The Deafening Silence of “Religious Freedom” Defenders on Trump’s Muslim Ban

Becket president, William P. Mumma. Image: Becket website.
Becket president, William P. Mumma. Image: Becket website.

For once, I agree with right-wing claims that religious freedom in America is under attack. This central tenet of American democracy is facing its most egregious assault in nearly 70 years. But this salvo isn’t coming from secular, liberal-minded progressives; it’s coming from a thrice-married self-proclaimed Christian and the white evangelical dominionists he’s appointed to help run the White House.

Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” an executive order signed this past Friday, incited panic and protests at airports around the nation, while lawyers from the ACLU and elsewhere turned out in force to file pro-bono habeas petitions on behalf of people detained while trying to re-enter the country with valid green cards and visas. Five federal judges issued nationwide injunctions to secure the release of detained migrants, refugees, and permanent residents already en route to the U.S., but the bulk of the order remains intact and continues to be enforced.

Amid the chaos, a crucial detail of Trump’s unconstitutional order has been sorely underreported. Despite assurances from administration officials, the order’s blatant privileging of non-Muslims lays bare the truth that this executive order is indeed Trump’s much-touted “Muslim ban.” After issuing an indefinite blanket ban on U.S. entry by Syrian refugees, and a months-long hold for incoming refugees of six other nations, the order expressly exempts non-Muslim refugees. The text of the order requires federal officials to “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religion-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” (Emphasis added.)

Given that each of the nations targeted by the ban are Muslim-majority, it’s not difficult to read between the lines to understand which refugees the administration considers “desirables.” (Hint: it’s not the ones praying toward Mecca.) In fact, President Trump said as much in a Friday interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, suggesting, without evidence, that Christian refugees had been unfairly ignored by the previous administration.

As attorneys, advocates, and family members scrambled to help travelers caught by the unconstitutional order,  there was a telling—and deafening—silence coming from legal groups that proclaim their mission to be defending religious freedom.

Right-wing legal powerhouses like the well-funded Alliance Defending Freedom have yet to comment about Trump’s immigration ban that explicitly targets Muslims. RD made several attempts to contact ADF and suss out the group’s position on the executive order, but calls, emails, and voicemails went unreturned. The organization that promises to advocate “for your right to freely live out your faith” has apparently not yet felt compelled to comment on the most direct attack on that right in our lifetimes.

While ADF’s history makes clear its Christian orientation, the group’s newly installed leader, Michael P. Farris, spoke this weekend about what he sees as the true test of religious freedom advocates—but it’s one that, by his own definition, ADF has just failed. “I think the test of religious freedom is whether you’re willing to stand up for the religious freedom of those that you disagree with theologically.”

In fact, while Farris was giving that interview, lawyers and average citizens were rallying at airports around the country to welcome home detained travelers, as attorneys filed suits in five states, where judges saw fit to issue emergency injunctions blocking certain parts of the travel ban. It remains unclear what ADF’s “3100 allied attorneys” were doing last weekend, but it doesn’t appear to be standing up for “the religious freedom of those you disagree with theologically.”

Similarly, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty failed to issue a statement regarding its position on the travel ban. When reached for comment, a Becket staffer initially offered RD an interview with an attorney, but later backed away explaining that the team was short-staffed, out sick, and traveling for cases. Becket’s director of communications, Melinda Skea, did send this statement via email: “Becket has long defended religious liberty for all and is carefully reviewing the new order and its implementation.”

In the strictest sense, this statement is true. Becket, more than many of its ideological contemporaries, makes an effort to siphon a portion of its substantial resources to litigating cases on behalf of non-Christians. The organization bills itself as a nonprofit, “public interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths.”

Becket’s homepage prominently lists a legal victory for American Sikhs, who recently won permission to adhere to their religious grooming standards while serving in the U.S. military. The organization has, in the past, represented American Muslims, a Santeria priest, and a Jewish rabbi. But the bulk of Becket’s work clearly leans toward increased dominance of Christian morality in the public sphere. What’s more, in addition to lending credibility to Becket’s identity as a defender of religious liberty for all, even the non-Christian cases may ultimately be useful in establishing favorable precedents in service of conservative Christian interpretations of the law.

So while groups like Becket and ADF pay lip service to “religious freedom for all,” their actions speak louder than any boilerplate rhetoric ever could. Organizations that fight tooth and nail to make sure Hobby Lobby employees don’t have access to reproductive healthcare (like Becket has), or who proudly challenge trans-inclusive interpretation of federal nondiscrimination law using provably false transphobic scare tactics (as ADF continues to do in both state and federal courts) expose their true motivation when they are utterly silent in the face of blatant religious discrimination against non-Christians.

Would ADF and Becket have responded differently if Trump’s executive order had not explicitly privileged Christian migrants? It’s impossible to know for sure, but history indicates that these groups would have been leading the charge if they believed Christianity was under attack. In fact, that’s precisely what ADF, Becket, and their contemporaries did for the past eight years, frequently implying that President Obama was anti-Christian and intent on destroying “traditional” American faith communities.

But now, as the nation faces arguably the most clear and present danger to our core values in several generations, the groups claiming to defend “religious freedom” are revealing themselves to be self-serving agents of a shrinking ideological movement that does not respect freedom, but instead demands conformity.

Ultimately, the eagerness of these groups to claim religious persecution at the slightest perceived offense to Judeo-Christian values rings hollow when these same groups cannot be bothered to issue even a tepid denouncement of a blatantly biased order. This egregious silence in the face of such clear religion-based animus exposes the groups’ true priorities and place in the movement.

Opposition to putting the term “religious freedom” in scare quotes similarly falls apart when the loudest “defenders” of that bedrock principle fail to show up when religious freedom is in fact threatened. When ADF rushes to defend a baker who violated existing state law by refusing to serve a gay couple, but can’t find time to respond to a legally questionable blanket ban on U.S. entry by members of the world’s second-largest faith tradition, the only logical conclusion is that the group is only concerned about one certain religion’s freedom.

These organizations exist to appease the long-simmering victimhood complex of the American right wing, which is now and has always been a tribalistic campaign to allow one particular group of American Christians to discriminate based on their reading of Christianity. This battle has never been about genuine “religious freedom,” because it has never attempted to protect a citizen’s right to reject religion entirely, and has always dedicated the vast majority of its resources to legally enforcing Judeo-Christian values, at the expense of those whose existence, we are told, somehow offends that doctrine.