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Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said Wednesday his attendance at a meeting last month sponsored by a controversial Christian legal advocacy group was by invitation and not paid for with state money. 

Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit organization, has the stated goal of advocating, training and funding on the issues of religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family. It has been criticized for taking aggressive stands against gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. 

People in left-leaning organizations have said the group's endgame is to have the law and the culture reflect its religious views, including weakening the separation of church and state. 

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at the July meeting Peterson attended, but news organizations were not allowed to attend his talk or initially get a written version of his speech. 

It was published several days later, however, on a conservative media outlet, thefederalist.com. In the speech, Sessions talked about religious freedom, saying the "inside-the-beltway crowd has no idea how much good is being done in this country everyday by our faith communities. ... But the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief." 

Sessions said: "Under this administration, religious Americans will be treated neither as an afterthought nor as a problem to be managed."

Peterson said he was asked to serve on a panel on federalism to talk about how specific cases affect states. The panel was moderated by attorney Hugh Hewitt, a conservative and Catholic MSNBC talk show host who comments on society, politics and media bias. 

State money was not used to pay for his attendance at the meeting in California, Peterson said. His travel and lodging were paid for by the organization, and an honorarium he received will be donated to charity.   

Peterson said the Alliance Defending Freedom has been one of the most-respected advocacy organizations for more than 20 years, with success in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

"These (attorneys) are some of the best at what they do," he said. 

The recent attempt by the Southern Poverty Law Center to label the organization a hate group, Peterson said, is totally unwarranted. No weight should be given to the Southern Poverty Law Center assigning labels to groups that disagree with its beliefs, he said. That squelches public debate. 

"They cause people to be fearful of being called a hater," he said. "And when that happens, our country suffers." 

The Alliance Defending Freedom does more to protect the Constitution than groups that scare people from expressing their own sincerely held religious beliefs, because they may be mocked or ostracized, Peterson said. 

"It reminds me of McCarthyism," he said. 

A person that has a sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman are not doing hateful things, he said. "In fact, they may be doing very loving things." 

But in this cultural debate, people think they have to humiliate and intimidate the opposition, he said. That's dangerous and a contradiction of the Constitution. 

"I think we're at a very important time where we need to stand up for full and free debate," he said, including on university campuses.

Most of the meetings and conferences he attends are sponsored by attorneys general organizations, rather than by advocacy groups, he said. But he also would love to be on a panel at an ACLU conference. 

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"Because I love the free flow of debate," he said. 

Thoughtful, respectful debate on a variety of important issues is the essence of what university settings are all about. And Alliance Defending Freedom has been trying to protect that, he said. 

Peterson has said his faith is important to him. And some of his appointments to his staff have reflected that.

He hired Dave Bydalek as his chief deputy attorney general. Bydalek was policy director for Nebraska Family Alliance, which has goals including protecting the sanctity of life; defending religious liberty for students, health care professionals, business owners and churches; defining marriage as between a man and a woman; and advancing a culture of prayer in the state.

His chief of staff is attorney Josh Shasserre, who has served as executive director of the Catholic Foundation of the Diocese of Lincoln. 

Peterson said his personal views and feelings are not important, but rather upholding the rule of law with case law and facts.  

"My actions as attorney general are what's important," he said. 

With that said, "there could be a case ... where the facts and the law gave me such a personal moral conflict I would have to resign from office," he said. "I don't see that coming, but the fact of the matter is that would be a matter of conscience." 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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