It took a few days and a series of FOIA requests, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ remarks at a closed-press meeting with Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys on Tuesday have finally been made public. The Federalist published the remarks in full, while BuzzFeed News reporter Dominic Holden obtained confirmation from ADF that this was indeed the speech Sessions delivered at ADF’s mysterious “Summit on Religious Liberty” in Southern California.
While sections of the speech contain the platitudes we’ve come to expect from this administration about the importance of so-called religious freedom, Sessions also made some tangible promises to the current and aspiring ADF attorneys in attendance. Although some of the language is coded, it’s not hard to read between the lines to understand that the nation’s top lawman just gave the country’s best-funded anti-LGBT hate group the go-ahead to impose its conservative Christian ideology on state and federal laws. He affirmed the Christian victimhood complex that groups like ADF champion, promising that Sessions’ DOJ will never force anyone to abandon their “sincere religious beliefs.”
Following a soliloquy on the secular constraints placed upon the federal government, Sessions signaled that he intends to continue the growing trend of privileging “sincerely held religious beliefs” over civil rights. According to the prepared remarks, Sessions said:
In all of this litigation and debate, this Department of Justice will never allow this secular government of ours to demand that sincere religious beliefs be abandoned. We will not require American citizens to give intellectual assent to doctrines that are contrary to their religious beliefs. And they must be allowed to exercise those beliefs as the First Amendment guarantees.
We will defend freedom of conscience resolutely. That is inalienable. That is our heritage.
Did you catch it? “Intellectual assent to doctrines that are contrary to religious belief” is a thinly veiled recycling of ADF’s talking points regarding its plaintiff, baker Jack Phillips, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission—the gay wedding cake refusal case that will be heard by the Supreme Court later this year. According to ADF’s case page, the organization has asked the Supreme court to “rule that the government cannot coerce [Phillips] to create artistic expression that communicates a message with which he fundamentally disagrees.”
While it’s not uncommon for the feds to weigh in on controversial “culture war” issues at the Supreme Court (Obama’s DOJ, for instance, filed briefs opposing the federal Defense of Marriage Act and state marriage bans), Sessions’s remarks to ADF indicate that we’re likely to see his DOJ side with the antigay baker, explained Anthony Kreis, an attorney and visiting assistant professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, who specializes in unpacking “religious freedom” laws as they impact LGBT Americans. There’s nothing outright improper about Sessions signaling his fondness for the attorneys representing a client seeking to undermine the state of nationwide marriage equality and equal access for LGBT people, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for those LGBT people and organizations who’d hoped the days of defending our basic humanity in the court of law were waning.
And those hoping for a more explicitly ominous pledge about the DOJ’s plans to privilege conservative Christian ideology needn’t look much further into Sessions’ speech to find the evidence they might be looking for. Sessions said:
The president has also directed me to issue guidance on how to apply federal religious liberty protections. 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.
Under this administration, religious Americans will be treated neither as an afterthought nor as a problem to be managed. The federal government will actively find ways to accommodate people of all faiths. The protections enshrined in the Constitution and our laws protect all Americans, including when we work together, speak in the public square, and when we interact with our government. We don’t waive our constitutional rights when we participate fully in public life and civic society.
This administration, and the upcoming guidance, will be animated by that same American view that has led us for 241 years: that every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith in the public square. It has served this country well, and it has made us not only one of the tolerant countries in the world, it has also helped make us the freeist and most generous.
Bizarre grammatical constructions aside, notice what’s missing from Sessions’ promise here: He clearly prioritizes “religious Americans,” pledging to “actively find ways to accommodate people of all faiths.” He makes no mention of the growing numbers of Americans who don’t subscribe to any faith, and in fact, in the entirety of his speech, never explicitly mentions any of the other constitutional rights guaranteed to Americans, or even those articulated in the First Amendment. That’s a telling omission in a speech that effectively lays out the federal Department of Justice’s priorities.
To be fair, there is one clause, early in the speech, where Sessions acknowledges that the First Amendment “has protected both the freedom to worship and the freedom not to believe as well.” But then he goes on to extoll the virtues of religion to “teach right behavior … give purpose to life, and … support order, lawfulness, and personal discipline.” Perhaps he was just trying to cater to his audience—a group of attorneys who, for all their hallowed defense of “religious liberty” and periodic representation of clients who are Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu, do not represent atheists.
But given this administration’s clear and repeated preference for conservative Christian ideology—not to mention the Christian dominionists who sit in the Cabinet and the Vice President’s office—this address reads more like a warning siren to anyone who doesn’t want right-wing Christianity enforced nationwide by the federal government.