I’ve watched with mounting concern as religious freedom has been challenged at the highest levels of American government.
At the center of this religious fight is a presidential executive order that banned most travel to America from seven majority Muslim countries. Several judges, including US District Court Judge James Robart, have issued rulings that temporarily stopped the order’s implementation.
That has led to a showdown between the executive and judicial branches. It is a fight that will either undergird the system of checks and balances that has been a hallmark of American government, or set us up for the kind of autonomous rule our founders fought against.
In one corner are judges who believe Constitutional challenges to the travel ban are likely to succeed. In the other is an executive branch that claims banning people traveling from seven Muslim countries will protect American citizens from acts of terror.
Judge Robart, who issued the latest order temporarily blocking the travel ban, said from the bench that there had been no terror-related arrests of foreign nationals from those countries since the 2001 terror attacks that took nearly 3000 lives. The Justice Department didn’t argue that fact.
But after a federal appeals court upheld Robart’s temporary restraining order, the Justice Department appealed. Its strongly worded court filing said, “(Robart’s ruling) contravenes the considered judgment of Congress that the President should have the unreviewable authority to suspend the admission of any class of aliens.”
In my view, unreviewable authority is a dangerous thing, and it’s not what America is built upon.
If unchecked and unreviewable executive power were truly the law of the land, slavery would still be a reality. Women would not have the right to vote. White male property owners would be the only Americans enjoying the full rights and benefits of American citizenship.
Thankfully America’s founders knew the dangers of unchecked executive power because they’d seen it firsthand. Ironically, they’d seen it best through the lens of religion.
They’d seen European monarchs persecute religious minorities. They’d seen government authorities burn, disembowel or hang religious dissenters. They’d seen property seized and families marched to their deaths in religious purges. They did not want the American president to wield that kind of power over religion, so they went beyond creating a system of checks and balances.
They created a Bill of Rights.
The first right in the First Amendment reads this way: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
That’s no accident. The right to worship freely was a driving force for many of those who immigrated to America from Europe. They were running from religious tests that were largely driven by the whims of those in power.
Where Catholics reigned, Protestants were persecuted. Where Protestants reigned, Catholics were persecuted. Jews and others were subject to pogroms and other purges based solely on their religious beliefs.
Now we see Muslims singled out for persecution.
But history tells us that such religious tests can turn in an instant. Today it may be Muslims. Tomorrow it may be Catholics, or Protestants, or Jews.
As Americans, we must decide if we are ready for our nation to become such a place.
My prayer is that we choose wisely. If we don’t, God help us all.
Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays from 7 to 10 a.m. on 900 AM WURD