The Trump Administration’s Dangerous Attempt to Redefine
By Claire Markham
Religious liberty is a fundamental American value. Protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, free exercise of
religion and freedom from government-endorsed religion are cherished rights that belong to all people. The importance of
religious liberty in American history and as a core tenant of American democracy is precisely why it must be safeguarded from
those who seek to manipulate it for their own political ends.
Although the Trump administration has only been in power for a few weeks, its message on religious freedom is clear: It
wants to redefine religious liberty to only protect people who share its vision of faith. This comes at a steep cost to the
fundamental American value of religious freedom for all. It also dangerously marginalizes people of faith who do not share
the Trump administration’s views, many of whom are already vulnerable to rising incidents of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim
bigotry. In recent days, the administration has taken a number of actions that threaten to undermine true religious freedom.
Institution of a Muslim ban
President Donald Trump’s January 27 executive action on refugees prohibits travel to the United States for nationals of seven
Muslim-majority nations. The order suspends entirely refugee admissions for a 120-day period, with a narrow exception for
certain persecuted religious minorities, and fundamentally reshapes the refugee admissions program after that day to
prioritize the claims of Christians. The impact of this is undeniable: Trump has ordered a Muslim ban in violation of the core
value of religious freedom for all.
Democrats have rebuked President Trump’s calls for a Muslim registry, politicians across the aisle have warned that the
travel ban hurts national security, and people of faith are taking action to demand the Muslim ban be rescinded. In addition to
large demonstrations at international airports throughout the country calling for the release of immigrants and refugees stuck
in the limbo of the postorder chaos, hundreds of people of faith stood in solidarity with immigrants and refugees outside the
National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on February 2.
Erasure of Jewish victims from Holocaust remembrance
Also on January 27, which is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the White House released a statement that did not
mention Jews. When pressed about this break with previous presidential statements that centered on Jewish victims, three
administration officials defended the decision, saying the statement was meant to be inclusive of all Holocaust victims. In
fact, the White House stopped the State Department from releasing its own statement, which did include mention of Jews’
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) called the statement “Holocaust denial.” Jewish organizations across the political spectrum
denounced the erasure of Jews. And many were incredulous that the Muslim ban could be issued on a day marking
remembrance of the Holocaust, notingthat the United States turned back Jewish refugees trying to escape Nazi rule, many of
whom ultimately perished.
Discrimination through sweeping religious exemptions
On February 1, a leaked draft executive order titled “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom”
sparked further concern about the administration’s narrow view of religious liberty. If enacted, the executive order would
provide sweeping exemptions from a large number of federal laws covering virtually all areas of life for those people and
organizations with a particular set of moral or religious convictions. Namely, if enacted, the order would exempt from federal
laws people and organizations, including for-profit businesses, who act on the belief that marriage is the union of one man
and one woman, sex is properly reserved for such a marriage, gender is immutable from birth, and/or life begins at
The impact of such an order would be devastating. Millions of workers would be vulnerable to being discriminated against or
fired if they did not share these definitions of marriage, gender, and/or family. The government would have no recourse
against individuals or organizations using federal dollars and discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender,
or LGBT, people; women who have had abortions; people of faith with differing views; and/or their families, whether in
government services, housing, health care, homeless shelters, or virtually all other areas of life. The undeniable impact of
such language is why a recent Mississippi law with very similar language was fought by many, including faith leaders, and
was struck down before it could go into effect.
On the same day the draft executive order leaked, hundreds of faith leaders from across the country and a variety of faiths
signed a letter imploring the president not to insert religious exemptions into the executive order and other federal policies,
asserting that doing so “betrays the values we stand for as people of faith and conscience.” In fact,majorities of every major
religious group support nondiscrimination protection for LGBT people.
Further, the White House’s recent statement that the president plans to keep former President Barack Obama’s executive
order protecting LGBT workers from discrimination by federal contractors does not ensure that LGBT people will continue to
be protected. If the Trump administration were to insert a sweeping exemption into that order, it would undermine the
government’s ability to enforce those protections. And it would elevate the underlying concern that such language preferences
certain faith perspectives over others: People of faith have a variety of views on marriage, family, gender identity, sexuality, and
abortion, and the government should not promote one set of views over others.
Destruction of the Johnson Amendment
Also in the leaked draft executive order described above is direction to the IRS not to enforce a tax code provision known as
the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment prevents charitable organizations such as houses of worship from
endorsing or opposing political campaigns while they enjoy tax-exempt status. At the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump
reiterated a campaign promise to “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment.
Not only would revoking or failing to enforce the Johnson Amendment expose houses of worship to immense political
pressure and potential manipulation by political parties, but it would also create a dark money loophole for political donations.
And should the administration’s move to end enforcement of the Johnson Amendment come with language similar to the
draft executive order, it could mean that only houses of worship that oppose marriage equality and abortion access would be
free to engage in politics, while congregations that support LGBT equality and women’s health, rights, and justice could still
lose their tax-exempt status.
So narrowly tailoring religious liberty and only recognizing one segment of the faith community devastates the security of true
religious freedom for all. While it might suit the current administration to enshrine conservative Christian beliefs into law,
pretend there is not a variety of faith perspectives on marriage and family, and erase Muslims and Jews from the narrative of
what makes America great, all people of faith and those who support true religious liberty should be on high alert. Otherwise,
religious liberty stands to become simply another name for protecting the religion of those in power.
Claire Markham is the Associate Director for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.