- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2017

Sixty-four Republican lawmakers sent a letter Friday asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reaffirm the constitutional prohibition against religious tests for public office.

Led by Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina and Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, the memo is a response to questions raised by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont Independent, at a hearing last month to confirm one of President Trump’s nominees to the Office of Management and Budget.

“While there is continuous debate about the scope and meaning of the religion clauses in the First Amendment,” the letter reads, “the text of Article VI has been clear: no religious test shall ever (emphasis added) be required as a qualification to any public office or public trust under the United States.”

“Yet, questions were asked during a recent Senate Budget Committee hearing about an executive branch nominee’s adherence to the Christian faith,” the letter continues, “suggesting that such beliefs disqualified the nominee from service.”

At the hearing, Mr. Sanders took issue with an article written in 2016 by Russell Vought, a devout Christian who was nominated by Mr. Trump to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

In a blog for The Resurgent, Mr. Vought wrote that Muslims “do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, his Son, and they stand condemned.”

The article cited John 3:18, which reads: “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Mr. Sanders raised several questions about the blog post during the hearing and cited it as his reason for ultimately voting against Mr. Vought’s appointment.

“Do you believe—do you believe that that statement is Islamaphobic?” Mr. Sanders asked at the hearing.

“Absolutely not, senator,” Mr. Vought responded. “I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith.”

“Do you believe that people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?” Mr. Sanders asked. “Is that your view?”

“Senator, I’m a Christian—”

“I understand you are a Christian,” Mr. Sanders interrupted. “But this country is made up of people who are not just—I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. But there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?”

“Thank you for probing on that question,” Mr. Vought responded. “As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.”

“I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about,” Mr. Sanders said. “I will vote no.”

The letter to the attorney general cites Article VI, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which says “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

“The free exercise of religion means the ability to practice your faith without fear of punishment by the government,” the letter reads. “The government violates that right if it determines which faith or non-faith practices are valid or which aspects of a particular faith are legitimate.”

“As such, we urge you to make clear in your forthcoming guidance that the scope and meaning of Article VI has not changed: no religious test will ever be required to serve in the government of the United States.”

The letter is signed by members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, of which Mr. Lankford and Mr. Walker are co-chairmen.

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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