Metro Weekly

Trump administration refuses to release documents about “Religious Liberty Task Force”

Department of Justice argues information sought by a BuzzFeed FOIA request is "exempt from disclosure"

Matthew Whitaker – Photo: The Ray Center, via Wikimedia.

The Trump administration has refused to release information or records related to its “Religious Liberty Task Force” in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by BuzzFeed News.

The task force, announced in August, was created by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to address religious liberty issues, who argued there was a “dangerous movement” threatening people of faith in this country.

Members of the task force, or advisors to it, are believed to include figures or prominent organizations from within the religious right, including several that oppose LGBTQ rights.

At the time of its creation, Sessions released guidance saying the group would work to implement an October 2017 policy on religious liberty outlining how the Justice Department will approach cases where a person’s religious beliefs — particularly concerning issues like LGBTQ rights or access to contraception — conflict with government policies.

The group was also to be tasked with crafting litigation, administrative policies and legislation aimed at protecting the rights of those with sincerely held religious beliefs who wish to be exempt from following certain laws.

Since the announcement of the task force, BuzzFeed and other news outlets have sought information on which groups will be included in the task force or consulted as it attempts to craft certain policies or legislations. But the Trump administration has refused to identify those groups that are serving in an advisory role.

LGBTQ advocates have particularly been concerned about which groups are part of the task force, attributing a rightward shift in how the Justice Department treats LGBTQ-related cases to the influence of those involved with the task force.

And the task force’s actions are under particular scrutiny since the resignation of Sessions, who served as its chair, and the appointment of interim Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who has his own history of anti-LGBTQ statements and activism.

The Trump Justice Department has previously sided against LGBTQ interests and with people and businesses seeking religious exemptions, such as Jack Phillips, the Christian baker at the center of the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case.

The Justice Department has also opined that it is not illegal under the Civil Rights Act to fire private-sector employees due solely to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Wishing to compel the Justice Department to release the names of the groups advising the Trump administration, BuzzFeed News filed a lawsuit to force the government to provide documents related to the Task Force under the Freedom of Information Act.

But the government has refused to do so, arguing in a filing with the court that information related to who is involved with the task force is “exempt from disclosure” under FOIA, according to documents posted to Twitter by BuzzFeed reporter Dominic Holden.

In response to Holden’s tweet, GLAAD questioned the Trump administration’s motivation behind keeping news related to the task force secret. 

“The Trump administration continues to use so-called ‘religious liberty’ as a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others,” GLAAD tweeted. “What are they trying to hide?”

GLAAD also linked to its “Trump Accountability Project,” which attempts to serve as a record of the various anti-LGBTQ statements and actions undertaken by various cabinet members or agencies within the Trump administration. The project has previously reported on the ties between the administration and anti-LGBTQ groups like the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom, the latter of which has been behind several recent lawsuits seeking to roll back protections for LGBTQ individuals.

The Human Rights Campaign also weighed in, calling the administration’s stonewalling par for the course.

“Since their first day in office, Trump and Pence have ruthlessly attacked the rights of LGBTQ people, often working to license discrimination against LGBTQ people under the guise of respecting personal belief,” David Stacy, HRC’s director of government affairs, said in a statement. “The lack of transparency in seeking to codify a license to discriminate across the federal government should alarm not just LGBTQ people but all Americans.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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