The Freedom of Religion Act introduced Wednesday in the House of Representatives tries to stop Donald Trump’s “temporary’” ban on Muslims entering the country. And this is before he even becomes president, which polls show is a real possibility, at least in a match up against Secretary Hillary Clinton. Incredible.
The FOR Act expands the age-old prohibition on religious tests on public office, a previously uncontroversial part of the Constitution, to prohibit religious tests that would bar entry into the country based on a person’s faith.
‘‘Notwithstanding any other provision of the immigration laws, an alien may not be denied admission to the United States because of the alien’s religion or lack of religious beliefs,’’ the bill states succinctly.
If America were a person, the bill would be the equivalent of writing a sticky note reminder not to eat shards of glass or drink paint. But dozens of congressional sponsors along with civil society and religious groups, representing a range of faiths, think America needs that reminder not to willfully self-destruct. Indeed, the lawmakers want to make a law, just to be safe. So far, the bill does not have a co-sponsor in the senate.
“Why are we having to do this? We need this bill because the constitution of the United States does not specifically protect immigrants, and does not give immigrants the entire array of Constitutional protections,’’ said D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, one of the co-sponsors of the bill. “The very first Americans were refugees from religious oppression. It is unthinkable that in the 21st century a religion bar would be considered. Virtually every American believes there can be no religious test or exclusion of an immigrant to our country. That was the very first principle and it’s time we put that very first principle into law.”
Holmes Norton is right about the fleeing from religious oppression, but more specifically, some of the first Europeans to colonize the United States were fleeing from religious warfare that came about because state power and religious authority had joined forces. Those rivalries still smolder today in Northern Ireland, where a sometimes fragile truce keeps Catholics and Protestants at bay. But there’s a government-backed church in the United Kingdom. The Queen is its Supreme Governor. That’s not the case in America. President Barack Obama doesn’t sit at the top of a state Church. In fact, some Americans don’t think he’s even a Christian. But whether he is or isn’t doesn’t matter. In America, we take orders from professional decision makers, mostly lawyers or business types but sometimes former Saturday Night Live comedians. Some of us pay some extra money and get better access, but hey c’est la vie.
The purpose of the Constitution was to set out a secular system of laws that would let Europeans of different Christian get along without killing each other, something that had been impossible in Europe for hundreds of years before. But those principles work for non-Christians too. As we’ve seen this year, a Jewish man, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who expresses more admiration for the Golden Rule than anything else, has captured the hearts and minds of millions.
The FOR Act’s main sponsor is Rep. Don Beyer, of Virginia’s 8th District, where a molotov cocktail attack took place late last year on the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque as Trump revved up his anti-Muslim rhetoric. The incident prompted Beyer to condemn Islamophobia. His constituents were under attack and that’s his job. But he said he also felt that the bill helps show the world that the United States is a welcoming country.
Getting lawmakers to care about Muslim issues is difficult, since Muslims are unevenly spread out across the country. I asked Beyer what he’d tell his colleagues in congress who don’t believe they have Muslims in their districts.
“I’d ask them to look more closely. In fact, that’s a really good idea you had. This morning I got a list of all the defective bridges in my district. I get a list of commute times in my district. We should get a list of the Muslims per Congressional District” Beyer offered.
Just for the record, that wasn’t my idea. Beyer meant well, but, from what I understand, a government-held ‘list of the Muslims’ is exactly what civil liberties groups want to avoid.
Beyer added that there’s a practical reason for politicians to want to know these figures.
“But because so many of them [Muslims] are new Americans, they are good voters. They don’t take it for granted, it’s special,’’ he said.
On the other hand, politicians could just assume that there are Muslims in their districts, even if there isn’t a PowerPoint showing why it’ll help them win an election.
So far, the FOR Act is mostly a one party affair. In a sign of the deepening partisanship over civil rights policy, the bill only has one Republican co-sponsor, New York Rep. Richard Hanna, who represents Prius owners in Binghamton and also known leftists at the State University of New York campus there. He signed on late Tuesday night, Beyer’s office said.
Hanna wasn’t there Wednesday in the Congressional Auditorium at the Capitol Visitors Center, where sponsors and supporters gathered in front reporters to announce the bill. There were about a dozen reporters and photographers. It was springtime for Washington outside; chilly, rainy, gray and somehow still humid.
Cynicism aside, Beyer seemed sincere in his sponsorship of the bill. It was honestly heartwarming to see such a range of Americans represented on that stage on Wednesday. All three major Abrahamic religions were represented on stage for the announcement. Imams and rabbis and lobbyists were just hanging out, talking political shop.
Rabbi Jason Kimelman Block, head of Bend The Arc, a progressive Jewish social justice lobby, read from George Washington’s 1790 letter to Jews of Newport Rhode Island, assuring them that religious liberty applied to Jews, too.
“For happily, the United States gives to bigotry no sanction to persecution no assistance,’’’ Kimelman-Block read from George Washington’s letter.
He added that Islam had been with the United States since Europeans brought Africans by force to the United State as slaves. Ten percent of them were Muslims, historians estimate, he said.
