Attorney General Jeff Sessions' persistent focus on religious freedoms could further erode LGBTQ rights. In announcing his latest venture, a religious liberty task force, on Monday, July 30, Attorney General Jeff Sessions referenced a recent Supreme Court case centered around a baker who refused to serve a same-sex couple. This reference tipped off some advocates to believe that the religious liberty task force could impact LGBTQ Americans. Though it's too early to know exactly what the task force will do, experts believe it will aim to protect those who discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
"This task force reflects a devotion of further resources to the discrimination of LGBTQ people, people living with HIV, and other vulnerable groups," Camilla Taylor, Lambda Legal’s director of constitutional litigation, tells Bustle. "It’s an outrageous act of pandering to the religious right, and it reflects their willingness to put more and more resources behind discrimination instead of protecting people from discrimination."
During the announcement on Monday, Sessions signaled that the new task force would focus on LGBTQ issues, at least in part, by referencing "the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips," the Colorado baker who successfully argued before the Supreme Court that he could legally refuse to bake for same-sex couples because of his religious objection.
The fact that the Trump administration officially sided with Phillips last year by filing a brief on behalf of the baker made the reference less than surprising. It's also part of the reason Taylor says Session's announcement this week is consistent with the administration's previous actions.
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, similarly fears the task force will lead to an increase in discrimination against LGBTQ Americans. The religious liberty task force is part of an "extremist, long-term strategy of the far right to enshrine fundamentalist Christian beliefs about family, gender, and sexuality" into law, she says in a statement to Bustle.
"The Trump Administration is working to systematically provide cover to those who seek to discriminate against LGBTQ people, women seeking reproductive health care, and other minority groups," Beach-Ferrara says. "In short, it's a license to discriminate under the thinly-veiled guise of religious exemptions."
Issues including health care discrimination could worsen once the task force is up and running. Back in January, the Trump administration created a religious freedom division within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that will focus on enforcing already existing laws that protect health care workers who object to performing abortions and other procedures on religious grounds. The HHS then proposed expanding those religious protections.
It's possible that Sessions' new task force will continue the administration's push to defend health care providers who refuse care to LGBTQ or women patients.
Sessions' new task force also signals that the federal government isn't likely to hold states accountable when their policies put LGBTQ folks in danger. At the local level, 21 states have Religious Freedom Restoration Acts on the books that aim to protect religious freedoms, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and a Mississippi law allows open discrimination based on religious beliefs.
Beach-Ferrara says policies that expand religious liberties have a "chilling effect on how LGBTQ people and women move through public life." She adds, "Beyond the immediate harms caused to those who might be denied services, these laws and policies are insidious because they contribute to a culture of discrimination and intimidation."
All in all, LGBTQ rights advocates worry the religious liberty task force will have a grave impact on the health and well-being of their communities. As Taylor tells Bustle, the administration has "already taken a side, and it’s the side of discrimination."