Religious Freedom Day falls at a dangerous moment this year. As the nation reels in response to President Trump’s attempted January 6th coup, and the senate prepares to vote on whether to convict the outgoing president of inciting insurrection, we can’t miss the relevance of this critical First Amendment issue. Discrimination in the name of religion and attempts to overturn the results of legitimate elections are violations of our nation’s values cut from the same cloth by the same politicians.
Politicians who seek to use religious liberty as a tool to impose their views on others also played a key role in abetting the coup attempt. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) was the first senator to announce that he would officially object to the certification of the election results, despite President-elect Biden’s decisive win and federal courts unanimously rejecting the Trump campaign’s dozens of frivolous and dishonest lawsuits. This move gave conspiracy theories a false stamp of legitimacy, and turned the January 6th certification from a formality into a moment of crisis fueled by conspiracy theories. Before his election to the Senate, Hawley was a nationally prominent lawyer on religious liberty cases. As counsel for the Becket Fund, he worked on the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell Supreme Court case, in which 5 justices ruled that private businesses had a religious right to deny their employees coverage of contraception. This ruling not only struck a blow against women’s access to healthcare, it also radically changed the religious liberty landscape.
A common thread
While seemingly distinct issues, such court cases and the coup attempt share an important undercurrent. At the core of both is an impulse to impose one faction’s power above the equality of all Americans. Asserting a religious right to deny healthcare, or a religious right to violate equal employment laws, or a religious right to deny adoption placement to LGBTQ families (as a Trump administration rule issued last week does), fundamentally attacks equal dignity and equal treatment. So does attempting to invalidate the votes of the Black, Brown and Native American voters in swing states like Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona. These efforts are led by the same politicians in service of the political power of long-dominant groups over and above people who have been subject to second-class citizenship, or worse, throughout history. I’ve worked on religious liberty issues at the federal and state level at Faith in Public Life for many years. And Faith in Public Life Action, which I also lead, works to facilitate civic participation in places with long histories of disenfranchisement, such as Georgia and Florida. I’ve seen time and again that politicians who favor voter suppression against Black people and religiously based discrimination against LGBTQ communities are the same people.
Religious freedom is a shield provided by the constitution that protects our right to practice our faith free of persecution. The right to vote is an essential shield from discrimination too. Both are under threat from the same people. On Religious Freedom Day, let us unite in defense of our most cherished and essential freedoms.
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