Religious liberty in crisis — almost everywhere

Here’s a tough question for American pastors: If local school officials voted to limit the freedom of Muslim students to publicly practice their faith, would you urge your flock to protest?

Those who believe in religious liberty must answer “yes,” according to the Rev. Rick Warren, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

“If a school district tells me that a Muslim girl can’t wear a headscarf to school, I’m going to oppose that rule,” he said, during a recent forum held by the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

“If they say she can’t wear a headscarf to school,” he said, then “tomorrow they’re going to say that I can’t wear a cross and carry a Bible.”

This raises another question: If the leader of one of America’s most prominent megachurches headed to the barricades to defend the rights of Muslims, would the press coverage say that he is taking a “liberal” or a “conservative” stand?

Then, would Warren receive the same label if he protested in support of a local Christian college’s rejection of the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover all FDA-approved forms of contraception, sterilizations and even “morning-after pills”?

Both protests would be in support of freedom of religion.

“The worse thing that could happen” in public discourse today, he said, would be for the term “religious liberty” to become a “code word for one side or the other, for liberals or conservatives, or Republicans or Democrats. … That would be a fatal mistake for the party that didn’t support the first freedom of this country.”

Recent American debates about religious liberty have centered on whether the White House or any other branch of the government can decree that “freedom of worship” is more worthy of protection than the “free exercise” of religious freedom, a much broader constitutional concept.

While the HHS disputes will almost certainly reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the organizers of the Georgetown forum dedicated just as much attention to limitations on religious freedom worldwide, a trend being documented in annual reports by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The most recent survey noted: “Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, three-quarters of the world’s approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, up from 70% a year earlier. … The rising tide of restrictions … is attributable to a variety of factors, including increases in crimes, malicious acts and violence motivated by religious hatred or bias, as well as increased government interference with worship or other religious practices.”

The bottom line is that religious liberty is important for believers and unbelievers and is linked to the success of any state or government, said Thomas Farr, director of the Berkley Center. Studies indicate that religious liberty promotes economic development, women’s rights, political stability and improved care of the poor and the vulnerable.

But severe restrictions on religious freedom, especially for religious minorities, are increasing and not just in the developing world, he said.

“Christians are the most likely victims and Muslims come in a close second. While most of the persecution takes place outside the West, neither Europeans nor Americans can afford to be complacent,” said Farr. “Social hostility toward religion is rising faster in Europe than any other region of the world. And here in America, where religious liberty has long been considered the first freedom of our constitution and our history, both social hostility and government restrictions on religion are on the rise.”

For Warren, the key is for Americans to be willing to stand up for the rights of others, even those whose religious beliefs they believe are eternally in error. Many American Christians “need to repent” because they have failed to display that kind of true tolerance, he said.

“God gave us the freedom to chose. … We make moral choices,” he noted. “God gives me the freedom to choose what I believe. God doesn’t even force me to love him — he gives me the choice to love him or reject him. He gives me the choice to obey him or to disobey him. If God gives me that choice, then I owe you that choice and you owe me that choice.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jere Joiner

    This is huge! May I have permission to pass it along? With attribution, of course!

  • A Hermit

    Trying to make the HHS requirements into a violation of religious liberty is absurd. First of all the rule does not apply to religious institutions; it applies to any institution participating in the secular market. It is also no imposition on anyone’s religious belief to require them to compensate their employees labour with health insurance.

    It is an imposition on the employee’s religious liberty for their employer to dictate ho they can or cannot use that compensation.

    Anyone really concerned about freedom of belief should oppose attempts by religious employers to impose their beliefs on their employees.

    • Arimathean

      Several federal courts disagree with you.

  • Jonas

    Quote — “would Warren receive the same label if he protested in support of a local Christian college’s rejection of the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover all FDA-approved forms of contraception, sterilizations and even “morning-after pills”?”

    No — This is a conservative view. — Does the Bible’s short letter from Paul explaining how to treat slaves give me the right to own people, as my property?? — A Christian College rejecting contraception options for it’s staff is forcing its religiously based morals on its not necessarily Christian staff. — (Also assumes all Christians are ‘true’ – Anti-Contraception Christians – which is not true [commonly called the True Scottsman Fallacy])

    A Muslim student defending her right to wear a head scarf is expressing her own personal religious freedom. — While we may disagree – even strongly disagree with the implied meaning of the head scarf, it is still her right and decision to wear it. — This is an individual right, the above is a viewpoint forced on those who may not share that view.

