Skip to main content

Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks to the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center's Annual Leadership Mission


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Nathan for that kind introduction, for your strong leadership, and for your advocacy for life, family values, and liberty.

Thank you also to Mark Bane, Allen Fagin, Howard Friedman, and all of the leadership team for the invitation to join you.

It is good to be back with my former colleagues Congressman Smith and Congresswoman Meng.  Congratulations to you on your awards.

I want to thank all of you for your efforts to speak out for religious liberty.

This has been a core American principle from the beginning.  It’s one of the reasons that this country was settled in the first place.

After all, it was the promise of freedom of conscience that brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth, the Catholics to Maryland, the Quakers to Pennsylvania, and Roger Williams to Rhode Island.  And, indeed, it brought many Orthodox Jews to this country.

Each one of these groups knew what it was like to be hated, persecuted, and outnumbered.  Each one knew what it was like to have a majority try to force them to deny, in practice, what they held most dear.

For most of human history, religious freedom was unheard of.  In the ancient world, there were official gods of the city and the gods of the empire.

Our Founders’ commitment to religious freedom was truly historic.  It was the first of its kind in history—and it remains exceptional today.

Some people will point out that not all of our Founders were religiously devout by the standards of their day.  And there is truth to that. 

For example, George Washington used to leave church early.  But their personal devotion is not what matters to us.  What matters to us is that they unanimously recognized that a vigorous and strong religious element is necessary to a free society—and that, as a consequence, legal protection of religious liberty is necessary.

Thomas Jefferson did not mention on his tombstone that he had served as president.  He listed three accomplishments: that he had founded the University of Virginia, authored the Declaration of Independence, and authored the statute of religious freedom in Virginia.

That statute contains a line that I think is important today.  “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself…She has nothing to fear…unless by human interposition she is disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate.”

Our Founders gave the public expression of religious belief a triple protection in our Constitution: the free exercise clause, the establishment clause, and the free speech clause.

Our first president, George Washington, wrote to Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island—which today is the oldest standing synagogue in America—that in this country, “all possess alike liberty of conscience.” 

In that eloquent letter, he emphasized that our rights do not come from government—they come from God.  He said, “it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.  For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

This view remained the mainstream view in the United States for more than 200 years.

But in recent years, the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief.  Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.

This feeling is understandable.  Religious Americans have heard themselves called deplorables.  They’ve heard themselves called bitter clingers. 

In 2016, a Harvard Law professor gloated that Hillary Clinton was sure to win the presidency—and that judges could now “take aggressively liberal positions…The culture wars are over. They lost; we won…Taking a hard line is better than trying to accommodate the losers.”

Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds are concerned about what this changing cultural climate means for the future of religious liberty in this country.

I believe this concern — this unease — is one reason that President Trump was elected.  He made a promise that was heard.  In substance, he said he respected people of faith and he promised to protect them in the free exercise of their faith.  This promise was well received.

Since day one, he has been delivering on that promise. 

Under a different president, I’m not sure this would have been on the agenda. 

But President Trump is an unwavering defender of religious liberty.  He has promised that under a Trump Administration, “the federal government will never, ever penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs.”

Soon after taking office, President Trump directed me to issue explicit legal guidance for all executive agencies on how to apply the religious liberty protections in federal law. Our team embraced the challenge.

I issued that guidance in October, and it makes clear that religious exercise is not just some policy preference: it is an inalienable right.  Our Constitution doesn’t just protect freedom of thought or the freedom to worship in secret.  It protects the open expression and exercise of religious belief in public. 

At the Department of Justice, we are taking these fundamental principles seriously and we are putting them into action.

For example, our Solicitor General argued before the Supreme Court in support of the Colorado baker who was sued for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.  Earlier this month, the Court ruled in favor of the baker, 7 to 2.

I’m pleased to say that we were joined as friends of the court in that case by the Orthodox Union.  Your amicus brief was joined by a broad collection of groups including the Christian Legal Society, the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and many others.  The Court’s majority drew heavily upon your arguments.  Great job.   This victory is your victory, too.

There is no need for the power of the government to be arrayed against an individual who is honestly attempting to live out—to freely exercise—his sincere religious beliefs and there are plenty of other people to bake that cake.