‘’Islam is not something new to America. It is who we are as a people in the United States. When muslims are singled out, are targeted and attacked, it is an attack on Jews, it is an attack on Mormons, it is an attack on Atheists it is an attack on Catholics, it is an attack on all Americans it is indeed an attack on the American idea itself.
‘’I think most people would say that religious freedom is important, but a lot of people, especially if they live in Christian majority areas don’t stop and think about that the diversity,’’ said Holly Hollman, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
The Council on American Islamic Relations also endorsed the bill, along with 104 other groups.
“Islam is the least understood religion in the United States,” said CAIR director Nihad Awad, educating the public that Muslims aren’t a threat comes as “a humongous task.’’
“While being on the front page every day on the newspaper, but not understood,’’’ Johari Abdul Malik, Imam at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, interjected.
I asked Awad about what 2016 looks like for young Arabs and Muslims who had flocked to Bernie Sanders as an alternative to Hillary Clinton. Awad spoke as an individual, not for his organization.
“Bernie Sanders’s track record seems to be more clear when it comes to his support for issues for young people. They see Hillary as just as an establishment candidate. It is partly perception, but it is also her position on issues. Bernie Sanders has been consistent. She still has a great chance to communicate and get her message out,” he said.
Dennis Sadowski with Catholic News Service grabbed the first question after a series of remarks by legislators and civil society leaders, and asked Beyer to back up the bipartisan credentials of the bill.
“We were thrilled to get Congressman Richard Hanna. We have done specific outreach to those who have spoken out about the earlier Trump comments. So while we are officially bipartisan with Mr. Hanna, we’re not going to stop reaching out,” Beyer said.
Then there was a very perceptive question from Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer, who wondered what effect the law might have on humanitarian immigration policies that aim to prioritize persecuted religious minorities.
“We want this bill to ban the negative use of religion. But it does nothing to hamper Homeland Security or Border Control to use religion as a reason to bring someone in,” Beyer said, adding that a Syrian Christian family’s religious affiliation could speed their entry into the country.
Then came my turn. One of bill’s sponsors, Rep. Mike Honda [D-Ca] had seen my hand raised briefly and pointed me out to Beyer, who was at the podium. Honda, a Japanese American, had spoken moments before on the memory of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
I could’ve said “nevermind, thanks” but in the moment I decided just to ask the first question that came out of my brain and see what happens.
“Have you heard anything from any of the presidential campaigns on this effort,’’ I asked Beyer.
“I have not personally,” he replied.
“We hope to!” Honda chimed in.
“I certainly hope that at least a couple will think it’s such a wonderful idea!” Beyer said.
If a presidential campaign were to stick its neck out for the FOR Act, they’d have a dizzyingly long list of groups on their side. Here it is;
- American Center for Outreach
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
- American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)
- American Humanist Association
- American Muslim Advisory Council
- American Muslim Institution
- American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
- Americans United for Separation of Church and State
- Amnesty International USA
- Anti-Defamation League
- Arab American Institute
- Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles
- Asian Law Alliance
- Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
- Bend the Arc Jewish Action
- Bread for the World
- Brooklyn For Peace
- California Council of Churches IMPACT
- Caring Across Generations
- Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good
- Center on Conscience & War
- Church World Service
- Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE)
- Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles
- Council on American-Islamic Relations
- Disciples Center for Public Witness
- Disciples Home Missions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
- Disciples Justice Action Network
- Equal Partners in Faith
- Emerge USA
- Franciscan Action Network
- Friends Committee on National Legislation
- Human Rights First
- Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
- Institute for Policy Studies
- Interfaith Alliance
- International Center for Religion and Diplomacy
- Islamic Society of North America
- Islamic Relief
- J Street
- Just Foreign Policy
- Korean American Resource and Cultural Center
- Korean Resource Center
- Leadership Conference of Women Religious
- League of United Latin American Citizens
- Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
- Lutheran Services in America
- Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition
- Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
- Muslim American Society
- Muslim Community Network, MCN NYC
- Muslim Public Affairs Council
- NAFSA: Association of International Educators
- National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
- National Asian Pacific American Bar Association
- National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum
- National Center for Lesbian Rights
- National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA)
- National Council of Jewish Women
- National Employment Law Project
- National Immigration Forum
- National Immigration Law Center
- National Korean American Service and Education Consortium
- National Network for Arab American Communities
- National Religious Campaign Against Torture
- NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
- OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates
- Office of Social Justice; Christian Reformed Church
- Pax Christi USA
- Peace Action
- People for the American Way
- Presbyterian Church (USA)
- Progressive Congress
- Refugee and Immigration Ministries, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
- Secular Coalition for America
- Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network (SIREN)
- Shoulder to Shoulder
- Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund
- Sisters of Mercy
- South Asian Americans Leading Together
- Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)
- Southern Poverty Law Center
- Syrian American Council
- Syrian American Medical Society
- Syrian Emergency Task Force
- T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
- Tacoma Community House
- The Center for APA Women
- The Interfaith Center of New York
- The United Methodist Church – General Board of Church and Society
- U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
- Union for Reform Judaism
- Unitarian Universalist
- Unitarian Universalist Association
- Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
- United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
- United Methodist Church Cal-Pac Conference
- United for a Free Syria
- UURISE – Unitarian Universalist Refugee & Immigrant Services & Education
- We Belong Together
- Welcoming America