— -- In a closed-door speech to a right-wing legal advocacy group, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said religion is under attack, according to text of the speech the Department of Justice appears to have released to the conservative website The Federalist on Thursday.
Earlier this week, Sessions spoke to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which was designated an “anti-LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016, at their Summit on Religious Liberty in Dana Point, California. The event was closed to reporters, and both the Department of Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom declined to provide a copy of Sessions’ remarks to ABC News.
The Department of Justice did not respond to ABC News’ request to confirm that the transcript provided to The Federalist was indeed a copy of Sessions’ remarks, but Buzzfeed’s Dominic Holden tweeted that “a person familiar with the situation tells me the Justice Dept DID provide Sessions’s remarks to The Federalist.”
In the remarks, as published by The Federalist on Thursday, Sessions praised the group for its "important work" made necessary by a "changing cultural climate" that has put the "future of religious liberty" in doubt.
“The cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief,” Sessions said. “And in recent years, many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack. This feeling is understandable.”
Sessions told his audience that his office, at the behest of President Donald Trump, will be issuing new guidance on how to interpret and apply federal religious liberty protections, suggesting that the U.S. government could change the way it considers cases dealing with the separation of church and state.
“The government would not take sides, and would not get between God and man … Any review of our nation’s policies must understand this powerful constraint on our government and recognize its soundness,” Sessions said. “Yet this understanding in no way can be held to contend that government should be hostile to people of faith and is obligated to deprive public life of all religious expression.”
Sessions’ speech comes just weeks after the Supreme Court has agreed to review the case of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who was found in violation of the state’s nondiscrimination law after refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012. The Alliance Defending Freedom is representing Phillips in the case.
According to the civil rights watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alliance Defending Freedom is a legal advocacy group founded by Christian right leaders in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1994 that “specializes in supporting the recriminalization of homosexuality abroad, ending same-sex marriage and generally making life as difficult as possible for LGBT communities in the U.S. and internationally.”
For Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen, the speech was a tacit endorsement of a group with extreme anti-LGBT views.
"The ADF spreads demonizing lies about the LGBT community in this country and seeks to criminalize it abroad. If the ADF had its way, gay people would be back in the closet for fear of going to jail,” Cohen told ABC News in a statement. “It was inappropriate for Attorney General Sessions to lend his credibility to the group by appearing before it, and it was ironic that he would suggest that the rights of ADF sympathizers are under attack when the ADF is doing everything in its power to deny the equal protection of the laws to the LGBT community."
The Alliance Defending Freedom issued a statement on Thursday criticizing ABC News for “repeating false accusations against ADF made by the ultra-partisan Southern Poverty Law Center.”
“Southern Poverty Law Center spends its time and money attacking veterans, nuns, Muslims who oppose terrorism, Catholics, Evangelicals, and anyone else who dares disagree with its far-left ideology,” said Alliance Defending Freedom spokesperson Kerri Kupec in a statement. “Meanwhile, ADF works every day to preserve and affirm free speech and the free exercise of religion for people from all walks of life and all backgrounds because we believe freedom is for everyone.”
However, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin and the first openly gay U.S. Senator, said Sessions’ seeming embrace of the Alliance Defending Freedom was troubling.
“This sends a very troubling message that our Attorney General, America’s top law enforcement official, is not committed to standing up to anti-LGBT hate," Baldwin told ABC News.
Richard Painter, former President George W. Bush's chief ethics lawyer and a vocal critic of the Trump administration, agreed.
“It shows where this administration is and where Republican Party is,” Painter told ABC News, “that they’re catering to this extreme, fringe element.”