Virginia County Blocks Mosque. Where Are Religious Liberty Advocates?

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson was a strong supporter of religious liberty.

Ryo Chijiiwa/Flickr

It is an open secret that the modern “religious liberty” movement caters almost exclusively to conservative Christians who demand the freedom to discriminate against LGBTQ people. While the religious right fixates on bakers’ right to kick same-sex couples out of their stores, Islamophobia runs rampant throughout the country. Muslims in America face terrible discrimination in schools, in their communities, and in their houses of worship. And yet “religious liberty” advocates remain largely silent about the plight of Muslims, even arguing that America should exclude Syrian refugees because violence and rape are inherent to Islam

This month, Virginia’s Culpeper County provided the latest instance of anti-Muslim “religious liberty” hypocrisy. The county’s state representatives recently voted in favor of an anti-LGBTQ bill that purported to protect religious freedom. Yet in April, the county’s Board of Supervisors voted to prevent a Muslim group from building a mosque on an abandoned lot. The roughly 20 Muslims, who currently lack a proper prayer space, asked for a sewage system permit to begin cleaning up the area before constructing their mosque. 

But the board voted down the request—spurring cheers and applause among the Culpeper residents at the meeting. Before the vote, some locals had put up signs reading “No Islamic Center.” The board’s decision effectively prevents the Muslims from moving forward with their plan to build a prayer space on the land. Board members’ explanation—that the requested system could only be used in emergencies—is almost certainly pretext: In the last two decades, the board has granted 19 such sewage system permits, and rejected only one.

Thus far, the state representatives who so recently fought to protect anti-LGBTQ “religious liberty” have remained silent. So, too, have the advocacy groups that have spent millions defending anti-gay bakers, florists, and photographers who demand the right to refuse services to same-sex couples. And even the religious liberty activists who believe Christian employers should be able to deny their workers access to contraception have kept mum. Here is a live case of likely Islamophobia, and the country’s self-proclaimed religious freedom warriors will not raise a finger.

None of this is surprising: We already know that plenty of conservatives who wish to legalize Christian anti-LGBTQ discrimination would also outlaw Islam altogether. But the Culpeper catastrophe is an important reminder that the modern struggle of “religious liberty” has always been about one interpretation of one religion—conservative Christianity. When Christian colleges want to deny students contraceptive coverage, the right lines up and memorizes the talking points. When a county board kills a mosque and residents applause, the silence is deafening.