Yasmine Taeb’s investment in the fight against government-sponsored religious discrimination is personal. She and her family are Iranian-American Muslims, with many family members living in Iran who “are absolutely impacted” by President Donald J. Trump’s executive order barring entry to the United States for citizens of six Muslim-majority countries.
“Any time anyone from an impacted community is able to lobby and advocate on these issues… I think it’s all the more powerful,” Taeb, who directs the human rights and civil liberties program of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker organization dedicated to “peace, justice, opportunity and environmental stewardship,” told Church & State.
Trump campaigned on a call for “a total and complete shutdown on Muslims entering the United States,” and his administration moved quickly to fulfill that promise. It took his administration a couple of attempts to implement a Muslim ban because federal courts blocked both of them, but in late June the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that parts of his ban could stand temporarily. Exceptions were made for those individuals with a “bona fide” relationship to the U.S., meaning that those with a family relationship – mostly immediate family – may visit. The high court scheduled oral arguments for further deliberation Oct. 10.
Working to defend the rights of Muslim immigrants and refugees is one of FCNL’s many causes, and the organization is among many within the faith community pushing against Trump’s policies that are harmful to religious freedom. In April, FCNL partnered with 48 other faith-based organizations to file an amicus brief with the U.S. 4th and 9th Circuit Courts in protest of the president’s executive orders, referring to them as “discriminatory and unconstitutional.”
For the Quaker community, Taeb said, a memory of persecution is part of the impetus to act.
“Quakers were once persecuted for their religion. This is an issue that really matters to them,” Taeb said. “For [FCNL] it has always been important to make sure that we are on the front lines, that we are doing what we can to ensure that the rights of other faith communities are protected … this community itself wants to be there when other faith communities are under attack.”
They aren’t alone. Since Trump took office, a rising tide of dissenting religious voices have swelled up in opposition to his policies. The trend caught the attention of the media early on. In March, Reuters disseminated a story nationwide headlined, “‘Religious Left’ Emerging as U.S. Political Force in Trump Era.” One leader, the Rev. William Barber II, a Disciples of Christ minister who led protests against North Carolina’s far-right state government, has become a national figure.
Not everyone involved in this growing movement leans to the left. Some groups are centrist or non-partisan. But all share the idea that Trump’s vision of church-state relations, a view shared by his allies in the Religious Right, must be opposed.
Recent events have only spurred the movement. When neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Va., in August, among the counterprotesters was a line of clergy who linked arms to block the fascist phalanx.
Religious liberals and moderates know they have their work cut out for them. Trump’s attacks on religious freedom since taking office have come in many forms. Along with the Muslim ban, they include attempts to repeal or weaken the Johnson Amendment, a provision of the tax code that prohibits certain tax-exempt nonprofits, also known as 501(c)(3) organizations, from endorsing candidates for political office. This includes churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other houses of worship. Advocates of the law, including Americans United and many faith leaders, argue that it protects the integrity of houses of worship and nonprofits.
Many faith-based groups and faith leaders have expressed concern about changing the Johnson Amendment. In August, more than 4,000 faith leaders signed a “Faith Voices” letter urging Congress to protect it. On Aug. 16, a group of faith leaders and religious freedom groups delivered the letters at the U.S. Capitol. Signers of the letter came from a broad cross-section of the American religious community, and progressives were well represented.
For Suhag Shukla, the executive director and co-founder of the Hindu- American Foundation (HAF), which advocates on behalf of Hindu-American representation and on human rights issues, separation of church and state is interwoven with the well-being of all religious communities, especially marginalized minority religions.
“Government is healthier with separation,” Shukla told Church & State. “More importantly or equally importantly, religion is healthier without the intrusion of government.”
Hindu Americans, who constitute about 1 percent of the U.S. population, are a distinct minority. That statistic is part of the reason why Shukla said HAF fights to protect the Johnson Amendment. Shukla said she fears that if religious groups voted according to the endorsement of a trusted religious leader, it could “potentially dilute [what is] already a minority voice.”
Trump is not doing much to ease Shukla’s concern. In a July interview with TV preacher Pat Robertson on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump suggested that the reason he wanted to remove the Johnson Amendment was to magnify the power of evangelical Christians in American elections.
After touting his popularity among evangelical voters (over 80 percent of white evangelical voters chose Trump in 2016), the president told Robertson that removing the Johnson Amendment will be “a great thing for Christianity.” This was perhaps a Freudian slip of the tongue since Trump immediately added that his actions would be “a great thing for religion” as well, but it hinted at what proponents of the Johnson Amendment have suspected all along: that efforts to repeal it are synonymous with efforts by the Religious Right to funnel unlimited, uncounted and untaxed money to political campaigns.
If a religious or faith-based group wants to spend money to back candidates that reflect certain values, that option is legal as long as it doesn’t register as a 501(c)(3) organization, which would place it in direct contradiction with the Johnson Amendment. Arielle Gingold spoke to Church & State about one such organization, Bend the Arc.
Gingold is the deputy director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, the legislative advocacy arm of Bend the Arc, which she describes as “a progressive voice in the Jewish world and a Jewish voice in the progressive world.” Bend the Arc is purposefully divided into three entities – a 501(c)(3), a 501(c)(4) and a political action committee. This enables donations to its educational and organizing arm – the 501(c)(3) – to be tax-deductible, while donations focused on legislative advocacy or partisan campaigning are not.
