A Persecuted Refugee’s Religious Beliefs Should Not Matter

A lot has been said about President Donald J. Trump’s travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries and blocking all refugees worldwide. A recurring argument, it seems, is that Trump has a moral obligation to prioritize Christian refugees and other minority-religion refugees from Muslim-majority countries – something he went on the record saying he would do

This argument was illustrated in an interesting Feb. 7 column on Religion News Service by former senior vice president of Liberty University the Rev. Johnnie Moore.

“It is moral and legal to prioritize religious minorities facing persecution,” Moore wrote. “In fact, Trump should be celebrated for giving attention to religious minorities when Christians, Yazidis and others have so recently faced the threat of genocide in the Middle East.”

Moore, an evangelist who authored the book, Defying ISIS: Preserving Christianity in the Place of Its Birth and in Your Own Backyard, tailors his argument around an attempt to paint people of minority religions as the most worthy of saving and in that process, he ignores the fact that the threat of genocide affects everybody in war-torn countries like Syria.

That’s not to say that religious minorities don’t suffer greatly in some Muslim-majority countries – they absolutely do. The mistreatment and violence against religious, and especially nonreligious, minorities in some of these countries is a sickening, objective fact. (But, of course, in other Muslim nations, religious minorities live in peace without harassment.)

However, to argue in the case of refugees that it is “moral” for Trump to prioritize war victims on the basis of religion is disheartening, and more importantly, constitutionally suspect. 

There is no moral justification to singling out refugees of a particular religion.  

Moore argues that the provision of U.S. law that deals with requests for asylum takes religion into account, and this, he says, is justification for prioritizing religious minorities.

The situation is a little more complicated than that. Generally, being a persecuted religious minority is indeed important to make a stronger case for seeking refuge in the United States, but the code does not treat people categorically differently based on their religion, which Moore fails to mention.

In the Muslim-majority countries that refugees are fleeing – most notably Syria – all citizens suffer greatly under oppressive regimes, civil wars and genocide from both their governments and terrorist groups. It’s an unsafe environment for everybody who lives with such instability.

Again, that in no way minimizes or overshadows how hostile a culture can be against religious and non-religious minorities, but within war, all refugees should be given the same consideration, and the importance of their lives should not be measured by their religion – which is what Trump is doing.

That’s why when we filed a couple friend-of-the-court briefs in State of Washington and State of Minnesota v. Trump, one of the cases challenging Trump’s Muslim ban in federal court, we argued that Trump’s executive order violates the portion of the First Amendment that states there shall be no law “respecting an establishment of religion.” Trump’s order does since it clearly targets Muslim refugees and immigrants. 

Speaking of Syria, Trump told Christian Broadcasting Network: “if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair – everybody was persecuted, in all fairness – but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.”

Despite admitting “everybody was persecuted,” Trump still proceeded to adopt a policy of favoring one group while disfavoring another. That’s not the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires, and there is no moral justification for it.