7 Ways the Biden Administration Advanced Religious Liberty During Its First Year
In this article
Introduction and summary
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden rescinded former President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. This was a historic victory for religious liberty that recognized no one should be banned from the country because of how they pray or how they worship. The Muslim ban policy was the most prominent but not the only way the Trump administration undermined religious liberty by favoring certain religions and using religion as a license to discriminate against and harm others, particularly women, LGBTQI+ individuals, religious minorities, and the nonreligious.1 Fortunately, in its first year, the Biden administration has charted a new course on religious liberty. It is helping to advance democratic principles of separating church and state while also affirming religious liberty for all, which includes protecting the rights and safety of religious minorities and the nonreligious.
Indeed, the Biden administration has taken a different and welcome approach to religious freedom, thus far reflecting an understanding that it is the principle that allows everyone to practice, or not practice, religion free from government interference. This human right is threatened by anti-democratic forces within the United States and in nations around the world.
This report details seven ways the Biden administration is advancing religious liberty at home and abroad:
- Halting discrimination on the basis of religion in the U.S. immigration system
- Expanding civil rights protections on the basis of religion
- Resetting federal regulations to respect religious liberty
- Structuring the administration’s religious affairs functions appropriately with religiously diverse leaders
- Protecting sacred lands for Indigenous communities
- Fighting white supremacist violence and enacting hate crimes legislation
- Advancing international religious freedom as part of the interdependent human rights framework
While significant work remains to undo the harmful ways in which the Trump administration eroded religious liberty, the Biden administration has set itself on a course to restore the separation of church and state; protect religious liberty for all religions and the nonreligious; and reject claims that religious liberty includes a license to discriminate. These efforts include a recommitment to upholding essential tenets of U.S. democracy and to promoting policies that embrace the rights and dignity of all people.
Halting discrimination on the basis of religion in the U.S. immigration system
During the presidential transition period, more than 100 faith leaders called on President-elect Biden to make overturning former President Trump’s Muslim policy the top religious freedom priority.2 On the first day of his administration, President Biden did just that; his proclamation that he would overturn the Muslim ban stated:3
The United States was built on a foundation of religious freedom and tolerance, a principle enshrined in the United States Constitution. Nevertheless, the previous administration enacted a number of Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations that prevented certain individuals from entering the United States — first from primarily Muslim countries, and later, from largely African countries. Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.
As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent in the Trump v. Hawaii case that challenged the Muslim ban policy, “Taking all the relevant evidence together, a reasonable observer would conclude that the Proclamation was driven primarily by anti-Muslim animus, rather than by the Government’s asserted national-security justifications.”4
- December 7, 2015: As a candidate for president, Donald Trump calls for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”5
- March 9, 2016: Then-candidate Trump reiterates his support for a Muslim ban, saying “I think Islam hates us.”6
- January 27, 2017: Then-President Trump attempts to enact his campaign promise of banning Muslims from coming to the United States by signing executive order 13769.7 The order banned travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days; suspended the entry of all refugees from these countries for at least 120 days; and barred Syrian refugees indefinitely.
