After President Donald Trump introduced his January executive order banning travel to the United States from seven Muslim majority countries, Representative Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced HR 852, entitled The Freedom of Religion Act of 2017.
The legislation would ensure that a foreigner could not be denied admission to the US because of their religion.
Introducing the legislation in a February press conference with multiple Congressional Democrats, Beyer emphasized the bill’s important messages of ending religious discrimination in the wake of Trump’s presidency.
But, just over five months later, HR 852 has stalled, unable to obtain the support of a single Congressional Republican.
Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) explained why she backed the legislation, telling The New Arab: “These are just fundamental American values that we don’t discriminate based on religion, certainly not here at home.” While the bill does not mention the word Islam or Muslims once, Schakowsky noted that the legislation was in response to Trump’s “Muslim ban”.
The bill has received the support of 113 Members of Congress – out of 435 – including prominent representatives such as Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee Keith Ellison (D-MN), John Lewis (D-GA), and ranking Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Elliot Engel (D-NY).
The issue of discrimination against Muslims goes beyond the travel ban. According to CNN, anti-Muslim hate attacks have increased by 67 percent, recently reaching their highest levels since the September 11 attacks.
“The discouraging part is that the country has not matured far enough or understood that we have Muslim-Americans that have just as much right to our respect and a place in our society as Christian-Americans and Jewish-Americans,” Beyer explained.
Before proposing the seven-country travel ban, in December 2015, then-candidate Trump pushed for an even more far-reaching policy. Trump “called for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on”.
When asked about HR 852, Congressman Bill Posey (R-FL) told The New Arab: “You want to take time to think about a bill like that before you sign on to it. If you say you are a certifiable jihadist, we should let you in here?”
The legislation does not permit the admission of foreign fighters into the US.
Arsalan Suleman, former acting US envoy to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), expressed frustration with the attitudes shown by many Republican Congressmen. “It’s a reflection of the hyper-partisan environment that we have right now that something that should be very obvious and easy to sign onto is viewed somewhat with suspicion or trepidation on the part of people on the other side of the aisle from Representative Beyer,” Suleman noted.
Beyer asserted that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-PA) was personally obstructing the bill. Chairman Goodlatte’s office declined The New Arab’s request for comment on why he has blocked the legislation.
Some Republican House members insisted that they support religious freedoms for all Americansm including Muslims. “I’m all for religious freedom, but the Democrats were falsifying the debate as they usually do. This was never about someone’s religion,” Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) said.
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The Arizona lawmaker maintained the debate was about preventing admission for foreigners from countries that pose a security risk to the US – irrespective of their faith.
However, many Muslim-American activists reject this. Robert McCaw, director of government affairs at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), argued that the bill was about religious freedoms, in response to “Republicans trying to curb the religious freedoms of Muslims travelling to the US. They can deny it all they want but rhetoric like preventing jihadists coming into America makes it clear that there is religious bias here.”
In 2016, Beyer introduced similar legislation in response to Trump’s provocative remarks, but the legislation again did not advance past the Judiciary Committee – not even earning a floor-wide vote.
GOP lawmakers have consistently backed measures to support what they describe as religious freedoms.
Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) introduced legislation that would prevent the federal government from issuing fines against organizations who discriminate due to a “religious belief or moral conviction” regarding same sex marriage.
Furthermore, in President Trump’s first travel ban – which was initially blocked by federal judges – a special exemption appeared to be granted to Syrian Christian refugees, while Muslim Syrians would be blocked in a move designed to promote religious freedoms for Christians in the Middle East.
Such a policy was widely criticized by civil rights organizations for discriminating against Muslims due to their faith.
“We have a number of Republicans in Congress who are not interested in defending the religious freedoms of all those that seek to reach our shores like their grandparents were granted,” McCaw said.
Beyer noted that political considerations were often the motivating factor behind Republican reluctance to support such legislation. “The greatest fear of most Republicans is getting a primary opponent. They often fear that someone is going to run against them from the right and say they are weak on immigrants and Muslim terrorists,” he explained.
Fighting Islamophobia continues to be an uphill battle in Congress.
“It’s horribly disappointing. Year after year, we see Democrats support good measures that would protect the religious freedoms of all Americans including religious minorities but we don’t have Republican support,” McCaw said.
Aaron Magid is a Washington-based journalist. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Middle East Institute, and Lebanon’s Daily Star. He formerly was an Al-Monitor contributor in Amman.
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