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DC at Night

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Religious Freedom in America Today

We know the words the Founding Fathers wrote when they created the Bill of Rights. It was only a 16-word phrase, but what power those 16 words  at the beginning of the 1st Amendment conveyed: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... But today, more than 2 centuries later, what does the term religious freedom mean? And what does, and indeed should, happen when the religious rights of an individual or an institution clash with the rights of another individual or the state?

To tackle those and other related religious questions, the Religious Freedom Education Project, the Committee on Religious Liberty, and Moment Magazine recently held a symposium on defining religious freedom in America at the Newseum.

The 1st session of the symposium featured 5 speakers. They were:
  • Mark Chopko, chair of the Nonprofit and Religious Institutions practice group
  • Hoda Elshistaway, legislative and policy analyst for the Muslim Public Affiars Council
  • Richard Foltin, the director of legislative and national affairs for the American Jewish Committee
  • Holly Hoffman, general counsel for the Baptists Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and
  • Wendy Kaminer, author and social critic.
Foltin began the discussion by positing a simple definition of religious freedom. "It's the maximum ability to be left alone to practice your beliefs," he maintained. However, Kaminer immediately pointed out the problem with totaling upholding that point of view. "When you act according to your rights, you may be interfering with someone else's right. There has to be a balance," she said. "And there is a difference between
individual and institutional rights."

Elshistaway said that any discussion or practice of rights must, by necessity, be linked to responsibility. "Religious freedom in America comes with a responsibility to recognize that others have the right of freedom of religion, too," she said.

Several panelists pointed to the fact that religions that fall outside mainstream acceptance are most often the victims of intolerance and discrimination. "Muslim Americans have been under attack since 9/11. We need to stop putting Muslims under surveillance, " Kaminer said. Panelists also expressed concern for the ramped-up rhetoric and histrionics employed today in discussions of such state/church conflicts as same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, and religion in the schools. "This is another manifestation of our highly polarized society," Hollman said. 

The antidote to such counter-productive behavior is calm, logical, reasonable discussion that considers all points of view. Foltin suggested one avenue. "We need always to find a basis for understanding, a basis for respect when we examine what it means to be religious in a pluralistic, highly-religious society that also sometimes needs to be restrictive," he said. 

Hollman concurred, citing the huge role she believes empathy should play in religious disagreements. "Most of us are in a minority somewhere.  Empathy is the 1st principle that should tie us together. Our freedoms are tied to other people's freedoms," she explained.

It's fairly clear that religious freedom, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, means 3 things:
1) government cannot establish a single religion, and, by extension should not favor one religion over another.
2) all people have the right to believe and practice the religion they choose
3) and that includes people who choose to believe in no religion at all.

But that still leaves the inevitability of institutional and individual clashes over religion. And that may be a good thing, the panel found. Freedom of religion isn't, and should never be, a settled issue. There will always be questions that need to be resolved. 

"We're very lucky to have the things in this country that we argue about be the things that we argue about," Foltin said.

Chopko put it this way. "We all understand what the principles are, but we fall out on the margins," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Moment Magazine was one of the group's sponsoring the freedom of religion symposium. To learn more about that magazine, click here.

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