On Cutting Down Fig Trees
by

An ugly incident transpired on the floor of the House of Representative a few weak go when a small, yet vocal faction of the Democratic Party launched an aggressive misinformation campaign aimed at people of faith. Some pundits said it was an election year ploy designed to conflate a series of issues to help Democrats in November. Unfortunately, it is much more than that. It is part of an ongoing battle to intimidate and silence people of faith. Before I tell you about what caused the latest skirmish, a little background is in order about the target: religious contractors.

Religious contractors provide services that would not otherwise be available including cutting-edge university research, medical care for the poor and indigent, refugee services, and other social services that the government is not equipped or able to do. Religious contractors also provide vital services that help advance U.S. foreign policy as providers of foreign assistance programs and disaster relief. In fact, without religious contractors, it would be just about impossible to carry out U.S. foreign policy goals in just about every region of the world. Religious organizations even provide supplies to our men and women of the military as well as chaplain services. Indeed, millions of Americans benefit from the services provided by religious contractors.

Persecution of people of faith is not new. In fact, generations of Americans have been defending religious liberty since the Founding. In 1790, George Washington in a 340-word letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island, shared with his fellow countrymen that anyone who fled religious tyranny would find in America “safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” As he noted, “happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demand themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Washington, indeed all of the Founders, understood that the defense of religious liberty would be an important element of this great nation. The Constitution includes various protections for people of faith, not the least of which is the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In addition to federal court decisions, laws and regulations have been enacted that, among other things, prohibit employment discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and disability. Numerous anti-discrimination laws also contain important legal exemptions that protect religious organizations whenever enforcing these anti-discrimination laws would itself be discriminatory.

For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) contains an exemption providing that the law “shall not prohibit a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society from giving preference in employment to individuals of a particular religion,” and that a “religious organization may require all applicants and employees conform to [its] religious tenets.” These time-honored religious protections have existed for decades, and have carved out a space for religious groups to serve and do their good work in society, such as feeding the homeless, caring for veterans, or helping ex-convicts transition back to the community. Without these type of protections, religious organizations or companies ascribing to religious principles as part of their business would be unable to lawfully only hire persons who hold moral and religious ideals consistent with their religious belief tradition.

In 2014, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13672 that prohibits discrimination by federal government contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, yet its application to religious contractors is not clear. In order to avert a rush to the court house, as well as other costly measures such as compliance with ambiguous rules and regulations that have become the norm in our ever-growing federal regulatory superstate, Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.)  in April sponsored an amendment of less than 100 words to ensure that people of faith could continue to provide many essential services to fellow taxpayers via the federal contracting process. The Russell Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (“NDAA”) would clear up any ambiguity in the law without impinging on the rights of others to purchase products or services from people of faith.

The Russell Amendment was successfully included in the NDAA by the House of Representatives, and the Senate would be wise to ensure the provision remains in the bill. In practice, all the Russell Amendment does is uphold the long-standing practice of ensuring that religious contractors are afforded the space these contractors need to provide essential services to the federal government without being accused of unlawful employment discrimination.

The Democrats, and a few Republicans, know this but rather than work to reaffirm nondiscrimination against people of faith, they’ve launched a misguided misinformation campaign to intimidate people of faith. They’ve set out to, literally, cut down the “fig trees” that George Washington talked about in his letter to the Hebrew congregations of New Hampshire. The Russell Amendment, for example, does not legalize the denial of services to gay or transgendered people; but opponents of the measure keep insisting that it does.

The Russell Amendment is part of a strong and, up until now, bipartisan tradition of defending religious liberty in the Congress. All it does is provide clarity to an executive order that failed to include language conspicuously missing from President Obama’s executive order. This clarification is consistent with existing U.S. laws and laws and regulations, as well as President George W. Bush’s Executive Order 13279 that says, in part, the federal agencies had adopted regulations to “ensure equal protection of the laws for faith-based and community organizations.”

The Catholic Catechism instructs that religious liberty requires both “psychological freedom and immunity from external coercion.” The attacks against the Russell Amendment are an assault on both of these. Rather than work across the aisle to defend people of faith, the Democrats led a skirmish in the ongoing Cultural Revolution in order to score election year points with left-wing special interest groups based in Washington, D.C. that support Hillary Clinton and Democratic Congressional candidates.

We have seen these tactics before. Using the courts and the laws, these extremist groups are trying to silence people of faith and, when they fail in court, they try and turn public opinion against people of faith using tactics such as business boycotts, social media, and the press to coerce a change in behavior and, literally, drive people out of business. In the case of the Russell Amendment, and other cases like it that are surely to surface in the years ahead, they are trying to get the federal government to do their dirty work, the opposite of Washington’s vision of a government “giving to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

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