If you’re a big supporter in the separation of church and state, you might want to skip President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Both Republicans and Democrats — not to mention the White House itself — invite guests to attend the annual address, and it’s not just as a favor to those invited. Special guests typically serve as symbols of issues of the day, and this year, faith is at the heart of some of the most contested ones. That’s why many of the guests in the House gallery will represent various religious backgrounds — and the issues they bring with them. Here’s who you can expect to see in the audience, and why they’re so significant.
Kim Davis, county clerk from Rowan County, Kentucky
After same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states as a result of last year's historic Supreme Court ruling, Davis made news when she refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because she said it violated her religious beliefs. Her protest was at the center of a national debate on gay rights versus freedom of religion, and that fight is certainly not over. The Family Research Council, a social conservative, antigay activist group, has arranged for Davis and her lawyer to attend the address, though it’s unclear which lawmaker is responsible for providing the seats. In a direct contrast to her presence, though, will be Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that nationalized gay marriage. He’s a guest of the president.
Dr. Mohammed Qureshi, Muslim doctor whose mosque was shot in a hate crime
Qureshi is the president of Baitul Aman Mosque in Meriden, Connecticut, which was shot at shortly after the Nov. 13 Paris terrorist attacks. A local resident named Ted Hackey Jr. fired several rounds of bullets from his semi-automatic rifle in his yard -- aiming some in the direction of the mosque next door. His Facebook page featured hateful rants like “All Muslims must die!” Qureshi, who is a guest of Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said he wished he had introduced himself to the mosque neighbor. “If he had known us, he wouldn’t have had that hate.”
Catholic nuns Sister Loraine Marie Maguire and Sister Constance Veit
Maguire and Veit have been invited by the House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to represent the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious order that has fought a long legal battle against the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. In a class-action lawsuit, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has argued on behalf of the nuns that religious exemptions in the ACA are not enough, because simply signing the coverage over to a third-party insurance provider makes them complicit in offering birth control. Maguire and Veit will sit in the Speaker’s Box during the speech.
Asima Silva, founder of ‘Meet a Muslim Day’
After a spike in backlash against Muslim-Americans following the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, many activists have mobilized to increase awareness about Islam among their fellow Americans. Asima Silva is one of those activists. She founded EnjoinGood.org, an organization dedicated to help Muslims be more active in their communities through service. She also organized “Meet A Muslim Day” in Worcester, Massachusetts, in an attempt to build bridges between Muslim-Americans and their fellow citizens. Silva is a guest of Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.
Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Muslim, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida, a Jew, both Democrats, have urged their colleagues to invite Muslims to the speech in as a sign of opposition to anti-Muslim bigotry. According to an aide of Wasserman-Schultz, 20 members of Congress have pledged to bring Muslim guests to the event. Among them is Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who is bringing Abdirahman Kahin, a prominent Muslim from the Twin Cities and a local restaurant owner. Other Muslims in attendance will include an imam from New Jersey and representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.