On Monday, during a "religious liberty summit" held by the Department of Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced, with great fanfare, that he was organizing a "religious liberty" task force. Saying that the nation "can take pride in respecting all people as they fully exercise their faiths," Sessions nonetheless warned that a "dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom" and that this movement "must be confronted and defeated."
Sounds terrifying, of course. A secret movement to undermine the right of Americans to choose their own faith and worship as they see fit would indeed be a threat to freedom and should be resisted by all Americans. But is that what's really going on?
Activists who work in fields protecting civil rights and religious liberties, however, are deeply skeptical of Sessions' latest gambit, and not just because the attorney general failed to name who, exactly, is behind this supposed anti-religion movement.
"This is just another in a long line of thinly veiled attempts by this administration to sanction discrimination in health care, often to the detriment to the health and rights of women, the LGBTQ community and other communities," said Rachana Desai Martin, a federal policy advisor for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Martin compared the move to the Department of Health and Human Services' recent decision to open a new division focused solely on religious and moral exemption claims, even though "there was no real indication something like that was needed."
To be clear, there are actual incidents of religious oppression in the United States. Many of those flow directly from the White House, such as President Trump's ban on travel from several countries with majority Muslim populations. It's also arguable, morally if not legally, that efforts by the administration to allow schools and employers to cut off birth control access or to allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people are also a form of religious oppression -- that is, they are efforts to force religious fundamentalism on people against their will.
Civil liberties proponents believe this task force is yet another effort to step up religious discrimination and oppression of people who aren't Christian conservatives. Their concern is that the task force will devote its resources, as do groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, to finding religious conservatives who want to find excuses for discrimination against women or LGBT people and then deploy claims of "religious liberty" to justify that discrimination.
“Religious freedom guarantees us all the right to believe whatever we want about God or religion and to act on our beliefs, so long as we don’t harm others while doing so," said Dena Sher of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Sher described Monday's summit as an effort "to preserve the power of Christian fundamentalists and to fight what Sessions called the changing cultural climate."
Sessions' likely agenda wasn't even concealed in his speech. As Sher noted, he made vague but dire remarks about the state of our culture and invoked the completely false claim that people are no longer allowed to say "Merry Christmas."
To be fair, there was some artfulness to Sessions' presentation. He equated genuine attacks on people who are trying to practice their religion in peace with cases of people who try to use religious faith as a cover for discrimination. He cited "a man who set fire to a mosque in Texas" and "cases involving arson or other attacks or threats against houses of worship" and equated these direct, criminal attacks with cases where employers, schools or businesses attempted to deprive sexually active women of health care or discriminate against LGBT people.
Emily Nestler, a staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, noted that she hasn't "seen any evidence" that our nation requires a task force to fight genuine examples of religious oppression.
Attacks on houses of worship or individuals for religious reasons are already handled by the Office of Civil Rights. Federal hate-crime law already includes protections based on religious belief. So the invocation of this concern appears to be a bad-faith cover story for the Trump administration's true agenda, which is legalizing discrimination.
By equating women who want birth control or LGBT people who want equal treatment with terrorists who firebomb mosques, Sessions is inverting the reality of the current political situation. In reality, those who commit anti-Muslim hate crimes are much closer to those who seek the right to discriminate in health care or other public services based on a person's sexual orientation or gender, even if the latter groups do not use violence.
With both acts of religious discrimination and acts of terrorism, the concern is with what Sessions called the "changing cultural climate," and in both cases, the efforts are in service of clamping down on openness and diversity and imposing a Christian conservative worldview on people who hold other beliefs.
The Trump administration, Nestler said, is arguing that the ability "to impose their religious beliefs on other people" is "some sort of super-right" that trumps an individual's right to "personal decision-making" simply because fundamentalists view that choice "as an affront to [their] belief system."
During the speech, Sessions complained that "one group can actively target religious groups by labeling them a 'hate group' on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs." This was widely interpreted to be a reference to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has categorized the Family Research Council, a Christian right organization, as a hate group for using "discredited research and junk science" to attack LGBT rights.
It's worth noting that many of the white supremacist organizations tracked by the SPLC also claim to have sincerely held religious beliefs about separating the races or the superiority of white people. The Ku Klux Klan, for instance, sometimes organizes through churches that argue that the "white race" is the "irreplaceable hub of our nation." Another KKK group argues that Adam was the "father of the White Race only" and that other races are not made in the image of God.
What Sessions is doing, in other words, is nothing new. White supremacists have long used religious liberty as a cover for racism, and much of the civil rights movement was about overcoming white Southerners who fiercely insisted that desegregation was an affront to their First Amendment rights.
For instance, before the Supreme Court ruled against laws banning interracial marriage in 1967, a Virginia judge ruled in favor of such a law, writing, "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red" and that "he did not intend for the races to mix."
After Brown v. Board of Education desegregated public schools in 1955, the South saw the rise of "segregation academies" — private, often Christian schools that excluded black students or put restrictions on their attendance. Activists (including Hillary Clinton) fought to revoke the tax-exempt status of racist schools, finally succeeding in 1975 with Bob Jones University. The eruption of anger — and claims that "religious liberty" protected the right to racial discrimination — was what Paul Weyrich, one of the original organizers of the religious right, described as the movement's formative moment: It was "not the school-prayer issue, and it was not the abortion issue," he said.
Sessions came of age in Alabama in the midst of these battles. His reported history of racist remarks and behavior was so extensive that he was blocked from a judicial appointment in 1985. So it comes as no surprise that he understands how to tap into this legacy and reinvent it as a sweeping justification for sexism and homophobia.
On the practical front, it's not entirely clear what this task force will mean or what it could conceivably do. Martin pointed out that the Justice Department is "required to follow the law" and that courts could put strong limits on how far such a unit can push the agenda of religious discrimination under the guise of "liberty."
On the other hand, the Trump administration has been stuffing conservative judges onto the federal bench at a record rate. Most, if not all, have been vetted by organizations like the Federalist Society, which puts a priority on a judge's willingness to believe that "religious liberty" creates a right to discriminate.
Because of this, Nestler said, there's reason to be concerned that this task force will "formalize the types of arguments that the Department of Justice is already making," such as when the agency, under Sessions' leadership, backed the claims of a baker who said he had a religious right to deny service to a same-sex couple.
Sher agreed with this analysis: "This is just the next step in the plan to misuse laws designated to protect religious freedom to instead authorize discrimination."
What observers fear is that the task force will have the resources to shake the trees for people willing to claim "religious liberty" rights to violate anti-discrimination laws and then use these people to create a series of court cases establishing a precedent that invoking Jesus gives someone a magical right to ignore anti-discrimination law.
Most cases, observers expect, will likely involve discrimination against LGBT people or sexually active women, while avoiding those who might wish to declare a religious right to racial discrimination. The latter argument, although it remained popular into the 1970s, tends to fall flat now and could expose the underlying motives behind this entire "religious liberty" artifice.