A Year of Change for Religious Freedom

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The inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris heralded a new era for our nation. Under the Trump administration, we witnessed the steady advancement of the Religious Right’s agenda. Members of this movement seek to enshrine their beliefs into law, undermine basic nondiscrimination protections, and concentrate power in the hands of a select few — at the expense of everyone else. The Trump administration lent the power of the federal government to this anti-democratic undertaking.

Interfaith Alliance and our partners worked tirelessly to advance federal policy initiatives that protect freedom of belief and ensure that every person receives equal treatment under the law. As the Biden administration took office, we saw an opportunity not only to undo the harms of the past four years but to embrace a forward-looking, inclusive vision of religious freedom. Now, one year into Biden’s presidency, we reflect on the progress that has been made and look forward to the work that has yet to be done.

Affirming the Religious Freedom Rights of All

Under President Trump’s leadership, the federal government dramatically expanded religious exemptions and other protections for certain groups while ignoring the harms imposed. Exemptions were used to undermine LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections and deny access to healthcare, disproportionately impacting communities of color. Turning religious freedom on its head, these exemptions were used to discriminate against religious minorities and the nonreligious.

In the first days of the new administration, the Biden White House repealed government policies that allowed federal programs to discriminate based on gender identity or sexual orientation.   The President’s executive order directed federal agencies to review existing orders, regulations, guidance documents, policies, programs, or other agency actions to ensure adherence to Title VII and other laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. This order included a review of any policies implemented by the Trump administration in the Affordable Care Act that targets LGBTQ+ people for discrimination in health care. In addition, the Biden administration repealed the Muslim ban ending the discriminatory bans on entry to the United States that focused on Muslim countries.  

Reestablishment of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Interfaith Alliance has cautioned Republican and Democratic administrations over the years on promoting religion.  We were optimistic that in the February 2021 reestablishment of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, the administration highlighted a crucial caveat when it said:

“Fundamental to these goals is respecting our cherished guarantees of church-state separation and freedom for people of all faiths and none. The Partnerships Office, for example, will not prefer one faith over another or favor religious over secular organizations.”   

Our government should serve people of all faiths and of none. We at Interfaith Alliance are encouraged by the Biden administration’s evident commitment to protecting true religious freedom, and not privileging one viewpoint over others. We will continue to urge this office and this presidency to protect the essential boundaries between religion and government, including in its work through the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. 

Advancing Coronavirus Measures Guided by Public Health Experts

Times of crisis demand that all community leaders—religious, secular, and governmental—work together to find solutions. To combat the COVID-19 pandemic, faith leaders stepped up as critical advocates for vaccination and public health measures. Interfaith Alliance joined with our secular and faith allies, becoming the first interfaith organization to join the White House’s effort to encourage vaccinations.

People of faith overwhelmingly support COVID-19 vaccinations. But throughout the pandemic, the Religious Right and their allies have resisted the lifesaving measures that would stop the spread of COVID-19. The use of religious exemptions to flout public health measures and vaccine mandates continues to be of particular concern to Interfaith Alliance. We hope that the Biden administration will continue to make decisions in accordance with public health guidance and others will do the same.

To address the alarming increase in hate crimes related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House also backed the passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, strengthening efforts to address bias-motivated crimes. Included in this bill was the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, a long-time priority of Interfaith Alliance. It is our hope that this much-needed bill is a first step towards getting targeted communities the resources they need to combat the rise of violent hate. 

Looking Forward

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of and from religion for all Americans. The separation of church and state is at the bedrock of American democracy and has been for centuries. Speaking out in support of true religious freedom means we must remain vigilant to attempts to promote one faith narrative over other beliefs. This balancing of religion and government demands a constant watch by all of us.

Learn more about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to protect true religious freedom.