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Religious liberty advocates call for faiths to join forces

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

For example, he said, in southern Ireland, the religious landscape is much changed from 50 years ago, with Catholics and Protestants finding themselves on the same side of fights against an anti-religious brand of secularism.

A variety of religious styles was also on display at the conference. The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, a Pentecostal pastor and policy adviser to the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ and a self-described "right-wing Democrat," gave an impassioned speech taking the Obama administration to task for relying on members of black churches to vote for him, but then turning a blind eye to their concerns about how legalizing same-sex marriage could affect people of faith who hold to a more traditional definition of marriage.

"The Obama administration has treated the faith community like useful idiots. … At the end of the day, the black church got thrown under the bus," Rivers said.

Hannah Clayson Smith, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who is also a member of the Deseret News editorial advisory board, said proponents of religious freedom have scored several major victories over the past year, including the settlement of a case in Illinois in which pharmacists were required to dispense a drug known as Plan B and a case in Michigan in which a student was expelled from a counseling program because she did not feel she could fairly counsel a homosexual couple.

Smith also lauded the establishment of a religious liberty clinic at Stanford University Law School. She spoke on a panel co-hosted by the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown University's Berkly Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

Smith discussed current cases the Becket Fund is litigating, speaking at length about legal challenges to a mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services that all employers include contraception as part of health care coverage. More than 60 cases are challenging the law's requirement that organizations provide contraception coverage to employees, saying that owners who are opposed to contraception for religious reasons should not be forced to provide health care that covers it.

Of the 26 suits being brought by for-profit organizations, 19 have received preliminary injunctions, Smith said, meaning that the businesses are not subject to the mandate while their cases are pending.

One thing that makes organizing coalitions and caucuses difficult, said Reinach of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is that "religious freedom has become a victim of the culture war divide."

"The challenge is to communicate across the (political) divide to all sides. Conscience belongs to everyone."

Reinach said that in one instance, his coalition in California omitted representatives of the religious right because "that was more viable in California."

Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs at Agudath Israel of America, emphasized the conference theme of many faith groups coming together to defend religious liberty. He pointed to the so-called peyote case (Employment Division v. Smith, decided by the Supreme Court in 1990), saying that many religious groups decided not to weigh in because it didn't involve their particular religious practice.

"The peyote case went into court on the assumption that it would affect a specific practice of the Native Americans, but it came out of the courts eviscerating the free-exercise clause in a way that affected us all."

Email: apond@deseretnews.com

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