Biden’s transition crew wished to speak about freedom of faith. This is what I informed you.
(RNS) – On Tuesday, January 12th, I was invited to speak at a round table on religious freedom organized by progressive activist group Faith 2020 with various faith leaders and the Biden-Harris transition team, particularly Josh Dickson, the president . Director of the National Creed. Although my official ID was a Senior Fellow with the Sikh Coalition, the White House would not hear about Sikhism. Dickson was there to hear what a religious scholar thinks his boss’s political priorities on religious matters are.
What I told him had as much to do with racial justice as it did with religious freedom, since the two are inextricably linked. We cannot understand American racism without looking at the way religion has been used to sustain white supremacy. It’s not just African Americans who have been treated this way. Religious minorities, from Jews to Hindus to Muslims, like belief, are seen through the lens of the race and are personally and systematically discriminated.
In addition, the religion has been armed in recent years to keep American racism alive. We saw this in President Donald Trump’s response to racial justice protesters last summer: He sent federal troops to clear his way to St. John’s Church in Washington, DC for a photo with the Bible.
How could an anti-racist lens help expand our guarantees of religious freedom? For the past four years, and in some cases well before that, the Sikh coalition and so many other organizations at the intersection of faith and politics have worked to answer this question.
First, the new administration must address Trump’s decimation of American refugee policies and the profound implications for religious freedom abroad. For Muslims in China and Myanmar, and for Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan, this continues to mean life or death.
In May 2020, candidate Joe Biden called on the State Department to look into protecting Afghan Sikhs and Hindus from refugee emergencies, and recently promised to raise the annual refugee ceiling back to 125,000. The sooner this can happen, the sooner we can return to a nation that is helping the world’s most desperate, which includes so many people fleeing religious persecution in some of the poorest parts of the world.
(This was an area where the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies never coincided: they claimed to advocate religious freedom while reducing our refugees’ acceptance of refugees to unprecedentedly low levels.)
The immigration bans, which have been a defining feature of the Trump administration, can be lifted immediately, but Biden can go further by asking Congress to pass the no-ban law that would protect against future abuses. And it can help remove policies like “extreme checks” that act as a backdoor ban on international travel.
There are other longstanding problems that require longer term solutions. Employment discrimination affects religious minorities in all facets of American life. When we deny people the right to freely practice their beliefs in the workplace, we ask them to choose between their righteous beliefs and their safety and happiness.
The best way for the Biden government to make change is by pushing ahead with the Department of Defense, our country’s largest employer. President-elect Biden made an election promise “to provide adequate religious accommodation for all of our armed forces”; While the Army and Air Force introduced policy changes to facilitate religious placement in 2017 and 2020, the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Space Forces must continue to make progress.
Establishing fairness among the millions of military personnel will change culture across the board and send the message to employers across the country that the administration will not tolerate discrimination.
We also need to protect religious minorities in schools. Children from religious minorities remain disproportionately bullied in our country’s public classrooms. Much of the work to stop this has to be done at the state level, starting with teaching world religions according to prescribed standards. The administration can provide funding for anti-bullying initiatives and professional development of educators, as well as for culture awareness.
The government can also ensure that schools that receive public funding, including charter and private schools, are not allowed to exclude students on the basis of religious beliefs.
Finally, Biden and his team can overturn one of the many last minute initiatives in the Trump administration’s final days that are curbing the enforcement of civil rights across the government.
These proposed changes at the eleventh hour include an unhelpful update to the Commission’s Equal Opportunities Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination, the lifting of certain anti-discrimination restrictions on religious schools funded by the Ministry of Education and, perhaps most alarmingly, an effort by the Ministry the judiciary to stop the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The latter amendment, proposed in late December, requires tight enforcement of the law’s protection only in cases where willful discrimination can be demonstrated. It also deliberately removes any protection against systemic guidelines or practices which, even if they are unintentional, tend to have “different effects” on minorities.
If implemented, this would be the Justice Department’s first major change to the definition or enforcement of Title VI – and the biggest step backwards in nearly 50 years.
There are, of course, many other problems. It’s been a tough couple of years for those of us who work in the judiciary and much longer for those of us whose families have lived through these challenges every day.
I’m grateful to see a guide that seems genuinely interested and really wants to put something together. I am confident of what will come in the next four years.
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