- February 3, 2017: The enforcement of executive order 13769 is blocked in federal court.8
- March 6, 2017: The Trump administration attempts to enact its Muslim ban policy a second time with executive order 13780. This order removes Iraq from the list of banned countries.9
- March 15, 2017: The enforcement of executive order 13780 is blocked in federal court.10
- September 24, 2017: The Trump administration attempts to enact its Muslim ban policy a third time with presidential proclamation 9645. Sudan is removed from the list. Chad, North Korea, and certain Venezuelan government officials are added to the ban.11
- June 26, 2018: The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the third iteration of the ban, in a controversial 5-4 decision.12
- January 31, 2020: Then-President Trump signs presidential proclamation 9983, which places additional restrictions on people from Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania.13
- January 20, 2021: President Joe Biden issues a proclamation revoking the Muslim ban policy on his first day in office.14
At least 42,650 people were barred from entering the United States because of the Muslim ban. The policy also had an immediately noticeable impact on refugee resettlement.15 According to an analysis of U.S. Department of State data by the Migration Policy Institute, “The Trump administration’s restrictions on admissions of nationals of some mostly Muslim countries, additional vetting procedures, and historically low admissions ceilings substantially affected the proportion of resettled Muslim and Christian refugees.”16
By taking action on day one, President Biden demonstrated that religious freedom is a priority for his administration. Former President Trump’s Muslim ban policy was one of the greatest infringements on religious freedom in U.S. history. Diverse religious liberty groups and organizations in the United States welcomed the repeal of the Muslim ban, calling it a “victory for faith freedom” that continues a welcoming tradition in the United States and restores the country’s legacy as a “beacon of opportunity for all.”17
It is important, however, to ensure that the Muslim ban—or any other attempt to ban immigrants based on their religion—cannot simply be reinstated under a future administration. For this reason, the Center for American Progress joined a broad coalition of religious freedom advocates in endorsing H.R. 1333, the National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants (NO BAN) Act, which would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to prevent future discrimination on the basis of religion by presidents as they exercise their authority to set immigration policy.18 The bill was introduced on February 25, 2021, by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), and it was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on April 21, 2021. A day later, the bill was received in the U.S. Senate and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, where it now awaits action.19 Religious organizations, such as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, applauded the passage of the NO BAN Act in the House—calling the action “a robust protection of faith freedom for all”—and said they will continue to work with the NO BAN Act coalition to secure its passage in the Senate.20 In April, following House passage of the bill, the Biden administration also declared its support for the NO BAN Act, stating: “The Administration stands ready to work with the Congress to adopt a solution that protects against unfair religious discrimination.”21
The Administration stands ready to work with the Congress to adopt a solution that protects against unfair religious discrimination.The Biden administration’s declaration of support for the NO BAN Act
Religious organizations such as Muslim Advocates and the Sikh Coalition also highlighted the importance of the bill’s passage and thanked members of Congress for introducing the measure.22 Shortly after the bill passed in the House, Madihha Ahussain, the then-Muslim Advocates’ special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry, said: “Now we move on to the Senate, where we will ask every senator to defend our nation’s founding principles of religious freedom and equality by supporting this historic Muslim civil rights bill.”23
The Center for American Progress has condemned former President Trump’s Muslim ban policy, from its inception during the 2016 presidential campaign to the Trump administration’s various attempts to implement it during the following four years. These harms were exacerbated following the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Trump v. Hawaii that ignored the rampant religious animus espoused by the government officials who enacted the policy. However, before celebrating President Biden’s decision to rescind the policy, it is vital to ensure that the president and Congress pass and enact the NO BAN Act so that the country never again allows a president to enact a religious litmus test for coming to the United States.
Expanding civil rights protections on the basis of religion
The Equality Act is groundbreaking legislation that would update the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system.24 This bill, however, does more than just protect LGBTQI+ individuals; it also expands existing civil rights protections on the basis of religion, gender, race, nationality, and more.25 Its passage would therefore be a historic victory for the cause of protecting the rights of religious minorities and the nonreligious in the United States.
The Equality Act is essential to the protection of the civil rights of those who are currently deprived of fundamental protections in certain places. For example, while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes protections based on religion, these do not actually extend to many places that are open to the public—such as health care providers, airlines, retail stores, hair salons, taxis, and shopping malls.26 This means that in cities and states that have not passed their own nondiscrimination laws, people can still be refused service and cast out of these establishments just because of the religion they choose to practice. However, under the Equality Act, stores open to the general public, for example, would no longer be able to post “No Muslims allowed” signs.27
On February 19, 2021, the Biden administration issued a statement on the introduction of the Equality Act in Congress.28 President Biden applauded Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and the entire Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus for introducing the act in the House of Representatives and urged its passage in both chambers. On February 25, the House passed the bill with bipartisan support; it now awaits passage in the Senate.
Opponents of the Equality Act allege that granting equal access protections to LGBTQI+ individuals would disrupt the religious exemptions currently enshrined in the United States’ civil rights framework. These claims, however, have no basis in fact and are simply spreading misinformation. The legislation would update civil rights protections for all and would cover discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. All existing religious exemptions from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 remain protected under the Equality Act.
