WE'LL BE WATCHING
Do Republicans Believe in Religious Liberty for Muslims?
Ilhan Omar, the first hijab-wearing member of Congress, will be seated next January. Will Republicans back a rule change ensuring her right to wear it on the floor?
Donald Trump and his GOP talk and talk about their love of “religious liberty.” In May, there was Trump declaring that religious freedom is a “priority” of his administration. And in July, Trump’s Department of Justice even announced the formation of a religious liberty task force.
Well, if Trump and the GOP truly believe that religious liberty is not just for Christians, then here’s a no-brainer for them. The Republicans in the House should unanimously support a recently proposed rule to ensure religious liberty for a soon-to-be-sworn-in Muslim member of Congress and push back against the anti-Muslim voices in their party when they attack this change—which, if history is any guide, they will!
Come January 3, 2019, Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar (D-MN) will be the first Muslim member of Congress ever to wear a hijab (head scarf). The problem is that a House rule enacted in 1837 bans any type of headwear, which would include Omar’s headscarf.
In response, Democratic House leader and expected next speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has formally proposed to ditch this 181-year-old ban on headwear in order to “ensure religious expression.” As Pelosi explained to NBC News, “After voters elected the most diverse Congress in history, clarifying the antiquated rule banning headwear will further show the remarkable progress we have made as a nation.”
This rule, while on the books, doesn’t seem to have been enforced. As AshLee Strong, the spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, explained in an email, “Under both Republican and Democratic Speakers, the House has never prohibited any kind of religious headwear.” That’s great to hear. But forgive me if I’m not quite reassured.
So now, Pelosi and the Democrats want to take it one step further and go beyond ignoring a rule and instead affirmatively make it clear that they support religious freedom for all Americans. And Omar herself took to Twitter to celebrate the proposed change, writing, “No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice—one protected by the first amendment.”
She added, “And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift.” Omar, a Somali refugee who would literally not be permitted to enter the United States today because of Trump’s current Muslim ban, clearly has her sights set on changing that Trump policy.
So why would GOP House members not support embracing religious liberty for Muslims? I suppose they still might in this case—we’ll see how they react when the next Congress starts. But the fact is that Republicans have a recent track record of being outraged over Muslims receiving equal treatment in this country. To many of them, we don’t deserve the same religious accommodations that Christians are afforded, and some don’t believe we belong in American politics—or even in America for that matter.
For example, several years ago the University of Michigan installed a number of foot-washing stations so that Muslims there could wash themselves before praying. (This washing ritual is called wudu and is intended to purify a person before prayer.)
The response by former GOP presidential candidate and Fox News staple Mike Huckabee summed up what we heard from others on the right as he vocally objected, saying, “the accommodation we’re making to one religion at the expense of others is very un-American.”
In Tennessee, GOP state legislators freaked out when they saw in their state capitol what they thought was a new sink installed to allow visiting Muslims to wash before prayers. These Bible Belt Republicans, though, were relived to find out the large sink was installed for washing mops, not Muslims.
And this year we saw two examples of Republican elected officials trying to prevent religious freedom for non-Christians. In South Dakota, a GOP state senator publicly objected to interfaith dialogue among Muslims, Jews, and Christians who had come to the state capitol to meet with their elected official because in his view, “Interfaith dialogue is a part of a war… of taking away the Christian fabric of our nation.”
And in Oklahoma, each session of the state legislature opens with a prayer by the “chaplain of the day.” Well a conservative Christian GOP state representative recently took over administering that program and changed the rules to so that only a Christian cleric would be eligible to deliver that opening invocation.
So much for religious liberty for non-Christians. And sadly, often when we hear the phrase religious liberty uttered by a conservative Republican, it’s not just to deny it to other faiths, but worse, it’s used to demonize or discriminate against the LGBT community.
So here’s a chance for the GOP to champion religious liberty in the best of ways. Not only should every Republican in the House vote for this proposed change; they should speak out publicly in favor it and push back against the extreme voices in their party who no doubt will declare sharia law has taken over the Congress. Expect these extremists to say things like, “Next, Muslims won’t want bacon served in the congressional lunchroom!” (Putting aside religion, turkey bacon is much better for you!)
Sadly, I doubt the GOP will do the right thing. Look what we are seeing now in Texas as Republicans are trying to remove a Muslim American from a leadership position in their own party because some there allege, without a shred of proof, that he wants to impose Islamic law.
In Minnesota, Omar’s home state, Republican activists this year pushed a resolution to prevent Muslims from even being a part of the GOP, with two Republican elected officials claiming that Muslims are trying to “infiltrate” their party. But none of this is surprising given that the leader of the GOP is Trump, the most anti-Muslim president our nation has ever seen.
But with that said, here’s an opportunity for the GOP to evolve. Will they finally embrace an America for all faiths and push back against voices of intolerance within their own ranks? We will know soon enough.