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Sessions Launches New LGBT Assault With 'Religious Liberty' Task Force

Jeff Sessions

The attorney general announced the formation of a group to implement his department's "religious liberty" guidance.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions today announced the creation of a so-called religious liberty task force within the Department of Justice -- an effort that threatens to result in discrimination against LGBT people and many others in the name of religion.

Sessions, a longtime foe of LGBT and reproductive rights, 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."

Phillips is the Colorado baker who was found to have violated the state's antidiscrimination law by refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding and appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Justice Department argued on his behalf and he won a partial victory. He was present at the announcement today, as were representatives of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-LGBT legal group that defended him, notes the Human Rights Campaign.

The task force's mission will be helping the Justice Department implement the religious liberty guidance that Sessions issued last October, The Hill reports. It will be cochaired by Jesse Panuccio, an associate attorney general, and Beth Williams, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy. In 2010, Panuccio was an attorney for supporters of Proposition 8, the voter-approved measure that temporarily revoked marriage equality in California.

Among the October 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."

LGBT and other civil rights activists warned at the time that the guidance was a license to discriminate, and today they denounced the formation of the task force.

"This taxpayer funded task force is yet another example of the Trump-Pence White House and Jeff Sessions sanctioning discrimination against LGBTQ people," said HRC legal director Sarah Warbelow in a press release. "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."

Lucas Acosta, LGBTQ media director for the Democratic National Committee, issued a statement calling today's move "just the latest assault in this administration's continued campaign against LGBTQ people and our civil rights." He added, "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."

"Though freedom of religion is a core American value, religious exemptions from adhering to nondiscrimination protections are not," said a statement issued by Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD. "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."

Religious right activists, however, were thrilled. "The establishment of a Religious Liberty Task Force is an historic and positive step by the Trump administration to protect religious freedom and the rights of conscience, said Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver in a press release. "Today's announcement by the Department of Justice is encouraging, and the Trump administration is to be commended for making this 180-degree turn from the past administration which used the federal government to violate religious freedom and conscience rather than protecting our first freedom. This task force sends a strong message that there is a commitment to protecting religious freedom."

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