More than 120 faith-based organizations have endorsed the Equality Act. Faith leaders delivered a petition from more than 17,000 people of faith to Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), who then spoke about the petition during a hearing on the bill held by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Biden administration has made the passage of the Equality Act a priority and engaged faith leaders in its public engagement work on the legislation. On June 30, 2021, the White House even organized a “Faith Voices for the Equality Act” event, with a diverse lineup of faith leaders speaking out in favor of the legislation.29
Resetting federal regulations to respect religious liberty
One of the Biden administration’s most important levers to advance religious liberty is its regulatory power. Federal regulations should protect Americans from discrimination based on religion alongside all protected classes. Religious liberty should never be pitted against other forms of discrimination or become a license to discriminate. In fact, turning religious liberty into a license to discriminate is itself an attack on religious liberty; allowing for discrimination on the basis of religion, in turn, increases discrimination against people based on their religion.
In partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Movement Advancement Project, CAP documented how the Trump administration expanded religious exemptions to codify discrimination against religious minorities, women, and LGBTQ people.30 The Biden administration has begun to make progress to address this misuse of religious liberty in the area of federal regulations—including in procurement, school, federal funding, and health care.
While there is much more work left to be done, these steps represent a positive change of course from the Trump administration.
Restoring nondiscrimination protections in federal contracting
On November 8, 2021, the Biden administration’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) announced that it would roll back Trump-era regulations related to nondiscrimination protections. The proposal would reverse the Trump administration’s final rule on “Implementing Legal Requirements Regarding the Equal Opportunity Clause’s Religious Exemption,” which was issued on December 9, 2020.31 The Trump rule established that all entities, including for-profits, that chose to contract with the federal government could retroactively claim a religious identity in order to gain access to a broad license to discriminate with taxpayer funds. This meant that religious entities would now be allowed, under a dubious interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), to make employment decisions based on religion if the position involved any of the organization’s religious activities. The rule, which took effect on January 8, 2021, made it possible for government contractors to discriminate against millions of Americans—including LGBTQI+ people, religious minorities, and women. Because of this, 110 religious leaders and 17 faith-based organizations signed a letter opposing the rule when it was first proposed in 2019.32
The Biden administration sought to restore religious freedom protections by announcing, through a notice of proposed rule-making, its intent to rescind the regulations set forth in the Trump administration’s final rule.33 The OFCCP’s proposed rescission would preserve executive order 11246, which was issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 to address discrimination by government contractors and its religious exemption. It would ensure, however, that the executive order 11246 religious exemption is not misused to allow all employers—nonprofit or for-profit, even if they did not previously identify as religious—to cite religion as a retroactive excuse for discrimination in a manner that is not consistent with principles and case law interpreting the Title VII religious exemption.34
The notice of proposed rule-making reads: “[T]o the extent the 2020 rule reflects the previous Administration’s policy judgments regarding deviating from Title VII case law and principles, the present Administration has evaluated the range of permissible policy options and determined that a return to its traditional approach of applying Title VII case law and principles will promote clarity and consistency in the application of the exemption.”
Ending religion-based discrimination in public colleges and universities
On August 19, 2021, the Biden administration announced its plans to review Trump-era regulations, referred to as the free inquiry rule, that require public colleges and universities to exempt religious student clubs from nondiscrimination provisions that applied to all other student clubs.35 This rule misapplies the principle of religious freedom by giving student clubs the ability to use religion to discriminate while still receiving official university recognition and funding. As a result, the rule has given rise to discrimination against students who are religious minorities, nonreligious, or LGBTQI+. For example, under the rule, faith-based schools are allowed to apply to the U.S. Department of Education for exemptions to federal anti-discrimination laws.
Throughout this process and beyond, public colleges and universities must ensure protection of First Amendment freedoms, including religious freedom and freedom of association, which long predate the Free Inquiry Rule.Michelle Asha Cooper, deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs and acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, U.S. Department of Education
The Biden administration plans to propose new regulations rescinding those parts of the free inquiry rule that attempt to circumvent First Amendment protections and undermine the promotion of an inclusive learning environment for students.36 Michelle Asha Cooper, deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs and acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Education Department, wrote: “Throughout this process and beyond, public colleges and universities must ensure protection of First Amendment freedoms, including religious freedom and freedom of association, which long predate the Free Inquiry Rule. Compliance with nondiscrimination requirements must be in a manner consistent with the First Amendment.” Religious freedom organizations, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and American Atheists, celebrated the announcement.37
Public colleges and universities have every right to enforce nondiscrimination provisions on their campuses, including those protecting LGBTQI+ students. Student clubs that discriminate should not be allowed to hide behind religious liberty as an excuse for their discrimination.
