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Sessions to Far-Right Group: 'Religious Freedom' Guidance Coming Soon

Jeff Sessions

Jeff Sessions's closed-door speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom, now published on a conservative site, promises guidance that many fear will allow discrimination.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking to the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom last week, promised that the Department of Justice would soon issue "guidance" on religious freedom, according to the text of his prepared remarks.

Sessions's speech Tuesday in Orange County, Calif., was closed to the press, and he has refused to make the contents public, but The Federalist, a conservative website, has now published the prepared text of his remarks.

"The president has ... directed me to issue guidance on how to apply federal religious liberty protections," the text reads. "The department is finalizing this guidance, and I will soon issue it. The guidance will also help agencies follow the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress enacted RFRA so that, if the federal government imposes a burden on somebody's religious practice, it had better have a compelling reason. That is a demanding standard, and it's the law of the land. We will follow it just as faithfully as we follow every other federal law. If we're going to ensure that religious liberty is adequately protected and our country remains free, then we must ensure that RFRA is followed."

Donald Trump, in issuing a "religious freedom" executive order in May, did not include the explicitly anti-LGBT provisions that had been featured in leaked drafts. However, the order did say, "In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law, the Attorney General shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law." This has led to fears that given Sessions's and Trump's anti-LGBT records, the guidance will offer a broad license to discriminate against LGBT people, single parents, members of minority faiths, or others who might offend the religious beliefs of government employees and contractors.

The federal RFRA, enacted in 1993, mandates that the government show a compelling interest if it takes any actions limiting religious liberty, and use the least restrictive means of doing so. It and similar state laws were originally intended to make sure the government didn't interfere with private religious practices, such as Native Americans' use of hallucinogenic drugs in religious ceremonies or the Amish's prohibition on certain types of technology. Only recently have such laws been proposed as a way for business owners or public employees to refuse service to those who pose a conflict with their religious beliefs -- say, a same-sex couple ordering a cake or flowers for their wedding. The RFRA passed by Indiana in 2015, for instance, was amended after much public outcry that it would allow such discrimination.

"The nature of the guidance the Justice Department might issue on religious freedom remains to be seen," the Washington Blade reports. "A Justice Department spokesperson confirmed the accuracy of the remarks on the Federalist's website, but declined to provide further information about the guidance."

In his remarks, Sessions also avoided explicitly anti-LGBT comments, but, as the Blade notes, "religious freedom" has come to be "considered code among conservatives to mean anti-LGBT discrimination." He provided a history of religious freedom in the United States and invoked such figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King Jr. "It was faith that inspired" King "to march and strive to make this country stronger yet," Sessions said. "His was a religious movement."

Sessions went on to say, "To an amazing degree, the value of religion is totally missed by many today. Our inside-the-beltway crowd has no idea how much good is being done in this country every day by our faith communities. ... The cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief. And in recent years, many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack. This feeling is understandable."

He said Trump "has been an unwavering defender of religious liberty" and pointed to his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court as evidence of the president's commitment. "Under this administration, religious Americans will be treated neither as an afterthought nor as a problem to be managed," Sessions added. "The federal government will actively find ways to accommodate people of all faiths."

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