In order to sustain a democracy, it is necessary that we exercise true tolerance.  Rather than trying to impose their views on others, people need to learn to be accepting of others and learn when to leave them alone.  We shouldn’t have to go to court to co-exist in peace.

The Department of Justice has settled 24 civil cases with 90 plaintiffs regarding the previous administration’s wrong application of the contraception mandate to objecting religious employers.  Last month, a district court in Colorado issued a permanent injunction in the case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who serve the elderly poor.

This is a permanent injunction and a major victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor and religious freedom. 

The government has no business telling the Little Sisters that they must provide an insurance policy that violates their sincere religious beliefs.

Religious organizations shouldn’t be discriminated against in matters like grant funding, either.  I know this is something important to this group. 

The Orthodox Union’s amicus brief in the Trinity Lutheran case last year was not only on the winning side, but was cited extensively by Justice Alito.

Likewise, after two decades of work, you helped change FEMA’s policy to refuse federal aid to damaged churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship.  Congressman Smith and Congresswoman Meng led the charge in Congress on this issue earlier this year.

Based on these same principles of neutrality, the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in January in Montana court to defend parents who claim that the state discriminated against their children by barring them from a private school scholarship program because they attend a religious school.

Too often, religious schools and their students face discrimination.  Some local officials even try to keep them out of their backyard by abusing zoning laws.

That’s why one the most important of our legal protections for religion is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, which prevents cities and towns from discriminating against religious organizations in land use and zoning decisions.  I know this group—and Nathan in particular—played an important role in getting RLUIPA enacted.

I was a Senator at the time, and I remember that Congress heard testimony that although Jews make up two percent of the population, they made up more that 20 percent of all reported zoning decisions.   Sadly, that has not changed much.  About 15 percent of our open RLUIPA investigations involve synagogues.

In fact, I am announcing today that the Department has filed a RLUIPA lawsuit against a town in New Jersey for denying approval to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.

We allege that over an eight-year period the town stopped every effort by the group to purchase an alternative worship site, and then denied it permission to expand on its property.

In order to enhance our ability to conduct RLUIPA investigations, I am also announcing today the Place to Worship Initiative.  Under this initiative, we will seek to raise awareness about legal protections under RLUIPA through public events across America and through better training for our federal prosecutors. 

I believe that these efforts will help us bring more cases under RLUIPA—and it will help us win.  I am hopeful that, as more people learn their rights, they will speak out where discrimination exists and prevent further discrimination from happening.

Religious freedom means not only freedom from government intrusion, but also freedom from violence.  The first civil right is the right to be safe.

That’s why we are also aggressively enforcing our hate crime laws. 

Make no mistake: hate crimes are violent crimes.  And reducing violent crime is our top priority.

According to the FBI, religious hate crimes are second only to racial hate crimes in the United States today.

Since January 2017, the Department has brought hate crimes charges against 27 defendants and obtained 25 convictions. 

We remain vigilant in particular against anti-Semitic hate crimes, which remain the most common religiously-motivated hate crimes and which increased by 12 percent from 2014 to 2016.

Four months ago, we indicted Michael Kadar, the 19-year-old dual American-Israeli citizen for allegedly calling in bomb threats and active shooter threats to Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish institutions around the country.

And in November, we obtained a 25-year sentence for a man who planned an attack on a synagogue in Florida.  He bought what he believed was an explosive device from an undercover federal agent, brought it to the synagogue, and was arrested.  Now he is behind bars.

Last summer we charged two men in New York with working on behalf of Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad. 

They allegedly received training in military-style weapons like grenade launchers, rocket launchers, and machine guns—and then surveilled potential targets such as Israeli embassies, the Panama Canal, and Israeli military personnel in New York City.

And finally I’d like to mention that, earlier this year, we charged three Minnesota men with attempting to export parts for drones to Hezbollah.  Two of these men are now in custody. 

We are taking many other significant steps against Islamist terrorism—and there is a lot more that I could talk about today.  But I want to close by thanking you once again for standing up for this most American of principles—religious freedom.

This administration is animated by that same American view that has led us for 242 years: that every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith in the public square. 

It has served this country well, and it has made us not only one of the most tolerant countries in the world, it has also helped make us the freest, most generous—and the strongest.  Thank you.

Updated June 13, 2018