A Former Muslim’s Thoughts About the Supreme Court and Religious Freedom

Perhaps those who would best preserve our religious freedom are those who are most complete in their daily practice of religion, including judges such as Amy Coney Barrett

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., administers the judicial oath to Judge Amy Coney Barrett in the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court Building. Judge Barrett's husband, Jesse M. Barrett, holds the Bible.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., administers the judicial oath to Judge Amy Coney Barrett in the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court Building. Judge Barrett's husband, Jesse M. Barrett, holds the Bible. (photo: Fred Schilling / Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

It was during an evening in July 2003 when a group of college-aged men and women, all of whom were Muslim, were seated in a cozy circle in the living room of a Georgetown townhouse. I was among them. We were interns who’d found our summer lodgings through a formal program for Muslim interns in Washington D.C.

Some of us were ardent in our practice of Islam. A few of us seemed rather casual. Some of us had serious demeanors. Others had very playful personalities. I spent this summer exploring our capitol, playing a lot of basketball, and sharing many laughs with these friends of mine. It was one of the most fun-filled times of my life.

Living in a swanky neighborhood was the upside. The downside was being woken up every day at dawn to pray, and that we had to discuss topics, or listen to lectures, centered around Islam on weeknights. 

As we sat there in our cozy circle, one of our facilitators, a warmhearted medical student (attending John Hopkins if I remember correctly) stood and explained to us that on this night we would be engaging in a discussion: Should apostates be executed, as was prescribed by Sharia law? 

What students of prestigious universities don’t know can be breathtaking — and so I got to learn what an apostate was. As an American, with the sentiments of an American, I felt disgust that we were even engaging in this type of discussion. Why would a “true faith” resort to the forceful measures of a cult? Wouldn’t “faith” cease to be faith if followers are coerced? 

I went ahead to vocalize my indignation, in the manner that a 20-year-old who assumed he knew everything (aside from what an apostate was) would do. Perhaps some of my peers shared my disgust. If so, they kept silent about it. 

My fellow Muslims, all of whom were living in the United States, all of whom were attending prestigious colleges (at institutions such as UCLA, Texas, and Yale) began earnestly discussing it. Some went on to consider that execution could leave a poor reputation for Islam in our modern era, or that non-lethal consequences could be resorted to instead. Others explained that an apostate could still revert to the true faith later on in life, so it would be better not to kill him (and presumably send him to hell) prematurely. The consensus was “no” to execution, but I couldn’t help myself from wondering why we, supposedly being refined, didn’t consider such a disturbing discussion to be beneath us. 

This was among the events which contributed to the eventual collapse of my faith in Islam. Some years later, it took on a much more personal meaning: my friends had held a forum on whether I should be killed in a few years.

“Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.” – G.K. Chesterton

Apostasy and “blasphemy” remains criminalized in much of the Muslim world today, and is a capital offense in several countries. Draconian laws, as well as social ostracism, do much to keep many former Muslims silent if and when they do convert to other faiths. Silence conspires to leave many such converts with the impression that he or she is utterly alone, and to suffer for it. 

I firmly believed in freedom of religion back in 2003. In 2007 I exercised my constitutional right by becoming a Christian. Since then I’ve been given the privilege to publicly share the story of my conversion, by writing articles such as this one, and being interviewed on radio and television. I’ve done so knowing that if I would ever gain a wide enough reputation among Muslims for my apostasy, that some mullah somewhere could consider it his duty to issue a fatwah, and that from then on death threats may likely be a routine part of my life. I wouldn’t dare to trade having this prospect for the safer route of silence, because silence already exacerbates feelings of loneliness for many former Muslims, and also because life becomes so much richer when we realize there really are things worth giving one’s life for.

Freedom of religion means a great deal to me, for intensely personal reasons. It angers greatly me whenever measures are taken to erode this precious freedom of ours. 

