Sessions Speech Riles Some; Religious Group Sees Olive Branch

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By Patrick L. Gregory

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s closed-door speech to a Christian legal organization indicates a changed relationship between the executive branch and social conservatives, the group’s president told Bloomberg BNA July 14 in an exclusive interview.

President Donald Trump’s “administration will talk to us—the Obama administration never did,” Michael Farris, president and general counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, told Bloomberg BNA. The meeting was part of a closed event in Orange County, Calif., open only to ADF and its allies, Farris said.

The progressive Southern Poverty Law Center criticized the speech, describing ADF as an “anti-LGBT hate group.”

ADF makes a practice “of spreading demonizing lies about the LGBT community” including linking “pedophilia to homosexuality,” SPLC president Richard Cohen told Bloomberg BNA.

But according to Farris, SPLC’s “hate group” label “has become basically worthless.” It’s being applied “to anybody that they disagree with,” and “they appear to be doing it largely for fundraising purposes,” Farris said.

The speech is “consistent with what we’ve been expecting and fearing about this administration from the beginning,” Joshua Block, senior staff attorney at the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project told Bloomberg BNA.

Those fears concern the denial of “services and equal treatment to LGBT people” and others “that don’t adhere to the same religious beliefs,” Block said.

Sessions’s July 11 speech said that under “this administration, religious Americans will be treated neither as an afterthought nor as a problem to be managed,” according to a transcript published by The Federalist. The Justice Department hasn’t confirmed the transcript’s accuracy, but Farris said it’s accurate to his knowledge.

“We need to tone down the rhetoric in this country and realize that people can have legitimate differences of opinion and still be reasonable members of society,” Farris said.

Guidance, Litigation Coming?

President Donald Trump has “directed me to issue guidance on how to apply federal religious liberty protections,” Sessions said at the event, referring to Trump’s March 4 executive order.

“The department is finalizing this guidance, and I will soon issue it,” Sessions said.

That guidance will generally involve following, implementing and interpreting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Farris said.

“If we find a federal agency that’s acting contrary to law, we will take that into account in litigation,” Farris said.

ACLU Action

The ACLU stands “ready to challenge any attempt to give people a right to discriminate with government funds,” Block said.

Block pointed to a draft of an executive order leaked earlier this year, which would exempt religious objectors from LGBT protections instituted by the Obama administration.

“If what comes out looks anything like” that, “we will be ready to challenge it,” Block said.

Promise Kept?

Trump promised that “the federal government will never, ever penalize any person for their protected beliefs,” Sessions said.

The president’s choice of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch shows Trump is “an unwavering defender of religious liberty,” Sessions said.

ADF is “very pleased” with Gorsuch, including his vote in favor of a church denied a public safety grant in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, Farris said.

The organization “anticipated good things” from Gorsuch concerning religious liberties. “He had a really strong track record on that issue as a judge,” Farris said.

Block suggested it was inappropriate for Sessions to speak of Gorsuch as an “ideological ally” in a tweet, which he said wasn’t made on behalf of the ACLU.

Farris also said that it wouldn’t be fair to say Gorsuch will do anything other than follow his own judicial philosophy.

‘Extremist’ Label

Many of Trump’s voters were motivated by concerns about the “First Amendment right to the ‘free exercise’ of our faith,” Sessions said.

Farris questioned whether the “extremist” label placed on ADF and opponents of same-sex marriage fits when they share the positions of “20, 30, 40 percent of Amercan voters.”

SPLC’s Cohen said the label is appropriate because ADF “has been aggressive in supporting efforts to criminalize homosexual conduct abroad.”

“Quite frankly, gay people everywhere would be back in the closet for fear of going to jail,” Cohen said.

It’s “quite inappropriate” for Sessions “to lend his credibility to the group by making a speech before it,” as he has before many other “extremist groups,” Cohen said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice referred Bloomberg BNA to a June speech in which Sessions pledged to “continue to protect the civil rights of all Americans” and not to “tolerate the targeting of any community in our country.”

Farris decried the extremist label here as name-calling. Those who call people names “just because we disagree on policy issues are not advancing civil society,” he said.

“The voters of this country in over 30 states voted in favor of traditional marriage,” Farris said.

To say “that people who favor traditional marriage over same-sex marriage” are “extremist is to ignore the reality of the ballot box in state after state,” Farris said.

Further, advocates of same-sex marriage said initially that “other people’s rights, views and positions would be respected,” Farris said.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s similarly advocated a “live and let live philosophy” in his opinion for the court recognizing a right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, Farris said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick L. Gregory in Washington at pgregory@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bna.com

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