U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday spoke at a private conference hosted by the conservative legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). ADF is representing a Colorado baker who was sued after refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, in a case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear this fall.
Sessions’ meeting with ADF inflamed Democrats, as well as organizations that advocate on behalf of LGBTQ equality, such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), who say ADF works to undermine rights for LGBTQ people and promote hate. But they appear to be equally concerned with the apparent secrecy of the meeting. Neither the Justice Department nor ADF have published any information about the meeting or its purpose.
Sessions’ remarks will not be released to the public, DOJ spokesperson Ian Prior told Rewire in an email.
“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?” SPLC deputy legal director David Dinielli said in a statement. The group urged the attorney general to make his remarks public.
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A press guidance detailing Sessions’ Tuesday schedule identified the conference as “Alliance Defending Freedom: Summit on Religious Liberty.” ADF, a 24-year-old conservative Christian nonprofit legal group based in Scottsdale, Arizona, has no information about the summit on its website, and declined to provide Rewire information on the events’ sponsors, speakers, or lecture topics.
Jason Aguilar, pastor of the Cloud Church, in Irvine, California, tweeted a link to an Instagram photo on Sunday stating he was “spending a couple of days” at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, California, for the ADF conference. A receptionist for the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel would not confirm whether the hotel hosted the ADF summit, and the hotel’s public relations director did not return a call from Rewire.
“It’s a private event attended mostly by people in the legal profession with an interest in religious freedom. Pretty simple,” ADF Vice President of Communications Greg Scott told Rewire in an email, punctuating his response with a smiley emoji.
Sessions’ appearance at ADF’s private summit suggests the anti-LGBTQ group has the ear of the nation’s top prosecutor.
The Supreme Court announced last month that it would hear a discrimination lawsuit initially filed in 2012 against Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, who refused to design a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony, citing his religious beliefs. ADF’s lawyers have argued that Phillips was not outright refusing service to gay patrons but was choosing not to participate in an event that he says violated his religious convictions. Sessions’ staff declined to comment on whether the attorney general’s participation in the ADF summit signaled a shift in the DOJ’s position on this case, BuzzFeed reporter Dominic Holden tweeted.
Of course, this lawsuit is not the only area the ADF would seek to influence the U.S. attorney general.
President Trump in May signed an executive order promising to “vigorously enforce” federal religious freedom laws, also known as religious imposition laws. Months earlier, the Nation reported on a leaked draft of the executive order, which seemed to grant people and businesses the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs. Though the final version of the executive order did not include those specifics—to the relief of progressive groups and the ire of organizations opposed to LGBTQ rights—the vague language in Trump’s order does not prevent the kind of discrimination explicitly sanctioned in the leaked version, as Rewire’s Jessica Mason Pieklo wrote.
The order empowered the attorney general to create agency guidance on how to interpret “religious liberty protections in Federal law.” Such guidance has not yet been issued.
Sessions has already withdrawn guidance created for the DOJ and the Department of Education under the Obama administration stating that transgender students attending federally funded schools have a right to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identities.
After Trump released the executive order, James Gottry, ADF’s director of marketing and legal counsel, called it a “small but important step toward reclaiming religious freedom,” but criticized the order for not explicitly protecting “faith-based adoption agencies, federal employees who express pro-marriage or pro-life views, and recipients of federal grants or contracts” against discrimination charges.
ADF has enjoyed increasing influence within the Trump administration. The administration recently appointed former ADF counsel Matthew Bowman to a senior legal position within the Department of Health and Human Services. Bowman successfully argued a Supreme Court case against the Obama administration’s birth control benefit, in which the Roberts Court determined corporations could refuse to provide health insurance coverage for contraception based on religious convictions.