2020 election

Sessions Criticizes School Board, Housing Authority for Cutting Ties with Church of the Highlands

Senate candidate Jeff Sessions speaks in a Birmingham press conference. (Source: Sam Prickett)

When Jeff Sessions arrived at Woodlawn High School for a Wednesday morning press conference, Dr. Terrell E. Brown, the school’s principal, was waiting for him in the parking lot.

The press conference couldn’t be held on school grounds, he said — but Sessions was welcome to move to a parking lot across the street. Sessions’ campaign staffers begrudgingly acquiesced. “Well, that’ll make it part of the story,” one staffer muttered as they lugged the podium across the busy street.

The former U.S. attorney general and current U.S. Senate candidate was in Woodlawn to express his outrage over recent decisions by the Birmingham Board of Education and the Birmingham Housing Authority to cut ties with Church of the Highlands after founding pastor Chris Hodges “liked” several social media posts by the politically conservative group Turning Point USA.

“This is a matter of real importance,” Sessions said, at times barely audible over the roar of traffic. “It deals concretely with the right of free speech and free expression of religious values and to be able to have independent ideas outside your work environment.

“In this great country of ours, people have a right to individual viewpoints,” he continued. “Those individual viewpoints cannot be required to be suppressed, silenced, before somebody can rent a building from the school board. And that school board has no right to deny or cancel that lease agreement because they don’t like a tweet.”

The Birmingham-based megachurch had rented Woodlawn High School for Sunday worship services since 2012; it had done the same at Parker High School since 2018. An estimate by AL.com suggested that the church had paid the school system nearly $817,000 in rental fees since 2014. The church had also partnered with the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District (HABD) for outreach programs and social services at the city’s nine public housing communities.

Both partnerships were terminated earlier this month after news spread that Hodges had repeatedly “liked” social media posts by conservative political commentator and Turning Point USA president Charlie Kirk. The posts in question included a side-by-side comparison of President Donald Trump standing with Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks in the 1980s alongside Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wearing blackface at around the same time. Another post referred to COVID-19 as “China Virus.”

After his social media activity began to attract controversy, Hodges issued a public apology for liking the “insensitive” posts. “After taking the time to review and reflect, I can tell you those social media posts that I ‘liked’ to not reflect, in any way, my true feelings or beliefs,” he wrote. “I now realize they were hurtful and divisive, and I sincerely apologize.”

But days later, the Birmingham school board and the HABD both voted to cut ties with Church of the Highlands, citing Hodges’ social media activity. Those decisions drew national attention; Donald Trump Jr. called the situation “absolutely insane,” while Kirk said he was “deeply saddened” and claimed that his posts had contained “mainstream pieces of widely-cited (sic) data and public information.”

But Sessions, amid a contested primary runoff for his old U.S. Senate seat against former Auburn football Head Coach Tommy Tuberville, has perhaps become the most vocal national figure over the controversy, calling the decisions to sever ties with the church “discriminatory retaliation (that) violates well-established Supreme Court precedent and demonstrates the Housing Authority’s willingness to abuse its power to punish constitutionally protected speech.”

On Wednesday, he released an open letter calling for Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who has appointment power over the HABD, to reverse the decision.

“The Housing Authority’s decisions are legally unsound and deny benefits to the people they are charged with serving,” Sessions wrote in the letter. “The Housing Authority’s short-sighted actions harm the very communities they are charged with assisting. These actions reveal a disturbing hostility toward First Amendment Freedom of speech.”

Sessions called on Woodfin to reverse the HABD’s decision and “to resist the temptation to silence, censor, and punish speech that you find objectionable, particularly when doing so comes at the expense of citizens who most need your assistance.”

Woodfin’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sessions said freedom-of-expression issues had been a “significant” part of his 21-month tenure as U.S. attorney general. He did not mention President Trump by name, but he did manage to work in an allusion to one of Trump’s most recent cause célèbres.

“(Freedom of expression) is a great principle of America — not written primarily, maybe ever contemplated, that it was designed to protect pornography or the burning of the flag — but it was absolutely, fully and totally understood that speech, political, public dialogue, that kind of speech would be protected,” Sessions said.

Trump has endorsed Sessions’ opponent in the July 14 runoff election and will reportedly hold a rally with Tuberville in Mobile next month. Polling indicates that Tuberville maintains a single-digit lead over Sessions, but recent reports show that the gap between the two may be closing.