A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that Donald Trump’s control over government has put issues like women’s reproductive health and LGBTQ dignity on a collision course with “religious liberty.” At the end of July, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions expanded on a Trump Executive Order to protect religious liberty by announcing that his Department of Justice had created a Religious Liberty Task Force. According to Sessions, the task force follows up on the October memo that essentially allows business owners and medical professionals, for example, to withhold service to people they find morally undesirable.
In interviews, Sessions has said that his name and recognition as an Alabama conservative, are what make people think of him as a bigot. To be fair, he is named after Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy and P.G.T. Beauregard, Confederate General. So…there’s that. But if you think Sessions is a bigot just because he was named after famous bigots, that ain’t it. In his roles as a prosecutor, legislator, and head of the U.S. Department of Justice, he’s actually moved like one.
During Sessions’s confirmation hearings, Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read the 1986 letter penned by Coretta Scott King that opposed Sessions’s appointment to the federal bench. Sessions’s nomination was ultimately torpedoed by his involvement in a 1985 voter fraud case. Back then, Sessions had charged three voter registration activists with violations of federal mail fraud for helping Black elderly and illiterate voters, with their consent, complete their absentee ballots.
But Sessions hadn’t shown that same energy to white communities that did the same thing in prior elections. King wrote: “The federal courts hold a unique position in our constitutional system, ensuring that minorities and other citizens without political power have a forum in which to vindicate their rights. Because of this unique role, it is essential that the people selected to be federal judges respect the basic tenets of our legal system: respect for individual rights and a commitment to equal justice for all.” You can read her full letter here.
King’s criticisms are more than 30 years old, but they were prescient. Sessions has a record of obstruction of civil rights progress. He ignores the reported bias of mandatory minimum sentencing. He embraces xenophobia to the extent that even immigrant victims of domestic violence could be blocked from seeking asylum. And he’s used the same rhetoric enslavers used to justify separating brown children from their families at the border. King warned that power in the hands of someone like Jeff Sessions could change the quality of life for marginalized people for generations.
She was right. In the Senate, Sessions was one of 100, and his influence depended on the makeup of the rest of the legislative body. As a Senator who opposes marriage equality, for example, Sessions still needed the support of 59 more people before his opinion could become law. But as Attorney General, Sessions needs only the time to write up a biased directive and schedule a press conference to introduce it.
This is the same DOJ that banned Muslims from entering the country; the same one that recognizes “Black identity extremists” but can’t think of any White ones; the same one that supports the baker’s right to free speech, but not Kaep’s. “Religious liberty” isn’t what they’re really after. What they want is White, Christian, heteronormative supremacy. This fight is the political fight of our time.