Restoring religious freedom protections in federally funded programs
The federal government has a long history of working with America’s many faith-based and community organizations as a means of providing critical services. The purpose of these partnerships has always been to serve the mission of the government, such as refugee resettlement services or housing for those in need; it has never been to specifically fund faith-based institutions, as this would be a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
On February 14, 2021, President Biden issued executive order 14015 on the “Establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships,” which appropriately stated a mission of partnering with faith-based organizations. It also revoked President Trump’s executive order 13831, a misguided attempt to direct federal funds to faith-based organizations.38 Executive order 13831 stated: “The executive branch wants faith-based and community organizations, to the fullest opportunity permitted by law, to compete on a level playing field for grants, contracts, programs, and other Federal funding opportunities.” The implementation of the Trump executive order led to new harmful regulations being put into place at a number of federal agencies: the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Biden administration has given notice that in order to implement executive order 14015, it is conducting an interagency process to review these rules and issue new guidance that is expected to help realign federal funding with the establishment clause.39 The regulatory agenda notes that each agency will be conducting new rule-making. These rules extend across many federal agencies, and religious liberty advocates will closely watch the process. Federally funded programs should be implemented consistent with federal nondiscrimination protections; the religious or nonreligious character of the entities involved in implementing the programs should not factor into the delivery of the programs. The Biden administration was right to revoke the executive order, as it now has an opportunity to rewrite the rules in a way that is consistent with the U.S. Constitution.
Restoring proper application of RFRA to child welfare agencies
On November 18, 2021, the HHS under the Biden administration announced that it would reverse a Trump-era HHS decision to issue letters to three states—South Carolina, Texas, and Michigan—waiving nondiscrimination requirements for federally funded child welfare agencies under the false guise of religious freedom. This was a misinterpretation of what federal agencies are tasked with under RFRA; it created blanket exemptions and allowed millions of federal dollars to fund discrimination against people of faith, LGBTQI+ families, and others in the child welfare system. For example, the Trump administration’s HHS provided a specific waiver to South Carolina allowing the evangelical foster care agency Miracle Hill Ministries to receive federal funding despite discriminating against Jewish and Catholic prospective foster parents.40
Instead, the Biden administration restored the application of RFRA so that requests for waivers from nondiscrimination requirements on religious freedom grounds would be determined on a case-by-case basis. At the time of the announcement, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra released the following statement:
Today’s action supports the bedrock American principle and a core mission of our Department – to ensure Americans have access to quality health and human services. Our action ensures we are best prepared to protect every American’s right to be free of discrimination. With the large number of discrimination claims before us, we owe it to all who come forward to act, whether to review, investigate or take appropriate measures to protect their rights. At HHS, we treat any violation of civil rights or religious freedoms seriously.41
Restoring nondiscrimination protections in health care
The Biden administration has also taken steps to restore nondiscrimination protections in health care, ensuring that all people have the access they need. On May 10, 2021, the Biden administration announced that the HHS Office for Civil Rights would include gender identity and sexual orientation as part of Section 1557’s prohibition against sex discrimination.42
Enforcing these protections would mitigate the harms enacted by the Trump administration on June 19, 2020, when it issued final regulations that undermined the nondiscrimination protections in Section 1557, also called the Health Care Rights Law, of the Affordable Care Act.43 The Trump regulations had erased the Obama administration’s regulations that protected transgender people from discrimination and protected against discrimination based on reproductive health care decisions.
The Trump administration’s regulations also increased the number and type of entities that were exempt from the nondiscrimination provisions. The Biden administration signaled that it intends to revise the Section 1557 regulations, which will likely include the religious exemption portion of the Trump-era regulation.
