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War on religion: Who's the victim?

Published: Saturday, Feb. 18 2012 9:38 a.m. MST

Ever since the highly scrutinized "Strong" ad by Rick Perry hit the web, the talk of a war on religion has been on the lips of religious and conservative groups across the nation.

However, some wonder who's under attack.

In early January, the Supreme Court decided unanimously against the Obama Administration in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a case pitting the rights of religious organizations to choose their own ministers against the government's interest in preventing discrimination in the workplace. Then on Jan. 20, the Department of Health and Human Services mandated religious organizations that provide social services to cover FDA-approved sterilization procedures and contraceptive drugs in their insurances, The administration eventually changed the policy after receiving heat from the Catholic church, as reported by CNN. And due to the Supreme Court refusing to hear an evangelical church’s appeal of a New York City ban on worship services in public schools, small churches all over NYC must look for a new place to worship starting Feb. 19, according to Reuters.

Despite the government's threats to religious liberty, some argue the biggest threat is coming from the religious and conservative groups themselves. University of St. Thomas Law School professor Robert K. Vischer says one example of those threats is the Islamic prejudice now permeating state legislations.

"The recent spate of 'anti-Sharia' initiatives is just the most politically popular example of such threats," Vischer writes for First Things. "Though popular with secularists and religious conservatives, anti-Sharia legislation does not defend against theocracy but calls into question our society’s fundamental commitments to meaningful religious liberty and meaningful access to the courts. These commitments have been relied on by generations of Protestants, Catholics, Mormons and Jews, and to try to remove them for Muslims both is unjust to Muslims and sets a dangerous precedent for other religious groups."

In November 2010, Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly supported a state constitutional amendment banning the use of Sharia law in U.S. courts, which would prohibit Muslim plantiffs or defendants to shape their actions in terms of their religious practice in the courtroom. However, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found the amendment unconstitutional. According to Mlive, a new bill in Michigan is trying to do the same with primary proponent, Republican Rep. Dave Agema, saying it is aimed toward Muslims who "do not want to be under our law."

Vischer points out the Sharia law debate is also hot among Republican presidential candidates.

"Gingrich has described Sharia as 'a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it,'” Vischer writes. "Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann signed a pledge to reject 'Sharia Islam and all other anti-woman, anti–human rights forms of totalitarian control,' and Bachmann explained that 'Sharia law ... certainly does not have a place in a United States courtroom, nor should it be followed by United States judges.' Even Mitt Romney felt obliged to insist that 'we’re not going to have [Sharia] law applied in U.S. courts.'"

The rhetoric seems to be having an effect on Americans as well. USA Today reports a Murfreesboro, Tenn., sheriff hired a former FBI agent who said mosques in nearby Nashville have no legal right to exist to lead terrorism training and teach the department about Islam.

Saleh Sbenaty, a member of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, said the sheriff's office never asked any members of the Islamic community to participate in the training.

"This training is hate training," Sbenaty said. "It is not training to keep our whole community safe."

The training comes on the heels of a city controversy surrounding a large Islamic center to be built in the town. Three months following the decision to go forward with construction in May 2010, a suspicious fire broke out which investigators labeled as arson.

Vischer argues these attitudes toward Muslims are the most dangerous threats to all Americans' religious liberty.

"To ban Sharia or any other form of religious law puts religious citizens at a tremendous disadvantage," Vischer writes. "The rules of secular groups like the PTA, ACLU and Humane Society all have real authority because the legal system stands behind them when disputes arise. In the same way, American law rightly stands behind the rules adopted by religious bodies unless those rules conflict with important public policies.

"When the state encroaches on the venues in which people live out their core beliefs — including the legal venues in which those core beliefs are given real-world efficacy — the cause of conscience suffers," he continues. "An ascendant secularist vision of the public marketplace already excludes traditional Christians, or at least requires, as the price of admission, that they defy their own commitments. It would be a sad irony for Christians to be complicit in the effort to do the same to American Muslims."

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