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What the White House's decision to forgo Ramadan event means for religion and politics under Trump

Posted June 27

President Donald Trump decided against celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, at the White House this year, the first time in two decades that the White House did not commemorate the Islamic holy month of fasting with an iftar dinner.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also broke with tradition and declined a request from the State Department's Office of Religion and Global Affairs to host a reception for the holiday.

So where does this leave the intersection of religion and politics under the Trump administration? Is it perhaps a new step in the direction of separation of church and state, or does it signify something more concerning: a departure in the White House tradition of accepting all faiths?

Deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said neither is the case, pointing to actions that she said show equal respect for all faiths.

"The White House hosted a Passover dinner and put out a Ramadan statement in support of it," Walters said. "The President has been a strong advocate and supporter of religious liberty for all religions and all Americans."

But religious scholars question the precedent the decision could set and wonder how it will be received by the Muslim community.

"I think it's hard to read much from any one of President Trump's decisions, including this one," said John Inazu, a professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. "The more troubling observation is how the decision fits within the President's broader messaging: a privileging of a vaguely defined but Christian-flavored civil religion, and a tone-deafness to the concerns of other faiths, especially Islam," he continued.

John Esposito, a Georgetown University professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies, said the Trump administration is within its right not to host an iftar, an evening meal held at sunset to break the daily fasting during Ramadan. But he questions whether the move sets a precedent for future religious celebrations at the White House.

"They have a right to do this but should have indicated why," Esposito told CNN. "If this is part of an overall policy with regards to all religions, they should say so. But if that were the case, then what will they do about Christmas?"

RELATED: Eid al-Fitr: What you need to know

Thomas Jefferson is recognized as hosting an iftar at the White House in 1805, according to The Washington Post. President Bill Clinton then started the modern-day tradition of hosting a White House iftar in 1996, and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama followed suit.

In April, Trump hosted the 139th annual Easter Egg roll on the South Lawn. Several members of the Trump administration also hosted a Passover seder, but the President himself did not attend the dinner to commemorate the annual Jewish holiday. Son-in-law Jared Kushner and first daughter Ivanka, who are orthodox Jews, also skipped the seder, which was held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, instead celebrating the holiday in Canada.

"To now cancel the iftar with no explanation is to reinforce in the minds of many, not just Muslims, a concern that these proceed from bias and an anti-Islam or Muslim position," Esposito said.

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, echoed Esposito, telling CNN that it is "no surprise" that Trump decided not to host an iftar dinner.

"The surprise would have been if he had held an iftar," Hooper said, later adding that this decision send a "negative message" to Muslim Americans that "they are not a community that counts in the Trump administration."

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When asked about Tillerson's decision not to host an Eid al-Fitr reception, a State Department spokesperson referred CNN to the secretary's statement marking the end of Ramadan and reaffirmed the department's commitment to engaging with secular and religious leaders, organizations and institutions from all backgrounds both domestically and overseas.

The spokesperson added that "the secretary has not held events marking any religious holidays thus far."

When asked during an off-camera, audio-only press briefing Monday about why the President decided not to host an iftar, press secretary Sean Spicer simply replied, "I don't know."

Trump and first lady Melania instead released a statement Saturday extending "warm greetings" to those celebrating the end of Ramadan.

"Muslims in the United States joined those around the world during the holy month of Ramadan to focus on acts of faith and charity," they said. "Now, as they commemorate Eid with family and friends, they carry on the tradition of helping neighbors and breaking bread with people from all walks of life."

Trump's decision not to hold the dinner comes as his relationship with the Muslim community has grown increasingly strained. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Trump's travel ban can be upheld in part against foreign nationals who lack any "bona fide relationship with any person or entity in the United States." The ban applies to citizens of six majority-Muslim countries -- Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen -- and blocks them from entering the United States for 90 days.

During his presidential campaign, Trump initially called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims" entering the country. But in June 2016, Trump told ABC News he was open to the idea of hosting a Ramadan dinner at the White House if elected. "It wouldn't bother me. It wouldn't bother me," said Trump from the campaign trail. "It's not something I've given a lot of thought to, but it wouldn't bother me."

Immediately following Trump's election in November, there was a surge in hate crimes, most sharply against Muslim Americans. However, during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump delivered a speech calling Islam "one of the world's greatest faiths" and urging unity in the fight against terrorism.

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