Attorney General Jeff Sessions doesn’t know if a “religious liberty” memo his office issued earlier this month could be used to target LGBTQ people.
The Department of Justice head was asked about an Oct. 6 order which offered broad protections on the basis of “sincerely held religious beliefs” by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) during a Wednesday Senate meeting. Durbin, a Democrat, inquired as to whether the 25-page document could be used to target LGBTQ government employees.
“Could a Social Security Administration employee refuse to accept or process spousal or survivor benefits paperwork for a surviving same-sex spouse?” he asked.
The former Alabama Senator said he hasn’t thought about it.
“That’s something I have never thought would arise, but I would have to give you a written answer to that, if you don’t mind,” Sessions replied after a noticeable pause.
Durbin subsequently asked whether the memo means that a federal contractorwould be permitted to refuse services to people on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, even in life-threatening situations, without retribution from the government. Sessions claimed he “wasn’t sure” if such behavior would be protected under the order’s purview.
After claiming he would “look into it,” the Attorney General continued to tiptoe around the question.
“I would say that wherever possible, a person should be allowed to freely exercise their religion and not to carry out activities that further something they think is contrary to their faith,” Sessions said.
“But at the same time, if you participate in commercial exchanges, you have limits on what you can do under those lawspublic accommodation-type laws,” he continued. “And so the balance needs to be properly struck, and I think we have. Those issues were discussed as we wrestled with this policy.”
What the Attorney General’s response leaves out, though, is that the memo was issued concurrently with an order explicitly attacking LGBTQ people.
The Justice Department moved to roll back workplace protections for transgender federal employees in an Oct. 4 memo. Although the previous administration interpreted protections under the category of “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as inclusive of gender identity, Sessions nixed that understanding.
That decision allows federal contractors to discriminate against trans workers.
Although the religious liberty memo is more vague in what behavior it protects, critics believe that ambiguity could allow sweeping bigotry against LGBTQ people. “To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity,” the DOJ order reads.
Prior to becoming the Attorney General, Sessions attempted to block an LGBTQ conference from being held at a public university. He has spent most of his career opposing equality for queer and trans people.