To secure religious freedom, stop shouting, start talking

Sunday, April 30, 2006

A just-released report, “The Future of Religious Freedom in America,” exposes one of the nation’s best-kept secrets: Civil discourse across deep religious and political differences is alive and well in the United States.

The report summarizes proceedings of a two-day conference attended by 40 invited religious leaders, scholars and legal activists representing Roman Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Native American and humanist voices, as well as advocacy groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union on the left to the American Center for Law and Justice on the right. Held last October in Chicago, the conference was sponsored by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum and the First Amendment Center.

While not everyone was at the table (Wiccans have complained about not being included), it was as much diversity as could fit into 40 chairs — especially in the land of countless religious expressions. Not only was the dialogue civil, but it was also constructive. Without papering over differences, the group found key areas of agreement that could translate into future collaborations.

Most refreshing to anyone tired of culture-war rhetoric, the conference reached remarkable consensus on the principle that government has no business sponsoring religion, as prohibited under the establishment clause of the First Amendment. “The last thing that people of faith should ever want is government-sponsored religion,” said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. “It’s like getting hugged by a python — it squeezes all the life out of you.”

While everyone applauded “no establishment” as good for religion (and good for the state), views diverged on exactly where to draw the line between church and state. What some described as mere state acknowledgement of the nation’s “religious heritage” (e.g., displaying the Ten Commandments in the courthouse), others rejected as government endorsement of religion. While some supported government funding to religious groups for social services as a matter of “equal treatment,” others warned that such programs must have safeguards to prevent discrimination in religious hiring and use of tax money for specifically religious purposes.

When the discussion turned to the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause, the group found strong agreement on both the principle and its application. From left to right, most participants agreed that free exercise of religion, especially that of Native American and other minority faiths, needed more protection. As religious diversity continues to expand, so will the need for religious accommodations in schools, workplaces and elsewhere. Richard Foltin of the American Jewish Committee put it this way: “It is increasingly difficult for people of religious faith who have limitations on what days they can work, what garb they can wear, what duties they can perform … to participate in the workplace and practice their faith.”

The more people talked, the more they agreed on what needs to be done to secure the future of religious freedom in America. First and foremost, keep talking — and expand the circle of civil discourse. When the public square is poisoned by hatred and division, no one is either free or safe.

Then find ways to speak with one voice about the meaning of the First Amendment under current law. Noting that over the past decade a broad coalition of religious and civil liberties groups developed consensus guidelines on the constitutional place of religion in the public schools, the report calls for updating those guidelines and making sure that school officials know about them. Beyond that, the report recommends creating new guidelines on the law concerning equal access for religious groups and individuals to public facilities and discourse.

Other recommended strategies include consensus guidance on religious accommodation in the workplace, a task force on Native American religious-freedom issues, and initiatives to educate the public (especially public officials) about current First Amendment law. Small bore? Perhaps. But the power of the recommendations is less about dramatic proposals and more about the diversity of the coalition that makes them.

The report concludes with a reminder that a shared commitment to uphold religious freedom is often grounded in personal relationships forged across religious differences. During the conference, Shabbir Mansuri of the Council on Islamic Education talked about his working friendship with Colby May of the American Center for Law and Justice.

“What we’re trying to do here collectively is to provide a civic framework for the communities to sort out their own differences,” Mansuri said. “I should not ask the other side to change their mind; that’s not the idea. But we can engage one another with civility and respect.”

Colby replied: “What Shabbir and I have been able to recognize is that he holds within himself some very wonderful convictions that I do too. I think it is part of having an ordered liberty and a civil society. All the effort here is to find the things that bring us together.”

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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