The Trump Administration’s Dangerous Attempt to Redefine Religious Liberty

Family members who have just arrived from Syria embrace and are greeted by family who live in the United States upon their arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, February 6, 2017.

Religious liberty is a fundamental American value. Protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, free exercise of religion and freedom from government-endorsed religion are cherished rights that belong to all people. The importance of religious liberty in American history and as a core tenent of American democracy is precisely why it must be safeguarded from those who seek to manipulate it for their own political ends.

Although the Trump administration has only been in power for a few weeks, its message on religious freedom is clear: It wants to redefine religious liberty to only protect people who share its vision of faith. This comes at a steep cost to the fundamental American value of religious freedom for all. It also dangerously marginalizes people of faith who do not share the Trump administration’s views, many of whom are already vulnerable to rising incidents of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry. In recent days, the administration has taken a number of actions that threaten to undermine true religious freedom.

Institution of a Muslim ban

President Donald Trump’s January 27 executive action on refugees prohibits travel to the United States for nationals of seven Muslim-majority nations. The order suspends entirely refugee admissions for a 120-day period, with a narrow exception for certain persecuted religious minorities, and fundamentally reshapes the refugee admissions program after that day to prioritize the claims of Christians. The impact of this is undeniable: Trump has ordered a Muslim ban in violation of the core value of religious freedom for all.

Democrats have rebuked President Trump’s calls for a Muslim registry, politicians across the aisle have warned that the travel ban hurts national security, and people of faith are taking action to demand the Muslim ban be rescinded. In addition to large demonstrations at international airports throughout the country calling for the release of immigrants and refugees stuck in the limbo of the postorder chaos, hundreds of people of faith stood in solidarity with immigrants and refugees outside the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on February 2.

Erasure of Jewish victims from Holocaust remembrance

Also on January 27, which is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the White House released a statement that did not mention Jews. When pressed about this break with previous presidential statements that centered on Jewish victims, three administration officials defended the decision, saying the statement was meant to be inclusive of all Holocaust victims. In fact, the White House stopped the State Department from releasing its own statement, which did include mention of Jews’ suffering.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) called the statement “Holocaust denial.” Jewish organizations across the political spectrum denounced the erasure of Jews. And many were incredulous that the Muslim ban could be issued on a day marking remembrance of the Holocaust, noting that the United States turned back Jewish refugees trying to escape Nazi rule, many of whom ultimately perished.

Discrimination through sweeping religious exemptions

On February 1, a leaked draft executive order titled “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom” sparked further concern about the administration’s narrow view of religious liberty. If enacted, the executive order would provide sweeping exemptions from a large number of federal laws covering virtually all areas of life for those people and organizations with a particular set of moral or religious convictions. Namely, if enacted, the order would exempt from federal laws people and organizations, including for-profit businesses, who act on the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, sex is properly reserved for such a marriage, gender is immutable from birth, and/or life begins at conception.

The impact of such an order would be devastating. Millions of workers would be vulnerable to being discriminated against or fired if they did not share these definitions of marriage, gender, and/or family. The government would have no recourse against individuals or organizations using federal dollars and discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, people; women who have had abortions; people of faith with differing views; and/or their families, whether in government services, housing, health care, homeless shelters, or virtually all other areas of life. The undeniable impact of such language is why a recent Mississippi law with very similar language was fought by many, including faith leaders, and was struck down before it could go into effect.

On the same day the draft executive order leaked, hundreds of faith leaders from across the country and a variety of faiths signed a letter imploring the president not to insert religious exemptions into the executive order and other federal policies, asserting that doing so “betrays the values we stand for as people of faith and conscience.” In fact, majorities of every major religious group support nondiscrimination protection for LGBT people.

Further, the White House’s recent statement that the president plans to keep former President Barack Obama’s executive order protecting LGBT workers from discrimination by federal contractors does not ensure that LGBT people will continue to be protected. If the Trump administration were to insert a sweeping exemption into that order, it would undermine the government’s ability to enforce those protections. And it would elevate the underlying concern that such language preferences certain faith perspectives over others: People of faith have a variety of views on marriage, family, gender identity, sexuality, and abortion, and the government should not promote one set of views over others.

Destruction of the Johnson Amendment

Also in the leaked draft executive order described above is direction to the IRS not to enforce a tax code provision known as the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment prevents charitable organizations such as houses of worship from endorsing or opposing political campaigns while they enjoy tax-exempt status. At the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump reiterated a campaign promise to “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment.

Not only would revoking or failing to enforce the Johnson Amendment expose houses of worship to immense political pressure and potential manipulation by political parties, but it would also create a dark money loophole for political donations. And should the administration’s move to end enforcement of the Johnson Amendment come with language similar to the draft executive order, it could mean that only houses of worship that oppose marriage equality and abortion access would be free to engage in politics, while congregations that support LGBT equality and women’s health, rights, and justice could still lose their tax-exempt status.

Conclusion

So narrowly tailoring religious liberty and only recognizing one segment of the faith community devastates the security of true religious freedom for all. While it might suit the current administration to enshrine conservative Christian beliefs into law, pretend there is not a variety of faith perspectives on marriage and family, and erase Muslims and Jews from the narrative of what makes America great, all people of faith and those who support true religious liberty should be on high alert. Otherwise, religious liberty stands to become simply another name for protecting the religion of those in power.

Claire Markham is the Associate Director for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.