights violations. And he has backed off on the defense of voting rights against state laws that tend to depress voting by people of color. Sessions also lied during his confirmation hearings for attorney general; something most Republicans have conveniently forgotten about.

For all that and more, don't feel sorry for Jeff Sessions. Like almost anyone who joins up with Donald Trump, he's become a target of Trump's wrath. But Sessions deserves the wrath of many others too.

TRUDY RING is a writer and copy editor for The Advocate.

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