On May 2, 2019, the Trump administration issued a final rule, “Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care,” that toughened enforcement mechanisms for existing laws that protect conscience rights for health care providers who do not wish to provide services such as abortion, contraception, and sterilization based on their religious beliefs.44 Disguised as an attempt to “promote and protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious liberty,” the Trump administration gave health care providers leeway to discriminate against patients by claiming religious liberty.45
The regulations have faced legal challenges from groups, including the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. In February 2021, the Justice Department said in a court filing, “New leadership at HHS is currently in the process of arriving at the agency and plans to reassess the issues that these cases present.”46
Later, on September 17, 2021, the Biden administration’s HHS issued “Guidance on Nondiscrimination Protections under the Church Amendments.”47 The agency announced that the same amendments that traditionally have been interpreted to protect health care providers who refused to provide care also protect providers who do provide care. The HHS’ recent announcement makes clear that federal law protects health care providers who provide transition care or abortion and are often subject to discrimination for doing so. This guidance came in the wake of the passage of S.B. 8, a Texas law that effectively bans abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy.48
Structuring the administration’s religious affairs functions appropriately with religiously diverse leaders
As mentioned earlier in this report, President Biden signed an executive order reestablishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships on February 14, 2021.49 The goal of the office is to promote partnerships with religious and secular organizations to better serve people in need. The first White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was established 20 years ago by President George W. Bush.50 This initiative continued during the Obama administration, was gutted by the Trump administration, and now, the Biden administration has relaunched it.51 The office’s initial work included collaboration with civil society to “address the COVID-19 pandemic and boost economic recovery; combat systemic racism; increase opportunity and mobility for historically disadvantaged communities; and strengthen pluralism,” as well as “advance international development and global humanitarian work.”52
In announcing the executive order, the White House established that fundamental to achieving its goals is the office’s respect for “our cherished guarantees of church-state separation and freedom for people of all faiths and none,” adding that the team “will not prefer one faith over another or favor religious over secular organizations” to pursue its work.53 CAP, as well as religious organizations such as the Franciscan Action Network and Latter-day Saints for Biden Harris, praised the relaunching of the office: “After four years of using religion to divide Americans, this executive order makes clear that the White House will return to its role engaging with religious Americans, among other communities, for the purpose of serving the common good,” said Winnie Stachelberg, then-executive vice president for external affairs at CAP, in a statement.54
The White House published a fact sheet on the first anniversary of the creation of the office. “Our country has made great progress thanks to neighborhood partnerships and compassionate leaders of all faiths and beliefs, whether it was hosting vaccination clinics, preventing evictions, helping to ensure that children get back to school and workers get jobs, or countless other acts of service,” the fact sheet stated.55 Some of the specific actions highlighted in the fact sheet include:
- “Established the Protecting Places of Worship Interagency Policy Committee to address increased threats and acts of violence against houses of worship.”
- “Marked holidays celebrated by Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and other communities, including hosting the first-ever virtual Passover, Easter, and Eid White House events that were open to the public and included the participation of both the President and First Lady.”
- “Strongly advocated for collaborations between the government and faith and community organizations to convey the facts about the COVID-19 virus and the vaccine and widely promoted guidance for faith and community leaders on how to organize vaccination clinics.”
On July 30, President Biden announced his intent to nominate and appoint four individuals to serve in key roles at the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.56 This announcement highlighted the administration’s efforts to build a more inclusive government and society. Rashad Hussain, then serving on the U.S. National Security Council, was nominated to serve as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom—the first Muslim American to serve in this position. This was one of the quickest nominations to this role by any administration, with Hussain being confirmed by the Senate on December 7, 2021.57 At the same time of Ambassador Hussain’s nomination, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt was nominated to serve as special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, with the rank of ambassador. President Biden also appointed Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father who is Muslim, and Sharon Kleinbaum, a congregational rabbi, to serve as commissioners of the volunteer-based U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The nominations of two Jews and two Muslims—religious minorities in America—for senior roles on this priority area sent an important signal that the administration intends for experienced individuals from affected communities to lead the way on religious freedom.
The nominations of two Jews and two Muslims—religious minorities in America—for senior roles on this priority area sent an important signal that the administration intends for experienced individuals from affected communities to lead the way on religious freedom.
In addition, President Biden appointed Melissa Rogers, a renowned expert in church-state separation, as executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships as well as senior director for faith and public policy, a new role in the White House Domestic Policy Council.58 Rogers previously served as the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during the Obama administration. Creating a new role to oversee religious freedom work positions the Biden administration to be successful in the years to come. In August, the White House also appointed Chanan Weissman, a State Department and National Security Council official, to serve as the White House’s liaison to the Jewish community.59
In contrast, the Trump administration focused religious outreach mostly on evangelical Christians, which sent a strong signal that one specific religious community was favored by the federal government.60 The Biden administration has turned the page on this approach and is engaging with a wide variety of religious leaders and communities as well as organizations representing the nonreligious.
