The Rushmore Report: The Major Religion Stories of 2017

The new year could be turbulent for religion in America. Several hot-button issues – including immigration, abortion, poverty, health care, gay rights, and education – will put religion near the center of public life and debate. But there is one issue that is likely to be the singular most profound religious matter that will face the Trump Administration.

The issue that could especially flare up? In a Trump Administration, “religious freedom” is expected to either flourish or come under attack, depending on who defines religious freedom.

In a divided, angry America, religious freedom is frequently seen through the lens of the “culture wars,” says Charlie Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum. Once Donald Trump is inaugurated, many religious conservatives will seek to roll back culture war advances made by President Obama – including on abortion rights and LGBT rights.

“For some, religious claims for exemptions and accommodations are a form of bigotry,” Haynes said. “For others, minority religious groups – especially Muslims – are an existential threat to American traditions and values.”

Many observers are especially watching how Trump’s relationship with Muslims in the United States and abroad will unfold after he campaigned on a pledge to ban Muslim immigrants. In the weeks ahead of his inauguration, Trump’s advisers have issued conflicting statements about the status of his plan. Trump’s own statements have been a mix of repeating, softening and vaguely re-endorsing a ban, so it’s unclear what might take place.

Trump’s policy on Muslims is likely the most anticipated religion story because Americans could see it as a referendum on anyone’s right to free belief, said Rashid Dar, a research assistant at the Brookings Institution.

“If the floodgates are opened to discrimination based on ideology or belief, then it threatens all Americans, who will have to ensure that they are not the next victims of policies aimed at rooting out ‘un-American’ beliefs,” Dar said.

Another major story expected early in Trump’s administration includes any changes to the Supreme Court. (In an appeal to religious conservatives, Trump promised to appoint justices who oppose abortion.)

Many of the current religious freedom battles could quickly disappear during Trump’s presidency, especially if the Affordable Care Act – the target of many religious freedom lawsuits and conflicts – is repealed, Haynes said.

Other battles may worsen, he predicts. Many Native Americans, for example, fear that their religious freedom will suffer a significant blow if the Trump Administration reverses the Obama Administration and allows the Dakota Pipeline project to go forward near the Standing Rock Reservation.

Many religious conservatives think the Obama Administration has overstepped on issues of religious freedom in areas such as contraceptive access under the Affordable Care Act and gay rights, especially the Supreme Court’s decision that was seen as providing sweeping protections to same-sex couples and potentially threatening the tax-exempt status of religious organizations. Will the Trump Administration now work to address these concerns?

Many states will be emboldened by the election to pursue laws that provide broad religious exemptions to same-sex marriage, and the ACLU expects more religious freedom bills than ever this year. These cases will possibly resurrect debates over what the government can – or can’t – compel faith organizations to do. For instance, will business owners be required to follow anti-discrimination laws and bake a cake for a gay wedding if it violates their religious beliefs?

Other scenarios observers are considering include:

Will legislators renew efforts to pass “anti-Sharia” laws and seek to limit what they see as the growing influence of Islam in America?

Will Trump fulfill his promise to end the Johnson Amendment, which prevents certain tax-exempt organizations such as churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates?

Will he quell concerns from some that academic institutions could lose federal funding over issues such as gay rights?

Will he reverse Obama’s declaration that transgender students must be allowed to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, a question the Supreme Court is considering?

About the Author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a writer for The Washington Post, covering issues of religion, with a focus on the ways that faith intersects with politics and culture.

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