A group of nearly 100 interreligious leaders has offered four suggestions to the incoming Biden-Harris administration on urgent work necessary to restore religious freedom protections.
“The Trump administration has taken many actions that undermine religious freedom,” the group’s letter says. “It enacted a Muslim ban. In the name of religious freedom, it has improperly allowed discrimination and dismissed the importance of other human rights. President Trump and some of his appointees have sowed fear and division among religious communities. And the Trump administration has sought to abolish religious liberty protections for beneficiaries of federally funded social services.”
The interfaith group urged the new administration to “move quickly to correct these actions and reclaim a positive vision of religious freedom that protects all Americans.”
Signatories include notable names from Baptist life, including Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; Melissa Rogers, former director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; Ryan Eller, founder and executive director of the New Moral Majority; Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, Center for American Progress; Wendell Griffen, pastor of New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., and a BNG columnist; Jeffrey Haggray, executive director of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies; Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, executive minister at Middle Collegiate Church, New York City; Charles Haynes, founding director of the Freedom Forum Religious Freedom Center; and Frederick Douglass Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.
The group’s four requests are:
First, to acknowledge that America “is made up of diverse religious and nonreligious communities and every American is equal under the law.”
“There is no religious litmus test for being an American. We urge President Biden to demonstrate leadership in protecting the First Amendment rights of all Americans. We also encourage the Biden administration to affirm and celebrate our nation’s religious diversity and, whenever possible, use language, hire staff, develop partnerships and advance policies that are inclusive of all people.”
This work should begin with immediate repeal of the Muslim ban and prioritizing efforts to prevent and prosecute hate crimes, the letter says.
Second, to acknowledge that separation of church and state is necessary to protect religious freedom and promote a pluralistic society.
“The Constitution prohibits the government from privileging one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. It also prohibits the government from adopting laws and policies that impose religion on anyone.”
Specifically, the letter calls for ensuring that government-funded services “adhere to safeguards that protect beneficiaries, including the bar on the use of direct government funds for religious activities.”
Third, to acknowledge that religious freedom is “intended to serve as a shield, not a sword.”
“Over the past four years the federal government has overreached in the name of free exercise, ignoring the harms that certain religious exemptions impose on other rights. For example, these exemptions have been used to undermine LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections and deny access to health care, particularly sexual and reproductive health care, with disproportionate impacts on people of color.”
The letter asks the administration to “restore the original intent” of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and to “clarify the act so that the statute is not misused.” Interpreting and applying this landmark legislation has become a flashpoint between conservatives and progressives, including several past and current Supreme Court arguments.
Fourth, to advance religious freedom around the world as a key foreign policy objective and as part of a larger agenda of promoting human rights.
“We applaud President-elect Biden for calling the Chinese government’s oppression of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the northwest region of Xinjiang what it is — genocide. We urge the Biden administration to promote religious freedom as part of a comprehensive human rights agenda that recognizes the equal importance and interdependence of all universal human rights.”