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Attorney General Jeff Sessions is speaking tonight at the Alliance Defending Freedom’s annual Summit on Religious Liberty. Here are his remarks as prepared for delivery. You can watch his speech via livestream here beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Thank you all for being here. On behalf of the President of the United States, Donald Trump, I want to thank all of you for your work for and commitment to religious freedom at such a time as this. As President Trump said to the National Prayer Breakfast last year, “freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also…under threat all around us…I’ve never seen it so openly [threatened].”
This is a problem around the world.
In the Middle East, some religious minorities like the Yazidis and Christians, after centuries of coexistence with religious majorities, are facing the possibility of extinction.
In Russia, it is illegal to be a Jehovah’s Witness or to publish their translation of the Bible.
In the Philippines, three Catholic priests have been assassinated so far this year. In June, a priest was shot to death at the altar right in front of the congregation.
According to Pew Research, 82 countries have “high” or “very high” restrictions on religion.
These facts reflect a rise in religious persecution in areas of the world where religious groups have been able to live peacefully together.
To avoid such results, our Founders made a commitment to religious freedom that was truly historic—and it remains exceptional today.
The Founders understood the evil of religious persecution and violence. They intended this country to be a safe haven where law-abiding people could live quietly, justly, and devoutly.
The clearest expression of this idea perhaps came from James Madison and shaped the American consensus.
Americans moved from the Locke view of tolerating people’s religious views to respecting and acknowledging one’s right to freely exercise their religious faith.
As Madison expressed it: “Religion; or the duty one owes to our Creator,” cannot be directed by government power, and that duty “… is precedent in order of time and degree of obligation to the claims of civil society.” He declared that right, “Unalienable.”
The final product—the First Amendment—actually gives religious expression a double protection in the supreme law of the land. Not only do we possess freedom to exercise our beliefs but we also enjoy the freedom of speech.
Twenty years later, in 1812, former President John Adams remarked that “nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.”
Adams and Jefferson were political opponents—but they agreed on the human right of religious freedom. But that consensus seems to be eroding. We’ve seen nuns ordered to pay for contraceptives. We’ve seen U.S. Senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about their dogma—a clear reference to their religious beliefs—even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office.
Here in Georgia, there was a religious liberty bill proposed in the legislature. Those moral enforcers, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, were so offended that they threatened to stop filming their movies here. The people of Georgia don’t measure up to the Weinstein standard.
And, of course, we’ve seen the ordeal faced bravely by Jack Phillips. He simply refused to yield his beliefs. And perhaps most tragically, I hear that his ordeal is far from over. But that’s why ADF and other groups are right to give serious thought to and to take action on these matters.
The people of this nation are still the most religious nation in the developed world.
Yet people of faith are facing a new hostility. Really, a bigoted ideology which is founded on animus towards people of faith.
You’ll notice that they don’t rely on the facts. They don’t make better arguments. They don’t propose higher ideals.
No, they just call people names—like “hate group.”
Does that sound familiar?
You know I’m from Alabama—the home of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that did important work in the South, vital work at a pivotal time. As you know well, the law is only words on paper until there are people brave enough to stand up for their rights.
There were hate groups in the South I grew up in. They attacked the life, liberty, and the very worth of minority citizens. You may not know this, but I helped prosecute and secure the death penalty for a klansman who murdered a black teenager in my state. The resulting wrongful death suit led to a $7 million verdict and the bankruptcy of the Klu Klux Klan in the South. That case was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But when I spoke to ADF last year, I learned that the Southern Poverty Law Center had classified ADF as a “hate group.” Many in the media simply parroted it as fact. Amazon relied solely on the SPLC designation and removed ADF from its Smile program, which allows customers to donate to charities.
They have used this designation as a weapon and they have wielded it against conservative organizations that refuse to accept their orthodoxy and choose instead to speak their conscience. They use it to bully and intimidate groups like yours which fight for the religious freedom, the civil rights, and the constitutional rights of others.
You and I may not agree on everything—but I wanted to come back here tonight partly because I wanted to say this: you are not a hate group.
You have a 9-0 record at the Supreme Court over the past seven years—and that includes two of the most important cases of the last term. Two of those nine cases were 7-2, one was per curiam, and one was 9-0. In the lower courts, you’ve won hundreds of free speech cases.
That’s an impressive record. These are not fringe beliefs that you’re defending.
