FFRF applauds, criticizes State Department’s religious freedom summit

1Mike Pompeo CIA headshotThe Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has been highly critical of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s promotion of religion on the job, has found something good to say about one of the outcomes of the Trump Administration’s “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom” conference last weekend.

FFRF had written Pompeo urging him to include non-religious representatives at the event, but had received no response.

FFRF expected an event reaffirming the administration’s past policy of promoting religious privilege under the aegis of expounding religious liberty. FFRF was pleasantly surprised to see that two documents released after the event, “Potomac Declaration” and “Potomac Plan of Action,” while far from perfect, included admirable sentiments in defense of nonbelievers. FFRF encourages the other branches of the Trump administration, as well as local and state governments, to abide by the standards that the State Department has asked other nations to support.

Apparently aimed primarily at Muslim-majority countries, the religious liberty declaration unveiled by Pompeo on Thursday properly condemns state action against blasphemy and apostasy, mandatory religious registries, and discrimination in the name of religion. The declaration and plan of action specifically defend the rights of conscience of nonbelievers.

“But the Trump administration should take its own advice,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “We’d like to see the Trump Administration embrace these principles in its domestic policies.”

The Potomac Plan of Action urges states to work to “condemn strongly acts of discrimination . . . in the name of or against a particular religion or lack thereof and press for immediate accountability for those responsible . . . including state and non-state actors.”

Yet here at home, the administration has fought to allow discrimination in the name of religion. In fact, at the Department of Justice this morning, on the heels of unveiling this declaration and plan, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is hosting a summit featuring the bakery owner who refused to make a cake for a gay couple because, in his words, “Jesus was a carpenter. I don’t think he would have made a bed for their wedding.”

Sessions announced that he’s forming and chairing a new Religious Liberty Task Force that will defend discrimination in the name of god, including the bigoted bakery, whose owner Sessions praised in his speech announcing the new task force.

The Trump Administration of course defended the bigoted bakery in a brief to the Supreme Court.

This same administration pushed the House to pass a bill to allow adoption and foster care agencies to deny orphans and needy children caring homes with LGBT families because those agencies adhere to anti-gay teachings in the bible.

This same administration created a new division at Health and Human Services to aid and encourage health care providers to refuse “to perform, accommodate, or assist with certain health care services on religious or moral grounds.”

“The list of ways this administration is using religion as a cudgel to violate the civil rights of minority citizens is endless. To be consistent with American values, with the U.S. Constitution, and with this Potomac Declaration and Plan of Action, this administration should strongly condemn and punish discrimination in the name of a god, whether at home or abroad, not defend it here and decry it elsewhere,” adds attorney Andrew L. Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response.

It’s striking that the Potomac plan and declaration could be so myopic on this point—condemning the attempt to redefine religious freedom abroad but not here.

The same document pushes for the repeal of blasphemy laws, which the State Department says are “inherently subjective, and often contribute to sectarianism and violent extremism. Enforcement of such laws unduly inhibits the exercise of the rights to freedoms of religion, belief, and expression and leads to other human rights violations or abuses.” Bravo.

But even where the sentiments are admirable, the U.S. government’s actions fall short.
The Potomac Declaration states that “Persecution, repression, and discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, or non-belief are a daily reality for too many. It is time to address these challenges directly.” FFRF is heartened that the administration is committed to combating the persecution, repression, and discrimination of non-believers, but has yet to see actions aligned.

The action plan also urges states to “Extend financial support to assist persons persecuted for . . . being a non-believer and support the capacity-building work of religious freedom advocacy organizations, and encourage private foundations to increase funding to such causes.” That’s precisely what FFRF does, through its related Nonbelief Relief charity, although NBR has never sought a federal grant. https://ffrf.org/outreach/nonbelief-relief-inc

Despite these strong statements in favor of religious liberty, other aspects of the State Department’s statements suggest that the administration remains hostile to non-believers. Even the event’s title, which includes “ministerial,” suggests that only “ministers” are affected by religious liberty concerns, facially excluding atheists and other non-religious Americans.

The Potomac Declaration includes the troubling line, “The freedom to seek the divine and act accordingly—including the right of an individual to act consistently with his or her conscience—is at the heart of the human experience. Governments cannot justly take it away.” The suggestion that all religiously motivated actions require protection is highly dangerous and contradicts the Declaration’s own statement condemning “acts of discrimination . . . in the name of” religion. The right to believe or disbelieve as one wishes is protected by the First Amendment, not the unconditional right to act on those beliefs.

Vice President Mike Pence’s statements at the event erode the value of the declaration and plan even further. He appears to expect selective enforcement in favor of his own personal religion, and to view non-religious Americans as second-class citizens. He wrongly states that the United States is a “nation of faith” ignoring the quarter of the U.S. adult population that is not religious.

Pence doubled down on his disdain for non-religious Americans, saying that “in America, believers of all backgrounds live side-by-side, adding their unique voices to the chorus of our nation, proving that religious freedom means not only the right to practice one faith; it lays the foundation for boundless opportunity, prosperity, security, and peace.”

Perhaps Pence's most appalling statement was his conclusion, when he quoted the bible and suggested that only with Christianity can there be true freedom: “freedom will prevail, for as the Bible tells us, ‘where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’ So freedom always wins when Faith in Him is held high.” To Pence, religious freedom is only for the religious, but there is no religious liberty without the freedom to dissent. Just as freedom of speech includes the right not to speak, freedom of religion includes the right to reject religion. And under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause of our secular constitution, all Americans have the right to a government that doesn’t take sides on religion.

Pence and Pompeo should take a long look in the mirror and reflect on how they would respond to a Muslim-majority nation talking about Christians the way that many Christian office-holders in this country refer to atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers. When discussing foreign powers, they are saying some of the right words, but are failing abysmally to consistently follow through on the principle of a secular and neutral government in the United States.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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