1. Update
  2. Immigrants & Refugees, Middle East & Iran

Why We Must Reject a Proposed Religious Test for Refugees

By Rebecca Harris, September 30, 2016


While there were certainly some dark moments for religious freedom in the early history of the United States, in which Quakers and others were denied the right to practice their faith, the Founding Fathers ultimately came down firmly on the side of religious liberty.

Quakers should not be allowed into our country. Their ideology encourages them to violate the law. They cannot assimilate into the dominant culture. They bring dangerous ideas, ideas with which they may indoctrinate good, upstanding citizens. This argument may sound absurd now, particularly to anyone who has worked with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, but it is precisely the kind of rhetoric that Quakers faced in 17th-century Britain—and the kind of rhetoric now faced by Muslim immigrants and refugees hoping to enter the United States. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said during a September 28 Senate Judiciary hearing on the Refugee Resettlement Program that it’s “nuts” to let Syrian refugees into the United States without asking them if they’re Muslim or not, strongly implying that our government should use religious identity as a key criterion for entry into this country. With these kinds of statements becoming increasingly common, it must be reiterated: a religious test for entry to this country is simply unacceptable, whether applied to Muslims or those from other faith backgrounds.

While there were certainly some dark moments for religious freedom in the early history of the United States, in which Quakers and others were denied the right to practice their faith, the Founding Fathers ultimately came down firmly on the side of religious liberty. Members of the Religious Society of Friends were persecuted in Massachusetts, forced to leave the colony and resettle in Rhode Island. Catholics were barred from public office in New York in 1777. But as American leaders considered how to forge a new path, to make this nation more than it had been, they moved decisively to enshrine religious liberty in our founding documents. The First Amendment lists no caveats or exceptions.

The right to religious freedom must be recognized for all people, not just U.S. citizens and residents. While refugees in other countries technically have no constitutional rights under U.S. law, the drafters of the Constitution did not view religious liberty as subject to limitation based on an individual’s location or country of origin. We don’t need to guess or revise history to arrive at this conclusion: we know that some of the Founding Fathers held this view because they said so. James Madison, for instance, did not differentiate between our obligation to respect freedom of religion at home and our obligation to welcome all refugees without regard to their religious background. Within a longer defense of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, Madison referred to the American policy of “offering an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every nation and religion” as a “generous” policy that “promised a lustre to our country.” What’s more, he opposed government spending on Christian education in part because he believed that this policy would send the wrong message to refugees seeking a place to practice their faith.

It is important to ask why the idea of banning Quakerism now seems ludicrous, but the notion of barring Muslim refugees has gained popular support. One could argue that America welcomes Quakers because they have been here since the inception of the United States, yet have never challenged the state or gone against widely-held convictions and values. But many Quakers pushed the bounds of public acceptability in World War II by refusing to serve in the military. And less than fifty years ago, Quakers violated the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act by sending aid to North Vietnam. One could also argue that Quakers are acceptable because they are non-violent, whereas Muslim refugees could easily be terrorists in disguise. But today, analysts on both sides of the aisle agree that Muslim refugees represent a negligible threat to United States security. No Muslim admitted to the United States as a refugee has ever killed an American citizen in a terrorist attack on US soil. This leads back to the original question: why does a religious test for refugees still seem reasonable?

To see how we have strayed so far from our core values, the American people need to engage in some deep introspection. We need to consider whether politicians, during this period of heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric and discrimination against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, have been condemning an entire community in order to create a scapegoat for the American people. We also need to consider whether racial, ethnic, and religious bias underlies this political discourse in which restrictions on Muslims are often deemed acceptable, but restrictions on other persons of faith are not. These are hard questions pointing to potentially ugly truths, but they demand answers. Only by confronting our biases can we move past them. And only by overcoming our biases can we return to the real task at hand: defending the fundamental values our country was founded upon and ensuring the United States continues to serve as a safe haven to those fleeing violence and persecution.

Statement FCNL Written Statement for Senate Judiciary Hearing on U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program 

Statement of Yasmine Taeb, Legislative Representative for Human Rights and Civil Liberties, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Hearing on: "Oversight of the Administration's FY 2017 Refugee Resettlement Program."

Rebecca Harris

  • Program Assistant for Human Rights and Civil Liberties

Rebecca Harris works closely with Legislative Representative Yasmine Taeb on issues including the Syrian refugee situation, the United States’ “War on Terror,” military use of lethal drones, and the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. As Program Assistant, she conducts research, meets with congressional staff, and drafts letters and other materials.