On July 30 Attorney General Jeff Session announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force, which is supposed to help the Department of Justice (DOJ) implement “religious liberty guidance”. The creation of the Task Force is just the latest step in the current administration’s push for religious freedom. Over the past two years DOJ has already been involved in a number of cases involving religious organizations and individuals, several of which Sessions mentions in his speech, and earlier this year the President signed an executive order called “Establishment of a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative”. It’s not immediately clear what specific actions the Task Force is going to be taking but it seems likely that it will be continuing in the vein of promoting this administrations idea of religious freedom.
The problem with this is that the current administration only seems to be interested in one half of religious liberty. There are actually two aspects of religious liberty: freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The first aspect of this is undoubtedly important, but so is the second part, and both Trump and Sessions appear to be totally disregarding it. In a White House fact sheet from May titled “President Donald J. Trump Stands Up For Religious Freedom In The United States”, it says, “America is a nation of believers…” This is not completely accurate; millions of Americans are atheists, agnostics, and or don’t identify with any religion. So the U.S. is a nation of a lot of believers and a lot of non-believers as well.
Of course freedom from religion is not just a protection for those who don’t believe, it’s an important safeguard for religious people as well. There are a wide variety of very different religions being practiced in the U.S., and many like Christianity have a number of different denominations. Everyone, religious or not, has a vested interest in being free from having someone else’s religion imposed on them, whether that imposition comes in the form of mandated religious practices, religious based discrimination, or other means. In his speech Sessions repeatedly mentioned a need to “accommodate people of faith.” He noted that this would be done lawfully, but didn’t clarify what will happen when two different faiths require conflicting accommodations. Sessions did mention the baker Jack Phillips who ended up in court because he refused on religious grounds to bake a wedding cake for a couple of the same sex. The case itself is complicated and the recent ruling does not actually settle the issue. By noting that he was “proud to file a brief in support of Jack Phillips” Sessions is clearly indicating where he stands when it comes to prioritizing a person’s right to their religious beliefs over a person’s right to not be discriminated against.
In discussing religious liberty both Trump and Sessions have repeatedly brought up the First Amendment of the Constitution. This is the Amendment that guarantees freedoms of religion, freedom of speech, and some other important freedoms, so it makes sense to make it part of this conversation. But it also makes sense to understand it fully,
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The first part of the Amendment prohibits the government from establishing a State religion in the U.S., then it prohibits the government from stopping people from practicing whatever religion they want. In other words, the Constitution guarantees freedom from religion before freedom of religion. The Constitution also guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law, regardless of their religion or of anyone else’s religion. If Trump and Sessions and the Religious Liberty Task Force ignore these aspects of U.S. law they may make certain religious people happy, but it won’t have anything at all to do with liberty.