Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a new Justice Department Religious Liberty Task Force, which is designed to help implement the sweeping religious freedom guidance he issued last year that outlined 20 legal principles that federal government agencies should follow.
Speaking at a religious liberty summit hosted by the Justice Department Monday morning, Sessions declared that there is a "dangerous movement" that is "undetected by many" that is "now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom."
"There can be no doubt. This is no little matter," Sessions stated bluntly. "It must be confronted and defeated."
The department's religious liberty summit comes just days after the State Department wrapped up its first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom last week. As president Trump has vowed to protect First Amendment rights for all Americans, he instructed Sessions last year to guide agencies on how to best uphold and promote religious freedom rights.
Sessions did just that last October when he issued a sweeping religious freedom guidance to all federal agencies. However, Sessions assured Monday that his agency is doing more to promote religious freedom.
"Today I am announcing our next step: the Religious Liberty Task Force, to be co-chaired by the Associate Attorney General [Jesse Panuccio] and the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy [Beth Williams]," Sessions stated. "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. That includes making sure that our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith."
"As the people in this room know, you have to practice what you preach," he continued. "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."
During his speech, Sessions criticized today's political culture that he says has put principles of faith "under attack."
"But in recent years, the cultural climate in this country — and in the West more generally —has become less hospitable to people of faith. Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack," he said. "And it's easy to see why. We've seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives. 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 [Christian baker] Jack Phillips."
Sessions explained that the Justice Department has gone to court numerous times since Trump has taken office in January 2017 to defend the religious freedom rights of Americans — whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish or celebrate any other faith.
Sessions added that his department has also settled 24 civil cases affecting over 90 plaintiffs pertaining to the Obamacare contraception mandate requiring religious organizations to be complicit in providing health care services they find morally objectionable in their employee health plans.
In addition to filing amicus briefs in support of religious organizations suing local and state governments over perceived violations of religious freedom, the department has achieved seven convictions and 11 indictments in cases involving arson or other attacks or threats to various houses of worship. Additionally, the Civil Rights Division has obtained 12 indictments in cases where people have been attacked or threatened because of their religion.
"Three weeks ago, we obtained a jury verdict against a man who set fire to a mosque in Texas and sentenced for a man from Missouri for threatening to kill members of a mosque," Sessions said. "In addition to protecting the safety of people of faith, we are also protecting them against unjust discrimination. In January, we filed a brief in a Montana court to defend parents who claim that the state barred their children from a private school scholarship program because they attend a religious school."
Among other cases, the Justice Department filed a brief on behalf of the the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. after it was refused advertising space by the Washington, D.C. Metro for a Christmas message that included the phrases "joy to the world."
"In short, we have not only the freedom to worship — but the right to exercise our faith," Sessions told the audience gathered at the Robert F. Kennedy Building. "The Constitution's protections don't end at the parish parking lot nor can our freedoms be confined to our basements. Under this administration, the federal government is not just reacting—we are actively seeking, carefully, thoughtfully and lawfully, to accommodate people of faith. Religious Americans are no longer an afterthought."
Monday's religious liberty summit also featured remarks from Panuccio, Williams and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky.
Kurtz railed against activists and state and local governments for trying to impede on the freedom rights of religious-based foster care and adoption organizations by trying to force them to have policies that allow for the placement of children with same-sex couples.
As many religious foster care and adoption agencies have policies that require children be placed with families that have both a mom and dad, a number of foster care organizations throughout the country have been forced by local governments to halt their operations or change their policies.
The city of Philadelphia is currently facing a lawsuit filed by foster parents who partnered with Catholic Social Services, which was cut off from the city's foster care program this year.
"One of the biggest concerns is the ability of our child welfare providers to continue to be able to place children with foster and adoptive families consistent with our teaching," Kurtz said. "You know, there are over 400,000 children in our foster care system, and 100,000 young people wait be to be adopted. The opioid crisis is putting a strain on the foster care system, yet as a real crisis emerges, faith-based child welfare providers are being targeted for closure because of their religious convictions about the family. The number of children in need is going up, yet in places like Illinois, Massachusetts, San Francisco, here in D.C., service providers who have a track record of excellence in recruiting and assisting foster families have been shut down."
The summit also featured a panel discussion that included people with first-hand experience of having their religious freedom rights denied. Among those who spoke is Phillips, a Colorado baker who was punished by the state's civil rights commission for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
"To me, a wedding is a symbol of one of the most important relationships any person can be in. For the commission to deny me to be able to create the cakes that I choose to, and be able to decline to create the ones I did because of my faith was very hard, because they ordered me to start creating these cakes or stop making wedding cakes," Phillips explained. "Weddings were about 40 percent of our business at the time. So it was a huge financial hit to drop that wedding business, as well as the people that worked for me at the time. We had about 10 employees. Shortly after that, we were down to four, including myself. It was difficult to try to stay in business at that time."
Phillips recalled receiving death threats over the ordeal. He remembers one threat from a man who called his shop and told him that he was in town and on his way to the store.
"[He] told me what he was going to do, what streets he was on, what time he was going to be there," Phillips said. "He even knew somehow that my daughter was there with my four-year-old granddaughter, her daughter. I called the police and had them hide in the back of the shop until it was resolved. There were times where my wife was afraid to come to the shop, just because we did not know what situation it would be. Some really dark times."