Is religious liberty threatened?

WASHINGTON - In what now seem to have been heady days of the 1990s, Baptists, Catholics, the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way were among the members of a philosophically diverse coalition that stood together in pursuit of a federal law protecting the free exercise of religion.

Today, among those same organizations, there may be as many ideas about what the chief threats are to religious liberty as there once were members of the group that produced a single-minded legislative focus.

"When the same words are used to describe conflicting or competing terms," for how to apply the religious freedom protections of the First Amendment, "something is wrong," said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister who heads the Interfaith Alliance. He moderated the first panel of a March 18 conference, "Defining Religious Freedom in America," with the observation that the "free exercise coalition is no more, amid controversies over many subjects."

As Wendy Kaminer, a civil liberties attorney and correspondent at theatlantic.com, noted during the conference sponsored by the Freedom Forum and Moment magazine, "it's very easy to find consensus in general definitions" of religious freedom.

"It becomes a benchmarking exercise," agreed Mark Chopko, a partner and chair of the nonprofits and religious institutions practice group at Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young. "We all agree on what the principles are."

But when it comes to practical application to contemporary situations, the consensus falls apart, panelists agreed.

For example, Gaddy said, one contemporary subject of disagreement is whether religious liberty is threatened by or enhanced by faith-based entities receiving federal funds to operate programs. Some see the line separating church and state envisioned by the Founding Fathers as precluding such funding. Others observe that the constitutional protection was meant to keep government from interfering with religion, not block collaboration between the two in pursuit of the common good.

Although it was not specifically raised, a subtext of the discussion was some religious entities' objections to the federal requirement that employers, including most religious employers, include coverage of contraceptives, some abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization procedures in their health plans.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other faith-based entities object to the Department of Health and Human Services mandate on moral grounds and argue it is a threat to religious liberty. The Catholic Church teaches that the use of artificial contraception is a sin. New proposed HHS rules expand the exemption for religious employers, but the USCCB has said they do not go far enough because there is no exemption for individual employees and for-profit employers morally opposed to such coverage.

Not all faiths oppose artificial contraception and many religious organizations have lined up on the other side of legal arguments over the HHS requirement.

Kaminer said attacks on religious liberty come from both the government - such as in the surveillance of Muslims by police agencies focused on terrorism - and by individuals, sometimes those who believe they are fighting discrimination.

"Individual religious liberty also is under attack from the most militant advocates of anti-discrimination," she said, "who conflate (religious) belief with actions."

On the other hand, Kaminer said many religious institutions "are overprotected. We're hearing claims for religious liberty that I believe are demands for the power to impose religious beliefs on others."

Muslims have recently been targeted on the basis of their faith, in surveillance by law enforcement agencies, by community challenges to plans to build mosques and by local and state attempts to pass laws barring possible imposition of Shariah - or Islamic law - in their communities.

Hoda Elshishtawy, legislative and policy analyst for the Muslim Public Affairs Council said the last example is particularly baffling.

"There's a misperception that American Muslims want to impose Shariah on the public," she said. "The American Muslim community isn't even asking for it."

Richard Foltin, director of legislative and national affairs for the American Jewish Committee, noted that although a handful of states and cities have passed anti-Shariah laws, "there's not a single jurisdiction in which anti-Shariah laws have been allowed to take effect (because they are blocked by courts that find they violate the First Amendment). This is a case where a threat to one faith is a threat to all."

Foltin said the follow-up question that doesn't often get asked when people talk about religious liberty being under attack is: "Compared to what?"

"I say we are very lucky in this country to have the things to argue about that we argue about," Foltin added.

Elshishtawy said that as a Muslim woman, she hasn't personally felt victimized by religious discrimination, despite the regular conflicts over mosque construction plans and the fact that "national discourse around Islam and Muslims is very negative."

She said she's reminded regularly by her grandparents of the difference in religious liberty between the United States and other countries.

Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from Egypt in the 1960s, she explained. They call it "a beautiful dream" to be living where they can freely practice their faith, she said.

Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said "religious freedom is always under attack in some ways." But it's nothing new in the United States.

"We've always fought about this (as a country). And we should," she said.

Not once, but twice that '90s-era coalition of more than 60 religious and civil liberties organizations has come together.

In 1993, they helped get the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed and signed into law, protecting religious practices from "burdensome and unnecessary governmental interference.'' After the Supreme Court tossed out provisions of that law, leaving intact only its application to actions of the federal government, they again coalesced in support of the Religious Liberty Protection Act in the late 1990s.

By then, however, the unified approach only went so far. The House passed the bill, but it never came up for a vote in the Senate.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970