Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled the next steps Monday in his ongoing efforts to protect religious liberty, with a new task force to make sure every part of the Department of Justice (DOJ) defends the First Amendment right.
“Today I am announcing our next step, the Religious Liberty Task Force,” Sessions said during a summit, “to help the department fully implement our religious liberty guidance by assuring that all Justice Department components —and we have a lot of components around the country — 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 made religious liberty a focus for DOJ when he became the attorney general early last year. He issued a memo to all agencies and departments outlining principles for upholding religious freedom October 2017. The task force will work to advance that guidance and find new ways to uphold religious freedom.
Sessions issued the memo in response to an executive order by President Donald Trump. The guidance outlines 20 main principles for upholding religious freedom, including government’s protecting, not interfering with, the autonomy of a religious group, and insuring that religious employers can employ only those with similar religious beliefs.
“That includes making sure our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith,” Sessions said. “And, as the people in this room know, you have to practice what you preach. So we’re going to remain in contact with religious groups across America to ensure their rights are being protected. We’ve been holding listening sessions and will continue to host them in the coming weeks.”
Sessions warned that religious expression has been under attack in recent years. He pointed to the Catholic nuns who were forced to cover contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act. He also noted that senators are asking judicial and executive branch nominees about their faith even though the Constitution bans all religious tests for public office.
“In recent years the cultural climate in this country and the West more generally has become less hospitable to people of faith,” Sessions said. “Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds are concerned about what this change in the cultural climate means for the future of religious liberty in our country. President Trump heard their concern. ”
Sessions made the announcement while speaking at a religious liberty summit DOJ hosted in Washington, D.C. He was joined by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who spoke after him.
It appears the event was the first of its kind to hosted by DOJ at the department’s Great Hall in its headquarters building.