On July 30, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced (full text) the creation of a new “Religious Liberty Task Force” to protect the rights of people to practice their faith and to “arrest” trends that are “challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.”

According to Sessions, the Task Force is designed to ensure that the Justice Department and other executive agencies apply the religious liberty protections already present in the federal law. The Task Force will focus on taking free exercise into account and ensuring that Justice Department employees “know their duties to accommodate people of faith.”

Sessions described the guidelines as follows:

  • Those include the principle that free exercise means a right to act—or to abstain from action.
  • They include the principle that government shouldn’t impugn people’s motives or beliefs.
  • We don’t give up our rights when we go to work, start a business, talk about politics, or interact with the government.
  • We don’t give up our rights when we assemble or join together.  We have religious freedom as individuals and as groups.
  • In short, we have not only the freedom to worship—but the right to exercise our faith.  The Constitution’s protections don’t end at the parish parking lot nor can our freedoms be confined to our basements.

Issues that the task force could address

Sessions’ speech described a few examples of issues that the task force could address including concerns that ministers are fearful to speak freely from the pulpit and where some groups target the sincerely held religious beliefs of other groups by labeling them as “hate groups.” Sessions also said, “We’ve seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives” which was apparently an oblique reference to the Little Sisters of the Poor case, which was part of a group of cases known collectively as Zubik v. Burwell (2016), in which religious groups objected to mandated contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

In Zubik, the Supreme Court sent the parties back to the drawing table to find a way to accommodate both the religious beliefs of religious employers and the rights of women to federally guaranteed health coverage.

Sessions also described some of the recent actions of the Justice Department when it comes to arson or other attacks on houses of worship. He noted that since January 2017, the Department has obtained 11 indictments and seven convictions in arson and other attacks on houses of worship, and the Civil Rights Division has obtained 12 indictments for attacks or threats against individuals because of their religion. He cited the example of a jury verdict against a man who set fire to a Texas mosque and sentencing for another man convicted of threatening to kill members of a Missouri mosque.

Sessions discussed how the Department filed suit against a town in New Jersey that refused for eight years to let an Orthodox Jewish congregation buy land for a synagogue, and filed a brief in support of a Hindu group that was discriminated against when it tried to purchase property for a temple.

Sessions said, “This administration is animated by that same American view that has led us for 242 years: that every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith in the public square.

“This approach has served this country well. We are perhaps the most religiously developed nation in the world and can take pride in respecting all people as they fully exercise their faiths.”

Critics charge task force could promote discrimination

Critics of the announcement expressed concern that the Justice Department may ultimately be interested in supporting conservative Christian groups to the exclusion of other groups, and that the Task Force might support organizations that discriminate against other groups.

Tension between the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state is a feature of American law, and it will be interesting to see if the Task Force will be able to maintain the delicate balance of protecting peaceful people of faith from discrimination while avoiding putting its finger on the scale to the extent that it shields their discrimination against others.

The creation of the Task Force will do little to change existing policy but has to do with enforcement of existing protections against religious discrimination, and this renewed interest may be welcome news to people seeking religious accommodation in the workplace.

 
 

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