Sessions addressed members of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which was designated an “anti-LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016, at the Summit on Religious Liberty at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, in Dana Point, California.
The event promised to “bring together prominent legal advocates, scholars, cultural commentators, business executives and church leaders to examine the current state of religious freedom” and “develop legal and cultural strategies to allow freedom to flourish in the United States and around the world.”
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin and the first openly gay person to be elected to the U.S. Senate, told ABC News that she was concerned by the speech.
“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 said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice confirmed that Sessions addressed the Alliance Defending Freedom on Tuesday but did not respond to multiple requests to release his remarks. The Department of Justice released a transcript of remarks he delivered in Dallas earlier on Tuesday and a transcript of remarks he delivered in Las Vegas on Wednesday, but a transcript of his address to the Alliance Defending Freedom has yet to be released.
A spokesperson for the Alliance Defending Freedom said that the group was “working through channels” to release his remarks but declined to comment on the nature of Sessions’ relationship with the group.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alliance Defending Freedom is a legal advocacy group founded 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.”
The group is representing Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who is challenging the state’s nondiscrimination protections after he was found in violation of the law for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case in June 2017.
In a recent appearance on ABC’s “The View,” Phillips defended his actions.
“I don’t believe that Jesus would have made a cake, if he would have been the baker,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not respond to questions about whether the speech was a show of support for Phillips’ case or whether Sessions met with any of the group’s members before or after his speech.
In a recent blog post on its website titled “Hate-group labelers are the ones spreading hate,” the Alliance Defending Freedom called the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “hate group” designation a “lie.”
“We at ADF condemn all such manifestations of true hate,” the post reads. “They have no place in our society.”
According to David Dinielli, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s LGBT Rights Project, however, the label is “rightfully earned,” and the speech raises questions about whether Sessions will uphold laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination.
“How can we trust that the nation’s top law enforcement officer will protect all Americans when he’s willing to meet behind closed doors with a group that supports criminalizing homosexuality and marginalizing LGBT people around the world?” Dinielli said in a statement. “If Attorney General Jeff Sessions doesn’t condone such beliefs, he should immediately make his remarks to the group public and be prepared to defend them. The LGBT community — as well as all Americans — needs to know if he is capable of upholding our country’s fundamental promise of equal protection under the law.”
Richard Painter, former President George W. Bush's chief ethics lawyer and a vocal critic of the Trump administration, shared his criticism of Sessions’ decision to speak at the event on Twitter.
“Why is the Attorney General hanging out with these nuts instead of doing his job?” Painter wrote.
The speech also prompted a statement from Democratic National Committee spokesman Joel Kasnetz condemning the Alliance Defending Freedom and Sessions’ choice to address it.
“You can judge a person by the company they keep, and tonight Attorney General Jeff Sessions is choosing to spend his time speaking in front of one of the country’s leading anti-LGBTQ hate groups,” Kasnetz said. “The Alliance Defending Freedom actively helped draft discriminatory legislation, worked to preserve laws criminalizing same-sex relations and attacked the separation of church and state. ADF has been previously designated a hate group, and Sessions’ appearance at this event, as the top law enforcement official in the country, brings in to question whether the attorney general intends to protect all Americans.”
ABC News’ Margaret Katcher contributed to this report.