On Monday, Oct. 29, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to a Boston chapter of the Federalist Society about his haunting vision for religious liberty. In an attempt to sell a story of Christian persecution and demonize the nonreligious, Sessions made several false or deeply misleading statements, including on the Freedom From Religion Foundation itself. FFRF offers the following rebuttal to Sessions’ most egregiously incorrect claims.
First and foremost, Sessions repeated a Kellyanne Conway lie, stating that the recent synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh “was not just an attack on the Jewish faith. It was an attack on all people of faith. And it was an attack on America’s values of protecting those of faith.” The shooter was anti-Semitic, not anti-religious. He appears to be a Christian, quoting the New Testament to justify his anti-Semitism.
Sessions and Conway are attempting to blame the crimes of their Christian nationalist supporters on the secular community, which is actually more committed to rooting out Christian nationalism (and by extension, white nationalism) than anyone else.
Sessions doubled down on this deception, transitioning into attacks on the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other groups that work to uphold the constitutional separation between state and church. Sessions grossly mischaracterized a recent FFRF court victory where a federal district court struck down a tax statute that allows “ministers of the gospel” to exclude (and therefore not pay taxes on) income their church earmarks for housing. The bigger the house — think of Joel Osteen’s mansion — the bigger the tax break, and all because the person is religious. Sessions characterized this discriminatory and lucrative ($700 million a year) tax break as the court deciding that “not forcing religion to pay the government somehow means the government is establishing a religion.”
Sessions also mischaracterized other recent cases involving his dystopian view of religious liberty. One such case was Masterpiece Cakeshop, in which a bakery requested a license to refuse to serve wedding cakes to same-sex couples because the discrimination is based on religion. While the U.S. Supreme Court did not tackle the central question of the case, Sessions distorted the issue by saying the baker “so bravely” faced an ordeal because he “simply doesn’t want the government to force him to create art that offends his religious beliefs.”
Sessions knows his audience; The Federalist Society provides President Trump with federal judicial nominees who join Sessions in twisting facts of every case to paint the religious party — usually socially conservative white Christians — as a persecuted victim, even when the case involves other parties who have actually suffered harm. Sessions openly admitted that “thanks to President Donald Trump, there are two more Federalist Society members sitting on the Supreme Court.”
Sessions’ speech also included misleading statements about the Declaration of Independence, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and more. He even betrayed his own bible by proclaiming that “free exercise means a right to reasonably act, not just meditate in secret,” when the New Testament commands that “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. . . . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and prayer to your Father, who is unseen.” Matt. 6:5–6.
FFRF is committed to working to educate all Americans on the true meaning of religious liberty, as understood by the nation’s Founders, so that they can see speeches like Sessions’ for the bundle of lies and misstatements that they are.
“Sessions and the Federalist Society can’t come right out and say what they are really fighting for: Christian nationalism,” commented FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “So they have to falsely claim that it’s a matter of religious liberty. This is an old trick that dates back to 19th-century debates over slavery, and it should be soundly rejected.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members across the country, including in every state. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.
Shutterstock photo Taidgh Barron