Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a new guidance that advocates say could dramatically undercut federal protections for queer Americans.
Yet when asked during a Senate hearing on Wednesday about hypothetical scenarios in which the directive could be used to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans, Sessions spoke like a man just learning about prejudice for the first time.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Sessions during Wednesday’s Justice Department oversight hearing about a new “religious liberty” memorandum announced on October 6. In his questions, Durbin posed several hypotheticals to the attorney general in an attempt to note the ways in which the directive could lead to discrimination.
“Under the guidance you released to all executive departments on religious liberty, let me ask you this question: Could a Social Security Administration employee refuse to accept or process spousal or survivor benefits paperwork for a surviving same-sex spouse?” Durbin asked.
Sessions paused, then haltingly replied: “That’s something I have never thought would arise, but I would have to give you a written answer to that, if you don’t mind.”
Durbin responded “I’d like to have that,” before launching into his next question: “Could a federal contractor refuse to provide services to LGBTQ people, including in emergencies, without risk of losing federal contracts?”
“I’m not sure that is covered by it, but I will look,” Sessions said.
BuzzFeed reporter Dominic Holden tweeted a video of the exchange:
Pushed to elaborate on the provisions of the directive, Sessions said: “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.”
The directive Sessions announced earlier this month instructs federal agencies to accommodate “to the greatest extent” possible the claims of people who say their religious freedoms are being violated ― removing their burden to prove that their beliefs are sincerely held, which could make it easier for their beliefs to override the civil rights of queer people.
The guidance is just one of a series of moves made by the Trump administration to attack progress on LGBTQ rights.
Sessions may have been genuinely surprised by the question, but it isn’t the first time the hypotheticals Durbin noted have come up.
In a press release issued the day of the directive’s announcement, LGBTQ rights group Human Rights Campaign noted several ways queer Americans could be impacted.
Those scenarios included, “A Social Security Administration employee could refuse to accept or process spousal or survivor benefits paperwork for a surviving same-sex spouse” and “A federal contractor could refuse to provide services to LGBTQ people, including in emergencies, without risk of losing federal contracts.”
In a statement on Wednesday, HRC senior vice president for policy and political affairs JoDee Winterhof said: “It’s difficult to believe that the Attorney General of the United States did not consider all potential ramifications before he signed a sweeping license to discriminate order.”