“The separation of those entities exists for a reason,” Gingold said. “That should remain as is. [Bend the Arc] is concerned with keeping Jewish institutions non-partisan. It’s important that congregations and Jewish social service agencies continue to be nonpartisan in a way that enables them to do their important work and to remain community centered. Because we know that partisanship can breed divisiveness.”
Mentioning the “Hillary vs. Bernie divide,” Gingold went on to say that although the American Jewish community votes overwhelmingly Democratic, “even within a progressive religious community partisanship can be divisive.”
The Religious Right’s leaders and politicians tend to scorn the narrative that the Johnson Amendment keeps partisan politics out of houses of worship, instead arguing that it infringes on free speech. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) introduced the “Free Speech Fairness Act,” intended to curtail the Johnson Amendment. When doing so, he characterized the tax-code provision as a stark limit on First Amendment rights.
“The federal government and the IRS should never have the ability to inhibit free speech,” said Lankford according to the Alva Review-Courier. “The First Amendment right of free speech and right to practice any faith, or no faith, are foundational American values that must extend to everyone, whether they are a pastor, social worker or any charity employee or volunteer. People who work for a nonprofit still have constitutional rights to assembly, free speech and free press.”
While the senator couched his description of the bill in the rhetoric of free speech, houses of worship have complete freedom of speech when it comes to political issues such as abortion, social justice and more. The sole exception is specifically endorsing a political candidate. Gingold emphasized that a dedication to the separation of houses of worship from partisan campaigning in no way precludes religious leaders and communities from taking action on important issues.
“[Avoiding partisanship] of course doesn’t mean that houses of worship and nonprofits don’t engage in the issues of politics. It’s important to us as a Jewish organization to speak truth to power and to enable the clergy that organize us to do so as well…. They speak openly, honestly and often about issues of health care, immigration reform and criminal justice reform,” Gingold said. “There’s nothing that prevents them from doing that. And there’s nothing that prevents congregants from calling members of Congress about whatever issue of importance is in the news – there’s just that one bright line of not endorsing a candidate.”
This sentiment was echoed by Jason Miller, director of campaigns and development at the Franciscan Action Network (FAN).
“We don’t want churches to be partisan, but churches have a long history of being political and speaking out against injustice,” Miller told Church & State. “While we can’t campaign for a particular candidate, on issues of the day and legislation that do come up, especially in this political climate, it’s important to have faith voices, to have a moral voice, a spiritual grounding and to make sure that folks understand that we’re speaking on issues, say the Johnson Amendment or the Muslim ban, coming from a place of faith.”
Miller described FAN as a faith-based advocacy group “rooted in the ideals of Saint Francis and Saint Claire.” The group, which is non-partisan, was one of 99 religious and faith-based groups that earlier this year signed on to a letter delivered to every member of Congress asking that they protect the Johnson Amendment. FAN also joined as a sponsor of the pro-Johnson-Amendment “Faith Voices” letter that was delivered to Congress in August.
In addition to Trump’s attacks on religious freedom via the Muslim ban and threats to the Johnson Amendment, the Trump administration has advocated for restricting women’s health care and LGBTQ rights in the name of religion.
One of those specific threats has been to women’s access to contraceptive care. Early in May, Trump threatened via an executive order to make it much easier for any business to deny its employees birth control on religious grounds.
Under the Affordable Care Act and subsequent court rulings, the law of the land is that an employer-provided health care plan must include contraceptive care for employees. Exceptions include churches, religion- or faith-based nonprofits, and “closely held” for-profit corporations (i.e., corporations whose stock is not traded publicly). These employers, if claiming a religious or moral exemption, must fill out a brief form outlining the objection. It is then the responsibility of the government and the insurance provider to strike a deal to provide the contraceptive care for the individual at risk of losing it.
But some of these exempt organizations claim that this is too great a burden on their religious or moral beliefs – they argue that filling out the form to request the opt-out forces them to contribute to healthcare they deem immoral and/or sinful. At Church & State’s press time, the Trump administration was considering regulations that would allow any employer or university with a religious objection to deny their employees and students coverage for birth control. There is no backup plan – if the boss or university refuses to cover contraception, the cost shifts to employees and students.
In that same early May executive order, Trump instructed the Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “issue guidance” on how to expand religious freedom in the public square. Supporters of church-state separation, however, feared that this is just another way of asking Sessions to expand the right to discriminate based on religion. In a July speech to a far-right legal organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, Sessions promised that those guidelines would be coming soon. (Guidelines had not been issued when this issue of Church & State went to print.)
These fears were realized in late July when the Department of Justice filed a court brief claiming that discrimination against people based on sexual orientation is perfectly legal under federal law. The brief, filed in a federal court in New York, outlines the DOJ’s position that federal anti-sex-discrimination law does not extend to sexual orientation.
Once again, progressive and moderate religious organizations were at the forefront of efforts to counteract that brief.
Americans United was founded 70 years ago by a coalition of religious leaders, secular activists and representatives of educational organizations. Today, AU maintains that coalition.
Bill Mefford, AU’s faith organizer, said he’s pleased to hear religious voices speaking up for church-state separation in these challenging times.
“Some of our most active partners are faith organizations because they understand that religious freedom is not a license to harm or attempt to dominate others, but instead, a cherished freedom to believe, or not to believe, as one’s conscience dictates,” Mefford said. “And AU is uniquely situated to work with both those who believe as well as those who choose not to, all united to ensure religion not be used to harm others.”
Sam Hainbach, a senior at Brown University majoring in religious studies, interned at Americans United last summer.