Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that the Department of Justice is launching a “religious liberty task force.” A “dangerous movement, undetected by many, but real, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom …. It must be confronted … and defeated,” Attorney General Sessions said. He correctly observed that the free exercise of religion is enshrined in the first clause of the First Amendment, which also prohibits any law respecting an establishment of religion. In short, the government is prohibited by the First Amendment from establishing an official religion, favoring one religion over another, or interfering with the freedom of individuals to exercise their religious beliefs (or the freedom not to believe in any faith) in accordance with the dictates of their own consciences.
Attorney General Sessions praised the religious diversity of the American people. His concern was the hostility shown against people of all faiths. We see such hostility exemplified in laws and regulations placing undue burdens on the exercise of one’s religious beliefs and by a popular culture and political environment that increasingly encourages the demonization of people of faith. The purpose of the new task force is to implement Department of Justice guidance on respecting and accommodating religious beliefs, including those of the department’s own employees. Such guidance will be built around certain principles, the attorney general said, including that “free exercise means a right to act—or to abstain from action,” “government shouldn’t impugn people’s motives or beliefs,” and “[W]e don’t give up our rights when we go to work, start a business, talk about politics, or interact with the government.”
The First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion and its protection of freedom of religion are complementary, not antithetical to each other. Our Founding Fathers determined that the sacred is best respected by maximizing individual freedom of expression and conscience, which is the essence of the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the prohibition against establishment of religion by the state. The separation of church (or mosque) and state ensures that all religious believers and non-believers receive equal treatment under the law, and that the government will never establish an official state religion. However, separation does not mean banishing the free exercise of religious beliefs from the public square or compelling an individual to violate his or her religious beliefs in order to fulfill a secular government policy objective that can be achieved in a manner that is more accommodating of those beliefs. In this spirit, as Attorney General Sessions said, the Trump administration is “actively seeking, carefully, thoughtfully and lawfully, to accommodate people of faith” because the “Constitution’s protections don’t end at the parish parking lot nor can our freedoms be confined to our basements.”
Attorney General Sessions noted that the Trump administration’s Department of Justice has already been “going to court across America to defend the rights of people of faith.” He was referring to all faiths, pointing specifically to federal government actions against a man who set fire to a mosque and against another man for threatening to kill members of a mosque. He also mentioned as examples federal suits or interventions in suits to protect the rights of Hindus and Orthodox Jews.
Nevertheless, the progressive Trump-haters quickly pounced on the attorney general’s announcement of the task force to ensure protection of religious freedom. They claim it represents a further step towards merging church and state, establishing Christianity as the official religion of the United States, and, as Planned Parenthood charged, discriminating against “women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, communities of color, and so many more.”
Twitter was ablaze with Leftists’ expressions of outrage. One Trump basher tweeted: “We must be very blunt about the creation of the Religious Liberty Task Force: It’s another huge step forward in the Trump Regime’s creation of a regressive Christian white ethnostate.” Another tweeted: “The Religious Liberty Task Force is a joke. White Christians are the least discriminated against people in America. There are around 140M of them, so let’s not act like they are an oppressed minority.” A self-declared Trump hater, writing under the handle @Alt_FedEmployee, tweeted: “Just think: The people who scream about Sharia Law are forming a government task force based on religion.”
The ACLU tweeted, “Reminder: Religious freedom protects our right to our beliefs, not a right to harm others. The Department of Justice has no business licensing discrimination against LGBT people, women, and religious minorities.” American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling told Bustle that the ACLU stands for “the right of religious liberty, but we do not stand for this.”
This is the same ACLU which argued, in a paper entitled “Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity: Chilling Muslim Charitable Giving in the War On Terrorism Financing,” that the United States was in violation of international law because its terrorism financing policies and enforcement actions “have a discriminatory effect on Muslims” – any national security concerns notwithstanding. Incredibly, the ACLU paper defended the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a large U.S. Islamic “charity” that was convicted in 2008 by a federal jury for giving more than $12 million to the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. The government’s actions against the Holy Land Foundation and two other U.S.-based Muslim charities, the ACLU paper argued, “were the start of a pattern of conduct that violated the fundamental rights of American Muslim charities and has chilled American Muslims’ charitable giving in accordance with their faith, seriously undermining American values of due process and commitment to First Amendment freedoms.”
In the same month, June 2009, that the ACLU published its paper warning against “chilling Muslim charitable giving” former President Barack Obama told the Muslim world in his Cairo speech that “it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit.” He apologized to the Muslim world that his country’s “rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation,” and he “committed to work with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat [the Islamic duty of charitable contributions].” Perhaps Obama simply forgot that all those tough rules on charitable giving have existed for a good reason – to prevent such front groups posing as “charities” from funneling donations to terrorists. He deemed it more important to give Islamic so-called “charities” the benefit of the doubt and ease the rules on zakat so that Muslims can practice Islam “as they see fit.”
Indeed, the Obama administration went out of its way to make sure that nothing interfered with Muslims’ freedom to practice their religion “as they see fit.” For example, the Obama administration went to court to force a public school district to allow one of its teachers – a Muslim woman – to take a special three-week unpaid leave during the school year in order to partake in the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. Never mind the burden on the school, which would have to scramble to find suitable substitute teachers during the three-week period. Never mind that such pilgrimages are required of Muslims only once in their lifetimes if they can make it. The teacher did not have to make the pilgrimage that particular year. Also, never mind that the pilgrimage to Mecca lasts only five days, not the three weeks she asked for. The school district settled rather than continue to incur escalating legal fees to defend its position. The right of the Muslim teacher to practice Islam as she saw fit was vindicated by the Obama administration, irrespective of the disruption it caused to the school and to the teacher’s students. Yet the Obama administration had no problem mandating that Catholics who do good works for people of all faiths through their religiously affiliated organizations, but are religiously opposed to contraception, sterilization and abortifacients, be forced to subsidize, or help their insurance companies to subsidize, someone else’s decision to purchase and use them for birth control purposes. The Obama administration engaged in blatant religious discrimination by not making the sort of far-reaching accommodations for Catholic charity workers as it was willing to extend to Muslims.
“For many people, their faith defines them,” said Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois in commenting on the Muslim teacher’s case. “We need to be mindful of that when it comes to making appropriate accommodations.” Yet the ACLU and other progressives hypocritically condemn the Trump administration for being mindful of the need for granting reasonable accommodations to people of all other faiths as well.