In the closing hours of the Trump administration, the State Department declared that the Chinese Communist Party’s actions against Muslim Uighurs and other minority groups constitute genocide. Those actions, according to then-Secretary of State
include “the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than one million civilians, forced sterilization, torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained, forced labor, and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.”
The declaration came late but was consistent with the administration’s commendable approach to religious liberty. From creating an International Religious Freedom Alliance to signing executive orders that promote religious liberty and freedom of conscience, the Trump administration elevated these issues at home and abroad like no other. President Biden would do well to build on his predecessor’s legacy.
The Trump White House went far beyond words. In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services issued regulations providing conscience exceptions to ObamaCare’s contraception mandate. A July 2020 Supreme Court ruling upholding those regulations should end the decadelong persecution of the Little Sisters of the Poor for failing to provide abortifacient drugs.
In other cases, too, Mr. Trump’s judicial nominees have shown strong support for religious liberty, which will help ensure his administration’s legacy endures. In November, Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined a 5-4 majority to strike down arbitrary restrictions on worship imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. That order, which the court followed with other actions striking down Covid-related restrictions on worship, re-established the principle—abandoned earlier in the year—that “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
The Framers made religion the first freedom in the Bill of Rights for a reason. They recognized that from ancient times, autocratic rulers have used religion to oppress not just individuals’ actions, but their very thoughts and beliefs. When
that “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” he referred specifically to the freedom of religion established in the First Amendment.
It’s unlikely Mr. Biden will approach the issue with the same fervor. A recent Politico article called Mr. Trump’s religious-freedom agenda a “political landmine” for his successor. Activists, Politico reports, “are urging him to reduce, or ‘right-size,’ ” discussion of religious liberty.
Mr. Biden’s stated priorities in office certainly appear to collide with religious-freedom principles. His health-care plan talks of “expanding access to contraception,” meaning the Little Sisters of the Poor could face government intrusions on their conscience rights again. His support for federal taxpayer funding of abortion—a position he opposed for decades, until his current run for president—is not encouraging either.
The new president has pledged to sign the Equality Act, which would impose a massive blow to religious liberty. The most recent version of the bill would redefine schools, churches and health-care providers as “public accommodations.” Under that definition, if a house of worship, abiding by church teachings, refused to provide unisex restrooms for transgender congregants, the organization could lose its tax-exempt status and face excessive punitive damages and other retaliatory measures.
Foreign policy will present additional challenges. Encouragingly, Secretary of State
said of the Xinjiang genocide declaration, “that would be my judgment as well.” It appears Mr. Biden agrees. But if forced to choose between a climate deal and addressing Uighurs held in modern-day concentration camps, will the president suddenly find China’s crimes against humanity—and religious freedom—politically inconvenient?
Mr. Biden has spoken about national unity, pitching himself as the man to help the U.S. heal. That’s harder than it sounds. He shouldn’t make it even more difficult by undoing the policies that respect and promote religious freedom at home and abroad.
Ms. Vought is executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund.
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Appeared in the January 29, 2021, print edition.