  • Torin

    Again, I don’t understand the whole religious Liberty argument because any religious institution can refuse any government mandate. How?, by not taking federal money. That is the key. Don’t take government money and you don’t have to follow their rules. No court would rule against this argument. Religious institutions want it both ways. They want the public dole and not follow the rules that are imposed on institutions that take the dole. This isn’t about Liberty it is about Greed!

    • Arimathean

      Wrong. Governments are also using anti-discrimination laws to force religious institutions to water down their religious identity. And they are attempting to condition people to consider any public expression of religion as inherently “offensive” to people who do not share that religion.

      Even if the issue were restricted to your scenario, where institutions take public funds, it is still not as clear-cut as you seem to think. The first amendment would require such funds to be available equally to religious and non-religious recipients. Placing restrictions on recipients that burden religious expression or practice would violate both the first amendment and the fourteenth.

  • rumitoid

    And where one religion holds power or is of significant influence, other faiths (and sects) suffer and atheists as well. Christianity seemed to function best under Rome. They were forced to realize that real freedom is only in Christ. This helped keep them from the worldly entanglements so popular with present day Christians. They were not allowed to be part of the world except in the most restrictive sense. I feel that “religious liberty” is not a friend of faith. Do I applaud persecution or suppression? No, but power corrupts the same. To think in terms of entitlements, even in something which seems like a basic right and the decent thing, is not, in my eyes, in keeping with Christ. Persecution is a great opportuniity for Christians to start acting (not complainiing) like Christians: to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    “Both protests would be in support of freedom of religion.”
    Cute, but fallacious. There’s a vast difference between an individual’s rights (the Muslim girl) and a public institution’s rights. The Constitution protects individuals under government jurisdiction, not corporations (American’s United notwithstanding). Religious liberty in the governmental arena can only cover what the government allows or does not allow and individual to do. The right to religious expression stops when it impacts the rights of others (no human sacrifice, to take it to the extreme), just as the government cannot allow “religious liberty” to be used as a smokescreen for religious domination. Just because I work for a company (or college, or hospital, etc.) where 90% of the employees and managers and boardmembers may be Christian, does not make me Christian, and does not subsume my rights to government protection and access beneath theirs simply by virtue of my employment.

    • Arimathean

      Wrong. Those who practice religion practice it as members of communities, not as “individuals”. Your reasoning is just an attempt to rationalize restricting the free exercise of religion.

  • Brian Westley

    Your classification of the HHS mandate as a threat to religious liberty would imply that, say, an employer who was a Jehovah’s Witness could equally refuse to offer health coverage that included blood transfusions. To me, the employer is requiring his employees to not violate his religion, which looks like a violation of the religious rights of his employees. For an extreme example, could a Christian Scientist refuse to offer employees any health insurance at all, claiming that only prayer is in alignment with his religion?

  • Josh

    This is funny considering Rick Warren is for religious liberty when it suits him. When it comes to religious liberty in dealing with gay marriage, his stance is quite different. Curious…

  • Brian Westley

    Your classification of the HHS mandate as a threat to religious liberty would imply that, say, an employer who was a Jehovah’s Witness could equally refuse to offer health coverage that included blood transfusions. To me, the employer is requiring his employees to not violate his religion, which looks like a violation of the religious rights of his employees. For an extreme example, could a Christian Scientist refuse to offer employees any health insurance at all, claiming that only prayer is in alignment with his religion?

  • Pingback: Religious liberty in crisis | IRENIC

  • Kathleen Pelley

    I get concerned when I must have peoples’ religion in my face since I to me my religion and spiritual practice is a very intimate process. I try very hard to avoid pushing any religious values forward to others. I resent being proselytized at my home or when I am out shopping. I would rather deal with a homeless person asking for money to feed his/her drug habit than having to deal with proselytizing.
    PS–I miss your column that we used to get in our local Times Standard here in Eureka CA. What happened?


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