WASHINGTON – American culture has become "less hospitable to people of faith," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday in vowing that the Justice Department would protect people's religious freedom and convictions.
Sessions spoke at a Justice Department summit on religious tolerance at a time when courts have been asked how to balance anti-discrimination laws against the First Amendment's religious freedom guarantees. He also announced the creation of a "religious liberty task force" to implement Justice Department guidance on respecting and accommodating religious beliefs, including those of department employees.
Conservative groups immediately praised Sessions for promising to protect deeply held religious convictions, though critics of the Trump administration have repeatedly voiced concerns that the attorney general's stance undercuts LGBT rights and favors the rights of Christians over those of other faiths.
Sessions, the country's chief law enforcement officer, warned Monday of a "dangerous movement" that he said was eroding protections for religious Americans.
He asserted that "nuns were being forced to buy contraceptives" — an apparent, though not fully accurate, reference to an Obama administration health care policy meant to ensure women covered by faith-based groups' health plans have access to cost-free contraceptives. Religious groups that challenged the policy argued it violated their beliefs.
The Supreme Court opted in 2016 to not resolve that dispute, asking lower courts to take another look in search of a compromise.
Sessions also objected to members of Congress asking judicial and executive branch nominees about their religious dogma. And he praised a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple in a case that reached the Supreme Court and ended in his favor this year. That baker, Jack Phillips, was part of a panel discussion at the Justice Department summit.
"Let's be frank: A dangerous movement, undetected by many but real, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt. It's no little matter. It must be confronted intellectually and politically and defeated," Sessions said. "This election, this past election, and much that has flowed from it, gives us a rare opportunity to arrest these trends and to confront them.
"Such a reversal will not just be done with electoral victories, however, but by intellectual victories," he added.
Sessions, a Methodist and former Republican senator from Alabama, has made protecting religious liberty a cornerstone agenda item of his Justice Department — along with defending freedom of speech on college campuses.
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