CAIR-WA executive director Arsalan Bukhari, speaking on the UW campus in November 2016. Photo by Sara Bernard.

Bill to Protect Against Muslim Registry Enters State Senate

SB 5308 would narrowly prevent state agencies from giving out personal religious information to the feds.

Eight state senators, including newly sworn-in District 37 senator Rebecca Saldaña, have sponsored a new bill that would prohibit state agencies from helping the Trump administration from compiling a list of known Muslims, as the president-elect promised to do while campaigning. From SB 5308:

An agency shall not provide or disclose to federal authorities personal information regarding the religious affiliation of any individual that is requested for the purpose of compiling a database of individuals based solely on religious affiliation.

Saldaña joined fellow Democratic senators Guy Palumbo, Sam Hunt, Andy Billig, John McCoy, Kevin Ranker and Marko Liias and Republican Joe Fain in sponsoring the bill. “We want to send a strong message to our Muslim brothers and sisters in Washington state that we’ve got your back,” said Palumbo in a press release.

If passed into law, will the bill have any practical effect? Or is it purely symbolic? As written, the Trump administration could bypass the bill by simply requesting personal information without identifying any purpose, or by saying that the purpose is compiling a database based partly but not solely on religious affiliation.

We asked Palumbo about this. Answer: the bill is both symbolic and practical.

“We vetted it with the Governor’s office first” to find out “if this data lives anywhere” in state government, he says. It turns out that only the state agencies that specifically collect data on religious affiliation are the Department of Corrections and the Healthcare Authority. SB 5308, Palumbo says, is a “preventative measure” aimed at protecting those specific datasets. It’s based on similar legislation currently under consideration in the California legislature.

Should the language be broader, in order to make the bill more difficult for Trump to sidestep?

“I guess I didn’t give that enough thought,” replies Palumbo. “We could probably tweak that.” Amending legislation based on constituent feedback is pretty common, he notes. “If that needs to be done, we’ll just amend it.”

Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)’s Washington chapter, supports that plan. “I’ll definitely be in touch with [Sen. Palumbo’s] office to see if [SB 5308] can be a bit wider…[and] generalized more,” he says.

Fain, the only Republican to sponsor the bill, calls it “more of a values statement” than a practical piece of legislation. “I actually don’t have much fear that the federal government will embark on the path of a registration based on someone’s personal religious beliefs,” he says, “but since I find doing so completely objectionable, I don’t have any problem putting my name in opposition” by sponsoring the bill.

“This is just as much as messaging tool as anything, to make it clear that categorizing people based on their religious beliefs is unacceptable,” says Fain.

Bukhari agrees that the bill is symbolically important. “I think it’s very important that federal and state lawmakers and everyday Americans use their platforms to publicly and vocally…affirm American values” including religious tolerance, he says.

Update. Sen. Saldaña replied to our inquiries with a prepared statement which reads in part, “This bill seeks to protect the fundamental rights for every resident of Washington to express their personal and religious liberties without fear of surveillance or persecution. As such, the bill reflects the values we hold in my district and throughout the state – those of multi-culturalism and mutual respect…While we can’t legislate respect, we can take steps to protect our different faith communities by prohibiting the release of their personal information for the purpose of a religious registry. Frankly, this is a simple but significant step to protect all people in Washington.”

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