DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, April 5, 2013

Who Are the Foes of Religious Freedom?

Religious freedom has always been at the forefront of the American experience, even before the 1st Pilgrims, Bibles in hand, landed at Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims came to America for the freedom to practice their religion. So, of course, one of the 1st things they did was prohibit any religions other than theirs and ban dissenters like Roger Williams to the wilds of Rhode Island. But that is another story. Most agree that the Founding Fathers got it right when, in the first 16 words of the Bill of Rights, they wrote: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...  However, defining exactly what that phrase means became an issue almost as soon as the ink on the 1st Amendment dried. And challenges have risen throughout American history to question exactly how that mandate should be determined and enforced. Not surprisingly, in today's increasing pluralistic American society, those challenges are only being exacerbated.

To examine some of the current and future challenges to religious freedom, 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 final session of the symposium featured 6 speakers. They were:

  • Kim Colby, senior counsel for the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom
  • Michael Lieberman, director of the Civil Rights Policy Planning Center of the Anti-Defamation League
  • Dan Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom and Religion of Belief
  • Suhag Shukla, executive director and legal counsel for the Hindo American Foundation
  • Mark Rienzi, special counsel for the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty and
  • Jay Michaelson, of Poitical Research Associates
Shukla framed the debate when she listed 3 problems that lead to many of the most difficult areas of contention. First, the United States is awash in religious illiteracy. "We don't know what our neighbors believe," she said. Then, there are deep-rooted pockets of religious intolerance. Finally, there is what Shukla terms "asymmetry" of political power. "The less powerful don't have deep pockets; they don't have the lobby to fight," she said.

The panel examined several current religious issues. One was an attack in California on the teaching of yoga in schools as religion. "Where do we draw the line," Shudka asked. "Is yoga a religion? What about sweat yoga. Or doga-yoga where you do yoga with your dog? Another issue explored was the case of a legislator in South Carolina who wanted to get approval for a state license plate which would feature the slogan I Believe accompanied with a cross in front of a stained glass window. When it was pointed out that such approval could lead to a Hindu or Muslim license plate, the obviously Christian plate call failed.

A huge church/state battleground is America's public school system. Here it can be something like a ban a school wanted to institute on rosary beads because they could be considered a gang symbol. But other times it is the intrusion of religion into the schools that is the culprit. "Rights are being violated routinely," Mach contended, causing his group to take legal action. "There are people promoting religion on a daily basis." 

As an example, Mach cited the case of a Southern principal who decided to schedule a full-day of auditorium programs to promote Christianity. "It may not happen the other 364 days of the year, but they are going to get Christ one day a year," Mach said the principal contended.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The issue of religious freedom can be further clouded by the fact that many secular issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraception also have religious overtones. The Huffington Post published an interesting opinion piece last week entitled "Religious Freedom, Meet Secularism: Your Best Ally." To read that article, click here. 

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