Jeff Sessions consulted Christian right legal group on religious freedom memo

Alliance Defending Freedom's mission is to “keep the doors open for the Gospel."

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a group whose stated mission is to “keep the doors open for the Gospel by advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family,” hailed Sessions’ announcement, while a number of leading LGBT advocacy groups condemned the move for effectively offering a religious exemption for sexual orientation discrimination.

In a call with reporters, ADF senior counsel Greg Baylor confirmed to ABC News that Sessions met with the group during a series of so-called “listening sessions” convened by the Attorney General, who says he was “seeking suggestions regarding the areas of federal protection for religious liberty most in need of clarification or guidance.”

ADF CEO Michael Farris, who took over in January, also lauded President Donald Trump for fulfilling a campaign promise.

“I commend the president for taking another step to honor his campaign promise to make religious liberty his ‘first priority’ by directing the Department of Justice to issue this guidance, which simply directs the federal government to adhere to its legal and constitutional obligation to respect existing religious freedom protections,” wrote Farris in a statement.

The Department of Justice did not respond to questions for this article but told reporters Sessions consulted more than a dozen different religious groups from across the political spectrum, including the ACLU Project on Religion and Belief, American Center for Law and Justice, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, Baptist Joint Committee, Becket Law, Center for Islam and Religious Freedom, First Liberty, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Hindu American Foundation, Interfaith Alliance, LDS Church, Muslim Advocates, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Orthodox Union, Sikh Coalition, Southern Baptist Convention ERLC and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Department of Justice did not indicate that it consulted any LGBT rights groups, however.

Societal gains by LGBT people have long been in the group’s sights, however. Alan Sears, ADF’s longtime president, CEO and general counsel, cowrote a book in 2003 called "The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Liberty Today," in which he argued that the repeal of anti-sodomy laws would lead to a roll back of "laws against pedophilia, sex between close relatives, polygamy, bestiality and all other distortions and violations of God’s plan.”

ADF lawyers have argued several cases before the Supreme Court and are currently 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 recently agreed to review the Phillips case. 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.

ADF has repeatedly disputed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “hate group” designation as “a lie” and criticized news organizations, including ABC News, who make reference to it.

The SPLC, meanwhile, which has monitored hate groups throughout the United States for decades, continues to stand by its label, telling ABC News it’s “rightfully earned.”

On Friday, Sessions outlined 20 broad “principles” designed to ensure that “to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be accommodated in all government activity,” including a decree that “a governmental action substantially burdens an exercise of religion … if it compels an act inconsistent with that observance or practice, or substantially pressures the adherent to modify such observance or practice.”

For several leading LGBT advocates, the new guidance was an alarming effort to undermine sexual orientation discrimination protections, under the guise of affirming religious liberty, that could have far-reaching implications.

“I support religious freedom and the freedom of full equality for every American,” Baldwin said in a statement. “A license to discriminate goes against our core American values and I fear that the guidance the Justice Department issued today is not designed to help agencies comply with the law, but rather to give them greater leeway to condone discrimination against LGBTQ people, women and others.”

According to Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin, the new guidance makes millions of Americans vulnerable to discrimination.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, argued that the new guidance rests on a misinterpretation of religious liberty.

“Today’s guidance by Jeff Sessions proves this Administration will do anything possible to categorize LGBTQ Americans as second-class citizens who are not equal under the law,” said Ellis in a statement. “Freedom of religion is paramount to our nation’s success, but does give people the right to impose their beliefs on others, to harm other, or to discriminate. Nothing could be more un-American and unholy that using religion to justify harm and discrimination to others.”

For David Dinielli, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s LGBT Rights Project, the ADF’s apparent relationship with Sessions is a troubling sign of the group’s growing influence in the new administration.

“The fact that the ADF has confirmed it has participated in a listening session is further proof that extremists have infiltrated the highest echelons of power in this administration, even the Attorney General who is tasked with protecting the civil rights of all Americans,” Dinielli told ABC News. “I’m not certain who came up with the invitation list to these listening sessions, but I can assure you it did not include groups who provide services to those who will be directly affected by this new guidance.”

Editor's note: This report has been updated to include what the Department of Justice told reporters and to reflect that ADF senior counsel Greg Baylor, not ADF CEO Michael Farris, confirmed in a call with reporters that Attorney General Jeff Sessions consulted the group on the guidance.