US Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech on Tuesday night to a private, no-press-allowed gathering of Christian conservatives fighting to expand religious liberty — thereby giving the Trump administration's tacit endorsement to a group that uses courts and legislatures to permit LGBT discrimination, and restrict access to abortions.
Sessions' office had declined to release the speech — despite requests from BuzzFeed News and other media outlets — even though the attorney general made the remarks in his official capacity as head of the US Justice Department.
But on Thursday, conservative media outlet The Federalist published the remarks as prepared under Sessions' byline. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which held the Tuesday event, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the published remarks were what Sessions said to the group. The Department of Justice and The Federalist did not immediately return requests for comment.
However, a person familiar with the situation told BuzzFeed News that the Justice Department had provided the remarks to The Federalist.
In his talk, Sessions said he would use the power of the Justice Department in court to defend religious freedom. "We will defend freedom of conscience resolutely," he said. "That is inalienable. That is our heritage."
Sessions added that he would soon issue guidelines, per an executive order from Trump in May, for agencies to apply religious liberty protections, including by abiding by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"The department is finalizing this guidance, and I will soon issue it," Sessions said, adding that "if the federal government imposes a burden on somebody’s religious practice, it had better have a compelling reason."
The attorney general commended the organization, saying, "While your clients vary from pastors to nuns to geologists, all of us benefit from your good work—because religious liberty and respect for religion have strengthened this country from the beginning."
Sessions addressed about 250 activists and lawyers in California at the summit for the ADF, which currently has three cases heading to the Supreme Court, including one involving a baker seeking the right to refuse wedding cakes to gay couples.
Officials at the Justice Department refused to comment on whether Sessions addressing the group indicates the department will reverse the liberal positions the federal government held under the Obama administration, and begin taking new legal stances in line with Christian conservatives.
Under President Obama, the government backed transgender students and workers who wanted to use restrooms matching their gender identity by issuing school guidance and siding with them in federal courts.
In a departure, Sessions reversed that guidance this year, and has left open questions about how he will interpret civil rights policies. Sessions could argue that it is legal to restrict transgender people's bathroom access while supporting states with religious freedom laws that target LGBT people.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Sessions told ADF, "the cultural climate" in the US "has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief. And in recent years, many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack."
He added, "Under this administration, religious Americans will be treated neither as an afterthought nor as a problem to be managed. The federal government will actively find ways to accommodate people of all faiths."
Sharon McGowan, a former attorney for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, hadn't seen the transcript of Sessions's speech, but said she was concerned by the attorney general's coziness with the group.
"For Sessions to have a closed-door meeting with an organization that has put dismantling progress for LGBT people front and center of its mission only bolsters the anxiety people have about whether this Justice Department is a Justice Department for all Americans," said McGowan, who is now a top lawyer for the LGBT group Lambda Legal.
"I'm concerned that this is the direction we will see the Justice Department going," she added in an interview.
The American Civil Liberties Union had the Obama administration's support in court for its case related to a transgender boy in Virginia, but as the case winds through courts it's unclear whether the Trump administration will continue to back the student.
Ian Thompson, a legislative representative for the group, told BuzzFeed News, “No one should be surprised with the appearance of Attorney General Sessions at this conference."
He said that Sessions' career in the US Senate aligned with "the very thing that ADF is known for — licensing discrimination under the guise of religious liberty. This is yet another example of the administration’s hollow rhetorical commitment to LGBTQ people meeting the reality of their very anti-LGBTQ policy agenda."