Written by Don Byrd

Just over one year ago, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced new guidance to all federal agencies regarding religious liberty protections. His “20 principles” were designed to steer agencies toward greater accommodation of religious observance. As the BJC’s Holly Hollman pointed out at the time, however, the directive treated complicated issues “in an overly simplistic way” that “will exacerbate controversy,” and gives “short shrift to the government’s duty to avoid ‘no establishment’ concerns.” 

Now a year later, Sessions returned to the topic and announced a new initiative, ordering his newly created “religious liberty task force” to conduct a federal review of religious entities’ access to government benefits in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church. In that case, the court ruled that the State of Missouri violated the Constitution by excluding a church from a government grant program, even though state law prohibited such funding out of concerns for government establishment of religion. 

Here is an excerpt from Sessions’ remarks earlier today:

As many of you know, last year, the Supreme Court decided a case called Trinity Lutheran, in which it held that a state policy denying grant money to any applicant owned or controlled by a religious entity violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

The Court declared that a state may not expressly discriminate against otherwise eligible religious entities by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character. This is a significant ruling. 

Today I am ordering the Religious Liberty to Task Force to examine—in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling— whether there are other instances in which this kind of discrimination is occurring at the federal level. If so, it must, and will, stop.

We are going to keep going to court. We are going to keep winning. I say that because we are winning and because our superb legal team carefully reviews each case we take to ensure it is legally sound.

Fortunately, Sessions went on remind his audience that there are limits to free exercise when it comes to harming others. He urged Americans to approach the religious views of others with “mutual respect” and “humility.”

But let me just say this: religious freedom is not absolute—no one argues that. There is no right to do wrong and there is no right to deprive others of their rights. There is no right to demand that the state advance one’s religious beliefs over others.

But that’s not what we’re talking about.

Thomas Jefferson famously scoffed that “it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” if someone else has the wrong religion. Certain people seem to have forgotten that.

I well remember that my father once corrected me, saying, “Never make fun of someone’s religion.” He was entirely serious about it. It was good advice. He explained that religion was very important to people, and to criticize their faith was to attack them as a person.

And so, no matter what your creed may be, we all would do well to recover that mutual respect and a certain humility about our own righteousness.

You can watch video of the entire address here, including interruptions or protest from members of the clergy who were present at the speech.