U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed support for the Alliance Defending Freedom, denouncing the Southern Poverty Law Center's designation of the conservative legal organization as a "hate group."
The SPLC has garnered controversy for designating multiple conservative groups, including the ADF, as hateful due in large part to their position on LGBT issues.
In a speech at the ADF's Summit on Religious Liberty Wednesday evening, Sessions rejected the idea that the group was a bigoted organization.
"You are not a hate group," declared Sessions before the Summit, receiving enthusiastic applause in response to his statement.
Sessions went on to note that while he believed that the SPLC once did much good for society, they are now using their reputation as a civil rights organization to attack conservative Christians.
"Now the SPLC uses their 'hate group' label as a weapon and they have wielded it against conservative organizations that refuse to accept their orthodoxy and choose instead to speak their conscience," said Sessions.
"They use it to bully and intimidate groups like yours which fight for the religious freedom, the civil rights, and the constitutional rights of others."
Sessions also commended the record of the ADF, noting that they had successfully argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, quipping that "our Department of Justice would like to do that well."
"In the lower courts, you've won hundreds of free speech cases. That's an impressive record," Sessions added. "You endeavor to affirm the Constitution and American values."
According to their website, the SPLC has labeled the ADF an extremist group due to the Scottsdale, Arizona-based organization's criticism of the LGBT movement.
"Despite its regular defamation of LGBT people, the group has managed to win special advisory status at the United Nations, in the European Union, and with the Organization of American States," stated the SPLC.
"Since the election of President Donald Trump, the ADF has become one of the most influential groups informing the administration's attack on LGBT rights working with an ally in Attorney General Jeff Sessions."
Sessions' remarks at the ADF summit came not long after the attorney general announced the creation of a new Justice Department Religious Liberty Task Force.
At a DOJ summit held late last month, Sessions stated that there is a "dangerous movement" that is "undetected by many" that is "eroding our great tradition of religious freedom."
"The Task Force will help the Department fully implement our religious liberty guidance by ensuring that all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations," Sessions said at the time.
"We are also going to remain in contact with religious groups across America to ensure that their rights are being protected. We have been holding listening sessions and we will continue to host them in the coming weeks."
Some, including Liz Hayes of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, denounced the task force as "the Trump administration's most recent step to undermine people's rights in the name of religious freedom."
"What Sessions really means is that the Trump administration is committed to an agenda of preserving the power of the Christian fundamentalists who carried Trump into office and who want to use their religious beliefs as justification to discriminate against women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and anyone else who doesn't conform with their narrow vision of Christianity," wrote Hayes.