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JOAN VENNOCHI

Jeff Sessions takes his time talking about Pittsburgh

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a luncheon event organized by the Boston Lawyers chapter of the Federalist Society on Monday.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a luncheon event organized by the Boston Lawyers chapter of the Federalist Society on Monday.Steven Senne/AP/Associated Press

A religious leader who quoted the Bible got kicked out of a religious liberty event.

And that wasn’t the most curious part of the luncheon, which featured Attorney General Jeff Sessions and was sponsored by the Boston chapter of the Federalist Society.

It took Sessions more than 10 mintues to get to a most pressing matter of religious liberty — the one involving freedom from being murdered in your preferred house of worship.

First came the World Series jokes, comparing the winning record of the Boston Red Sox to the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Then came a reference to Doug Flutie’s last-second “Miracle in Miami” toss, from way back in 1984. “Is it insensitive? Can I say ‘Hail Mary?’ ” joked Sessions.

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Eventually Sessions addressed the event that produced excruciating headlines about hate and death, after Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue and allegedly killed 11 people gathered for the Sabbath. “This was not just an attack on the Jewish faith. It was an attack on all people of faith. And it was an attack on America’s values of protecting those of faith. It cannot — and it will not — be tolerated,” said Sessions. Later in the speech, he noted that over the past year, the Justice Department has obtained 30 hate crime convictions and, since January 2017, indicted 50 such defendants, with Bowers the last one charged. “Charges have already been filed, and we intend to do our duty in this matter with vigor and integrity,” said Sessions. He said Bowers could be subjected to the death penalty.

His words of denunciation were strong. But in the name of religious liberty, after the horror in Pittsburgh, how could he not start off with them? Somehow, the deaths in the synagogue came off as more like an afterthought to the attorney general. What really seems to bother him are “nuns ordered to pay for contraceptives” and a baker being told he must create a cake for a gay wedding. “Why don’t they just leave him alone?” he said about the baker. Happily, from Sessions’ perspective, the US Supreme Court reversed the lower court orders in both cases.

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From the start, there was irony galore in this Sessions appearance, which was purportedly made on behalf of the First Amendment.

“I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,” yelled a man who identified himself as a Methodist minister and interrupted Sessions by quoting from the Bible. After he was escorted out, another man who identified himself as a pastor of a Baptist church stood up to continue the protest. To shouts of “Go home!” and “Boo!” the man said, “I thought we were here to protect religious liberty.” He, too, was hustled out of the Parker House room where the event was held.

At the end of Sessions’ remarks, a third protester, who had been seated in a motorized wheelchair, stood up and held up what appeared to be a transgender pride flag, shouting, “We will not be erased!” That person was also escorted out of the room, with police wheeling out the motorized cart.

To the protesters, who are apparently critical of the administration’s policies toward immigrants and the poor, Sessions said, “It’s not immoral, not indecent, and not unkind to state what your laws are and then set about to enforce them, in my view.”

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To Sessions, religious liberty is a concept that mostly means protecting conservative beliefs, often embraced by Christian evangelicals, from the dangers of “secularism,” as Vox put it. In July, Sessions set up a Religious Liberty Task Force to make sure that federal agencies broadly interpret “religious liberty” when enforcing federal laws. From Sessions’ perspective, this often comes down to defining religious liberty as the right to object to same-sex marriage, birth control, abortion, and transgender identity.

Still, he broadly calls religious liberty “the first freedom.” Too bad he did not make his first words, at an event dedicated to religious liberty, words of outrage about a most vile violation at the Tree of Life synagogue.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.