A group of Roman Catholic nuns that operates approximately 30 affordable senior housing, senior living and long-term care homes in about 20 states figured prominently Monday when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new task force charged with ensuring that the Justice Department upholds its own guidance in cases involving religious freedom, including “making sure that our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith.”
Sessions announced the Religious Liberty Task Force during remarks at a Justice Department “Religious Liberty Summit” in the nation’s capital. He said he will chair the body, Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio will be vice chair for litigation and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy Beth Williams will be vice chair for policy. Members will include representatives from the department’s Office of the Deputy Attorney General, the Civil Division, the Civil Rights Division, the Environment and Natural Resources Division, the Office of Legal Counsel, the Office of Legal Policy, the Office of Public Affairs and a U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Sessions referred to the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor — which had challenged an Obama-era mandate in the Affordable Care Act that required employers to include coverage for birth control in health plans for their employees — as an example of how “the cultural climate in this country — and in the West more generally — has become less hospitable to people of faith.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. District Court in Colorado issued a permanent injunction in the case, prohibiting the government from enforcing the requirement for the organization. The attorney general called the decision “a major victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor and religious freedom.”
“The government has no business telling the Little Sisters that they must provide an insurance policy that violates their sincere religious beliefs,” Sessions said.
The new task force will help ensure that 20 principles Sessions issued in October are followed by the government in cases the Justice Department files or defends, he said.
The principles in the guidance “include the principle that free exercise means a right to act — or to abstain from action,” Sessions said. “They include the principle that government shouldn’t impugn people’s motives or beliefs. We don’t give up our rights when we go to work, start a business, talk about politics or interact with the government. We don’t give up our rights when we assemble or join together. We have religious freedom as individuals and as groups. In short, we have not only the freedom to worship, but the right to exercise our faith. The Constitution’s protections don’t end at the parish parking lot, nor can our freedoms be confined to our basements.”
The Justice Department has held “listening sessions” with religious groups across the country and will hold additional ones, Sessions said.
SAGE criticizes announcement
Elder advocacy organization SAGE criticized the creation of the taxpayer-funded task force, which it described as “the latest step by the Trump administration to provide a license to discriminate.”
“LGBT elders, who rely on religiously affiliated providers for non-discriminatory care, have played a huge role in the ‘changing cultural climate’ that the attorney general condemns,” SAGE CEO Michael Adams said. “They will not go back into the closet so that this administration can pander to the forces of intolerance and bigotry.”
Eighty-five percent of nonprofit continuing care retirement communities are religiously affiliated, SAGE said, “so the federal government’s approach poses a grave threat to LGBT elders who need care.”