Freedom of religion and religious discrimination have been put under the spotlight since the inauguration of President Donald Trump. His executive order suspending immigration from several Muslim-majority countries was unconstitutional, according to Melissa Rogers, former special assistant to President barack Obama and former executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
On Thursday, the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life hosted a discussion featured Rogers titled “Religious Freedom and the Common Good.”
“The founders clearly believed that respecting the rights of conscience in these ways was essential to promote the common good,” Rogers said. “Because we have been very vigilant about protecting these guarantees, we have become a nation that not only has great freedom, but one that also has remarkable religious vitality and incredible cooperation across a range of faith and beliefs.”
Rogers acknowledges, however, that there are still important debates about exactly how the guarantees of religious freedom should be applied. These often involve disagreements over whether granting religious freedom claims in certain cases promotes or undermines the common good. One church-state controversy that has gained national attention in recent years was a disagreement over whether the Pledge of Allegiance should include the words “under God.”
The religious clauses in the First Amendment of the Constitution include the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, which together state that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Over time, the courts have applied these clauses to the state and local governments as well.
Rogers explained that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from advancing or denigrating a particular religion or expressing a preference toward one faith over another. The clause is often mistaken as a protection solely for non-religious people and members of minority faiths, Rogers said. It is also an important protection for the majority faith, as even by embracing a majority faith, the government could corrupt, weaken, and manipulate it. The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from targeting particular faiths for poor treatment and guarantees the equal right of all Americans to practice their faith.
“When these clauses were put into our Constitution, it was really a revolutionary proposition,” Rogers said. “It ensured that all have equal citizenship whether one is a member of the most numerous faith in the country or a member of the faith that is the smallest minority.”
Rogers believes that society has benefitted greatly from the work of religious organizations that are protected by the religious clauses in the Constitution, such as the Catholic Relief Services.
“By respecting religious freedom, we create a bridge from which we can all unite,” she said, before quoting Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J. “The religion clauses are not articles of faith, but articles of peace.”
For this reason, Rogers is deeply troubled by Trump’s recent executive orders suspending immigration from several Muslim-majority countries. Trump’s actions signal a dramatic reversal of policy from the Obama administration, which sought to increase the annual level of refugee admissions in light of the ongoing global migration and refugee crisis.
“More than 65 million people around the world have been in some way displaced,” she said. “We have a higher number of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people than at any time previously on record.”
Trump’s executive orders have been met with a flurry of legal challenges in recent weeks. A Virginia federal trial judge recently issued a preliminary ruling on one of these challenges. After reviewing the history of Trump’s immigration ban, she found that the purpose behind it was constitutionally impermissible under the Establishment Clause.
“In the context of entry, it disfavors one religious group,” Rogers said. “In the area of refugees, it favors another religious group. The judge found that there was discrimination as a purpose against Muslims and preferences for Christians.”
Rogers believes there is a silver lining in spite of the recent developments. She highlighted how Vice President Mike Pence recently visited a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis that had been desecrated by a group of attackers. She noted that Pence spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism and praised Missourians for coming together to support the Jewish community and people of all faiths. She hopes that Trump will take similar actions in the future.
“I believe that we must insist that an attack on any faith is an attack on all faiths,” Rogers said. “And that obligation falls first and foremost on government leaders, who must speak out consistently on these despicable acts and who must ensure that law enforcement has both the resources and an aggressive plan to deal with these heinous cases.”
Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Editor