Claiming a Common Commitment to Religious Freedom for All

By: Amanda Tyler

February 13, 2020

Politics of School Prayer

Religious freedom might not be on the front page every day, but 2020 has already been an eventful year of announcements and events impacting the way religion and government interact in our country. On Religious Freedom Day (Jan. 16), President Donald J. Trump released updated guidance regarding prayer in public schools and proposed regulations pertaining to faith-based organizations that work with several agencies of the federal government. Soon after, he expanded the travel ban to include more countries (Jan. 31) and proposed a massive subsidy for private and religious schools in the form of $5 billion in annual tax credits (Feb. 4).

With all that is happening, it behooves us to slow down and pay attention to the details in these announcements. The bulk of media coverage on Religious Freedom Day focused on the reissuance of guidance to help public schools protect the free exercise and expression rights of students. Other than some additional reporting requirements, there was really nothing new about the guidance. Instead, it was a restatement of long-settled law and policy that protects religious liberty in our public schools. Public school students are free to pray, wear religious clothing and accessories, and talk about their beliefs, so long as they don’t interfere with classroom instruction or infringe on the religious liberty rights of their classmates. 

The fanfare and rhetoric surrounding the “prayer in public schools” announcement obscured a much larger story—the release of proposed regulations that could do real harm to religious liberty protections for Americans seeking government-funded social services from several federal agencies. The draft rules would eliminate the requirement that providers give beneficiaries a written notice of their rights and that the providers take reasonable steps to refer beneficiaries to alternative providers if requested. The current requirements exist to ensure that everyone seeking government services is served on a non-discriminatory basis and that receipt of government-funded benefits is never conditioned upon one’s religion or participation in religious activities. The Trump administration has signaled a commitment to the providers of services, claiming to reduce burdens on providing government-funded services for faith-based organizations. This shift from tending to the needs of the people served toward the concerns of providers is a dramatic change in focus from prior administrations. 

As one might expect, Americans, including Americans who affiliate as religious, differ on how they react to these recent events. On top of the heightened partisan differences we would expect in a presidential election year, we also have divisions based on views regarding impeachment. I fear that the casualty in this divisive time might be American support for one of our most cherished freedoms: the right to practice, or not practice, the religion of one’s choosing without unnecessary interference from the government. Polarization is impacting how we as Americans view religious freedom and how best to protect it in our religiously pluralistic society. 

This hasn’t always been the case. The high-water mark of bipartisan support for religious liberty in my lifetime was the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion. BJC chaired this broad and diverse coalition of groups that drafted and helped pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The coalition included the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women of America, People for the American Way, and the ACLU. The National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals worked together, alongside Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh groups to pass RFRA in 1993 and to pass the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000. Both RFRA and RLUIPA were passed not only with bipartisan support but with nearly unanimous support in Congress. 

Much has changed in the past 20 years. Today, bipartisan support for religious freedom in Congress starts small. A pending resolution calls on the administration to prioritize the global repeal of blasphemy laws in its diplomatic policy (H. Res. 512, S. Res. 458). The House cosponsors are Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina)—two lawmakers who agree on very little but who recognize that state-enforced religious conformity is a severe threat to religious freedom. Passing a bipartisan resolution in support of religious freedom in this contentious election year could send an important signal that support for this cherished American value can survive our partisan divisions. 

One impediment to broader bipartisan work is when religious freedom language is used to defend religious privilege. Proponents of this distorted version of religious freedom ask the government to promote their religion and religious views. Government neutrality towards religion or government’s refusal to fund religion and religious exercise is claimed to be a violation of their rights. It is incumbent on those who claim a more robust definition of religious freedom to resist these attempts to redefine religious freedom in a way that benefits and considers only the majority religion. 

Returning to bedrock principles that unite us can provide a pathway forward. These principles include that “government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion,” and that “one’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.” Thousands of Christians from more than six dozen denominations and from across the country—in rural, urban, and suburban areas and all 50 states—have agreed to these and other principles by signing the Christians Against Christian Nationalism statement, which BJC helped launch last year. The diversity of signers shows the broad support for religious freedom for all. 

Though we as Americans have never been united when it comes to religion, we can claim a common commitment to religious freedom that bridges—and indeed celebrates—our differences. In what looks to be a challenging year for unity and for religious freedom, I hope Americans will recommit to our constitutional protections that have served us well and reject calls for the continued blurring of the line separating the institutions of religion and government, which never ultimately benefits religion.

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