In our opinion: Stand up for religious liberty

Published: Sunday, Oct. 6 2013 8:37 a.m. MDT

These days, a great deal of lip service is paid to the importance of diversity, but, apparently, not all diversity is created equal.

In the Canadian province of Quebec, for instance, lawmakers have proposed what is called a “Charter of Values” that would prohibit any government employee from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols in public. This would include yarmulkes, turbans, most Muslim headdresses, and even necklaces with a crucifix considered to be too large. The proposed standard is murky – when does a pendant with a cross hanging from it become “overt and conspicuous?”

Put simply, the Quebec Charter of Values violates religious liberty. But it is just one of many examples worldwide in which religious devotion is being pushed aside or, worse, violently persecuted.

In the Middle East and Africa, Christians have been murdered in large numbers. A recent attack on Christian worshippers in Pakistan is only the latest example. Coptic Christians in Egypt have been under steady attack, as have Christians in Iraq.

There are stark differences between deadly attacks and laws and procedures that discriminate against the religious, but those differences are matters of degree. The United States has long been home to a vast array of different religious traditions, yet increasingly, large numbers of religious people find themselves under fire here from all quarters as they attempt to follow their consciences and freely worship whatever and however they choose.

Over the past few years, the federal government has inserted itself into areas that previously were almost exclusively matters of faith. Those who believe in the importance of preserving traditional marriage, or those who believe contraception is counter to their religious principles, now find themselves in a world where such viewpoints are grudgingly accommodated. The president’s fight with private, religious insurers of whether they must provide birth control to employees is one example. Rights of conscience seem to be increasingly devalued.

Supporters of these policies insist that such regulations are the price we pay to accommodate everyone in a pluralistic society. What this means in reality, however, is that divergent religious viewpoints will no longer be tolerated if they’re judged to be intolerant themselves.

The silver lining in all this is that such opposition has served to bring together people of disparate faiths to stand together against these assaults on religious liberty. Despite their doctrinal differences, Christians of every stripe are uniting to stand in opposition specific policies like the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. A recent “Open Letter to All Americans” signed by representatives of 75 different religious groups decried the mandate on the grounds that it is “coercive and puts the administration in the position of defining – or casting aside – religious doctrine. This should trouble every American.” The letter explains that the majority of signatories don’t have theological objections to the mandate, but they recognize that this assault on one faith’s freedom ultimately diminishes the liberty of the entire nation.

We agree with that sentiment. We also wish the same sort of united effort would be expended on behalf of religious adherents who are being killed for their beliefs in other nations.

Twice in the last two years, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation that would force the State Department to create an envoy position to advocate on behalf of the persecuted minorities abroad. Both times, the measure died in the Senate.

Because of its constitutional guarantees of basic human rights, the United States has assumed leadership position worldwide in defense of persecuted minorities. The First Amendment was designed to protect a wide variety of religious expression from government intrusion. And yet its erosion at home seems to be eroding the nation’s voice abroad, as well.

That must stop. People’s innermost beliefs and faith cannot be legislated out of their hearts, and the United States cannot abdicate its role as a superpower that cherishes religious diversity as a cornerstone of freedom.

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