The Real Religious Liberty Deficits Right in Front of Us


There could not be a more jarring juxtaposition between the hearing that the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held last week and the deteriorating state of religious liberty in the United States. The hearing was so unbalanced as to be worthy of being ignored, except to point out how out of touch the House Republican leadership is. The Becket Fund, the Christian Legal Society, and the Alliance Defending Freedom constituted three-fourths of the panel and operate in an echo chamber where, for them, the words “religious liberty” really mean extreme religious liberty. These are the backers of discrimination against LGBTQ and women and who champion the right to impose one’s belief on others. With a somewhat mediating presence, David Saperstein also testified, focusing on the obvious constitutional defects in the leaked draft Executive Order as I discussed here.

Regardless, he has vocally supported the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that has opened the door to extraordinary demands by some to exclude LGBTQ from the marketplace and to violate civil rights. There were no Muslims, or Buddhists, or mainstream Protestants, and no non-believers, who constitute the fastest growing segment of believers in the United States. Of course, there was not a whisper of concern about the children at risk in religious settings, whether they involve sex abuse, medical neglect, or polygamy.

Compare that event to the disturbing developments involving religious liberty in the United States right now: the rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that have been nurtured and furthered by a president whose inflammatory campaign rhetoric is impossible to forget, whose executive actions reinforce that rhetoric, and whose transparent political allegiance is to the narrow segment of believers reflected in the House Subcommittee’s line-up.

This rising tide of intolerance shows how deeply important the First Amendment itself is to religious liberty. For the moment, forget RFRA and its invitation to create competing religious universes at odds with each other; forget the despicable First Amendment Defense Act, which Trump promised to sign during the campaign; and forget the “needs” of conservative Christians to impose their construct for society on everyone else no matter who they harm.

Instead, focus on the paradigm established by the First Amendment, which holds that the government may not target a religious group qua religious group. Rather, the government is required to respect all believers and when it veers from the path of neutrality, it hits a brick wall as Trump’s first immigration executive order did.

It has been heartwarming to see Muslims raising funds for the desecrated Jewish graves in Missouri. But really, everyone in the United States needs to wake up and speak out against the prejudices buried in this Administration and Congress and to demand a federal government that does not choose evangelical Christians over every other believer and that does not stand idly or mutely by as real religious liberty is interred. It is not enough for Trump to tell people that he thinks anti-Semitism is “horrible” or for the House Subcommittee to include one Jew on a panel on the purported “state of religious liberty.” They must do more.

First, until Trump fires Steve Bannon, the stench of discrimination and persecution will fill the White House.

Second, Trump needs to unhinge himself from the right-wing Christian lobbyists who want to make their churches into PACs by repealing the Russell Amendment, who want to impose discrimination on LGBTQ in every arena, and who would remove women’s rights as far as they possibly can. And the answer is not that his daughter Ivanka sees a better way. Really?

Third, conservatives need to see what is right in front of them. The Conservative Political Action Conference, where Trump and Pence are speaking this week, invited Milo Y to speak at its convention when it was widely known that he is a raving misogynist. Only when his sick views on child sex abuse (Milo—please get therapy for the abuse done to you) became widely publicized did they back off. What were the president and vice president thinking when they agreed to share a platform with such views? Bannon, Breitbart, and Milo. These aren’t merely “dog whistles” of discrimination; They are a full-on billboard.

Until this faction is removed from the White House and distanced from conservatives, expect the scum to continue to rise to the top of the pond and America to be destabilized and stripped of what makes it truly great: true religious liberty, mutual support across religious boundaries, and the humility to coexist in peaceful diversity.