Attorney General Sessions recently announced the formation of a special Department of Justice Task Force with these words: “Freedom of religion has been a core American principle from the very beginning of our country—indeed, it is our ‘first freedom.’”
His announcement of a Religious Liberty Task Force to “institutionalize” the process of prioritizing the protection of religious liberty by the Department of Justice demonstrates, once again, the Trump administration’s commitment to protecting religious liberty for all Americans.
And it’s needed. Those, like me, who attended the DOJ’s summit heard from a cross-section of America’s religious community. One Jewish rabbi spoke of years of discrimination by a city in Florida intent on keeping their small synagogue from worshiping in their town. A Sikh told us stories of the bullying and abuse his faith community faces throughout the country. One Muslim attorney reminded us of the very real Islamaphobia her community faces on a daily basis. Catholics, Protestants, and others spoke of similar concerns ranging from religious land use to matters of conscience.
Every American is entitled to religious liberty, but not every government official keeps that promise. As with the Executive Order on Religious Liberty and the subsequent guidelines issued by the Attorney General to the executive departments, this task force is one more welcome step this president and his attorney general have taken to strengthen our national commitment to religious liberty.
That it is even necessary is regrettable. The First Amendment should suffice for the protection of the religious liberty of all Americans; however, as Congress and the courts have recognized, at times more attention is required to preserve and defend the First Amendment.
For instance, adopting standards announced by the judiciary to protect the guarantee of the free exercise of religion, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000. RLUIPA logically extended the protection of the First Amendment for religious organizations—synagogues, mosques, etc.—and the use of their property when local government officials try to use facially neutral zoning ordinances to keep them out.
The Trump administration, by the actions of Attorney General Sessions and the Task Force he now chairs, will continue the DOJ’s recent, “Place to Worship” initiative and work to ensure people of faith are welcome in communities across America.
Of course, one reason for the attorney general’s Religious Liberty Task Force is to make sure the administration is of one voice on the matter of religious liberty. That includes the Department of Defense.
With all the cases of religious discrimination we are seeing in the military, it seems like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis may not have received the memo offering guidance on religious liberty from Sessions. My hope is that the newly announced Task Force will visit with the Department of Defense to ensure our service members are receiving the protections of the First Amendment to which they are due.
Retiring Airmen like Chuck Roberson should not have their private, on-base retirement ceremony interrupted by uniformed Air Force officials physically removing retired Master Sargent Oscar Rodriguez from the room for the crime of daring to utter the words, “God bless America.”
Likewise, Chaplain Scott Squires should never be punished for obeying the rules of both the Army and the Southern Baptist Convention, his endorser. Yet, an Army investigator recommended discipline when Squires rescheduled a same-sex couple for a marriage retreat he was unable to lead.
Whatever shape this new Religious Liberty Task Force within the U.S. Department of Justice takes, one thing is clear: this Department of Justice shares the commitment of the president and his attorney general to preserve and defend our first freedom, religious freedom.
More than a task force will be required to protect the religious liberty of all Americans—in the military, our schools, within houses of worship, and throughout the public square. Yet, gone are the days of an administration prosecuting nuns over birth control and reducing the robust protections of the First Amendment to a watered down, “freedom to worship.”
We commend President Trump and Attorney General Sessions for their actions in turning the full attention of the Department of Justice to the protection of religious liberty.