Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) introduced a bill last week that would ban the use of religious litmus tests as a means of denying admission to immigrants, refugees and international visitors coming to the United States.
Beyer said he acted in response to “political rhetoric vilifying select religious groups and increasingly hostile rhetoric toward religious freedom in the immigration system,” namely proposals by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to bar Muslims and Hispanics from the country.
“It’s especially Donald Trump, but not just him,” Beyer said. “I think it was almost a response to Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush saying they would allow Christians to come in. The bill is not Muslim specific because 10 years from now it could be another group.”
Beyer said that the bill, known as the Religious Freedom Act of 2016 and which adds a clause to the already existing Immigration and Nationality Act, still would allow a person fleeing another country due to religious persecution to use religion as a reason for coming to the United States.
“A person of Baha’i faith in Iran could use his faith as a bona fide way to be granted asylum,” he said.
More than 100 other members of the House of Representatives have co-sponsored the legislation, but retiring Rep. Richard Hanna of New York is the only Republican to do so. Beyer said he would like Republicans to support the legislation, but thinks that is unlikely in an election year.
“All of law and much of public policy are slow evolutions as we wake up to our humanity,” he said. “Morally, it should be easy. Politically it is difficult.”
Beyer said he also thinks Trump’s candidacy has put Republicans in the position of having to reluctantly support their party’s all-but-certain nominee, but remain silent on his specific policy proposals that they otherwise would disagree with.
He pointed out that even House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has struggled with whether to support Trump.
Among the Democrats co-sponsoring the bill is Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) who is running to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). Van Hollen, too, expressed concern about Trump’s policy proposals toward immigration.
“This kind of discrimination is un-American and sends the wrong message to those who look to the United States as a beacon of freedom and hope,” he said in a statement. “I support the Freedom of Religion Act because discrimination against one religious minority is a threat to people of all faiths. We must stand firm against hate and xenophobia.”
In addition to the co-sponsors, Beyer’s bill is supported by 105 national organizations, including Washington’s Interfaith Alliance, which works to promote religious freedom and expression. The alliance’s president, Rabbi Jack Moline, who was present at the bill’s announcement on May 11, said the bill is in line with his organization’s mission.
Moline said that while the First Amendment guarantees the right to practice religion freely, the current political climate prompted the need for a specific measure directed at immigrants.
“There’s lot of rhetoric about the need to exclude particular religious groups, Muslims in particular, from access to the United States on no other basis than their faith, and that flies in the face of — at least the ethos — of our Constitution, which does not note any religious test for political office,” he said. “It notes no religious test for immigration standards either, but because there is no indication that religion can’t be used as an exclusionary rule for immigrants, it was necessary to put that in law.”
Moline said he was impressed with the recent statement by Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block of Bend the Arc, that Muslims came to the United States not as immigrants or refugees, but as slaves.
“It’s a pretty remarkable realization that a person should be snatched from their land and brought here,” he said. “That should be an embarrassment for us, even before legislative remedies are discussed.”
Moline said the legislation does not seek to relax security measures that prevent potential terrorists trying to enter the country.
“We are not contending that any of the current security vetting processes be compromised,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that there aren’t dangerous people out there and that they shouldn’t be prevented from entering this country.
Locally, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington has expressed support for the bill, which Executive Director Ron Halber said is in the spirit of the Jewish community’s history of religious freedom and opposition to bigotry.
“Given the Torah’s imperative to treat strangers among us with compassion and dignity and our history as a Jewish people of repeatedly fleeing persecution, we are acutely sensitive to discrimination,” he said in a statement. “We are proud to stand with the interfaith community to ensure that no one seeking refuge or a better life in the United States will be discriminated against based on his or her religious beliefs.”