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Sessions Defends Controversial Organization Against Hate Group Designation

Sofia Resnick

Wednesday was the second time Sessions addressed the Alliance Defending Freedom's annual summit as attorney general.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a stark message Wednesday night to critics of organizations known for decades of animus toward LGBTQ people. 

Addressing the annual Summit on Religious Liberty hosted by one such organization, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Sessions said the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) will no longer partner with groups that “unfairly defame Americans.”

“You are not a hate group,” Sessions told the ADF gathering, eliciting the loudest applause of his speech.

During the speech Sessions gave last week at the DOJ’s own Religious Liberty Summit, Sessions alluded to an ongoing concern of his that the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has been labeling certain groups that the Trump administration calls allies as “hate groups.” He claims it has damaged their reputation in the press and with businesses like Amazon.

Among groups the administration counts as allies are the Family Research Council (FRC) and ADF, several of whose former attorneys and staffers now work for the DOJ and other federal agencies. The SPLC has given these groups this particular designation because, the SPLC says, they “regularly use their public platforms to demonize the LGBT community.” Both groups have a long history of, for example, directly linking homosexuality and pedophilia.

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But on Wednesday night, the attorney general did not mince words, this time calling out the SPLC and charging it with using the “hate group” label “to bully and to intimidate” his hosts.

After several minutes praising the conservative Arizona nonprofit law firm on its work and on its many wins before the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts, Sessions signaled there will be consequences for the SPLC and other groups that call ADF and others like it a hate group.

“I’ve ordered a review at the department to make sure that we do not partner with groups that discriminate,” he said. “We will not partner with groups that unfairly defame Americans for standing up for the Constitution or for their faith.”

Sessions also noted that that the DOJ “will not partner with hate groups.”

A DOJ spokesperson would not confirm that Sessions was explicitly referring to the SPLC when he said “groups that unfairly defame Americans for standing up for the Constitution or for their faith.” But Sessions specifically referenced the group in his speech:

[W]hen I spoke to ADF last year, I learned that the Southern Poverty Law Center had classified ADF as a “hate group.”  Many in the media simply parroted that as a fact. Amazon relied solely on the SPLC designation and removed ADF from its Smile program, which allows customers to donate to charities.

They’ve used this designation as a weapon, and they’ve wielded it against conservative organizations—others than ADF—that refuse to accept their orthodoxy and choose instead to speak for their conscience and their beliefs.  They use it to bully and to intimidate groups like yours, which fight for religious freedom, which is indeed the civil rights, the constitutional rights of American people.

You and I may not agree on everything—but I wanted to come back here tonight partly because I wanted to say this: You are not a hate group.

Since the early 1970s the Alabama-based nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center has been a respected civil rights organization. During his speech, Sessions praised the group for the “important work” they have done in the South going after hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Sessions noted during last night’s address that he helped prosecute the Klansmen who lynched a Black teenager in Alabama in 1981, and that the SPLC brought a subsequent wrongful death suit that, in Sessions’ words, led to “the bankruptcy of the Ku Klux Klan in the South.”

SPLC President and CEO Richard Cohen told Rewire.News in a phone interview that he interpreted Sessions’ comments about not partnering with groups that “unfairly defame Americans” as referencing his organization. He said he hopes the DOJ will still take the SPLC’s calls in the future, despite what Sessions told the ADF Wednesday.

“We’re citizens, and we sometimes bring issues to the attention of the Justice Department, just like any other citizen would,” Cohen said. “And I hope they continue to take our calls and receive our information and take it seriously, just as they would the calls and information of any other organization.” The FBI, which is housed under the Justice Department, currently lists the SPLC as one of many groups with which it has forged partnerships around investigating hate crimes.

Ahead of Sessions’ speech, Cohen sent the attorney general a letter in the interest of trying to explain why the SPLC calls ADF and other groups “hate groups.”

“In a manner analogous to how the Department of Justice defines hate crimes, we identify hate groups as those that vilify others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability – prejudices that strike at the heart of our democratic values and fracture society along its most fragile fault lines,” Cohen wrote.

In explaining ADF’s designation, Cohen wrote that ADF has promoted the myth that gay people are inherently pedophiles, has opposed anti-bullying policies on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and “has worked to support the criminalization abroad of sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex.”

In his letter, Cohen extended a similar courtesy that Sessions extended in his speech, acknowledging and applauding the attorney general for overseeing investigations into recent murders of trans people. Cohen pointed out that according to the FBI’s own data, LGBT Americans are frequent victims of violent hate crimes. But Cohen argues that groups like ADF are partly complicit in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes.

“When you vilify the LGBT community as pedophiles, when you suggest there is something defective about them, common sense tells you that contributes to an atmosphere that makes hate crimes more likely,” Cohen told Rewire.News.

ADF, of course, rejects the SPLC’s characterization of its work and claims it has been unfairly targeted for its religious beliefs, as Sessions did Wednesday night. Back in May, ADF sent Amazon a letter after the company dropped the nonprofit from its AmazonSmile program, through which customers can donate to specific charities. In that letter, ADF President and CEO Michael Farris accused the SPLC of slander.

“Although the SPLC did good work many years ago, it has devolved into a far-left propaganda machine that slanders organizations with which it disagrees and destroys the possibility of civil discourse in the process,” Farris writes.

Wednesday was the second time Sessions addressed the ADF’s annual summit as attorney general. As with last year’s event, it was closed to the press, and the ADF did not release any details about this event. Last year, due to a public backlash, the DOJ ended up releasing Sessions’ prepared remarks, not through its normal channels, but through the conservative Federalist.com.

This time, the DOJ preempted such criticism by ensuring Sessions’ remarks were broadcast publicly—via the ADF’s Facebook page.

In addition to his forceful defense of ADF, Sessions discussed the DOJ’s brand-new Religious Liberty Task Force, which he announced last week but has yet to provide many concrete details about. Sessions did promise that the task force would be embarking on a series of listening sessions with various religious organizations, but as of yet the DOJ has not announced any such sessions. As BuzzFeed recently reported, it’s not clear whether these sessions will ultimately be public.

In the interim, Sessions does appear to be embarking on a series of speaking tours with members of the Christian right—appearing on the Family Research Council’s radio program last week and giving last night’s address to ADF.

Cohen told Rewire.News that Sessions is invited to his office to listen to the SPLC’s concerns about religious-based discrimination.

As he did last week, Sessions told the ADF audience that the task force will be looking for new lawsuits in its effort to enforce so-called religious liberty protections.

“We intend to keep winning,” Sessions said. “Are you tired yet? We are not going to be intimidated, you can be sure of that.”

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