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New 'Religious Liberty Task Force' Highlights Sessions, DOJ Priorities


Earlier this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered an ominous warning.


JEFF SESSIONS: A dangerous movement, undetected by many but real, is now challenging and eroding a great tradition of religious freedom.

CORNISH: That was Sessions speaking on Monday when he announced the creation of a religious liberty task force, a new body that will oversee the Department of Justice's legal directives on religious liberty cases. While the task force may be new, Sessions' emphasis on religious liberty is not.

Emma Green writes about religion and politics for The Atlantic. She joins me now. Hey there, Emma.

EMMA GREEN: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: First let's get a definition out there. When we say religious liberty, what do we mean?

GREEN: In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees a right of free exercise and free expression for all religious beliefs. And we've seen in court cases and laws that this is supposed to be a very broad definition, religious liberty for all kinds of beliefs and all peoples. Under the Trump administration, that has not always necessarily been the case.

CORNISH: So what does it mean when we talk in context of the religious right or in context of this administration?

GREEN: This administration has a strong base especially among white conservative voters who identify as evangelical or born-again Christians and Catholics. And among these groups, religious liberty is a huge concern. They tend to think of religious liberty in the context of, for example, objection to transgender identity, objection to same-sex marriage, objection to birth control or abortion. And so we see those types of priorities being elevated under the Trump administration across agencies.

CORNISH: So when we hear a quote like we did from the attorney general talking about a dangerous movement and religious liberties under attack, it's in this context that we're talking about.

GREEN: I think in addition to this context these particular issues of cultural change around, for example, attitudes towards LGBT rights - he's referring to something broader which has been a hallmark of the religious right since it was born. It's this idea that the culture is in decline and that people with traditional religious views are under attack. He's tapping into a deep vein of thinking here, a fear that religious beliefs will no longer be admissible in the public sphere.

CORNISH: So when we think about priorities - right? - when it comes to DOJ, what are the ways they have been trying to use their own kind of legal tools or mechanisms to promote, quote, unquote, "religious liberty"?

GREEN: The DOJ always has a choice about the types of cases that it's going to prioritize. It can choose to put lawyers on a certain case that's brought in with a complaint or not. It can choose to make statements and make a lot of press releases around certain types of issues or not. What we can see here is a promise, a guarantee that Jeff Sessions' DOJ is going to be putting resources, efforts and manpower into litigating cases that have to do with violations of religious liberty in the way that they see it.

CORNISH: What does this mean in terms of a task force? What will they actually be tasked with doing?

GREEN: It's not quite clear what the specific bullet points are of this task force, how things will be changed other than offering some general guidelines like new education and resources and renewed efforts to address this issue. But what we can take away from this task force is a symbolic gesture at what the DOJ is lifting up - religious liberty as that first freedom, the civil right that it is concerned with protecting above all others.

CORNISH: Emma Green is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers religion and politics. Emma, thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GREEN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.