The inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris heralds a new era for our nation. As they tackle the urgent crises we face, the new administration is already taking key steps to advance a positive vision of religious freedom that celebrates Americans of all beliefs and experiences.
Ending the Muslim and African Travel Bans
Mere hours after being sworn in, President Biden affirmed the foundational principle of religious freedom by repealing President Trump’s restrictions on travel from Muslim majority and African countries. “Those actions,” the proclamation reads, “are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.”
Estimates place the total number of people who fell under the bans at around 135 million, with thousands of families separated and opportunities lost over the course of four years. Interfaith Alliance joined organizations and activists from across the country in organizing against the bans as a devastating violation of religious freedom.
Even as U.S. embassies and consulates begin to process visa applications impacted by the bans, the damage caused by these discriminatory policies will remain. But as we look ahead, after signing the proclamation, President Biden announced that the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 – the White House comprehensive immigration plan – will prohibit future discrimination based on religion and expand immigrant and refugee assistance programs. By fighting for policies that celebrate diversity and promote justice, the new administration can begin to restore our status as a beacon of opportunity for all.
Protecting LGBTQ+ People from Discrimination
In May 2020, the Supreme Court issued a historic decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, holding that the prohibition on discrimination “because of . . . sex” in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Under this reasoning, federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination protect LGBTQ+ people who face barriers because of who they are or who they love. But instead of implementing the court’s decision, the Trump administration introduced a variety of new rules that make it easier for companies and service providers to legally discriminate – frequently under the guise of religious freedom.
In his first week in office, President Biden dramatically refocused the federal government’s priorities around LGBTQ+ equality to ensure that every person is treated with dignity and respect. By executive order, Biden applied the Bostock standard to federal laws prohibiting anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in employment, healthcare, education, and housing and reversed President Trump’s decision prohibiting trans people from openly serving in the military.
Biden’s reasoning was unambiguous, affirming that “all persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.” He also drew particular attention to the intersectional oppression that a person may experience based on their race, disability, or other aspects of their identity. As the new administration works to address these overlapping forms of discrimination, a positive vision of religious freedom – one that protects personal belief, without excluding or harming others – must play an essential role.
Affirmatively Advancing Equity, Civil Rights, and Equal Opportunity
Right now, we face three urgent crises: the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, its economic impact, and a growing environmental crisis that will change the way we live for generations. But in every community, our ability to survive and thrive depends on equitable access to government services.
The Biden administration has outlined an ambitious commitment to delivering “consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals” across the federal government, with specific attention to the “unbearable human costs of systemic racism.” The executive order directs the office of the Domestic Policy Council to coordinate comprehensive initiatives that advance equity for underserved communities, including members of religious minorities. By recognizing, and working to close the gaps for, historically marginalized groups President Biden indicates a commitment to being a leader for all Americans – a welcome change from the divisiveness of his predecessor.
On January 20th President Biden and Vice President Harris took their oaths of office on the same balcony of the U.S. Capitol building that, only two weeks earlier, was under attack by anti-democratic extremists. In his inaugural address Biden compared this period in our history to other struggles and setbacks we have faced as a nation – the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, September 11th.
“But in each of these moments,” he went on, “enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.”
As an organization that brings together people of all faiths and of none, we know that some will continue to oppose true religious freedom. But by building connections across very different beliefs and experiences, we know that we can create a more just world. Not all of us, but enough.
Learn more about our work to protect freedom of belief and combat the misuse of religion to discriminate.