The first freedom in the Bill of Rights is the freedom to practice religion without government interference. But it isn't a popular right nowadays. As cases involving religious freedom issues are regularly hammering the state and federal court system — constantly challenging that right — President Trump has (somewhat) quietly placed two mechanisms in front of the barrage to soften the blow.
Last week, Trump nominated Gov. Sam Brownback to serve in the position of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, a position within the U.S. State Department. This immediately inspired anger and assertions that the Kansas governor is opposed to LGBTQ rights. This editorial makes note of the fact that while over 20 senior state department positions remain vacant, Trump thought it important to fill this one. This indicates either a soft-spot or an administration priority, depending on your interpretation.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's nomination as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom has observers wondering about President Donald Trump's priorities. When 27 senior State Department positions remain vacant, and no ambassadors have been appointed to nations such as South Korea, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, what makes filling a position promoting religious freedom such an urgent, core objective of U.S. foreign policy?
The Becket Fund, a non-profit religious liberty law firm praised the choice. Montserrat Alvarado, executive director of Becket, said in a press release,
Gov. Brownback's legacy of promoting and defending religious liberty both in the United States and overseas is strong. As a U.S. Senator, he was one of the [motivating] forces behind the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, key legislation that ensures that the policy of the United States will be to support religious liberty internationally. His robust experience defending religious freedom for people of all faiths makes him uniquely qualified to lead America's international defense of this most sacred and fundamental of human rights, religious freedom.
That's not the only sign Trump is prioritizing religious freedom. He's also quietly appointing conservative judges to various courts. In fact, he's appointed more judges in his short tenure as president than Obama had at this same juncture in 2009. He has sent up nine nominees for appeals court positions and 17 for the district courts. And yes, one Supreme Court justice, but the high court only settles about 75 cases annually, compared to about 50,000 at the appeals level and hundreds of thousands in federal district courts. So, if Trump wants to continue to ensure religious freedom persists, he must continue nominating conservative judges at all levels.
Nominations such as these might help guide a variety of religious freedom cases, such as this unique one in East Boca Raton, Florida regarding land use for a worship center. According to Texas Law & Tax, a sister publication of Christianity Today, new research reveals the number one reason churches end up in court is no longer sexual abuse of children but property disputes. The Chabad would like to build a synagogue to make room for its growing Jewish community, and despite two court victories (Gagliardi v. The City of Boca Raton, Fla.), they are still battling the city for that right. The case was recently appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
The city used a disagreement about zoning to propel a federal lawsuit that could set a terrible precedent to worship-goers in Florida. Time will tell how the case pans out. Becket represents the Chabad, and in their press release explains, "The suit claims that by allowing a single synagogue to be built on private land, the city is establishing the Jewish religion and discriminating against Christians. But the city ordinance they are suing over requires equal treatment for all faiths to build houses of worship."
Just Wednesday, the country's oldest synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, won a lengthy legal battle to maintain ownership of its building and ancient Jewish artifacts. In Congregation Jeshuat Israel v. Congregation Shearith Israel, the court ruling clarifies that houses of worship can establish and enforce property contracts just like any other.
In the meantime, religious freedom advocates must keep watch on cases like this, Gov. Brownback's nomination, and the slew of conservative justices Trump hopes to continue appointing. Religious freedom was the fundamental issue that brought Pilgrims to America hundreds of years ago and repeated violations could seriously damage the country's core imperatives.
Nicole Russell is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is a journalist in Washington, D.C., who previously worked in Republican politics in Minnesota. She was the 2010 recipient of the American Spectator's Young Journalist Award.
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