Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a gathering of conservative lawyers in Boston that the massacre of 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue over the weekend was an “attack on all people of faith” and suggested he could be open to pursuing the death penalty against the alleged shooter.
Sessions spoke Monday at the Omni Parker House, where he was at times interrupted by protesters, including two men who were identified as pastors and a third person who held up what appeared to be a transgender pride flag, shouting, “We will not be erased!”
The talk, hosted by the Boston Lawyers Chapter of The Federalist Society, focused on “religious liberty,” a discussion Sessions said “could not come at a more important time” following Saturday’s shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Robert Bowers, 46, is facing 29 federal charges in the wake of the attack.
“This was not just an attack on the Jewish faith. It was an attack on all people of faith,” Sessions told the crowd of about 100 at the downtown hotel. “It was an attack on America’s values of protecting those of faith. It cannot and will not be tolerated.”
Sessions, who addressed the attack roughly 10 minutes into a 30-minute speech, said the Department of Justice has indicted 50 defendants since 2017 with hate crimes, noting: “This weekend we added one more to the list.”
Bowers, he added, could “be subjected to the death penalty — perhaps.”
Federal prosecutors in the case have initiated the process for seeking capital punishment, though Sessions ultimately makes the decision whether to pursue it.
“We intend to do our duty in this matter with vigor and integrity,” Sessions said.
While Sessions discussed the Pittsburgh shooting, he dedicated the majority of his speech to the Department of Justice’s efforts around religious freedom, saying the “challenges to the free exercise of religious faith have become frequent and acute.”
Sessions pointed specifically to what he called the still-ongoing “ordeal” involving a Christian baker in Colorado who refused to make a custom cake for a same-sex couple. In June, the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, who later sued the state after it ruled that he had discriminated against a different customer, a transgender woman.
“Why don’t they just leave him alone?” Sessions said.
The speech didn’t come without drama. Minutes after he took to the podium, two men, each of whom identified themselves as pastors, stood up and interrupted Sessions. Pastor Will Green, of the Ballard Vale United Church in Andover, quoted a Bible verse — Matthew 25 — to Sessions as others in the room booed and shouted “Go home!” He, and Pastor Darrell R. Hamilton II of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, were quickly led from the room.
“I was trusting the attorney general would be open to hearing the words of Jesus, be open to reflecting on, even in a public way, what the gospel asks of us,” said Green said, who called Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy “a disgusting perversion of the gospel.”
Sessions cited the Trump administration’s enforcement of immigration law in likening the interruptions to a “heckler’s veto.”
“I don’t think there’s anything in the scripture . . . that says a secular nation state cannot have lawful laws to control immigration in this country,” Sessions said after they were led out.
After Sessions completed his initial remarks, a third person who had been seated in a motorized wheelchair, stood up and moved toward the dais holding a blue-and-pink flag with the words “Not Erased” on it.
Sessions has been criticized after releasing a memo last year that said that civil rights laws don’t protect transgender people from discrimination on the job.
Police quickly surrounded the person, who was led out, and officers later rolled the motorized cart out of the room while Sessions settled into a short question and answer session with Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization that argued on behalf of the baker, Phillips, in his Supreme Court case.
Sessions arrived in Boston with renewed speculation about his time remaining in the White House. Citing his possible dismissal following next week’s midterm elections, The Associated Press reported that a number of Sessions allies are hoping the White House allows Sessions a graceful exit from his rocky tenure atop the Justice Department.
Trump has openly talked about removing Sessions, regularly venting about Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
Andrew E. Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, also spoke at Monday’s event.