Jurisprudence

Trump’s Response to the Pittsburgh Shooting Proves He Doesn’t Actually Care About Religious Liberty

There is no true freedom to worship when worshippers fear being shot at any moment.

Police and Muslim mourners in front of the makeshift memorial outside the synagogue.
Muslim mourners in front of the makeshift memorial at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions hosted a “Religious Liberty Summit” at the Department of Justice, inviting conservative advocates to discuss the “dangerous movement” that is “eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.” In his remarks at the summit, Sessions announced the creation of a new “Religious Liberty Task Force” to implement the attorney general’s guidance “interpreting” federal law to permit discrimination against LGBTQ people and women. Sessions boasted that the Trump administration has protected free exercise of religion by allowing religious employers to deny birth control to workers and by defending a baker who refused to serve a same-sex couple. “This administration,” he concluded, “is animated by that same American view that has led us for 242 years: that every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith in the public square.”

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On Saturday, an anti-Semitic gunman inspired in part by Donald Trump’s bigoted rhetoric walked into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue during Shabbat services, shouted “all Jews must die,” and killed 11 people. He was armed with an AR-15 and three handguns, all of which he purchased legally. When asked about the shooting, Trump told reporters: “If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better.” He then proceeded to his scheduled campaign rally, where he denounced “the scourge of anti-Semitism” before proposing his solution to “crimes like this”: “We have to bring back the death penalty.”

What Trump did not mention is that we have used the death penalty for “crimes like this”—and yet, somehow, they keep happening. Mass shootings in houses of worship have become increasingly common as deranged men slaughter congregants in churches, mosques, and synagogues. The possibility of capital punishment has not stopped these killers from purchasing exceptionally dangerous firearms and using them to terrorize people of faith. Sessions may wax poetic about Trump’s support for religious freedom. But there is no true freedom to worship when worshippers fear being shot at any moment.

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The murder of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in and around their sacred spaces is one of the most horrific aspects of America’s gun violence epidemic. Given the frequency of mass shootings in this country—largely a result of our lax gun laws—it might not be surprising that gunmen sometimes target houses of worship. But these hate crimes are an especially frightening act of violence that traumatize religious people across the country. It is hard not to view the Pittsburgh shooting as an assault on the entire Jewish community, for instance—one that will spur frightened congregations to amp up security measures out of concerns about another anti-Semitic massacre. (Police in many cities dispatched extra officers to synagogues and Jewish centers following Saturday’s attack.)

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Unfortunately, mass shootings in sacred spaces have become a fact of life in contemporary America. In 2012, Wade Michael Page killed Sikh people during an attack at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee using a semi-automatic handgun that he purchased legally. In 2015, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine congregants at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with a .45-caliber Glock handgun he obtained through a legal loophole. The next year, Oscar Morel shot and killed an imam and his associate as they walked home from a mosque with an unlicensed .38-caliber revolver. In 2017, Devin Kelley killed 26 people—half of them children—at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, using an AR-15 he could buy due to an Air Force error.

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Then, on Saturday, Robert Bowers allegedly used his legal firearms to commit the deadliest attack targeting Jews in American history, during two holy events: the observance of Shabbat and the celebration of a bris, the ceremony for welcoming an 8-day-old infant into the covenant.

All of these gunmen took advantage of a simple fact: It is extremely easy to obtain a gun in America and use it to murder unsuspecting congregants exercising their faith. In many faiths, houses of worship function as sanctuaries that open their doors to everyone. Recall that, in Charleston, the congregation welcomed Roof to Bible study, handing him a book and seating him next to Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Their faith called upon them to embrace the young stranger, who promptly murdered nine of them in an act of racial hatred.

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So long as monsters like Roof and Bowers can get their hands on guns, these shootings will keep happening. And so long as they continue, the free exercise of religion is in grave peril. The right to worship free of violence is a bedrock component of religious liberty, just as the right to speak free of violence is intrinsic to free expression. Countless Jews who return to their synagogues next weekend will do so under a cloud of unease. Ancient rituals will be tainted by the horror of contemporary terrorism. Some may prefer to stay home rather than risk carnage in their sanctuary.

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If civil rights laws protecting LGBTQ people infringe upon religious liberty, as the Trump administration believes, surely mass shootings in sacred spaces do as well. The government’s most basic obligation is to keep us safe, to safeguard our lives and liberties. As the Atlantic’s Garrett Epps has written, the Trump administration’s refusal to address these bloodbaths threatens “our very existence as a nation rather than a Hobbesian dystopia.” The First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise means nothing if exercising our religion may lead us to die in a hail of gunfire. We cannot worship freely if we constantly dread being killed by bullets in our churches, mosques, and temples.

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But Trump, like most Republican politicians, refuses to address this problem. He opposes rigorous background checks, robust “red flag” laws, longer waiting periods, and a ban on assault weapons. These laws would save lives without violating even our recently expanded Second Amendment, especially if implemented at a federal level. Trump cannot afford to endorse them, however, because the gun lobby—to whom he has sworn allegiance in exchange for massive donations—would rebel. So he blames everything else, including the Tree of Life synagogue itself, insisting that it should’ve hired more security. And he demands the use of the death penalty, despite the fact that Dylann Roof’s death sentence did not dissuade Morel, or Kelley, or Bowers.

It is both disturbing and revealing that Trump’s first response to Saturday’s shooting was to ask why the congregation hadn’t done more to prevent it. When his administration perceives the slightest threat to evangelical Christians eager to discriminate against women and minorities, it rushes to court to defend their rights. When faced with a spiraling crisis of shootings in houses of worship, on the other hand, Trump found a way to blame the victim. To the Trump administration, religious liberty does not encompass the right to worship without fear of being murdered by a madman with a deadly weapon. For religious leaders seeking to shield their congregants’ fundamental right to worship safely, Trump’s message couldn’t be clearer: You’re on your own.

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