By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Talk in the presidential campaign about restricting entry of Muslims into the United States has some religious leaders concerned that the country’s religious liberty heritage is under threat.
That concern led about three dozen representatives of faith-based groups to gather at the U.S. Capitol May 11 as Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, launched the Freedom of Religion Act.
The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives after Beyer’s news conference, is simply worded, reading: "Notwithstanding any other provision of the immigration laws, an alien may not be denied admission to the United States because of the alien’s religion or lack of religious beliefs."
It would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which changed the way quotas for immigrants are determined based on national origin.
The bill’s backers, including five co-sponsors in the House and five representatives of religious groups who spoke during the announcement, publicly did not identify any single candidate’s comments for concern. But privately, some said it was the words of Donald J. Trump, the presumptive
Republican nominee for president, which raised questions about any commitment to religious pluralism.
Trump called for barring all Muslims from entering the country in a Dec. 7 news release. Specifically, he said he wanted "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on."
Trump’s call followed attacks by extremists inspired by the Islamic State group in Paris Nov. 13 and in San Bernardino, California, Dec. 2. Earlier, he appealed for surveillance of mosques and said he was open to establishing a database for all Muslims living in the U.S.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
However, on May 11, Trump said in a Fox News Radio interview that he intended the ban to be temporary and that it was "just a suggestion until we find out what’s going on."
Sayyid M. Sayeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances, told Catholic News Service after the news conference that he never thought there would be a need for Beyer’s bill in his adopted homeland.
"The rhetoric that is coming out of this election period is getting reverberated in the Muslim world as if America is changing and redefining itself by a lack of freedom of religion. That’s why this is an important thing, that there should be a message that there are people, politicians, various organizations, Catholic, Christian, Jewish and everybody who support this," Sayeed said.
"We are celebrating 53 years of our organization, ISNA," he continued. "These have been the years of integration and prosperity in every sense. Muslims are involved in every walk of life as doctors, engineers, politicians, businessmen and so on. What that means is we have confidence, we have trust in the American commitment to pluralism.
"So the message that there is a possibility that there are some people who want to change, that is very scary."
Lawrence Couch, director of the Washington-based National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, spoke during the event, explaining that the congregation has long served people living on the margins of society and "there’s no one on the margins more than refugees."
"We should never turn our backs on anyone because of their religious or lack of religious beliefs," he said. "To do so would violate our deepest principles."
Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, said religious freedom is a foundation of the nation.
"We’re not a country founded on ethnicity or the way other nations have been founded," he told CNS. "So if we’re eroding some of the bedrock principles of our democracy, that’s a concern."
He said the idea of forming registries for any group of people posed a danger to freedom. "What my organization did immediately when that statement was first made, we created a registry of American Jews. We’re going to stand up against this."
For the record, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not taken a stance on the legislation.
In a Dec. 14 statement on extremist violence, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, USCCB president, said that anti-Muslim rhetoric was unhelpful and he urged people of goodwill to "resist the hatred and suspicion that leads to policies of discrimination."
He also encouraged people to channel their emotions "into a vibrant witness to the dignity of every person" while using immigration laws "that are human and keep us safe, but should never target specific classes of persons based on religion."
Among the bill’s co-sponsors is Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indiana, one of two Muslims in Congress. He cited the work of Thomas Jefferson in support of religious freedom at the news conference.
"One of Jefferson’s proudest moments was crafting a religious freedom law for Virginia that disestablished the Anglican Church (as the official state religion). Jefferson knew what many of us know very clearly today, that the United States has been at its worst when religious freedom is in jeopardy," he said.
He explained how he was troubled by candidates "who have deliberately spread mean-spirited and false information about Muslims" and "suggested that increasing surveillance on American Muslims is the way to go."
"What’s really troubling is that these men are running on a platform that’s contrary to what this country was founded on because truthfully, honestly, regardless of your persuasion, (whether) you’re a theist or nontheist, an attack on one faith is an attack on all faiths," Carson said to applause from the group of religious representatives gathered on stage in the Capitol Visitors Center.
Beyer told CNS the bill had bipartisan support. However, among the initial set of co-sponsors the lone Republican backer was Rep. Richard Hanna of New York, who is Catholic.
"I don’t know how hard it is for a given Republican to sign (on to) this bill," Beyer said. "Most of them are through their primaries, they don’t have to worry about that. And I don’t just don’t see anybody getting attacked in a television ad because they supported this bill. This bill is so American."
Beyer said he plans "to do the floor work" needed to get his bill passed.