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.
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."
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: [email protected]