Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday announced the creation of the Religious Liberty Task Force, saying it will “help the [Justice] Department fully implement our religious liberty guidance.”
The announcement came while Sessions delivered remarks at the Department of Justice’s Religious Liberty Summit. The event follows last week’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, which was hosted by the State Department and brought together stakeholders in the cause of promoting religious freedom from around the world.
The attorney general said the Religious Liberty 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.”
Sessions emphasized that religious liberty has played a vital role in American history from its earliest days, as evidenced by how the Pilgrims who went to Plymouth and the Catholics who went to Maryland, among others, sought freedom of conscience.
In order to safeguard religious freedom, the country’s founders protected religious expression in the Bill of Rights. “Not only do we possess freedom to exercise our beliefs, but we also enjoy the freedom of speech,” Sessions said.
Despite the presence of religious freedom protections, Sessions said hostility towards people of faith has been increasing in the United States and in the West more broadly. As an example, he cited – without mentioning Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) by name – Feinstein’s questioning of Judge Amy Coney Barrett during Barrett’s hearing for confirmation to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last September. The senator expressed concern with the judge, who is a Catholic, telling her that “the dogma lives loudly within you.”
“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,” Sessions said.
Sessions added that the Trump administration takes seriously the importance of protecting religious liberty. Last October, the attorney general issued guidance for executive agencies on applying religious liberty protections in federal law.
The Justice Department is also “aggressively and appropriately enforcing our civil rights laws, our hate crimes laws, and laws protecting churches and faith groups,” Sessions said. A few weeks ago, he noted, the department obtained a verdict against a man who set fire to a mosque in Texas. In January, the department filed a brief in a Montana court on behalf of parents who claim the state denied their kids access to a private school scholarship program because they attend a religious school.