Congressional Panel Wanted to Ignore Real Threats To Religious Freedom

Yesterday a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee convened a hearing on “The State of Religious Liberty in America.” It was supposed to be yet another installment in a long-running series: opponents of LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights seek to promote discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.

The timing was particularly troubling considering we’re in the midst of fighting one of the most serious threats to religious freedom our nation’s faced in a long time: President Donald J. Trump’s Muslim ban. Thus, AU joined with two dozen organizations in a letter urging that the hearing focus on the ban. AU also submitted written testimony about the threats we see to religious liberty.

Sticking to the script, though, the Republicans and three of the four witnesses focused on using religion as an excuse to discriminate against LGBTQ people and women. And not surprisingly, the hearing contained the usual misguided attacks on church-state separation.

It was up to one witness, Rabbi David Saperstein, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, to lay out some of the real threats to religious freedom, including the Muslim ban. And Saperstein wasn’t alone in criticizing it. During the hearing, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) also raised the issue:

“I understand the fate of the Christian refugees, but to take our immigration policy and prioritize one religion is still wrong, whether that was a Christian minority, or Jewish or Buddhist or whoever,” Cohen said. “There’s lately kind of been a group in America saying this is a Christian nation, and that’s not true… We are the United State of America and we welcome all religions and put none over another.”

When asked by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Saperstein, along with Hannah Smith from the Becket Fund and Kim Colby from the Christian Legal Society, all agreed that a ban on Muslims entering the country would violate the Constitution. However, the fourth witness, Casey Mattox, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, declined to answer the question. It’s unfortunate that someone who claims to advocate for religious freedom does not recognize that singling out the Muslim community for unfair treatment is a threat to religious freedom for all.

Rabbi David Saperstein testified about the immediate threats to religious liberty in America.

Saperstein discussed other threats to religious freedom. He was the only witness at the hearing to denounce calls by Trump to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that prohibits non-profit organizations, including houses of worship, from using tax-exempt resources to engage in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates.

Saperstein argued repealing the law would be detrimental because it could undermine campaign finance regulations and would put churches at risk of greater government scrutiny and monitoring. Saperstein explained clergy already have the right to speak about political issues. He summed up by noting that the public overwhelmingly opposes turning houses of worship into political action committees.

Saperstein also talked about the threat posed by Trump’s draft executive order leaked to the media a few weeks ago. The order would allow religion to be used as an excuse to permit discrimination, including by for-profit corporations and taxpayer-funded organizations, against LGBTQ people, women, non-theists, members of minority faiths, people who have sex outside of marriage and almost anyone else.

“If religious claims to discriminate must be accommodated, it threatens the entire schema of civil rights,” Saperstein said.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) explained this aptly, that religious liberty should be viewed as a shield that allows people to believe or not as they see fit rather than as a sword that allows people to harm and discriminate against others.

“Religious freedom acts generally as a shield for your religious beliefs. Government cannot impose religious beliefs on you and government should not be able, in normal circumstances, ... to inhibit your ability to follow your religion,” Nadler said. “However, it should not be used as a sword to enable you to impose your religious belief on someone else.”

 The hearing felt like watching a rerun – we’ve heard these false claims about religious freedom before. But we salute Saperstein and the members of Congress who spoke powerful truths about real religious freedom.