President Donald Trump followed in the footsteps of past presidents and declared January 16 as Religious Freedom Day, sending out an official proclamation noting how intrinsic religious liberty is to the American fabric, citing passage of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786.
But while President Barack Obama, for example, spoke of an increasing tied hate crimes inspired by religious bias in 2017, Trump used his 2019 statement to tout an early executive order of his, highlight his administration's commitment to fighting the Islamic state and again underscore his legal opposition to protections for LGBTQ Americans.
Unfortunately, not all have recognized the importance of religious freedom, whether by threatening tax consequences for particular forms of religious speech, or forcing people to comply with laws that violate their core religious beliefs without sufficient justification. These incursions, little by little, can destroy the fundamental freedom underlying our democracy. Therefore, soon after taking office, I addressed these issues in an Executive Order that helps ensure Americans are able to follow their consciences without undue Government interference and the Department of Justice has issued guidance to Federal agencies regarding their compliance with laws that protect religious freedom. No American — whether a nun, nurse, baker, or business owner — should be forced to choose between the tenants of faith or adherence to the law.
During his campaign for president, Trump promised to dismantle the Johnson amendment, which prohibits churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations from partisan speech and activities. In May, Trump signed an executive order called "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty," a component of which loosened IRS enforcement of this ban. NBC reported that an early draft of the order allowed federal contractors to discriminate against LGBTQ employees.
While that stipulation did not make Trump's official executive order, his language used in the proclamation insinuates that it is anti-gay business owners who are the victims here, not LGBTQ patrons and employees seeking equal rights. He even mentions a "baker" specifically, an obvious nod to the Supreme Court decision still pending on a complaint filed by a gay couple who say they were humiliated after a Colorado baker refused to make a wedding cake for them because of his religious beliefs.
Trump's next paragraph makes it clear exactly whose religious freedom he is advocating for:
We will continue to condemn and combat extremism, terrorism, and violence against people of faith, including genocide waged by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. We will be undeterred in our commitment to monitor religious persecution and implement policies that promote religious freedom.
Trump uses this proclamation as yet another avenue to promote his usual anti-Muslim bias, offering just the "Islamic states of Iraq and Syria" as an example faith-inspired extremism, terrorism and violence both in the United States and abroad. There is no mention of any of the many recent stateside murders inspired by Christian-Identity theory, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, including those committed by Dylann Roof, whose crimes white supremacists defended as an act of faith.
When Obama declared Religious Freedom Day last year, his message was inclusive and cautionary, noting the rising threat of hate crimes by many religions. He said: "in 2015, nearly 20 percent of hate crime victims in America were targeted because of religious bias. That is unacceptable — and as Americans, we have an obligation to do better." Obama added, "If we are to defend religious freedom, we must remember that when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up."
Trump closed out his statement with some more general, familiar sentiments. "Religious diversity strengthens our communities and promotes tolerance, respect, understanding, and equality," the proclamation said in stark contrast to his administration's pursuance of a travel ban targeting visitors and potential immigrants from several Muslim-majority nations. So too was it contrary to many of the presidents sweeping statements about Islam and Muslims.
Recently, for instance, Trump recklessly retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda videos from a known far-right British account . As a presidential candidate in 2016, he said he would "strongly consider" shutting down American mosques in the name of national security. These two instances are merely the top of a very ugly iceberg.
Given Trump's history of discriminatory practices and comments, including his most recent on immigrants from predominantly black countries, the idea that he is interested in diversity or tolerance of any kind would already fall flat before a word was written. That he used a proclamation meant to honor and observe religious tolerance to forward intolerance is pure Trumpism.