Politics & Policy

The DOJ’s Religious-Liberty Task Force Is a Breath of Fresh Air

Jack Phillips at work at Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., in 2017. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
The Trump administration is right to champion Americans’ right to religious liberty.

Last Monday, the Department of Justice announced the creation of its new Religious Liberty Task Force, a working group within the agency formed to protect the “first freedom” recognized in the Bill of Rights.

Promptly following the announcement, a cyber-mob inadvertently confirmed the importance of the new initiative.

Participants practically trampled each other in a mad dash to denounce the Religious Liberty Task Force as the latest sign that the end is nigh. Evidently, it’s just a matter of time before a nefarious coalition of “Christian nationalists” and real-life characters from The Handmaid’s Tale take over the country by force.

By the time Tuesday morning rolled around, New York Times best-selling author Kurt Eichenwald had emerged as the clear winner in the online race to the bottom. Artfully combining snark with ignorance and downright dishonesty — all in the space of just one tweet — Eichenwald provided a well-rounded sampling of the outcry against the DOJ.

“I am delighted that Religious Liberty Task Force will finally protect people who face problems because of their religions: Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and other religious minorities,” Eichenwald tweeted. “What? Oh, this is just about hating gays and forcing people to say Merry Christmas? What a shock.”

While Eichenwald’s hot take gained plenty of traction, others — including one uniquely bizarre essay by a self-identified Baptist pastor writing at NBCNews.com — joined him in building a false narrative that only Christians who still hold to a biblical definition of marriage stand to gain from the DOJ’s new efforts.

But the knee-jerk reactions ignored a truly unifying reality that the task force — indeed, religious liberty itself — represents.

Yes, the DOJ’s commitment to uphold the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion applies to Christians (like Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, who was one of the panelists at the DOJ’s Summit on Religious Liberty), but every American wins when the government allows religious adherents to peacefully live out their beliefs.

Religious liberty applies to every American, not just one group. Far from the caricature Eichenwald and others put forward, the list of panelists at the DOJ Summit included Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs working together to ensure the American promise of religious liberty to adherents to any faith — including secularism and atheism.

One DOJ representative who spoke at the Summit, a Sikh American named Harpreet Singh Mokha, currently serves as national program manager on issues of concern for the Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) populations as part of the DOJ’s Community Relations Service.

During his time onstage, Mokha recalled the obstacles he faced as a young Sikh attorney trying to live consistently with his faith (including growing a beard and donning a turban) in Texas. Mokha spoke in sobering terms about the threats his community faced in the direct aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center before going on to detail the DOJ’s work in protecting the religious-freedom rights of non-Christians throughout the U.S.

And the promise to protect religious liberty goes far beyond mere talk. Since the beginning of the Trump administration in January of 2017, the DOJ has secured eleven indictments and seven convictions for hate crimes involving attacks or threats of attack against places of worship — the majority of which have involved non-Christian houses of worship.

At one point during the event, Mokha sat on a panel with Rabbi Ruvi New, a Jewish leader whose congregation has been prevented for over ten years from occupying a space they purchased in Boca Raton, Fla., due to infringements on Rabbi New and his people’s religious liberty from local zoning officials.

Rabbi New, whose family fled persecution at the hands of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, is counting on the DOJ’s renewed effort to enforce the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act to allow his group and others like it to worship on the property they have purchased.

Another group that figures to benefit from the DOJ’s commitment to religious land-use concerns is the Muslim community, said Asma Uddin — herself a Muslim who serves as senior scholar and faculty with the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute.

Along with Uddin, Rabbi New’s take on the DOJ’s efforts to support the religious liberty of every American was overwhelmingly positive.

The promise to protect religious liberty goes far beyond mere talk.

“This meeting and this proactive stance on behalf of the [DOJ] is, I think, a very positive message,” Rabbi New said at the event. “For us personally and I think for the core values of this country. It is why people come from all over the world, either from other — even from other liberal democracies, to breathe the air of freedom in this country.”

While each group of adherents throughout the U.S. will face unique challenges to its religious freedom, there’s plenty of reason to hope that all Americans are one step closer to living out their beliefs without fear of government hostility or punishment.

And that, to paraphrase Rabbi New, is a breath of fresh air.

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