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E.J. Dionne, Melissa Rogers Reflect on U.S. Religious Freedom, Law in Next Presidential Administration

By: Henry D. Brill

October 23, 2020

University Professor E.J. Dionne, Jr. and legal scholar Melissa Rogers offered recommendations on how the next U.S. presidential administration should approach religion and public policy at an October 21 panel hosted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. 

Discussion centered on “A Time to Heal, A Time to Build,” a new report authored by the pair and published by the Brookings Institution, where both serve as senior fellows. 

“A new administration must be organized and ready to deal with religious issues because officials may not be interested in religion, but religion has a way of being interested in them and in lots of problems related to public policy,” said Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and senior research fellow at the Berkley Center.​

​Lessons Learned

The co-authors reflected on the complex relationship between U.S. law and religion, exploring lessons learned from the presidential administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“Both administrations did recognize that government can accomplish a great deal when it listens to and works with community-serving organizations,” shared Rogers. 

But recent disagreement on two clauses in the First Amendment has made religious freedom a polarizing issue, leading the panel to call for finding common ground. 

“We think the purpose of public policy ought to be to try to find the right balance between non-establishment and free exercise to make sure all these efforts acknowledge a religiously pluralistic country,” Dionne said. 

Rogers—who served as executive director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama White House—urged the new administration to think critically about religion and public policy, commenting,

The next administration needs to be prepared to deal with these issues from the outset to promote the common good, honor the Constitution, and avoid unforced errors. 

Engaging Minority Communities

The panel said protecting the rights of minority communities—including LGBTQ people—should be another priority for the next administration. 

“Some who have religious opposition to same-sex marriage have asserted religious freedom protections from some non-discrimination provisions protecting LGBTQ people,” Rogers shared. “That has created a very difficult debate and tug-of-war on these issues.”

One way to work toward resolving debate is bringing more groups to policy-making tables, according to the panel. 

Maggie Siddiqi, a panelist who serves as director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, called for greater outreach to marginalized communities. 

“If the administration’s partnership offices are intended to offer a front door to the federal government for community organizations—faith-based and not—that may otherwise lack that opportunity, then engagement with under-represented or minority communities should be a priority,” she said. 

For her part, Rogers stressed how the U.S. government should make public policy that respects people of all religious traditions. 

“We must never have policies in this country that are based in animus toward particular faiths or toward religion generally,” explained Rogers, who referenced the Trump administration’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries.

Religious Freedom and Foreign Policy

Several panelists advocated for promoting greater consensus on religion in public policy by focusing on religious freedom abroad.

“When we’re looking at cases abroad of deprivations of religious liberty, we’re often talking about matters of life and death,” explained Rogers. “We can really rally around each other and the drive to advance religious freedom for people of all faiths and none around the world.” 

Dionne emphasized how religious freedom should also map onto the broader approach of U.S. foreign policy. 

“Religious freedom is best defended if it is seen as intimately connected to a broad human rights agenda,” he said. “The government should be in the business of advancing human rights.”

The panel also said faith engagement should be on the agenda as the next administration charts its foreign policy. 

“Almost everything the government does on the foreign affairs front has religious players who have to be engaged and religious issues that are involved,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, a panelist who served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Collaboration for the Common Good

U.S. government collaboration with community organizations will be critical to address challenges to the common good at home, panelists said.

“The next administration will confront an ongoing pandemic, racial injustice, a deep economic downturn, as well as a warming planet,” said Rogers. “It cannot overcome these challenges itself—it will need civil society to do so, including faith-based and secular community-serving organizations.” 

Joshua DuBois, a panelist who led the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama White House, highlighted the impact of such collaboration. 

“The goal of this work is to combine the force and impact of the federal government and civil society to heal people who are sick, to educate our kids, to advance development and diplomacy, to serve people in need,” he said. 

Dionne remains hopeful for the future of religion to make meaningful contributions to American public life, even if the past few years have been defined by political polarization.

“We’ve gone through a period when religion has been a particularly neuralgic and divisive force in our public life,” said Dionne, “We wrote this report in the hope that it might become somewhat less divisive.” 

This event was co-sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution.

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