On Friday, the Department of Justice issued a new, twenty-point memorandum on “Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty.” In theory, the memorandum serves as the executive branch’s fulfillment of Trump’s promise made five months ago at the White House’s National Day of Prayer event that “we will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.” In practice, however, the new guidelines will allow for widespread discrimination against women, racial and ethnic minorities, and especially LGBTQ+ people on the basis of religious freedom, according to such civil rights groups as the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, and Equality Federation.
More than anything, the Trump administration’s radical reinterpretation of the RFRA illustrates the hypocrisy of Trump’s Inauguration Day promise that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Far from a genuine promise to protect the least of us, we know now more than ever that this claim functioned merely as a dog whistle to Donald Trump’s own supporters. There is something rotten in America when remembering your Evangelical voters means announcing open season on LGBTQ+ people; when remembering your transphobic voters means endorsing discrimination against transgender people; when remembering your white voters, who over the last eight years have had to reckon with the fragility of their superiority, means reinforcing a criminal justice system that has as its goal the systematic annihilation of black and brown people. When remembering the humanity of some groups of people means denying the humanity of others, the claim that you are trying to prevent people from being “targeted, bullied or silenced” is utterly devoid of meaning.
We know the justice department’s claims are insincere because we can easily imagine the administration’s response in a reverse situation where the new guidelines allowed for discrimination not on the basis of sexual orientation but religion. In fact, we don’t have to imagine it, because we know for a fact that every instance of social progress has been met with Republican outcry that religious freedom is being encroached upon. We need not look any further than Vice President Mike Pence, who signed a similar “religious freedom” bill while governor of Indiana, saying that “many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.” Perceived slights against religious freedom warrant legislation, but genuine discrimination against women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people does not. From the point of view of the Trump administration, discrimination is acceptable so long as it does not affect their own.
What do the new guidelines mean for Georgetown students? Point eleven in the memorandum includes “organizations, associations, and some for-profit corporations” in the list of groups that may take religious exemptions from antidiscrimination laws. Point three includes schools. If not for any other reason, the new guidelines should concern us because Georgetown is a religious university. President DeGioia’s responses to the Trump administration on issues like DACA and the travel ban suggest that Georgetown has a vested interest in protecting its students. However, we cannot be certain that Georgetown will not take full advantage of this religious exemption loophole until an official announcement is made by the university. We already know that Georgetown exercises its “religious liberty” by refusing to provide birth control at the Student Health Center, a stance held by the university even before the Trump administration’s Friday mandate paved the way for any employer to deny women birth control. If Georgetown already does this, how can we be certain the university will not use the memorandum to refuse other services to women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ students?
Donald Trump may have forgotten about us, but we will not forget about him. History has shown that attempts to silence the least of us only serve to amplify our cries for justice. The progress of Reconstruction was met with the state-sanctioned racial oppression of Jim Crow (which presents familiar rhetoric in its use of religious excuses to justify segregation), but Jim Crow gave birth to the Civil Rights movement, forcing those in power to see the people they would rather have turned a blind eye to. Ten years after the Stonewall Riots, the silence of the Reagan administration regarding the AIDS crisis sparked a new, more militant Gay Rights movement that ensured LGBTQ+ people would never again be invisible. Progress is always met with backlash, but backlash is never the final word.
With that said, it is also essential that we recognize that forward movement does not happen on its own. It requires us to be willing to fight for the rights that every American deserves, to speak up in the face of injustice, and to lift up the voices of the least of us until those in power can no longer pretend that they do not hear them. Each of us must remain vigilant and engaged to ensure that this Justice Department’s word will not be the last. And when we go to the polls in 2018 and 2020, each of us needs to remember this moment when Donald Trump made clear whom he considers a person worthy of equal protection, accommodation and opportunity under the law, and whom he does not.
What you can do:
- Ask Georgetown to formally reaffirm its protections for LGBTQ+ students, women, & minorities by emailing the Office of the President (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Office of Instutitonal Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action (email@example.com).
- Donate to & assist the ACLU
- Donate to the Human Rights Campaign
- Help take back the House in 2018