Protecting sacred lands for Indigenous communities
On October 8, 2021, President Biden reinstated proclamation 9558 to reestablish the Bears Ears National Monument.61 Then-President Barack Obama established the monument in 2016 to protect and preserve the sacred landscape and cultural resources in the Bears Ears region, after significant advocacy from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian Tribe, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.62 In 2017, President Trump issued proclamation 9681, which not only reduced the lands within the monument by more than 1.1 million acres but also removed protection from objects of historic and scientific interest across the Bear Ears landscape.
Through this action, the history of our people, our culture, and religion will be preserved for future generations.Clark W. Tenakhongva, vice chair of the Hopi Tribe and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, in response to Biden’s plan to reinstitute federal protections for Bears Ears National Monument
President Biden’s reinstitution of federal protections for the lands within Bears Ears restores the protection granted by proclamation 9558 and honors the relationship between the federal government and tribal nations. In response to Biden’s plan, Clark W. Tenakhongva, vice chair of the Hopi Tribe and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said, “Through this action, the history of our people, our culture, and religion will be preserved for future generations.”63 Other groups, such as the Native Organizers Alliance, celebrated the restoration of these “exceptional, sacred places.”64 Indeed, the administration’s protection of sacred lands is an essential component of protecting religious freedom in the United States.
Combating white supremacist violence and hate crimes against religious communities
Religious freedom is only a reality when all are free to worship without the threat of violence. Religious minorities and houses of worship are among the primary targets of white supremacist violence.65 On June 15, 2021, the Biden administration introduced the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism to address the threat of white supremacist violence.66 This strategy incorporated67 a considerable number of recommendations that mirrored those outlined in CAP’s “A National Policy Blueprint To End White Supremacist Violence” report, published in April 2021.68
In May, President Biden also signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which establishes grants for states to create state-run hotlines for reporting hate crimes.69 Among other things, the law will improve how hate crimes are reported by law enforcement to help better protect communities. It also authorizes grants for states and local governments to implement the National Incident-Based Reporting System and to conduct law enforcement activities or crime reduction programs to prevent, address, or respond to hate crimes. It is the first major piece of hate crime legislation in 12 years, since the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed in 2009.
The act included a provision named after Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer, who were killed in hate crimes in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Their murders were prosecuted as hate crimes but were not recorded as such in federal hate crimes statistics.70 The goal is to ensure that this never happens again, by modernizing the federal hate crimes reporting system and encouraging state and local law enforcement to report hate crimes statistics to the federal government.
Many faith groups reacted to the news by applauding the passage of the act. For instance, Sim J. Singh, Sikh Coalition senior manager of policy and advocacy, said that it “marks the first necessary step towards resolving the longstanding problem of hate in our nation.”71 Other groups, such as the American Jewish Committee, Interfaith Alliance, and the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, also celebrated the passage of the act.72
Unfortunately, there is great urgency behind the need to address hate-motivated violence against religious communities. On January 15, 2022, four people were taken hostage at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.73 President Biden spoke about the event on February 3, 2022, at the National Prayer Breakfast and offered a message of religious pluralism:74
[V]iolence and vengeance didn’t pierce the goodness and grace of that scene. Heroic law enforcement officers were joined by local faith leaders, including an imam, a Baptist minister who offered their help. A nearby Catholic church opened its doors for the hostages’ families.
At sunset, a group of Muslim women — friends of the rabbi’s wife — walked in with one of the rabbi’s favorite foods. They hugged and they wept.
Because of the bravery of the hostages and the law enforcement officers, the hostages were — escaped safely, and the families were … reunited.
When asked later if he would change anything, the rabbi said, quote, “We will do what we always do, which is the best we can.” “Which is the best we can.” I had a long conversation with the rabbi. It was interesting to hear him describe the scene and how faith mattered: Whether you’re in a synagogue or a church or a mosque or a temple, whether you’re religious or not, we’re all imperfect human beings, trying our best — the best we can, because we can’t know the future. We can’t know what’s coming. But we also can’t live in fear every step of the way.
That’s America. From darkness, we found joy, hope, and light.
