A major contest of ideas is being waged today about how people of faith may live and express their beliefs. The outcome will have far-reaching consequences for everyone. Will your voice be heard on this important issue?
Religious freedom is inextricably linked to other fundamental rights. Would we truly have freedom of speech if we could not voice our conscience? What good would the freedom of assembly do us if we could not join with like-minded people? The free exercise of religion is a barometer for measuring other rights. And if religious freedom can be diminished, what will stop the erosion of other rights?
At the forefront of this contest is a debate about marriage, family, individual conscience and collective rights. The outcome will influence whether people with diverse backgrounds and different values can live together in relative harmony. Our differences lead to tensions but also enrich our common existence. We’re at our best as fellow citizens when the push-pull of different viewpoints leads to compromise and resolution.
But let’s face it, resolving these challenges will be difficult, and no one will get everything they want. Nondiscrimination laws should protect the basic civil rights of everyone, including religious people. Coercion and intimidation for expressing one’s belief only causes resentment and magnifies the problem. Laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance between protecting the freedoms of all people while allowing respectful coexistence of those with differing views. Accommodating the rights of all people — including their religious rights — requires wisdom and judgment, compassion and fairness.
Balance between competing interests — and not a war of “mine over thine” — is better for our pluralistic democracy. Rights work best when sought and shared by everyone.
Think of the future. Will your children and grandchildren have the same ability to live and express their faith as you have had? It is much easier to preserve a right than try to reclaim it once it is lost. But preservation cannot be accomplished by just a few people. It requires larger numbers of men and women who are willing to work hard to protect our first freedom.
You don’t have to leave your home to get involved. The Internet and social media allow your voice to be heard thousands of miles away. The ultimate outcome of this contest of ideas will not be determined in some courtroom or even a legislative hall. Rather, it will ultimately be determined in the minds and hearts of the citizens.
Civility is essential. Why? A tenet of major religions is respect and love for our fellow human beings. Those who seek to defend religious freedom in uncivilized ways are hypocrites to their own faith. Meaningful progress is achieved when your opponents feel you are not trying to hurt them.
So what can you do? The short answer is to get informed and work with like-minded people of all faiths. You have many resources. For example, Brigham Young University is having a religious-freedom “Education Week” July 6-8 with national experts giving practical guidance. (Details are at http://ce.byu.edu/cw/iclrs/) There are also many websites with rich content. And social media helps quickly bridge connections. You have the tools to make a difference. Let’s go to work!
Michael D. Fielding is a commercial bankruptcy attorney in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a member of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society's Religious Freedom Subcommittee, and he served as committee chair for the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law's conference on Law and Religious Freedom, which was held in June.