Religious liberty and the presidential transition

After the historic and norm-shattering administration of President Donald J. Trump, BJC shares three suggestions for President Joesph R. Biden Jr.


by | Mar 31, 2021

Soon after the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Washington Post Magazine featured a collection of short proposals solicited from journalists, policy wonks and artists under the title “Biden Should … .” It was a clever way to explore the opportunities and challenges facing our country following the historic and norm-shattering administration of President Donald J. Trump.

BJC has likewise been working to identify what we believe President Biden should do. In the BJC Podcast series “Respecting Religion,” Amanda Tyler and I discussed the Trump administration’s record as well as the religious freedom challenges and opportunities for the new Biden administration. We noted that an administration should be organized to be ready for issues that are going to impact religious liberty, both explicitly and implicitly. With so many pressing challenges facing our country, we know that many specific policy changes will take time. In the meantime, here’s what we think Biden should do.

Set an inclusive tone. President Biden should embrace religious freedom as part of his efforts to unify the country. He should articulate a vision that protects religious freedom for all and avoids stigmatizing any group based on religion. As a practicing Catholic who speaks often about his faith, Biden’s appreciation for the role religion plays in many lives comes naturally. That personal fact may make it easier for him to renew positive public discourse about religious liberty and how it protects all Americans, regardless of religion. Too often, President Trump used the term “religious freedom” as a wedge issue to ignite his base instead of a cherished ideal that has long enjoyed bipartisan support. That approach not only distorts the way our Constitution has been interpreted to protect religious freedom for all, but it diminishes support for what should be our country’s shared values. President Biden’s repeal of the travel ban — a policy rooted in anti-Muslim bias that targeted individuals based on their religious identity — was an important first step.

Bring back balance. The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion and against its establishment by the government. Both religion clauses are designed to ensure religious liberty for all. The Trump administration paid far too little attention to Establishment Clause concerns, such as avoiding government promotion of religion and avoiding preference for any one religion over another. Instead, religious liberty was often used as synonymous with a free exercise right to be exempt from general laws. Exemptions proliferated that prioritized the concerns of religious claimants over the rights of others. This was evident in a variety of executive orders, rule changes and positions taken in court cases. These actions affect the daily lives of individuals in a variety of settings, including the delivery of social services and health care. President Biden should restore the balance that has traditionally been the hallmark for providing religious exemptions without harm to other important government interests.

Continue efforts to support religious freedom abroad. President Biden should retain and build on the Trump administration’s efforts in the international realm where bipartisan cooperation for religious liberty is more easily achieved. He should appoint an ambassador for international religious freedom who is able to articulate a vision of religious freedom in a pluralistic society and continue the annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom to give a platform for building international cooperation. In addition, the administration should expand the number of State Department employees who receive training in religious freedom matters. Such efforts will help integrate religious freedom as a human right on the international policy agenda.

Early signs of President Biden’s approach to religious liberty are hopeful. Less than a month into his term, he issued an order re-establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Those offices, originally established 20 years ago by President George W. Bush, have changed and shifted through the Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies. We applaud the appointment of Melissa Rogers as Executive Director for the White House Partnerships Office, a position she held during the second Obama administration. She brings a wealth of experience and a stellar reputation to the position. Rogers will also serve as Senior Director for Faith and Public Policy at the Domestic Policy Council. With this appointment, Biden is poised to integrate religious freedom into his domestic policy agenda more fully than any president before.

As BJC continues to work for faith freedom for all, we look forward to opportunities to work with the Biden administration to help it do what it should to uphold faith freedom for all.

Holly Hollman is general counsel of BJC. 

This column appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Report from the Capital. You can read the entire magazine as a PDF or as a digital flip-through edition.