Lessons Learned From Washington


(photo: Unsplash)

“Be careful what you wish for.”

Catholics inspired by President Donald Trump’s pledge to help persecuted Christians from the Middle East resettle in the United States surely pondered that old adage as they witnessed the botched release of his Jan. 27 executive order.

Without much notice, the order suspended the processing of applications for immigration and refugee resettlement from seven Muslim-majority countries and sparked chaos at airports across the globe.

Critics claimed that the “travel ban” singled out Muslims and thus violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Legal challenges to the order were immediately filed, and Trump’s explicit support for Christian applicants for resettlement was cited as further proof of his animus toward all Muslims.

Catholic and Christian leaders also pushed back against the executive order, explaining that it tarnished their own efforts to advocate for fellow believers in the Middle East by appearing to pit one religious group against another.

On March 6, a chastened White House issued a revised executive order that scratched several policies, including the prioritization of vulnerable religious minorities.

Lost in the debate sparked by the “travel ban” is the inconvenient truth that Christians and other religious minorities have been targeted by the Islamic State terrorist organization (ISIS).

Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry designated ISIS’ assault on Christians and Yazidis in Syria and Iraq as a campaign of “genocide.”

Advocates for these beleaguered religious communities hoped the genocide designation would boost the number of Christian and Yazidi applicants accepted for resettlement in this country.

“Victims of genocide must be given priority; otherwise, the designation of genocide is a meaningless game of semantics,” Father Benedict Kiely, a Catholic pastor in Vermont who founded Nasarean.org, a charity that raises funds for persecuted Christians, told the Register.

Thus far, however, advocates like Father Kiely and Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, have been frustrated by the slow pace of change in U.S. refugee resettlement policy.

For example, though Christians in Syria comprised 8%-10% of the population before the outbreak of civil war in 2011, since then, about 1% of Syrians approved for resettlement in this country are Christian.

Now, some fear the poorly managed release of the first executive order will doom future attempts to help more Christians from Syria, Iraq and other countries that face sectarian violence sparked by the 2010-2011 “Arab Spring.” Indeed, even as ISIS gives up territory in Syria and Iraq, it has established a new beachhead on the Sinai Peninsula, where supporters have executed 40 Coptic Christians in the past three months.

While the rollout of the “travel ban” offers a stark lesson on the danger of issuing an executive order without sufficient public education, legal guidance or broad consultation with other stakeholders, the news from Washington also features a successful pivot by the Trump administration on an another sensitive subject: so-called bathroom rights for students who identity as “transgender.”

On Feb. 22, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education rescinded guidelines issued by the Obama administration, which had directed public schools to allow students who identify as “transgender” to use the bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identity, not their biological sex.

The decision to pull the bathroom directive reflected Trump’s belief that the states should craft their own policies on this contentious matter.

U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions, an experienced lawmaker on Capitol Hill who has opposed the guidelines, executed a three-step plan that ended March 6 with the U.S. Supreme Court vacating a high-profile “transgender rights” case.

In early February, the day after Sessions was sworn into office, he made his first move: The Department of Justice dropped its appeal of a Texas court injunction that had prevented students from using the bathroom aligned with their preferred gender identity.

Later, Sessions met with Betsy DeVos, the newly confirmed secretary of education, to work out a unified position on the issue. Though DeVos reportedly supports the bathroom rules, she chose instead to focus on school policies that protected all students, including those who might be bullied or marginalized.

Once the two cabinet members clarified their policy and message, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education formally announced that Obama’s bathroom directive would be pulled.  

There was more to come. Obama’s directive was grounded in a new interpretation of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex, in schools that receive federal funds. Obama’s Department of Education contended that Title IX also barred discrimination based on gender identity.

Sessions’ final step was to confirm the change in federal policy in papers filed with the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices were scheduled in late March to hear Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., a case that addressed the right of a Virginia high-school student, who is biologically female, to use the boys’ bathroom, and the student based her argument on the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX. On March 6, the high court announced that the case had been vacated and sent back to a lower court for further consideration. (See blog.)

Two additional points help explain Sessions’ ability to complete his mission with relative ease. First, many constitutional scholars have also raised questions about the legality of Obama’s bathroom directive, so the attorney general was no outlier. Second, the directive has roiled public schools across the country, and polls suggest the majority of Americans reject it.

But Sessions’ disciplined approach also made an enormous difference, and he showed the kind of leadership we need now as we develop a new plan to help Christian refugees from the Middle East enter the pipeline for resettlement in our country.

Just as Sessions and DeVos properly avoided politicized language that would frame the bathroom policy pivot as a new victory in the culture wars, any future effort to aid religious minorities in the Middle East must not be presented as a zero-sum game, with winners and losers.

Building broad support for a more compassionate and generous policy will be tough going. Many of the faithful, and their shepherds, know little of the conditions that prevent our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq from finding peace and security in an adopted home. Instead of wringing our hands, we must educate and galvanize Catholics to break through the fog of confusion.

“It may seem politically incorrect to prioritize a specific group or groups,” Father Kiely told the Register, but “given the lessons of history, I wonder what prioritization might have done in 1938 for the Jews of Europe.”