On July 30, the Department of Justice held a Religious Liberty Summit where Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. His remarks focused on protecting the rights of “people of faith.” Many Americans interpreted that phrase as referring principally to conservative Christians.
Religious liberty of course is not limited to people of faith — it protects people of no faith, too (and our freedom to make that choice). And it protects religious believers across faith lines. In my own remarks at the Summit, I insisted that DOJ’s efforts fully account for the unique problems facing minority communities, including combating the movement to deny religious liberty to American Muslims. And I thanked the DOJ for its good work protecting diverse communities. But many in the media walked away from the Summit with the impression that the DOJ, and Sessions in particular, does not quite understand these underlying principles.
Vox’s Tara Burton, for example, pointed to what she saw as Sessions’s “striking rhetoric and incendiary narrative of culture wars.” Sessions, in his talk, warned of the dire threat posed by secularism, “A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.” The DOJ’s job, in his view, was to defeat this movement. Sessions also lamented that “morality” can no longer “be a basis for law” and that religious groups cannot preach their traditional beliefs without being labeled “hate groups.”
For Burton, these lamentations indicated the true direction and purpose of the proposed Religious Liberty Task Force: “treating the federal government as a necessary participant in the longevity of Christian America.” By this she meant that the government would continue on the path of protecting conservative Christian objections to contraception, abortion and gay rights; she also pointed to Sessions’s recent use of Romans 13 to justify its immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. On this front, civil liberties groups like the ACLU and GLAAD also picked up on the rhetoric and opposed the creation of the task force, insisting that it served as nothing other than discrimination “masquerading as protections for people of faith.”
Slate’s Molly Omstead pointed out that, despite Sessions’s brief mentions of religious freedom protections for Muslims, Jews and Hindus, the type of rhetoric Burton highlighted was the dominant theme. In particular, Omstead argued, Sessions’s “unease” with drastic cultural shifts was tied up with “the complaints of the Christian right.” In addition to culture war issues, Sessions also referred twice to President Trump’s dedication to protect the right of “people of faith” to say “Merry Christmas.”
In addition to Slate and Vox, other media sources weighed in — ranging from The Washington Post, Salon, The Hill, Quartz, NBC, NPR, CNN, The Houston Chronicle and many more. Not all of the commentators found cause for concern in Sessions’s remarks or the Religious Liberty Task Force. The National Review’s Alexandra Desanctis wrote a piece titled, “Progressive Reactions to the Religious Liberty Task Force Prove We Need It.” True to the title, Desanctis argued that that negative reaction to the Religious Liberty Task Force underscored the need for it. She also pointed out that, unlike critics’ portrayal of the task force as favoring Christians, in practical terms, it would function to protect rights across the board: “No part of that mission is limited to social conservatives or to Christian Americans, nor is there any evidence that religious liberty protections have been enforced only in cases of discrimination against Christians.”
In some ways, both sides are right (and both are partly wrong, too), and that is where my contribution that day came in. Many progressive commentators do not understand how conservative Christians see themselves as under threat. They understand it has something to do with contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage, but can’t trace the connection between those matters and a genuine sense of feeling under siege. But, as legal scholar Nelson Tebbe explained to Vox, the feelings are real.
Conservatives have lost important cases related to same-sex marriage, most fundamentally Obergefell, which established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. These losses, along with the broader cultural shifts that are tied up with them, makes this “sector of the population … feel beleaguered on account of their religious beliefs, as well as [on account of] a constellation of other sorts of cultural and social characteristics and preferences.” And that is what Sessions was addressing in his remarks.
On the flip side, the struggles faced by religious minorities warrant the same, if not greater, concern. Sessions mentioned that the DOJ obtained a jury verdict in a mosque arson case and in a case where a man threatened to kill members of a mosque. He also listed pending DOJ cases challenging anti-Jewish and anti-Hindu discrimination in the land use context. However, these mentions aside, the dominant theme of his talk and the overall tone of it leaned heavily in favor of the religious concerns faced by majority communities. This lopsided treatment, particularly against the backdrop of the marked rise in anti-minority hate crimes as well as the travel ban that has torn families apart and ruined lives, communicated to the audience that minority religious issues were less important to Sessions.
In my own remarks, delivered soon after Sessions’s, I sought to bring attention to religious liberty violations against minorities, and Muslims in particular. I addressed the rise of the pernicious argument that Islam is not a religion and that therefore Muslims do not deserve religious freedom. I talked about the blatant assaults on Muslim rights — and the growing belief among Americans that Muslims deserve fewer constitutional protections than people of other faiths.
I believe firmly that the solution to these inequities is a robust enforcement of our religious liberty law. The DOJ Summit was, in that regard, a positive move — it underscored the importance of a freedom that is central to the lived realities of so many Americans. But what Sessions should have emphasized, and which I did, was the fundamental truth that to protect religious freedom at all, we have to protect it for all.
Asma T. Uddin is senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.