The politics of religious freedom – COVID-19 edition

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The pandemic has caused the topic of church openings to become a conflict between religious rights and others’ rights.

Religious freedom — specifically, who gets it and how we define it — in recent years has been a hot topic in the U.S., and it continues to be in the midst of a global pandemic.

Several churches across the U.S. have brought lawsuits challenging stay-at-home orders for treating religious gatherings too strictly. Some have raised viable claims and we should be grateful that we can continue to press for our liberties at a time when governments could easily manipulate the populace’s fear to further consolidate power.

But unfortunately, alongside this vindication of rights is the same old politics on all sides that have plagued religious freedom discourse for years.

President Trump has throughout his tenure presented himself as a champion for religion and religious freedom. Even before he was elected, Trump and the other Republican presidential candidates vied throughout the 2016 campaign for the role of religious defender, with Trump declaring at one point, “We’re going to protect Christianity.”

After Trump’s election, he kept his promise by offering expansive religious liberty protections. During his term, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) opened a new conscience and religious freedom division, the Department of Justice instituted the Religious Liberty Task Force and the State Department held several global conferences on combating international religious freedom violations. While these are all worthy achievements, Trump has often presented them as his way of fighting the dark forces of secularism and the Democrats who wage a “war on values.”

At one event, he told the people in the room that the “radical left” is “trying to hound you from the workplace, expel you from the public square and weaken the American family and indoctrinate our children. They resent and disdain faithful Americans who hold fast to our nation’s historic values. And, if given the chance, they would use every instrument of government power … to try to shut you down.” The message was undisputable: if the Democrats have their way, America will lose its familial and historical values. Or as POLITICO put it, “The president “paint[ed] the Democratic Party as standing against everything [conservative Christians] are for.”

The rhetoric works with his supporters and the COVID-19 context offers ample opportunities for Trump and others in the administration to do that. In the early weeks, Trump repeatedly said we’d have the country open in time for Easter, when he’d love to see “packed churches.” U.S. Attorney General William Barr has also issued strong words against church closures, saying that “in recent years, an expanding government has made the Free Exercise Clause more important than ever.” The head of the HHS’s conscience division, Roger Severino, said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on reopening treated churches as especially “dangerous or worthy of scrutiny than comparable secular behavior.” Trump appointee, Judge Justin Walker, used particularly dramatic language to describe the Louisville, Ky., mayor’s restriction on drive-in Easter church services: “On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.”

These are strong statements in support of a vitally important freedom, but they occur in a contentious political context.

The politics were made further apparent when President Trump retweeted Paul Sperry in April 2020: “Let’s see if authorities enforce the social-distancing orders for mosques during Ramadan (April 23-May 23) like they did churches during Easter.” Sperry is the co-author of “Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld that’s Conspiring to Islamize America;” his angle is that liberals are working with Muslims for an Islamic takeover. Trump seems to agree; when he was asked about his retweet during a White House coronavirus task force briefing on national television, he responded:

“I’ve seen a great disparity in this country. I’ve seen a great disparity … I would be interested to see that because they go after Christian churches, but they don’t tend to go after mosques … I am somebody that believes in faith … our politicians treat different faiths very differently … I don’t know what happened with our country, but the Christian faith is treated much differently than it was, and I think it’s treated very unfairly.”

So, religion is important and worthy of veneration and protection — unless we’re talking about mosques, in which case we can be cynical, even conspiratorial.

As noted earlier, the politics aren’t just being played by one side.

A recent Center for American Progress (CAP) piece said that state stay-at-home orders that provide exceptions for religious services are “discriminatory.” The article refers to cases involving Christian objections to abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage and more obliquely to Trump’s policies protecting religious objectors from complying with non-discrimination against LGBTQ people. These cases and policies have poisoned the well of religious freedom for some progressive groups, who are skeptical of the claimants’ religious sincerity.

For CAP at least, that skepticism now extends to churches seeking exemptions from stay-at-home orders. It says these churches are represented by “the same advocacy groups that have been twisting religious freedom into a license to attack vulnerable populations for years before the pandemic.”

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has also presented church openings as a conflict between religious rights and others’ rights: “That’s just not religious freedom. It’s religious privilege and it’s the government saying that some of us have to pay the ultimate price to support other people’s religious beliefs.”

It’s identical rhetoric in a dramatically new environment.

Tom Gjelten reported recently on National Public Radio that church closings due to stay-at-home orders are the “new religious freedom frontier.” And they are indeed — unfortunately what’s not new is the politicization of religious freedom.

Asma T. Uddin is senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Her email address is: [email protected].

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