The Biden administration also reported providing “technical assistance to more than 7,000 faith-based and community leaders” on how to protect houses of worship,75 by connecting them with funding opportunities under the now-doubled Nonprofit Security Grant Program76 as well as guidance and training resources for houses of worship.77
Advancing international religious freedom as part of the interdependent human rights framework
America’s work to advance religious freedom does not stop at the country’s borders; it is also a critical element of U.S. foreign policy. There are serious threats to religious freedom in a number of countries around the world, such as the Chinese government’s genocide in Xinjiang. The Biden administration took a number of steps over the past year to address some of these pressing challenges and realigned America’s approach to religious freedom as interdependent with all universal human rights.
Discarding the Commission on Unalienable Rights
All human rights are indivisible and interdependent, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his preface to the Addendum on Reproductive Rights to 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: “Human rights are interdependent, and the deprivation of one right can cause the broader fabric of a society to fray.”78 Yet the Trump administration pursued a cynical agenda of prioritizing religious freedom and property rights over all other rights, perverting the universal human rights framework that has guided the world community since World War II, and undermining freedom of religion in the process. As a group of prominent American religious leaders noted in response, “Without the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, freedom from violence and freedom from discrimination in access to basic needs, education, employment, or health, and the right to participate in all social practices, freedom of religion would be hollow.”79
In addition, the Trump administration’s creation of a so-called Commission on Unalienable Rights in July 2019 prompted a swift response from hundreds of human rights, civil rights, and foreign policy and faith organizations, leaders, and scholars. These groups, organized by Human Rights First, wrote to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing profound concerns about the commission’s approach and urging him to abandon it.80 Religious leaders, including 125 Catholic theologians and activists as well as Muslim advocates, called for the immediate dismantling of the commission.81
Human rights advocates were particularly concerned that the Trump administration’s decision to single out religious freedom would be met with welcome reception among autocratic leaders eager to pick and choose which human rights they prefer to uphold.82 Trump’s endorsement of this cafeteria approach to human rights posed a grave threat to religious minorities—and other minority groups—living in countries that might already be inclined to target them.83
Fortunately, the Biden administration officially disbanded the Commission on Unalienable Rights and disavowed its approach. On March 30, 2021, Secretary of State Blinken said that there was no “hierarchy” of human rights and pledged his commitment to sexual and reproductive rights.84 He also reversed the Trump administration’s decision to remove sections on reproductive rights from the annual human rights reports on foreign countries issued by the State Department, saying: “All people are entitled to these rights, no matter where they’re born, what they believe, whom they love, or any other characteristic.”85
The Biden administration also rejoined the U.N. Human Rights Council, which the Trump administration had left. At a U.N. Security Council meeting in March 2021, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield committed U.S. support for collective action “to achieve justice and dignity for these religious and ethnic minority communities.”86 She specifically named atrocities affecting religious communities in Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Iran, Myanmar, and China.
Advocating for specific religious freedom concerns abroad
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has continued to advance international religious freedom as part of its broader human rights agenda. One of the most important actions for human rights taken by the Biden administration has been to declare the atrocities in Xinjiang as genocide.87 President Biden also ended 2021 by signing into law a bipartisan piece of legislation, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, to ensure that “goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part” in Xinjiang are not allowed to be imported to the United States “unless U.S. Customs and Border Protection certifies by clear and convincing evidence that goods were not produced with forced labor.”88
- March 22, 2021: The Biden administration designated Global Magnitsky Act sanctions of Chinese government officials Wang Junzheng and Chen Mingguo for having roles connected to serious human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.89
- March 30, 2021: The Biden administration officially declared China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims to be genocide.90
- June 24, 2021: The Biden administration announced a series of new actions to remove goods made with forced labor from American supply signs.91
- November 15, 2021: The Biden administration named China a country of particular concern for religious freedom violations.92
- November 16, 2021: The administration named human rights concerns during President Biden’s call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.93
- December 6: 2021: The Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, citing human rights concerns.94
- December 10, 2021: The Biden administration issued Section 7031(c) designations of current and former Chinese officials Shohrat Zakir, Erken Tuniyaz, Hu Lianhe, and Chen Mingguo, banning them from entry into the United States, while issuing concurrent Global Magnitsky Act sanctions of officials Shohrat Zakir and Erken Tuniyaz.95
- December 23, 2021: President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law.96
On May 12, 2021, the Biden administration also announced a Section 7031(c) designation for Yu Hui, former office director of the “Central Leading Group on Preventing and Dealing with Heretical Religions” of Chengdu, Sichuan province, in China.97 This designation bans him from entering the United States due to his involvement in “gross violations of human rights, namely the arbitrary detention of Falun Gong practitioners for their spiritual beliefs.”98
Concerning Myanmar, President Biden imposed sanctions on the nation as a result of the February 2021 coup.99 The coup was perpetrated by the nation’s military, which overthrew the democratically elected government and arrested and imprisoned political dissidents, including journalists and religious leaders.
