ARTICLE

The Religious Liberty Task Force Is More Sword Than Shield

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a task force that—in the name of “religious liberty”—threatens to systemically oppress LGBTQ students. The time for educators to demonstrate their allyship is now.
Photo by the Associated Press

Since our nation declared its first words—words like life and liberty—a resilient chorus of its people has responded with a question: Whose life? Whose liberty? 

Words have meanings, but they also have motives.

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the formation of a tax payer-funded task force within the Department of Justice designed to defend “religious liberty.” The Religious Liberty Task Force—on its face a commitment to a constitutional principle—has intended consequences that will harm LGBTQ youth. Consequences that grant licenses to discriminate. With representatives from the anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) by his side, as well as their client Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, the intentions are clear: This task force intends to limit the liberties of LGBTQ people—including your students—under the guise of “religious liberty.” 

For educators who call themselves allies to LGBTQ students, this is your moment to walk your talk. 

 

Here’s what you’re up against. 

The task force introduced by Sessions on Monday aims to implement guidance his office issued last October. (That guidance has since been removed from the DOJ’s website.) The memo consists of 20 “principles of religious liberty”—principles that could, for example, potentially interfere with a school’s ability to assign students readings by queer authors or to implement trans-inclusive bathroom and locker room policies. Heather L. Weaver, the senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, responded to the guidance with a strong rebuke. “Not only does it allow discrimination in the name of religion,” she wrote at the time, “[but] it also treats the separation of church and state as a mere afterthought.” 

It was just one of many examples of the current administration attempting to undermine or limit LGBTQ rights. 

The motives behind that memo are amplified by the ADF, which helped Sessions create it and supported Sessions during Monday’s announcement at the Religious Liberty Summit. 

Media Matters recently documented the ADF’s extensive work in denying the humanity of LGBTQ people in the name of religious liberty. This has included supporting the criminalization of homosexuality and state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad.  This has also included opposing and targeting schools that implement LGBTQ-inclusive curricula, anti-bullying policies and trans-inclusive policies, often threatening litigation and inciting intense public pressure campaigns. You can read more about the ADF’s hateful history here

These tactics aren’t unique to the ADF though. “ADF, Liberty Counsel, and others on the religious right have manufactured a dispute between what they call ‘religious liberty’ and LGBT rights,” says SPLC Staff Attorney J. Tyler Clemons. “Although the new task force and guidance doesn’t technically modify existing law, they are—and are intended to be—a clear signal to everyone that the DOJ believes in that dispute, as well as which side of it the agency is on. And the focus of immense resources in this direction also draws energy and attention away from crucial civil rights battles on behalf of LGBT students.”

We have long cautioned our community to prepare for outside groups that might forcefully push back against anti-bias practices. Now, one of those groups may turn out to be the U.S. Department of Justice.

If your school faces backlash or litigation, protect LGBTQ students from this concerted movement to undermine their rights in school and beyond by following these tips. 

 

Find allies in your community. 

Build relationships with local business leaders, faith-based organizations, sports teams or organizations who support inclusivity and who can show that support in a public, influential way. 

 

Support the targets. 

If outside groups or online communities target particular students, bring those students together and give them an opportunity to express their feelings. Let them know that you support them, even after the worst is over. Provide counseling and additional security if needed. 

 

Know your legal obligations and students’ legal rights. 

Work closely with lawyers or the legal department in your school district. Make sure you know your students’ rights, as well as your rights as a school, and be prepared to meet pushback with these facts. Pose scenarios and ask questions so you can practice responding to pressing criticism.

This excerpt from our upcoming guide for supporting LGBTQ students reminds you of their legal rights and offers sample policies that can help you and your colleagues create an LGBTQ-inclusive school at a time when students are increasingly vulnerable.

Do not let misinformation go unchecked. 

Outside groups may respond to LGBTQ-inclusive practices by perpetuating myths or unfair characterizations of your work. Inform students and families of misinformation being spread in the community, and set the record straight through your usual channels of communication. For example, if an outside group characterizes LGBTQ-inclusive practices as a violation of religious students’ rights to free expression, communicate this clearly to your families and community: You are not asking students to forfeit religious beliefs. Students have the constitutional right to exercise and express their religious identities and your school is charged with a responsibility to protect the rights of others to hold religious beliefs as they choose. Public schools must strike that balance. They cannot privilege a dominant culture or religion while simultaneously denying equitable opportunity and safety to other students—including LGBTQ students. 

This toolkit reminds teachers that they can—and should—teach with confidence about religious freedom and how it can come into conflict with other rights.

Respond to current events—such as Monday’s announcement—by making a commitment to stand behind your LGBTQ students

We know, based on research, that an affirming school environment can provide LGBTQ students with more physical and emotional safety, with better educational outcomes. Students denied at the bathroom door, in the nurse’s office, on the team roster, at prom or in the classroom because of who they are face more than rejection; they face an environment that does not value their sense of self, their safety or their freedom.

Groups like the ADF passionately support that exclusion. The taxpayer-funded Religious Liberty Task Force stands ready to give those groups government backing. Whose lives do they fight for? Whose liberty? 

We don’t have to wait to find out. It’s a question they’ve already answered. But it’s a question educator allies should now reflect on. 

“Liberty and justice for all” has meaning. But is it your motive?

Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.