The nomination and confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett for Justice in the Supreme Court did much to bring the meaning of freedom of religion to the forefront in 2020. As someone skeptical that internet porn weighed heavily in the minds of our Founding Fathers when they wrote the parts in our Constitution concerning freedom of speech, and as someone who finds it disagreeable when judges legislate from court benches, I was very pleased to see that an originalist, more prone to interpreting rather than passing laws, was nominated to fill the vacant seat.

On the day of Barrett’s nomination, a relative of mine, having watched a news piece, brought concerns to me that Barrett was member of a cult. That so-called “cult,” People of Praise, turned out to be a fairly harmless charismatic and ecumenical Christian group (and if anyone can opt out without being threatened or harassed, such a group doesn’t deserve to be labeled with the “c” word). I had likewise heard concerns of “reckless disregard” for overpopulation fueled by Barrett’s religious convictions. I would have figured that the mother of seven kids, even when she doesn’t have a law degree, would have the natural makings of a fine judge, since she already makes rulings for a little village. 

The laws of the United States are a far cry from those of Saudi Arabia. We as Americans have the protected right to leave our religion, and to choose another. Our government doesn’t compel membership in any religion or commission a policing force dedicated to making sure we comply with religion. But our freedom of religion does still get diluted, and the recent attacks on our freedom have more often been in the form of imposing irreligious values upon religious individuals and organizations. It’s great irony that many lawmakers, ever so eager to tout “diversity,” can have such little tolerance for plurality. 

Does government have the right to impose legislation upon citizens that directly violates moral beliefs informed by the religion of those citizens? In very recent history we’ve witnessed the Obama administration’s efforts to compel Catholic hospitals to provide abortion services, and also to compel employers to provide contraception coverage regardless of whatever objections any of those employers may have based on moral grounds. 

Doesn’t an individual or religiously-based organization still have the right to refuse to provide a service based upon their religious convictions? In 2018 the Supreme Court heard the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. On Nov. 4, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. Neither of these cases would have been necessary had it not for the passing of sloppy legislations and sloppy court decisions (such as Obergefell v. Hodges), which begged for the eventual hearings of cases like these.

Isn’t it very possible for a judge to personally be active in his or her faith while remaining impartial in his or her common law rulings? Don’t judges have the same right to personally active in their faith as anyone else? Senators such as Kamala Harris, with a rather odd distaste for the Knights of Columbus, seem to have their reservations concerning this.

If I were a lawmaker, wouldn’t I still have the right to a conscience informed by my Catholic faith? Wouldn’t it be quite a stretch to assume that my “yeas” or “nays,” which though influenced by faith, somehow need to be appraised as imposing religious decrees? Isn’t it a stretch to assume that consideration for the rights of an unborn child are somehow always driven by misogyny? The freedom of religion includes the right of all citizens to make decisions which are influenced by their faith, and that is not the same thing as imposing compulsory religious practice.

How far will all this go? Are we to be so filled with ingratitude that the Christian faith, which has historically done very much to develop the liberties we cherish, must be elbowed out from public view in the very name of our freedoms? Must St. Damien of Molokai be deplored as a “colonizer” whose statue ought to be removed from Capitol Hill? It bothered me more than a little that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had no qualms with posting so much on Instagram. She posted it after the statue of St. Junípero Serra at Golden Gate Park had already become a casualty of cancel culture. 

Has tradition become so outdated? Has the Christian faith been rendered obsolete? If so, then who, or what, would be the standard-bearer for informing our consciences in the place of religion? I cannot help but side myself with the concern that, in recent decades, the viable alternative to faith and tradition which would do so much has taken increasingly daring steps toward resembling an ideology such as Communism, which sought to displace religion, and which proved itself throughout the 20th century to be catastrophic. In the end, the only thing worse than being informed of right and wrong by the Church is being informed so by anything else. 

Our freedom of religion distinguishes, in the most positive manner, so many of the nations in Christendom from many of the nations of Dar al-Islam or those ruled by ideological regimes. It is because I had this freedom that you are even reading these very words. It is something to be proud of, and it is worth preserving. And perhaps those who would best preserve it are those who are most complete in their daily practice of it, including judges such as Amy Coney Barrett.