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    Taking Attorney General Sessions’ Religious Liberty Task Force to Task

    By Andrea Shorter–

    Weeks after citing a passage from the bible’s Book of Romans to justify ripping migrant families apart at our southern border, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III sidled up to the mic to announce the formation of a “religious liberty task force” at the Department of Justice (DOJ), adding more fuel to the fire of the Trump era culture wars.

    Evangelized by Sessions, the task force’s central aims are generally purported to combat “dangerous” secularism and to protect Christian beliefs and believers from persecution under civil law—like Christian bakers who don’t want to bake wedding cakes for same sex couples based on their beliefs, and later not be sued for discrimination.

    More specifically, the task force’s mission is to enforce a 2017 DOJ memorandum to align federal agencies with a broad interpretation of religious liberty when enforcing federal laws. For instance, it would relax (read: eliminate) the Johnson Amendment’s prescribed IRS enforcement of tax-exempt status of religious organizations that lobby for a political candidate, such as evangelicals for Trump for President.

    Sessions’ formalized extension and rebranding of the religious freedom battles that gained new breath during the George W. Bush administration and swept through during the remaining days of the Obama administration—primarily as it related to the eventual SCOTUS upholding of same sex civil marriage equality as the law of the land—is an alarmingly more definitive push to erode the separation of church and state, and to essentially and undeniably establish Christian nationalism.

    Expectedly and right on point, the ACLU, GLAAD, and other civil rights organizations sounded the alarm that the renewed cause is nothing less than a push to justify discriminatory policies against women, LGBTQ people and non-white minorities.

    The establishment of the religious liberty task force under the auspices of the DOJ poses a direct threat to already tenuous and non-existent protections of the civil rights of LGBTQ identified Americans. Out & Equal Workplace Advocates was notably one of the first international LGBTQ rights champions to sound the bell on this alarming development and its implications.

    Out & Equal Workplace Advocates’ mission is to achieve LGBTQ workplace equality. For 22 years, it remains the leading non-profit organization working with Fortune 1000 multi-national companies and government agencies to develop and share strategies and best practices to create workplace equality inclusive of all sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.

    As a former associate of Out & Equal, I can personally attest to the import, impact and increasing urgency of the organization’s mission. It is still legal in 28 states not to hire, or to fire, persons in the workplace identified as, or even suspected of being, lesbian, gay or bisexual, and in 30 states for gender identity. Religious objection often serves as a primary basis for LGBTQ employment discrimination.

    Issuing Five Things You Need to Know About the DOJ’s Religious Liberty Task Force, Out & Equal’s advisory to its partner employers and employees is clear:

    1. The task force is another unsettling step in the current administration’s movement against equality for LGBTQ individuals.

    2. Sessions is doubling down on discrimination by citing the backlash against the Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple as rationale for creating this task force.

    3. Religion is already a protected class under federal law, yet there is no federal law protecting LGBTQ Americans from discrimination in the workplace.

    4. Religious freedom should never be interpreted as license to discriminate against anyone.

    5. The majority of Americans support federal law protecting LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in the workplace, yet the DOJ continuously refuses to provide specific protections for the LGBTQ community.

    In conversation with Out & Equal’s Research Manager Madelyn Gelpi and Chief Operating Officer Rachel Rubin, the importance of such an advisory and engagement with corporate employers—especially during an administration that is definitively anti-LGBTQ—was further highlighted. Working with those employers based, or having significant presence, in those 28–30 without any protections for LGBTQ people remains a priority for the organization.

    “We’re definitely hearing from more employee resource groups, managers and CEOs who want to do better and make clear that they are LGBTQ inclusive,” Gelpi told me for the San Francisco Bay Times. “Companies and businesses can step up and fill those gaps where people are at risk for discrimination, especially in those states where you can be fired for being LGBTQ. For example, we’re now working with employers and employees in southern states like Mississippi and Tennessee that are realizing the value and urgency to be inclusive and non-discriminatory.”

    Having recently convened in June in Shanghai, China, the largest LGBTQ inclusive forum of 80 multi-national companies, the organization is also soon holding similar forums with multi-national companies in Bangalore, India and Brazil, which is also facing a radical turn towards extreme right politics. Here at home, the potential impacts of the task force are certain to be a topic of discussion at its upcoming annual Workplace Summit in Seattle, Washington, in October.

    “Companies understand that discrimination is bad for business,” added Rubin. “Working with companies to include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in their non-discriminatory policies and practices remains a top priority.”

    The policies and practices of LGBTQ inclusive, non-discriminatory multi-national companies can send a more affirming message than what is being telegraphed from this administration. While other forms of protests and resistance hold strong against this administration’s posture towards overtly discriminatory attitudes, policies and practices, forward thinking corporate partners could very well prove critical frontline stewards and ambassadors of LGBTQ inclusion and equality within and beyond our national borders.

    Salesforce’s CEO Marc Benioff’s provided exemplary leadership in 2014 by rapidly firing back at then Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s eager readiness to sign into state law religious-based discrimination against LGBTQ people: sign it, Mr. Governor, and we’re out of here.

    With the advocacy of change-agents such as Out & Equal, perhaps we will see similar corporate leadership and resistance to Christian nationalism sanctioned by religious-based discrimination that is not only bad for business and bad for America, but also just plain bad for the soul.

    Andrea Shorter is a Commissioner and the former President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights, and marriage equality. A Co-founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.