When Attorney General Jeff Sessions stood shoulder to shoulder with some of the nation’s leading anti-LGBTQ extremists last week to announce a new taxpayer-funded “Religious Liberty Task Force,” he knew well enough to talk about the effort in coded terms. But to millions of LGBTQ people across the country, the tactic and message was instantly recognizable as yet another insidious effort to weaponize religion as a tool of discrimination and relegate LGBTQ people and our families to second class citizenship.
It’s attempting to weaponize religion despite the broad chorus of religious leaders who object to these kinds of thinly-veiled attacks against LGBTQ people.
This announcement from the Department of Justice was the next dangerous step by an administration that sees LGBTQ people as dispensable and unworthy of equal rights. Over the last two years, Donald Trump and Mike Pence have made it a priority to roll back our progress towards LGBTQ equality in this country, and they’ve shamelessly used religion as a tool of discrimination.
For example, this past January, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the creation of a “Conscience” Division that would “protect” the “religious liberty” of health care workers, widely seen as a measure to enable discrimination against LGBTQ people. HHS also proposed an accompanying rule that would permit health care workers to deny life-saving treatment to LGBTQ people based on “religious liberty.”
Last December, the Trump-Pence administration joined attorneys from the the Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group Alliance Defending Freedom in arguing before the Supreme Court that a Colorado baker should be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ people, despite a state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (while the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the baker, they did not grant the sweeping license to discriminate anti-equality activists had hoped for).
But of course, this administration’s line of attack against the civil rights of LGBTQ people should hardly be surprising. After all, Vice President Mike Pence is himself the poster child of religious-based discrimination. Prior to joining the Trump campaign, he was an unpopular incumbent governor cruising toward defeat because of a sweeping license-to-discriminate law that tanked his poll numbers in Indiana almost as badly as his state’s economy. In one interview, Pence famously refused eight separate times to say whether it should be legal to discriminate against gay people.
Now, after finding his circumstances miraculously improved, he has simply decided to advance his repugnant, disastrous politics at the federal level.
The right to believe is fundamental, but the right to discriminate is not.
That’s why the Human Rights Campaign submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Justice on August 7 for all records associated with this Task Force. Sessions’ history of working with anti-LGBTQ extremists to advance an insidious agenda raises questions that demand answers.
We are holding Sessions and this administration accountable to ensure that the DOJ acts with integrity and without discriminatory intent. The DOJ has a duty to uphold the rights of all Americans — not curtail them based on the extreme ideology of a few.
Efforts to wield religion as a weapon of discrimination are nothing new. This tactic was aggressively employed by segregationists and white supremacists in an effort to attack the fundamental equality and civil rights of black Americans. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court held in the landmark civil rights case Newman v. Piggie Park that businesses could not cite religion to justify discriminating against black customers. The arguments for licensing discrimination against marginalized groups of American citizens on religious grounds were as flawed then as they are now.
At a time when two-thirds of all LGBTQ people report experiencing discrimination, this administration is actively working to make the problem worse. The Constitution already protects the ability to exercise one’s religion. What our Constitution does not protect is using taxpayer funds to wield religion as a weapon of discrimination.
CHAD GRIFFIN is the president of the Human Rights Campaign. Follow him on Twitter @ChadHGriffin.
Authored by Saliqa Khan