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Can federal workers blatantly discriminate against LGBTQ people? Jeff Sessions isn’t sure.

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During Wednesday’s Justice Department Oversight Hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the Department of Justice’s new “religious freedom” guidance. In particular, Durbin was concerned about how the guidance might enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination, asking Sessions to respond to several hypotheticals.

“Could a social security administration employee refuse to accept or process spousal or survivor benefits paperwork for a surviving same-sex spouse?” Durbin asked.

There was a long pause. “That’s something I never thought would arise, but I would have to give you a written answer to that, if you don’t mind.” Sessions responded.

Durbin countered, “I’d like to have that,” then launched right into another hypothetical. “Could a federal contractor refuse to provide services to LGBTQ people, including in emergencies, without risk of losing federal contracts?”

“Likewise, but I would say to you — are you citing Title VII for this? Or the guidance? I’m not sure that’s covered by it, but I’ll look.”

It is highly unbelievable that Sessions had never considered these examples prior to Wednesday. More than two years ago, when he was still in the Senate, Sessions was one of the original co-sponsors of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), a bill that would grant those who have religious objections to same-sex marriage a license to discriminate. Many of the provisions in the new guidance mirror FADA’s language.

In response to that bill’s introduction, the ACLU and LGBTQ advocacy groups pushed back, saying that it would be used to prop up discrimination. The ACLU, in particular, outlined FADA’s “parade of horribles” in a 2015 blog post, including the following two:

  • [It would] permit government employees to discriminate against married same-sex couples and their families – federal employees could refuse to process tax returns, visa applications, or Social Security checks for all married same-sex couples.
  • [It would] allow federal contractors or grantees, including those that provide important social services like homeless shelters or drug treatment programs, to turn away LGBT people or anyone who has an intimate relationship outside of a marriage.

Those are nearly identical to the hypotheticals Durbin asked Sessions to respond to on Wednesday. Still, years after they’d been highlighted by advocacy groups, Sessions claimed they had somehow never occurred to him before.

After Sessions’ dodged Durbin’s hypotheticals, the senator asked the attorney general to comment about the fact that “people are discriminating in the name of their own personal religious liberty.”

Sessions responded:

Yes, I would say that wherever possible, a person should be allowed to freely exercise their religion and not to carry out activities that further something they think is contrary to their faith. But at the same time, if you participate in commercial exchanges, you have limits on what you can do under those laws — public accommodation type laws. And so the balance needs to be properly struck — and I think we have. Those issues were discussed as we wrestled with this policy.

It’s unclear with whom Sessions discussed those issues. The Department of Justice apparently held “listening sessions”, but has refused to name which groups it consulted. The reason the public even knows these consultations took place at all is because the Alliance Defending Freedom — an anti-LGBTQ hate group that defends business owners who discriminate and challenges nondiscrimination protections in the name of “religious freedom” — bragged that it had participated in them.

Given Sessions said in an interview last week that he believes such discrimination should be allowed in the case of the anti-gay baker whose case is headed to the Supreme Court, it’s not hard to imagine how he might respond to Durbin’s hypotheticals, if pressed.

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