Washington D.C., Jun 22, 2013 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Religious leaders from a variety of faith backgrounds are speaking out against the declining role of religion in society, as well as threats to religious freedom for all faith groups.
“Our biggest challenge is coming from those who want to challenge the role of religion in society,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs and Washington director of Agudath Israel of America.
“We live in a world now where threats to one religion could certainly affect others,” he told CNA.
Rabbi Cohen was one of numerous religious leaders to attend the 2013 National Religious Freedom Conference in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s American Religious Freedom Program, the event featured presentations and discussions by Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Latter-day Saint, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, Muslim and Sikh speakers.
The speakers join a growing number of religious freedom advocates who have voiced fears over increasing threats to religious liberty within the United States. The second Fortnight for Freedom – announced by the U.S. bishops with the participation of those from a variety of faith backgrounds – is currently underway as a special time of prayer, education and action on behalf of religious freedom, particularly in the areas of health care, marriage, immigration and social aid.
Among the concerns raised by the bishops and members of other faiths is a new mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services to require employers to offer health insurance covering contraception, sterilization and some early abortion drugs, even if doing so violates their firmly held religious beliefs.
Rabbi Cohen explained that while the HHS mandate does not require his community to violate their beliefs, “nonetheless, we have weighed in very strongly” on the issue “because it might create general principles, general perceptions of religion that could affect all religions.”
“If there’s hostility towards religion, that’s going to result in bad regulation, and if there’s bad regulation, that in turn is going to result in more hostility towards religion,” he explained.
“That has an effect on the American psyche.”
The rabbi also noted that “a lot of the rhetoric that surrounds that dispute is one of compromise,” in which the government will provide some accommodations if religions give up some of their terms.
“That belittles the right of religion, but also the role of religion,” he said.
The Very Reverend Dr. Chad Hatfield, Chancellor of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, echoed the Rabbi Cohen’s statements, telling CNA that “I think that there is a clamp-down on religious liberty in this country, but it’s so incredibly simple that we aren’t catching the signs.”
“If one religious identity’s freedoms are taken, then all suffer,” he added.
He warned, however, against over-correction, such as moves by the Russian Orthodox Church to establish Russian Orthodoxy as the official state religion.
“There is a problem when the Church relies on the fist of Caesar to protect it rather than the loving hand of Jesus,” he cautioned, although he noted that “the government should guarantee us our freedom to express ourselves.”
Shaykha Reima Yosif, who started an organization to empower Muslim women through the arts, noted the threat in the U.S. posed by “small groups trying to dictate what is religion, and small groups trying to infringe upon people maintaining their particular religious identity and practicing their faith in their own way.”
The disrespect of religious freedom leads to discrimination as well as other ill effects on society, she explained, saying that “we are really debilitating the economic wellbeing of society” with restrictions on religious practice.