Why a former Presbyterian defended Muslims building a mosque…… | News and reports
Eric Treene has gone to court to defend Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims and people of other minority faiths for over 25 years. If you ask him why, he points to the Bible and the Westminster Confession. Treene, an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, is driven by his faith to defend religious freedom, especially the freedom of those with whom he disagrees.
Treene was a lawyer for Becket then, for for nearly 20 years, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. He developed and oversaw the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Law Enforcement Program (RLUIPA). Since leaving the federal government, Treene has taught First Amendment at Reform Theological Seminary and Catholic University and continues to litigate discrimination cases as a senior associate at Storzer and Associates in Washington, DC. This spring, Treene was honored by the Freedom Forum as a “champion of freedom of expression”.
He spoke to CT about the problem of religious discrimination in America and why it’s so important for Christians to stand up for religious freedom.
You have spent much of your career advocating for religious land use. Why do US government officials oppose religious land use today?
This is usually because they focus on business development. Much of what you see is the demands of religion rolling in the market.
One of my first cases, for example, was a church that had very carefully put together several plots of land at a key intersection, but the city wanted Costco to have that spot. The city tried to use eminent domain to seize the property to build a Costco.
Is it because they hate churches? No. Again and again, what we see is discrimination against places of worship, not so much out of animosity, but because they prefer to have commercial property that generates tax revenue.
There is a very powerful economic engine in our society that often trivializes faith. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) is one way for churches to oppose it.
One of the most famous land use cases you worked on was a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Yes. Sometimes the problem is animus.
In the first 10 years after 9/11, we saw a significant increase in hate crimes. Street attacks, vandalism of mosques, etc. But from around 2010, we saw something else: a sharp increase in opposition to the construction of mosques or Muslim schools. I think it may have happened then because Muslims kept a low profile for several years after 9/11, but their communities were growing and needed more space, needed to build.
In Murfreesboro, it was a very interesting case.
There was a lot of rhetoric like “Where are these people from?” when in fact it was Middle Tennessee State teachers, local professionals, business people, people like that who had been renting space for their mosque for 20 years. They had taken root. They bought land and sought to build.
The town approved it. But it caught the attention of some locals and others in nearby counties who were concerned. It got national attention, and it got hijacked, so people were saying it was a group that wanted to radicalize Middle Tennessee. There were crazy things. They had plans for a pool, and there was rhetoric like, “Is this pool for underwater demolition training? “Crazy stuff.
And there was vandalism. Someone set fire to a front-end loader.
An elected state judge ruled that the mosque was improperly approved because it was not a normal place of worship, so a different procedure was needed. We said, “No, you have to treat them like any place of worship; there is no reason to do anything else here under RULIPA. The federal court sided with us, and county officials were ordered to ignore the state judge.
As a Christian, did you find it difficult to explain to Christians why you were defending the right of Muslims to build a mosque?
Sometimes. I think as Christians we should think about why we believe in religious freedom. Is it just for the good of Christians? Is it simply because it’s in the Constitution? Or is it something more fundamental?
I think as Christians it goes much further.
If you go to the scriptures, a big part of the scriptures is “If you believe”. Again and again the emphasis is on belief and there is the idea that genuine faith requires belief. It is not enough for the government to force people. You cannot be saved by living in a righteous kingdom. People must be free to believe.
I rely on the Westminster Confession: “God alone is lord of the conscience and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men.”
But the problem of Islam in America has truly challenged even religious liberty advocates. There were a lot of defenders who, when it came to Muslims, said, “Well, I can go that far and no further.
When did you first become interested in the problem of religious discrimination?
Sophomore year of law school at Harvard. We had 150 people in my Constitutional Law class, and we discussed freedom of speech, and my classmates were leaning forward in their seats. Very energetic, excited, debating. But when it came to freedom of religion, I felt everyone was left behind.
We discussed a case involving Native American rights – it was a case with sacred land and a logging road that would cross the country, and the question was, does the government have to give reasons why the road goes there instead? from, you know, two miles to the west? The court said no, but Judge William J. Brennan wrote an impassioned dissent. He was a hero in free speech matters. But when it came to religion, I was the only person in the class to defend Brennan.
Many people are willing to go to great lengths to ensure that free speech can flourish, but were unwilling to demand that the government incur costs to make room for religion. After that, I was very interested.
When the opportunity arose, I joined Becket and then, when the George W. Bush administration created a special council for religious discrimination in the Department of Justice, that was the position I applied for and occupied for 19 years.
You have served under four presidents. Has the work changed significantly from one administration to another?
Not much, no. When the Obama administration came in, for example, I was told to continue working on religious land use cases, and we did as much evangelical stuff as we did in the Bush administration.
This changes at the margin, where you put amicus curiae memoirs. But the orientation of the work has not changed.
As you have observed instances of religious freedom over the years, have you noticed any changes? Does the form of the conflict stay roughly the same, or has it changed over the years you’ve been involved?
We have really moved away from the idea that religion in the public square should be oil and water. I am encouraged by this.
But there are still problems. Right now, I represent a lot of Orthodox Jews. They face a lot of prejudice. Hate crimes against Jews have always been a concern.
With evangelicals, it’s mostly this commercial preference that leads to prejudice, not hostility. The only exception is where evangelical belief conflicts with deeply held secular beliefs, which is where you get conflict with LGBT equality. I think the issue of understanding LGBT rights and religious freedom is key.
People are generally tolerant of religious views, but when they interfere with deeply held secular values, people say, “Enough is enough” and “You can’t have it.”
But religious freedom means you have to create space for people to be wrong – which is entirely biblical, by the way. Even when someone is wrong, you have to love them, listen to them, and be humble. The law creates this space for people to follow their conscience.