Religious Freedom Under Siege ... by the Religious
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Religious Liberty. Read other perspectives here.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. ~ The Constitution of the United States, First Amendment
Religious Freedom is a value so central to the American identity that it was written into our founding document even before the right to keep and bear arms and before the guarantee of a fair trial before a jury of peers. Now, nearly 223 years later, Religious Freedom is still a buzzword that dominates our news and politics. America has seen a recent rash of "Religious Freedom" bills, with the most noteworthy one being the recently vetoed "SB1062" out of Arizona. With similar bills being introduced by the GOP in seventeen other states, it's obvious that political conservatives believe that the freedom of religion is under siege. Politically active groups like the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition of America, and the A.C.L.A, are fighting alongside the GOP to preserve religious rights. So the question is: With so many religious organizations on the defensive, who exactly is attacking them?
The simplest answer is: they are attacking themselves.
The greatest threat to religious freedom in the United States is this group of politically conservative religious organizations that the media have collectively dubbed "The Christian Right." I'm not saying this is all conservatives, or all Christians, or even all Christian conservatives. This is a small (but well-funded) voice within the Republican/Tea parties that pushes religiously motivated legislation, like SB1062. These groups use phrases like "religious liberty" as a kind of tagline to appeal to their constituents, but generally have no interest in protecting the rights of any religion outside of Christianity.
For example, about a year ago, Governor Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana pushed a school voucher program through the legislature that reallocated money from each student's per-pupil funds to cover the cost of private or parochial school tuition, thus allowing explicitly religious schools to receive federal funding. As soon as this passed, dozens of Christian institutions signed up for tuition vouchers. However the moment the "Islamic School of Greater New Orleans" signed up for the program, the law's chief advocate (State Rep. Valerie Hodges) immediately withdrew her support, saying:
"I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America's Founding Fathers' religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools. I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school. We need to insure that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools. There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently. I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana."—State Rep. Valerie Hodges (R)
This is the kind of blatant disregard for the First Amendment (not to mention American history) that has become typical of the GOP, and it's what makes these groups so dangerous. Jefferson's "Wall of Separation" exists for a reason—to protect religious institutions from legislation like this. What these legislators fail to realize is that any time any religious community makes its spiritual doctrine into law, the religious liberties of every other community are damaged. If Baptist doctrine became law, it would jeopardize the rights of the Muslims, Hindus, and Pagans, as well as those of the Lutherans, Catholics, Mennonites, and every other Christian denomination that disagrees with the Baptist perspective. This is why our government is supposed to be secular, in order to protect the rights of all religious communities.
Religious freedom in America is under siege, but its attackers are armed banners that read "Religious Freedom Restoration Act."
Alyxander Folmer is a student of Anthropology at Arizona State University focused on analyzing and building religious communities. He is a devoted Heathen and married to a Rabbi in training. Interest in Pagan interfaith relations lead him to join the committee for the formation of the Pagan Chapter at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, where he hopes to utilize his training in community building and cultural exchange. Alyxander blogs at Wyrd Words.