Will an Attorney General Sessions Empower Religious Liberty to Trump Reproductive and Civil Rights?

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, Senator Sessions said that religious freedom would be a high priority for him as Attorney General. He elaborated vaguely by saying that “There are situations where I believe we can reach accommodations that would allow the religious beliefs of persons to be honored in some fashion as opposed to dictating everything under a single policy.”
But what does this vague pronouncement mean in reality? Well, contemporary and historic experience show that “religious liberty” is used all too often to give a pass to discrimination. We see this time and time again in the fight for reproductive rights and justice. For example:

  • Some hospitals refuse to provide an abortion because they are governed by religious directives that oppose abortion. This means, that a patient could be turned away if she’s seeking an abortion, even if it is the only health care provider accessible to the patient – effectively denying a patient care altogether.
  • In the 2014 Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, a for-profit corporation (Hobby Lobby) said its religious beliefs should trump an employee’s right to insurance coverage of birth control. The Supreme Court agreed, allowing a for-profit company’s “religious freedom” to justify discrimination.

“Religious liberty” doesn’t only encroach upon reproductive health care; it is also invoked to justify discrimination based on race, gender, and sexuality, among others:

  • For a historic example, after slavery (which was itself often justified on religious grounds) ended, anti-miscegenation laws continued to prohibit interracial marriage often on religious grounds all the way until 1967, when the Supreme Court held such laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia.
  • More recently, states have passed laws, like HB2 in North Carolina, which allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people based on religious objections to the idea of being queer or transgender.
  • In the last few months, a judge in Texas has issued two nationwide injunctions barring enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, at least partly because plaintiffs argue that such laws violate their religious freedom.

I’m not saying that religious liberty isn’t a crucial freedom in American democracy, especially in a world where anti-Muslim discrimination and crime is increasing. But I am extremely concerned about a declaration of prioritizing religious liberty coming from a prospective Attorney General who believes Roe v. Wade was unconstitutional, who has stated that the ACLU and NAACP are un-American but the KKK is “OK”, and who has supported multiple pro-religion, anti-LGBTQ laws throughout his career. The Attorney General, as head of the U.S. Department of Justice, is supposed to protect people from discrimination; but I fear that by prioritizing “religious liberty,” Senator Sessions plans to use this position to instead protect those who would discriminate.