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Religious liberty advocates call for faiths to join forces

Published: Saturday, June 1 2013 11:15 p.m. MDT

Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program, called on members of all religions to join forces in a battle against secular and other interests that seek to limit religious expression through governmental or workplace policies.

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WASHINGTON — An attack on the religious liberty of members of one faith is an attack on all faiths, religious freedom advocates and faith leaders were told at a conference on Thursday. Organizers also announced the formation of religious freedom caucuses in nine states, including Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia, bringing the total number of states with religious freedom caucuses to 18.

Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program, called on members of all religions to join forces in a battle against secular and other interests that seek to limit religious expression through governmental or workplace policies. Other conference participants — including Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, evangelical and mainline Christian, Eastern Orthodox and Latter-day Saint leaders — echoed a similar refrain.

Articulating the philosophy behind creating the state caucuses, Alan Reinach, executive director of the Church State Council of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said the future of individual religious liberties is being decided on a state level, not at the Supreme Court.

Several state leaders weighed in on the utility of the caucuses, including Idaho Republican state Sen. Kurt McKenzie, who said the Idaho caucus helped craft and pass a state constitutional amendment protecting religious liberty and a law allowing religious student groups to be active on college campuses.

"(Lawmakers) often want to do the right thing, but we don't know how to craft the language," he said.

The conference was convened by the American Religious Freedom Program, a project of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to issues of public policy.

Employing biblical language to describe the interfaith effort, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University said members of different faiths are "both strangers and neighbors to each other," meaning that as they acknowledge and appreciate differences in doctrine and tradition, they are able to become better neighbors and work together.

Soloveichik continued, "A just society allows people to not amputate their covenantal identity in the public square," a theme reiterated by several other panelists, including Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an emeritus general authority of the church.

Elder Wickman said society has come to recognize and respect elements of human identity and dignity such as race, ethnicity and gender.

"More recently, we have come to understand that some people also form powerful identities around sexual orientation," he said. "For some people, sexual identity is the defining characteristic of who and what they view themselves to be."

He continued, "All of these secular aspects of human identity are now widely seen not only as something vitally important to individuals in their private lives, but as worthy of public acceptance and accommodation. We no longer demand that people remain 'in the closet' or silent about important elements of their personal identity.

"This openness and acceptance can be very positive," Elder Wickman said. "But this accommodation of secular interests cannot be accomplished at the expense of religious interests of people of faith, for to us our faith is key to our human dignity."

Elder Wickman said balancing differing perceptions of human dignity must not be a "zero-sum game."

He said religious faith has increasingly been portrayed by some as a hobby or lifestyle choice akin to membership in a bowling league or a book club, rather than an intrinsic and defining element of identity.

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