Sen. James Lankford has made a small vocabulary victory that he believes will have a significant impact on religious liberty.
The Department of Homeland Security has announced that it plans to replace the term “freedom of worship” on all naturalization materials with “freedom of religion.”
The Oklahoma Republican began pushing DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to make the change last June. “It’s one of those small, incremental victories,” Lankford told The Daily Signal, and “we’ll take every one of those we can get right now.”
Lankford, a former Baptist youth minister, argues that the revision better reflects the significance and protections of the First Amendment.
“I’ve often heard the president talk about freedom of worship,” Lankford said. “There is a real sense that if you have freedom of worship, that means if you have a faith, you can go to church and practice your faith if it doesn’t affect your daily life.”
That’s a misrepresentation, he said, because it limits worship to a particular time and place.
“That’s not what we have,” Lankford said. “We have the free exercise of religion. That is, if you have a faith, you can live it anywhere you choose as an American.”
To qualify for citizenship, immigrants first must pass a naturalization test. Until recently, the civics exam listed “freedom of worship” as a basic constitutional right of Americans.
From 2009 to 2015, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, officials administered nearly 5 million tests nationwide. And for many immigrants, that’s their first introduction to American civics.
The updated exam, Lankford said, will ensure that new immigrants “get off on the right foot.” He said he wants “every new citizen into the country to know what their rights are and have the ability to live their faith.”
Lankford, 48, was elected to the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.
More than a persnickety grammar change, Lankford said, the edit to the exam is necessary to beat back challenges to religious liberty by those “who don’t like the freedoms that we have or are somehow offended by it.” He added:
In a strange way, this generation is becoming more and more afraid of faith. They don’t mind if someone goes to church, sings a song, and practices their faith in some room they don’t see.
Public demonstration of faith tends to invite prejudice, Lankford said.
“This generation [has] become increasingly intolerant of people who choose to live their faith publicly outside the church building. That’s not who we are as Americans,” he said.