'Religious Freedom Has Never Been Unfettered'

Bishop Gene Robinson on the Religious Liberty Fights Ahead
Outside the National Prayer Breakfast. Image via Sharon Stanley-Rea.

By Feb. 2, just two weeks after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, not even the annual National Prayer Breakfast could remain congenial. At the non-partisan event that has traditionally brought together political factions on the basis of common religious values, the rift in American politics and religion was as striking as the threshold of the Washington Hilton, host to this year’s breakfast.

The gathering came six days after President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning entrance for immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations. The order, though supported by some faith leaders close to the president, was decried by other prominent religious leaders around the country.

Nearly 300 of these dissenting faith voices arrived early Feb. 2 to huddle outside the Hilton, holding signs and singing songs that declared love of justice and care for refugees. As attendees of the National Prayer Breakfast entered the building, they were greeted with messages and signs saying, “Do Justice, Love Mercy,” “We Welcome Refugees,” “My People Were Refugees Too,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Inside the building, President Trump’s primary focus was not on the plight of immigrants or refugees, but on religious liberty. In a nod to the evangelical voting bloc, which overwhelmingly supported his candidacy, Trump committed to “get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment,” the rule that prohibits tax-exempt churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

The closest President Trump came to mentioning immigration was when he asked the room to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice ratings.

“If that was supposed to be funny, it didn’t come off as funny to me, and I thought it was a kind of denigration of the purpose of prayer,” Bishop Gene Robinson, who has attended the National Prayer Breakfast in the past but was not present this year, told Sojourners.

The first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, Bishop Robinson is no stranger to controversial language. His has tended toward inclusion: He gave the invocation at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, beginning his prayer with, “O God of our many understandings,” rather than the name “Jesus,” so the many non-Christian believers present could also participate in the ceremony.

Trump’s focus on religious freedom in his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast came one day after a draft of an executive order that could both enable Christians to deny services to LGBTQ people and limit women’s access to health care reportedly circled through the White House. In light of this, Bishop Robinson — something of a go-to religious voice for diversity and inclusion for Christians and non-Christians alike — suspects that damaging action in the name of religious freedom is forthcoming from the Trump administration.

“Religious freedom has never been unfettered. It has always been the case that you are free to exercise your religion — as long as it’s not hurting anyone else,” the bishop said.

Robinson cited the 2013 case of Elane Photography LLC v. Vanessa Willock, settled in the New Mexico Supreme Court, in which the court ruled that a photographer did not have the right, because of their religion, to deny service to a same-sex couple. Instead, denial of service constituted unlawful discrimination.

“The opinion the court wrote, I thought, was brilliantly clear … it laid out what is permitted and the limits of what is permitted,” said Bishop Robinson.

He continued:

“Because of our freedom of speech, that photographer can be as vocal as he or she wants to be about their opposition to homosexuality, their opposition to gay marriage. They can say that anywhere at any time to anybody. …What you can’t do is hang out a shingle saying, ‘We’re for hire to take pictures,’ and then pick and choose who you’re going to offer that service to.

“You know, it’s just a tiny step [from that] to African Americans being denied service at a lunch counter in Alabama.”

At the National Prayer Breakfast, it was clear that the rift over understandings of religious liberty — present in the past several presidential elections — is still splitting American Christianity. To conservative faith leaders, to embrace LGBTQ and pro-choice-friendly policies and decline Christian-specific language in government policy is to threaten Christian religious liberty. To many of the faith leaders gathered outside, this framing of religious freedom is too theologically and religiously narrow to be truly about liberty — and can provide cover for violating the gospel call to “welcome the stranger.”

Yet even in protest, some faith leaders spoke of hope in shared values in the days ahead. In front of the Washington Hilton, Pastor Sharon Stanley-Rea, director of Refugee & Immigration Ministries for Disciples Home Missions, held a sign that read, “Refugees Welcome Because God is Love.”

“We believe in the hearts of those who are gathered here for the prayer breakfast,” Stanley-Rea said to Sojourners.

“They can bring, through their voices, the Scripture to life. And by doing that, we can change the unfortunate executive orders that just came out.”

Avery Davis is a Campaigns and Communications Assistant for Sojourners.

Da’Shawn Mosley is assistant editor of Sojourners.

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