Two public appearances by senior members of the Trump Administration last month show the Administration’s fundamental commitment to religious liberty. And it’s more than just words.
In a Christian Broadcasting Network News interview that fell on the heels of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to a cathedral in Egypt, a reporter asked the nation’s top ambassador, "Why is religious freedom so important to the Trump Administration?"
It is a fair, if rarely asked, question that cuts to the very center of the core values that make up our nation: Religious liberty. From his answer, it is clear that Secretary Pompeo understands the important place that religious liberty holds in a nation’s commitment to freedom:
Because it’s at the heart of all the freedoms that every individual should have, right? Every human being has the dignity that comes with their life and religious freedom is a central element to that. For individuals to be able to worship in the way they want or if they choose not to worship, so be it.
As the Trump Administration works to define its foreign policy, it appears the State Department is committed to expanding freedom based upon the liberty "at the heart of all the freedoms."
Indeed, as Secretary Pompeo later remarked in the interview, "Our message is simple, is that we stand for religious freedom every place American diplomacy is at work."
Secretary Pompeo has, of course, backed up those words with actions. The Trump State Department positioned an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Last year, it hosted a "Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom" and plans are underway for another in 2019.
Amidst the focus on talks with North Korea and evaluating the level of U.S. involvement in wars abroad, it would be easy to lose sight of the reality that this is an Administration uniquely dedicated to religious liberty. More than a matter of statecraft, the Administration’s understanding of religious freedom extends directly from the principle announced in the Declaration of Independence: Our liberty is a "self-evident" truth "endowed by [our] Creator."
The Trump Administration’s commitment to religious liberty abroad is shared at home too.
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker spoke at the Heritage Foundation last month on Religious Freedom Day. Unsurprisingly, General Whitaker spoke at length about the importance of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), that critical piece of religious liberty legislation championed by the late-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
General Whitaker’s speech explained that President Trump does more than just talk about religious liberty. His Administration "is doing something about it."
Starting with the President’s "Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty," the nation’s top lawyer rattled off the work of the Department of Justice safeguarding the religious liberty of all Americans. That includes, issuing guidance across executive departments, obtaining multiple indictments and convictions for attacks and/or threats to houses of worship, pursuing 50 defendants on religiously motivated hate crimes, refocusing the department on protecting religious land use from zoning laws targeting Hindu temples and mosques, and filing a litany of amicus briefs in high-profile lawsuits implicating the First Amendment (including a brief exploring the Establishment Clause’s application to cross-shaped veterans memorial).
That’s quite a list.
General Whitaker then returned to the topic of the day: the recently-maligned RFRA. Progressive politicians and legal activists are aggressively pushing to label RFRA as some form of a license to discriminate.
Whitaker, and presumably the Trump Administration, seems to think otherwise. He said:
RFRA promotes authentic tolerance — because RFRA makes a solemn promise to the people of this nation that we can find a place for them, regardless of who they are, and regardless of their beliefs. RFRA affirms that good citizenship is open to every American, whether they’re religious or not. And above all, it underscores the fact that government’s primary task is to protect the rights of its citizens.
There again emerges the theme that seems to run throughout the Trump Administration. To the Executive Branch, religious liberty is derivative of those "self-evident" rights once "endowed by our Creator" and made part of our very humanity. For those that must see to it that the laws of the United States are faithfully executed, the restraints present within the Constitution that prevent laws "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion benefit freedom. RFRA’s rigorous statutory insistence that state actors not "substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion" simply reaffirms an already self-evident truth.
Whether rooted in Secretary Pompeo’s "dignity" of every human or a right of citizenship to be protected by Acting Attorney General Whitaker, it is good to see an Executive Branch committed to defending religious liberty in both word and deed.
Jeremy Dys is Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.