Keith Ellison

Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison delivered a stinging rebuke when Arizona Congressman Trent Franks proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have targeted Islam, saying the amendment "stigmatizes people simply because they practice a specific religion." A bipartisan coalition rejected the amendment.

Can Democrats and responsible Republicans defend the most basic premises of the Bill of Rights in a Republican-controlled House that is run by hyperpartisan Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville?

It is true that, at Ryan’s direction, the 115th Congress often dances to the authoritarian tune of a Trump administration that shows no respect for the Constitution.

But there are still enough Republicans who recall their oath of office — “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic …” — to upset the Trump-Ryan agenda.

A coalition of constitutionalists just prevailed in a high-stakes struggle to defend freedom of religion as it is outlined in the First Amendment, and as it has been understood since Thomas Jefferson explained it in his final letter to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptists: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

That coalition included Wisconsin House members Mark Pocan, Ron Kind and Gwen Moore, all of them Democrats. Wisconsin Republicans James Sensenbrenner, Glenn Grothman, Sean Duffy and Mike Gallagher shamed themselves by voting for discrimination based on religious faith. But Republicans from a number of other states joined Pocan, Kind and Moore in their embrace of religious liberty.

The lines of division were drawn after an authoritarian right-wing member of the House, Arizona Republican Trent Franks, proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would, in fact, have made a law respecting an establishment of religion. Franks, a staunch defender of President Trump’s executive orders restricting travel by Muslims, sought to require Secretary of Defense James Mattis to “conduct two concurrent strategic assessments of the use of violent or unorthodox Islamic religious doctrine to support extremist or terrorist messaging and justification.”

The amendment targeted only Islam and was so vague in its referencing of “unorthodox Islamic religious doctrine” that it invited abuse. The amendment also mandated that one of the two reviews be conducted by “nongovernmental experts from academia, industry, or other entities not currently a part of the United States government” — opening up the process to further abuse.

Pocan’s frequent ally on civil liberties and civil rights issues, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, responded to the Franks amendment with a stinging rebuke. “This amendment stigmatizes people simply because they practice a specific religion,” the Democrat told his colleagues. “The idea that Congress is seriously considering an amendment that legislates stigmatization and hate in direct contradiction of the Constitution is outrageous.”

Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the House, recalled historic instances of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. And he warned that “when we single out a group of people and treat them differently, shameful and regrettable abuses and mistreatment follow.”

“If we haven’t already learned from our tattered past, when will we?” asked the congressman.

Ellison also raised concerns about the message that adoption of the amendment would send at a time when American Muslims already face violence and discrimination. “Rep. Franks’ NDAA amendment ordering a ‘strategic assessment’ on Islam goes against everything we strive to be. By ordering the Department of Defense to scrutinize a single religion, identify leaders for some unknown purpose, and determine an acceptable way to practice, Congress is ‘abridging the free exercise of religion,’ which is constitutionally impermissible,” said the congressman.

“The FBI reported a 67 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015 — the same year Asma Jama’s face was slashed with a beer mug while she was eating dinner at an Applebee’s in Minnesota. Her attacker admitted in court that she attacked Asma simply because she was Muslim and not speaking English,” recalled Ellison, who explained: “This rise in hate crimes isn’t a surprise. Our president began his campaign spouting hate, said Islam hates America, and promised to ban Muslims. His rhetoric has contributed to the growing movement of hate in our country, and I have no doubt that some of the most notorious racist, anti-Muslim voices will be a part of the nongovernment assessment demanded by this amendment.”

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With support from Muslim groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Congressional Progressive Caucus colleagues such as Pocan, Ellison struck a chord in the House, convincing 27 Republicans to join 190 Democrats in opposing the amendment.

That meant that 217 House members embraced their oaths to defend the Constitution, while 208 Republicans rejected the dictates of the First Amendment. It is, of course, unsettling that so many members of the House — including Wisconsinites who should know better — cast votes that were in conflict with the Bill of Rights.

It is equally unsettling that victories of this sort come in the context of continued assaults on individual rights and civil society. But it is encouraging, in these times, that bipartisan support can still be mustered for freedom of religion.

“We should study what drives people to terrorism. But this amendment didn’t do that. Not equally,” Ellison tweeted after Friday morning’s vote. “Glad so many of my colleagues agree.”

Wisconsinites should be glad that Mark Pocan, Ron Kind and Gwen Moore joined the bipartisan House coalition that got this vital vote right. As for the House members who got it so very wrong — James Sensenbrenner, Glenn Grothman, Sean Duffy, Mike Gallagher and the man who facilitated the vote, Paul Ryan — Wisconsinites really should be asking themselves: Do they want to be represented by political careerists who treat their oath of office with such reckless disregard?

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times