Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a spectacle of announcing his Religious Liberty Task Force last Monday, when he said a “dangerous movement” threatening people of faith must be “confronted intellectually and politically and defeated.” Hosting a Religious Liberty Summit inside the Department of Justice headquarters, Sessions had surrounded himself largely with players from the religious right, including anti-LGBT, anti-abortion organizations, which led to widespread condemnation from civil rights groups.
Despite the fanfare, however, Justice Department officials haven’t provided basic information about Sessions’ new task force or what it will actually do.
Who will be on it? When will it meet? Is there an agenda for its meeting? Will its proceedings be open to the public?
The Justice Department didn’t answer those questions from BuzzFeed News. A DOJ point person for the task force, Jeffrey Hall, referred inquiries to a DOJ spokesperson, who cited a transcript of Sessions’ speech and a memo, which also didn’t provide answers. Follow-up questions went unanswered.
Some elements of the task force are known, in a broad sense. Sessions’ memo says the panel will implement a wordy yet ambiguous October 2017 policy on religious liberty, reach across federal agencies, conduct outreach, and “develop new strategies, involving litigation, policy, and legislation.” Sessions will be the group’s chair, along with two high-level political appointees as co-chairs, Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams and Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio.
But neither the memo, nor officials, have identified the other representatives who will be assigned to the task force.
Sessions’ memo calls for eight or more appointees from Justice Department divisions, including the Office of Legal Counsel and the Office of Legal Policy. Sessions also said Monday the task force would hold “listening sessions” in the coming weeks with religious organizations, but officials have not answered questions about which groups will be included, nor have they released dates of any upcoming meetings.
“My biggest concerns is the lack of transparency and clarity,” Johnathan Smith, the legal director of Muslim Advocates, told BuzzFeed News about the panel’s unclear mandate, membership, and agenda.
“There is a concern that certain Christian and evangelical communities are being brought to the forefront, and others, particularly Muslim communities, are discriminated against and harassed,” he added. “When you create a religious task force and you don’t have that detail and transparency, it raises a lot of questions about whether all communities will benefit from this government action.”
Lacking details, the panel could be brushed off as little more than a gesture — a bone thrown to the evangelical right before the midterm elections.
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