Religious liberty advocates call for faiths to join forces

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

However, he said, "because religion is fundamental to our very identities, it follows that the free exercise of religion must never be deemed a second-class or subordinate right. Just as advocates for secular rights demand respect for their dignity, so must they in fairness acknowledge the respect deserving of people of faith."

With regard to issues of sexual orientation, Elder Wickman said, "Secular thinkers and advocacy groups now seek to portray (traditional) beliefs as little more than ignorant bigotry that must be denounced and banished from public settings and confined to purely private places. In other words, a new closet is being constructed for those with traditional religious values on sexuality."

Elder Wickman also said that in spite of a general conflict between secularism and religion, it is useful to avoid thinking in an "us vs. them sort of way." He suggested viewing government not as an institution that is forcing something on individuals, but as an entity working to balance the dignity of all citizens.

True to its theme of "Many Faiths, One America," the conference was marked by a broad diversity of faiths and political affiliations. A panel on organizing caucuses and coalitions at the state level featured equal numbers of Republican and Democratic representatives.

And although one of the most prominent religious liberty battles of the past year — and arguably a catalyst for much local and national organizing around the issue — has been a disagreement between the Obama administration and Catholics who are opposed to birth control, conference organizers did not include Catholic clergy on a panel of religious leaders, emphasizing the diversity of the religious liberty movement.

Several panelists spoke about other instances of religious discrimination.

“The most significant religious liberty issue today that the media largely ignores is that every business day, there are several Americans who lose their jobs, and many others who are never hired, because of their desire to obey God,” said Reinach of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

He described legal victories in California, including passage of what he called the toughest workplace religious freedom act in the nation, which stipulates that employers cannot keep employees away from customers because of religious dress or appearance.

Amardeep Singh, director of programs for the Sikh Coalition, said that because of their religious clothing and beards, Sikhs are especially prone to discrimination in the workplace, at school and by the government.

Shaykha Reima Yosif, founding president of the Al-Rawiya Foundation, said the same thing can happen to Muslims. As a Muslim woman wearing hijab, she said, "I become an easy target for harassment."

Singh said more than 60 percent of Sikh children in California and New York City have been bullied, according to surveys conducted by the Sikh Coalition, and more than 20 percent have suffered physical harassment because of their appearance or beliefs. Overall, 11 percent of all Sikhs have been the victim of a hate crime, far higher than the national average, he said.

However, such incidents are not currently recognized by the FBI as hate crimes, something the Sikh community is working to change, Singh said.

Singh also stressed the importance of making room for the beliefs of non-religious people. “If we’re going to ask others to respect our differences, we’re going to have to respect their secular differences as well,” he said.

The persecution of Orthodox Christians around the world is something Western countries do not pay enough attention to, said Archpriest Chad Hatfield, chancellor and CEO of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in New York. He recounted the kidnapping of two Orthodox bishops in Syria in April, saying their plight was barely registered in the West.

"Why is this group almost invisible?" he asked.

Roger Trigg, senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, also talked about religious liberty abroad, including in Europe, where "all religions are a minority."

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