Secretary of State Blinken also named Myanmar to the list of the countries of particular concern for their “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”100 The other countries on the list were China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The Biden administration has not yet officially determined the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar to be a genocide, despite the calls from human rights advocates to do so.101
Amid many competing priorities during its first year in office, the Biden administration has taken important steps toward the restoration of a religious freedom agenda that prioritizes and centers the rights of minority religious and nonreligious communities. These actions also represent a meaningful pivot away from the Trump administration’s misuse of religious liberty as a front to gut civil rights protections—including for religious minorities.
Yet work remains to undo harmful Trump administration policies that have undermined religious liberty. The Biden administration must use its power to uphold the Constitution and protect against the establishment of religion by the federal government. Specifically, it needs to undo additional Trump-era religious exemptions such as the expansion of educational institutions’ ability to claim Title IX religious exemptions and the harmful health care refusal rule that expanded the ability of health care institutions and workers with religious or moral objections to refuse to provide particular medical services.
The administration must also work with Congress to pass the NO BAN Act and the Equality Act, all while continuing to protect the sacred ancestral homelands of tribal nations, such as Oak Flat in Arizona. In addition, the Biden administration should work to address human rights violations against religious minorities around the world, and it will need to continue advocating in bilateral and multilateral forums. While work remains, religious freedom advocates anticipate more progress in the remaining three years of this administration.
The authors would like to thank Nicole Lee Ndumele, Mara Rudman, Ben Olinsky, Silva Mathema, Sharita Gruberg, Maggie Jo Buchanan, Madeline Shepherd, Nicole Gentile, Jenny Rowland-Shea, Elisa Massimino, and Jordan Link for their assistance in preparing this report.
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- U.S. Mission to the United Nations, “Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a UN Security Council Arria-Formula Meeting on Religion, Belief, and Conflict,” March 19, 2021, available at https://usun.usmission.gov/remarks-by-ambassador-linda-thomas-greenfield-at-a-un-security-council-arria-formula-meeting-on-religion-belief-and-conflict/.
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- Felicia Sonmez, “Biden signs Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law,” The Washington Post, December 23, 2021, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-uyghur-labor-law/2021/12/23/99e8d048-6412-11ec-a7e8-3a8455b71fad_story.html.
- U.S. Department of State, “Promoting Accountability for Human Rights Abuse with Our Partners,” March 22, 2021, available at https://www.state.gov/promoting-accountability-for-human-rights-abuse-with-our-partners/.
- Hudson, “As tensions with China grow, Biden administration formalizes genocide declaration against Beijing.”
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- U.S. Department of State, “The United States Promotes Accountability for Human Rights Violations and Abuses,” Press release, December 10, 2021, available at https://www.state.gov/the-united-states-promotes-accountability-for-human-rights-violations-and-abuses/.
- Sonmez, “Biden signs Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law.”
- U.S. Department of State, “Designation of People’s Republic of China Official Due to Involvement in Gross Violations of Human Rights,” Press release, May 12, 2021, available at https://www.state.gov/designation-of-peoples-republic-of-china-official-due-to-involvement-in-gross-violations-of-human-rights/.
- The White House, “Fact Sheet: Biden-Harris Administration Actions in Response to the Coup in Burma,” Press release, February 11, 2021, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/02/11/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-actions-in-response-to-the-coup-in-burma/.
- U.S. Department of State, “Countries of Particular Concern, Special Watch List Countries, Entities of Particular Concern.”
- Nahal Toosi, “‘If it’s a genocide, declare it a genocide’: Inside the Biden administration’s vexing Myanmar debate,” Politico, August 9, 2021, available at https://www.politico.com/news/2021/08/09/genocide-biden-myanmar-uyghurs-rohingya-502783.
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