You endeavor to affirm the Constitution and American values.
As for me, I am not going to apologize for the United States of America or our First Amendment. I am not ashamed of this country or our people. This is the greatest, most generous country in the history of the world.
Let me say this loud and clear: at the Department of Justice, we will not partner with hate groups. Not on my watch.
I have ordered a review at the Department of Justice to make sure that we do not partner with any groups that discriminate. We will not partner with groups that unfairly defame Americans for standing up for the Constitution or their faith.
The American people care about this issue. Many people are deeply concerned about it.
Americans from a wide variety of faiths are asking themselves, how much longer until I am in Jack Phillips’ position? How much longer until the state, the media, the academy, the tech companies, or the global corporations come down on me because of my beliefs?
Fortunately, President Donald Trump has heard these concerns. Unlike some, he is not afraid of the name-calling and the fake news. He has endured relentless media attacks in order to speak up for the forgotten people of this country. He made a promise—and from day one of this administration he has delivered.He is defending religious freedom at home and abroad.
Just last week, the Treasury Department sanctioned Turkey’s Minister of Justice and Minister of the Interior, both of whom played leading roles in the arrest of American pastor Andrew Brunson.
Turkey was kind enough to return the favor—and sanction me. Yes, I was informed that they have frozen all of my Turkish assets.
President Trump has appointed 24 circuit court judges, more than any other president at this point in his presidency. One out of every seven circuit court judges is a Trump judge.
These are judges who will honor their oath to serve under the Constitution and laws of the United States. They are not above them.
Shortly after he took office, President Trump directed me to issue legal guidance to ensure that all executive agencies would faithfully apply the religious liberty protections in federal law.
Our team embraced that challenge. I spoke about it at the ADF conference in Dana Point last July.
I issued that guidance in October, and it lays out 20 fundamental principles for the Executive Branch to follow.
Under this guidance, the federal government is not just reacting—we are actively seeking, carefully, thoughtfully and lawfully, to accommodate people of faith.
And under President Donald Trump, this Department of Justice is going to court across America to defend the rights of people of faith.
We are aggressively 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 eight convictions in cases involving arson or other attacks or threats against houses of worship. Our Civil Rights Division has also obtained 13 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 a man from Missouri for threatening to kill members of a mosque.
Yesterday, we obtained a life sentence for a man who murdered an Indian-American man—a Sikh as it turned out—because he thought he was Muslim.
And in addition to protecting the safety of people of faith, we are also protecting them against unjust discrimination.
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.
Earlier this year, a district court in Colorado issued a permanent injunction protecting the Little Sisters of the Poor from a government mandate that unnecessarily and unlawfully restricted their right to exercise their faith. In this case, the Department took the unusual step of formally switching sides in the case from the previous administration to successfully support the result that they sought.
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.
And we filed supporting briefs in two ADF wins you may have been celebrating this week—Masterpiece Cake Shop and NIFLA.
We got involved in a lawsuit filed by ADF against Georgia Gwinnett College, a taxpayer-funded school that punished a student for sharing his faith outside of a designated “free speech zone.”
How big was that free speech zone? Just 0.0015 percent of campus — and even inside the free speech zone, you need permission. Give me a break. It is exercise of religion and free speech.
There has been a lot to be proud of in the past year. But at the Department of Justice, we are taking steps to become even more effective for the years ahead.
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.
That same day, we filed suit against a town in New Jersey for using zoning regulations to allegedly discriminate against an Orthodox Jewish congregation that tried for eight years without success to buy land for a synagogue.
In July, 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.
Last Monday we held a religious liberty summit at the Department of Justice and I announced our next steps. I announced our new Religious Liberty Task Force.
More than 100,000 people tweeted about it. It was the third most tweeted-about topic on Earth at one point that day. Late-night comedians joked about it—although ‘joke’ is a generous term for their doings.
Contrary to the elites and their “resistance,” this task force is simply going to help us fully protect our religious freedoms that are preexisting, unalienable.
It will make sure that we practice what we preach by holding federal agencies accountable to federal law.
It will help us identify more cases that are right and just and deserve to be brought.
We intend to keep winning.
We will not be intimidated, of that you can be sure.
Under President Donald Trump, we are going to continue to uphold the Founders’ tradition of religious liberty—and we will keep defending the rights of the American people.