Editor’s note: On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech on religious liberty. Here are his remarks, as prepared for delivery, about the new task force on religious liberty, the Justice Department fighting for the rights of religious Americans, and what the Trump administration has done to promote religious freedom.
Let us be frank. A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt. This is no little matter. It must be confronted and defeated.
This election, and much that has flowed from it, gives us a rare opportunity to arrest these trends. Such a reversal will not just be done with electoral victories, but by intellectual victories.
We have gotten to the point where courts have held that morality cannot be a basis for law; where ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit; and where one group can actively target religious groups by labeling them a “hate group” on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs.
This president and this Department of Justice are determined to protect and even advance this magnificent heritage.
Freedom of religious is indeed our “first freedom”—being the first listed right of our First Amendment. This has been a core American principle from the beginning.
It is one of the reasons that this country was settled in the first place. The promise of freedom of conscience brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth, the Catholics to Maryland, the Quakers to Pennsylvania, the Scot-Presbyterians to the middle colonies, and Roger Williams to Rhode Island. Each one of these groups and others knew what it was like to be hated, persecuted, outnumbered, and discriminated against. Each one knew what it was like to have a majority try to force them to deny their natural right to practice the faith they held dear.
Our Founders gave religious expression a double protection in the First Amendment. Not only do we possess freedom to exercise our beliefs but we also enjoy the freedom of speech.
Our Founders’ understanding of and commitment to religious freedom was truly brilliant as well as historic.
It arose in large part from the principles delineated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—and its effective advocates: Madison and Jefferson. These guys were ferocious. This weekend, I was rereading Gary Will’s fabulous book, “Head and Heart”, in which he quotes extensively from the Jefferson’s Statute, as he refers to it. I commend all of it to you; but one line stood out in particular to me, “That almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested His supreme will that free it shall remain, by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint.”
Of course, this is entirely consistent with another of my favorite Jefferson quotes that you will find at his memorial just across the mall from where we are today: “For I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” This is what our Founders believed. They clearly recognized that an individual’s relationship to God is a natural right and precedes the existence of the state, and is not subject to state control.
These concepts were placed into our Constitution and laws and formed a national consensus that has greatly militated against religious hostility and violence—and has helped us to this day to be one of the world’s most diverse religious people.
There can be no doubt that we are stronger as a nation because of the contribution of religious Americans.
Every day across America, they feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, educate our young people, and care for the sick. They do so not because the government tells them to, but because they want to. They do these things because of their faith.
Their faith provides something the state can never provide—meaning and purpose and joy in their life.
But in recent years, the cultural climate in this country—and in the West more generally—has become less hospitable to people of faith. Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.
And it’s easy to see why. We’ve seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives. 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. We’ve all seen the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips.
Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds are concerned about what this changing cultural climate means for the future of religious liberty in this country.
President Trump heard this concern.
I believe this unease is one reason that he was elected. In substance, he said he respected people of faith and he promised to protect them in the free exercise of their faith. He declared we would say “Merry Christmas” again.
The Department of Justice has settled 24 civil cases with 90 plaintiffs regarding the previous administration’s wrong application of the contraception mandate to objecting religious employers.
Last month, a district court in Colorado issued a permanent injunction in the case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who serve the elderly poor. This is a permanent injunction and a major victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor and religious freedom.
The government has no business telling the Little Sisters that they must provide an insurance policy that violates their sincere religious beliefs.
And since day one, this administration has been delivering on that promise.
Soon after taking office, President Trump directed me to issue explicit legal guidance for all executive agencies on how to apply the religious liberty protections in federal law. Our team embraced that challenge. I issued that guidance in October, and it lays out 20 fundamental principles for the executive branch to follow.
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.
Under this administration, the federal government is not just reacting—we are actively seeking, carefully, thoughtfully and lawfully, to accommodate people of faith. Religious Americans are no longer an afterthought.
We will take potential burdens on one’s conscience into consideration before we issue regulations or new policies.
And this Department of Justice is going to court across America to defend the rights of people of faith.
First of all, we are aggressively and appropriately enforcing our civil rights laws, our hate crimes laws, and laws protecting churches and faith groups.
Since January 2017, we have obtained 11 indictments and seven convictions in cases involving arson or other attacks or threats against houses of worship. Our Civil Rights Division has also obtained 12 indictments in other attacks or threats against people because of their religion.
And we are not slowing down.
Three weeks ago, we obtained a jury verdict against a man who set fire to a mosque in Texas and sentenced for a man from Missouri for threatening to kill members of a mosque.
In addition to protecting the safety of people of faith, we are also protecting them against unjust discrimination. In January, we filed a brief in a Montana court to defend parents who claim that the state barred their children from a private school scholarship program because they attend a religious school. We also filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., which was refused advertising space for having a religious message—including “joy to the world” on Merry Christmas.
And, of course, we were proud to file a brief in support of Jack Phillips.
We are taking steps to become even more effective.
In June I announced the Place to Worship Initiative. Under this initiative, the Department of Justice is holding public events across America and improving training for federal prosecutors about legal protections for houses of worship.
When I was in the Senate, we passed a law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. Under RLUIPA, the Department of Justice can file a civil action in court when religious groups are discriminated against in zoning laws.
Under my tenure as attorney general, we have not hesitated to use this tool when necessary. In June, we filed suit against a town in New Jersey that had refused over and over again—for eight years—to let an Orthodox Jewish congregation buy land for a synagogue. And just last week we filed a brief in federal court supporting the case of a Hindu temple in Maryland that claimed to have suffered discrimination in its attempts to purchase land.
We are going to keep going to court. And I believe that we’re going to keep winning.
Today I am announcing our next step: the Religious Liberty Task Force, to be co-chaired by the associate attorney general and the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Policy—Jesse [Panuccio] and Beth [Williams].
The 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. That includes making sure that our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith.
As the people in this room know, you have to practice what you preach. We are also going to remain in contact with religious groups across America to ensure that their rights are being protected. We have been holding listening sessions and we will continue to host them in the coming weeks.
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.
It is clear that these policies have furthered peace, prosperity, freedom, lawfulness, and clarity.
As our nation grows order, we must not let it depart from this magnificent tradition.