Religious Freedom Under President-Elect Trump

Travis Weber is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.  This article appeared in The Stream on January 16, 2017.

As we commemorate Religious Freedom Day 2017, on January 16th, we mark a year of much change and a season of much opportunity for religious freedom.

President-Elect Trump’s surprise win can be credited in part to widespread (and unforeseen) angst over eight years of an Obama administration that has increasingly meddled in individual lives and liberty. In the area of religious freedom, the federal government has picked and chosen which religious freedom claims to advance and which to ignore. While the administration has disproportionately highlighted Muslim religious rights, it has failed to defend the rights of Christians — both overseas and at home. It also only supports religious freedom claims when they do not interfere with its pet causes of promoting abortion and LGBT policies. Such selectivity and bias destroys the integrity of any religious freedom policy; unfortunately, our federal government has done exactly that.

President-Elect Trump now has an opportunity to restore the credibility of U.S. religious freedom policy, at home and abroad, by addressing these incongruities. He can do this with two simple policy adjustments:

  • Protect religious freedom equally for everyone. Justice is blind, and the same law must be applied neutrally and fairly to everyone, regardless of their religion, and regardless of the circumstances. Some claims will succeed and others will fail under our religious freedom laws — they have always functioned this way. The key is that all are entitled to a fair shot. Yet by prioritizing some and deprioritizing others in its policy, the Obama administration has unfairly influenced the race out of the starting gate. This approach has been incredibly destructive to the morale of anyone who cares about religious freedom. The new president can do much good merely by taking the approach that all religious claims deserve to be treated equally by the government, regardless of the faith of the individual and the context in which the claim is raised.
  • Protect robust religious exercise, not a stifled and limited notion of the idea advanced by the Obama administration and championed by losing presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Under the Obama administration’s view, religious freedom only applies fully within “houses of worship,” not to one’s place of business or anywhere else. Yet this is neither true under our laws nor faithful to our history. Religious freedom includes the ability to exercise one’s religious beliefs in all spheres of life; indeed, this is reflected domestically in our First Amendment and internationally in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite what the Obama administration would wish, religious freedom simply doesn’t exist when the Little Sisters are forced by the government to violate their consciences by helping provide abortion-causing drugs to their employees — as the administration tried to force them to do. These nuns did not have religious freedom under the administration’s proposals, despite what the government tried to claim. This must be corrected.

Policy changes in these two areas apply to our international religious freedom efforts as well. The Obama administration has failed to properly prioritize religious freedom in our international affairs, and has abandoned our historical role as a strong religious freedom and human rights defender around the world. President-Elect Trump has an opportunity to change this, and re-engage the United States on this critical issue worldwide by defending the right of all to freely choose and live out their beliefs. Marginalized peoples around the world often look to the United States for help when they are persecuted because of their religion, and we should be there for them. A proper understanding of religious freedom demands that it be defended for all, at home and abroad.

This proper understanding of religious freedom has been dangerously eroded over the past eight years. President-Elect Trump has an opportunity to lead in restoring it, and the above two steps would be a start.