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Norman Rockwell Religious Freedom

Photo credit: davidwoolley.blogspont.com

by Rick Plasterer

The social and legal conflict over religious freedom that has increasingly characterized the 21st century will be a long-term struggle, but historic western freedoms of religion and speech will have able and determined advocates. This seemed apparent throughout the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s 2013 National Freedom Conference, held on May 30.

Rabbi Meir Solveichik of Yeshiva University, in a keynote address, proposed that the Abraham’s definition of his relation to the Cannaanites, in which they were “strangers and neighbors,” should serve as a defining concept for religious freedom for persons of different conviction as we move into the future. This was the understanding of the American founders, it was maintained. It involves both the idea of social contract, in which individual rights are recognized, and covenant, which involves a union for a common destiny. The ideal society must involve both concepts for order and freedom, Rabbi Solveichik said, in contrast to utopian visions with no room for difference, and which lead to persecution.

This was followed by the first of three panels. Tim Schultz, Executive Director of the EPPC’s American Religious Freedom Program noted that 18 states now have religious freedom caucuses, to discuss and act on policy related to religious freedom. A positive accomplishment in several states has been the enactment of state laws guaranteeing the right of religious groups at state colleges and universities to have leadership that agrees with their beliefs, a right the U.S. Supreme Court declined to protect. Curt McKenzie, an Idaho state senator, discussed Idaho’s religious freedom legislative caucus’s successful legislative proposal to provide legal protection for student religious groups at state institutions. The bill was successfully enacted with careful preparation, consulting with the state Attorney General and national organizations concerned with religious freedom. It passed with strong bi-partisan support. Jennifer Kraska, Executive Director of the Colorado Catholic Conference spoke however, of the increasing denial of liberty of conscience and religious expression in that state. She discussed a particularly disturbing ballot initiative in Colorado that would have confined legal protection for religious belief and practice to houses of worship and private homes. While removed from the ballot, another civil unions bill moving through the legislature removed religious liberty protections for adoption and foster care services from the proposed measure, with its proponents strongly denying any right to liberty of conscience in public, holding it inappropriate to a modern society.

Finally, Oklahoma State Representative Rebecca Hamilton noted that she was asked by a constituent to leave her faith at church, and barely escaped censure by her party for passing a pro-life bill. Legislative success is more likely if the parties are closely matched in legislative power, because this gives popular opinion greater weight in the legislative outcome, she said. She said persecution of any group starts with relentless social attacks, and limitations on freedom of action and expression. Violent persecution is the ultimate outcome if not stopped. She said the number one way to address attacks on religious freedom is “to stop being afraid.” Panelists proposed that other important needs in the fight for religious freedom include funding in the face of enormous spending by groups opposed to religious freedom initiatives at the state level, the need to communicate persuasively the religious freedom message to the public, and the need to communicate across the left/right culture war divide.

This was followed by a panel of religious leaders. Rev. Eugene  Rivers, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community of the Church of God in Christ, said that “the Obama Administration has treated the faith community like useful idiots.” Having supported Obama for “hope and change… the black church got thrown under the bus,” he said. However, despite threats to its tax exempt status because of its Biblical stand on same-sex marriage, Rivers said of the black church that “we are going to go to jail on that issue … the black churches want to work with those who are serious about what is going to be a fight.” Echoing Rabbi Solveichik, Shaykha Reima Yosif, founder of the Al-Rawiya Foundation, said that while inter-faith encounters emphasize similarity, defenders of religious freedom should take their cue from the Pilgrims “who insisted on preserving their unique way of understanding the religious life.”

Rabbi Abba Cohen, Vice President for Federal Affairs of Agudath Israel, said that in the contemporary environment, advocates of religious freedom have found that “the larger and more diverse the support, the greater the chances success.” Referring to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of the 1990s, he noted that “the large, left to right coalition of religious and civil rights groups, was its biggest selling point, and its key to passage.”  “Almost any case” he said, which threatens religious freedom “has the potential of affecting all religions.” He claimed that the struggle over religious freedom is intense, because behind the conflict is a more basic conflict about religious belief and its place in society, with secularists endeavoring, through attacks on traditional religious belief in popular culture as well as law, to change religious belief and make the nation more secular.  This leads to a “poisoned atmosphere within society” where laws protecting religious freedom “will be severely weakened” which will result in even more societal hostility to religious belief and practice because “the law is a teacher.” Although it is still possible, “religious accommodation legislation is harder to pass today, and when it does, it is not always with a full measure of protection.” Echoing this, the Rev. Chad Hatfield of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary agreed that we “can no longer accept the fact that Caesar will protect us … that’s simply always been a myth.”  The Orthodox will “stand shoulder to shoulder” with other religious groups to protect religious freedom, he said.

In one of the most incisive presentations, Elder Lance Wickman of  the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints noted that religious freedom is being devalued because religious identity is held to be a “mere lifestyle choice, and not as an essential defining element of human identity.” It is then held to be of secondary importance to social policy informed by civil rights for groups deemed to have been oppressed and therefore protected in law. This leads to a “zero sum contest” between identity groups. But religious identity is as important to human dignity as other identities, Wickham said, and religious liberty must be understood to involve more than the right to worship, but the right to legal and social space “in which to meaningfully live out their religious beliefs and pass on their traditions to the next generation … Religious organizations must be free and protected … including in the employment of those who carry out their religious purposes. Likewise, people of faith must be reasonably free not only to believe, but to meaningfully exercise their religion in the spaces where they live the majority of their lives. Those spaces include professional and commercial settings.” Finally, Wickham noted that while Mormons, like other religious groups, have experienced “the tyranny of the majority against an unpopular minority,” this is the first time that America has experienced a legal and social assault by secularists against religion in general.

Subsequent presentations by legal scholars also indicated long-term, intense struggle, and will be discussed in a subsequent posting.