January 2019 Church & State - January 2019

Americans United Files Request Seeking Info On DOJ Task Force

  Rob Boston

Americans United in mid-November sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to demand information on the creation, purpose, policies and activities of DOJ’s Religious Liberty Task Force.

The Religious Liberty Task Force, launched by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions on July 30, was established to use religion to justify implementing broad religious exemptions that would allow discrimination against women, the LGBTQ community and religious and other minorities.

“The Religious Liberty Task Force is yet another example of how the Religious Right wields unprecedented authority within the Trump-Pence administration,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “To make matters worse, the DOJ is operating this task force behind closed doors without any oversight by the American people. That is unacceptable.”

The Freedom of Information Act is a 1966 law that requires federal agencies to provide information and documents controlled by the federal government on request. While there are some exceptions – material that could affect national security does not have to be provided, for example – the law generally requires broad disclosure and is designed to make government responsive to citizens.

AU’s FOIA request seeks records on how the task force was formed, its policies and guidelines, and its members, operations, procedures and activities to date – all of which have occurred in secret thus far. The FOIA request also asks for records on whether several specific individuals were involved in the task force’s formation, including a half-dozen current and former representatives of the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.

The LGBTQ civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign, the media outlet BuzzFeed, and the ethics watchdog group American Oversight also have submitted FOIA requests regarding the Religious Liberty Task Force. Those requests have reportedly gone unanswered; in October, BuzzFeed filed a federal lawsuit over the government’s lack of response.

“It is a fundamental tenet of our democracy that our government be transparent,” said Laser. “The people have the right to know the operations, influences and decisions of this task force, and we demand that all information be released to the public immediately.”

This is the second time in recent months that Americans United has demanded transparency regarding the influence evangelical and other Religious Right groups are exerting on the Trump-Pence administration.

On Aug. 30, AU sent a FOIA request for information about Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board. AU also demanded that the board be brought into compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which sets transparency requirements for presidential advisory boards. That would include opening to the public the Evangelical Advisory Board’s meetings and records. (See “All The President’s Men And Women,” October 2018 Church & State.)

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