As a Baptist minister, a patriotic American and the President of Interfaith Alliance, a national, non-partisan organization that celebrates religious freedom and is dedicated to protecting faith and freedom and whose 185,000 members nationwide belong to 75 faith traditions as well as those without a faith tradition, I submit this testimony to the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution for the record of the hearing on “The State of Religious Liberty in the United States.”
By building our nation upon the cornerstone of religious liberty, our Founders acknowledged this freedom is central to democracy. I am pleased that the Committee recognizes the importance of protecting and assessing the state of religious liberty in our nation. However, the lack of diversity among the faith traditions represented by the witnesses and the topics on which the hearing is expected to focus makes me fear that this hearing is based on a far too narrow and thus a misguided understanding of what this freedom means. Religious freedom provides liberty for people of all religions and people of no religion, not just freedom for some in our nation’s religious community.
At a time when Muslim Americans must fight just to be able to build houses of worship in their communities, when visibly religious Americans are segregated from the rest of the workforce because of their religiously-mandated attire, when government dollars support discrimination in hiring based on religion, when a candidate’s faith becomes a qualification or hindrance to his or her candidacy, and when laws are based on a single religious perspective, I can unequivocally say that the state of religious liberty in the United States is nowhere near as secure as it should be. Indeed, when I meet with various groups, I often say that it seems like we are backtracking, that we are headed toward a pre-First Amendment posture on religious freedom.
Religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment protects the freedom of all Americans to believe in any religious faith, as they choose; all people and all faiths are equal with none favored over any other. Unfortunately, in today’s America, it appears the religious freedoms that are protected in a court of law are not quite the same as those protected in the court of public opinion. In today’s America, it appears that people of the
Muslim faith are not entitled to the same freedoms as all other Americans. We have been through this before; waves of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholic sentiment and other periods of antagonism against one faith or another have left indelible blemishes on our country’s past. Let us not allow history to repeat itself.
In far too many communities around the nation—from New York City to Murfreesboro, Tennessee—Muslim Americans are being told by their neighbors that they are not wanted and should not be allowed to build community centers and houses of worship. Fortunately, our laws continue to protect their right to build spaces to freely exercise their faith, yet they still have to contend with their building sites being vandalized, challenges finding willing contractors, and a climate of fear. The fact that a group of Americans, simply trying to avail themselves of their right to worship, is met with such a response is appalling.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that several state legislatures are considering and passing laws to prohibit judges from using religious law or, in some cases, specifically Sharia, Islamic law, in deciding cases. But to put it bluntly: The Constitution of the United States is in absolutely no danger of being trumped by any religious law, and those who think that Sharia is a threat to the Constitution simply do not understand the Constitution. Furthermore, we must remember that if there is hostility toward one religion in this nation, there is the potential for hostility toward all religions in this nation, and in fact, to the fundamental principles behind the founding of our government, the nature of our democracy.
Religious freedom is also under fire in the workplace. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” for their employees’ religious beliefs, observances and practices, unless doing so would cause the employer “undue hardship.” But since 1977, the courts have interpreted this provision by saying that “mere possibility of an adverse impact” on the employer is enough to create such a hardship. These rulings have made it nearly impossible for employees to receive the reasonable accommodations for their faith—wearing head coverings, maintaining beards, scheduling time off for religious worship—that are guaranteed them by the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.
The Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would resolve this conflict, has been introduced on several occasions in the House and Senate, but has yet to become law. The passage of this legislation is long overdue. In a country that promises religious freedom as well as the right to the pursuit of happiness, at a time when finding gainful employment is already difficult enough, employees should be free to pursue successful and meaningful careers without compromising the core tenets of their faiths.
Under regulations set in place by the Bush Administration, religious charities or houses of worship can receive government grants to support their good works, and yet they are not held to the same standards as all other contractors or grantees when making hiring decisions. Thus, taxpayer dollars are currently funding discrimination. As I have said on numerous occasions, religious groups have every right to employ only those individuals who are committed to their religion and values—but if taxpayers are funding the organization, it should reflect our nation’s historic commitment to civil rights or exist without government money. Government funds never should be used to support discrimination—this is a violation of civil rights, just as it is of religious liberty.
At a time when our nation faces many challenges, it disappoints me that the media and the public continue to place such a strong emphasis on the faith of our candidates for public office. I have been a longtime advocate of reducing the disproportionate role that religion plays during the campaign season. It is an issue to which I pay particularly close attention, and from what I have seen, when religion and politics mix, it is for the benefit of the politicians and to the detriment of religion.
Furthermore, religious freedom does not simply mean the freedom to be religious—it also means, conversely, the freedom to not be religious. Our Constitution guarantees that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” And still, candidates must continue to validate, defend, and in some cases, prove they have faith in order to be successful in their bid to serve their country.
This is not merely a philosophical question. The current occupant of the White House has felt it necessary to defend himself against accusations that he is a “secret Muslim” by making clear that he is a “committed Christian,” instead of just saying, “I am not a Muslim, but so what if I was?” The two Republican candidates for president who happen to be Mormon have had to defend their religion to those who would delegitimize it or try to paint it as a “cult,” a response that simply feeds the growing anti-Mormon sentiment in America today.
Voters have the right to know whether candidates will respect the boundaries between institutions of religion and government, as well as the role a candidate’s faith will play in creating public policy, and how a candidate will balance the principles of his or her faith with his or her pledge to defend the Constitution, particularly if the two conflict. But beyond this, our freedom of religion means that a candidate’s faith should never be a determining factor in his or her qualification for public office.
Finally, I find it disappointing that so many Americans point to same-gender marriage as an example of their religious freedoms under attack, when in truth, marriage equality and religious freedom are not at odds. I offer this assertion not as a casual observer or a passive supporter of marriage equality. For many years, I personally struggled with this issue, a struggle which eventually brought me to a place at which arguments against gay marriage were no longer credible or sustainable when held up to the light of my faith commitment and my devotion to the Constitution.
Over the last few years, I have researched the issue of same-gender marriage thoroughly and written about it extensively. I have traveled across the United States speaking to people—gay and straight, Christians and atheists, liberals and conservatives. I have written a paper that could be of use in the debate over this legislation entitled, “Same-Gender Marriage and Religious Freedom: A Call to Quiet Conversations and Public Debates,” available at www.interfaithalliance.org/equality. The conversation around and support of same-gender marriage is a large part of our work at Interfaith Alliance.
What has become undeniably apparent to me throughout this process is that the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom is the best perspective from which to view the subject of same-gender marriage. Law, not scripture, should be the foundation of government regulations related to marriage in our nation. In America’s diverse religious landscape, there are many theological positions on same-gender marriage, some of which support the institution and some that oppose the institution. But the First Amendment’s religious freedom provisions ensure that legalizing same-gender marriage will not result in a government imposition on religious institutions of a particular view of marriage or limit their speech as it relates to marriage.
I applaud the Committee for your concern about the state of religious freedom – our first freedom – in our country today. I only wish that this hearing would provide a place at the table and a voice on the microphone for those Americans whose freedoms are truly being eroded. Obviously, I hope you will assure that level of inclusion in future hearings on this precious and irreplaceable freedom.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on this important issue.
Interfaith Alliance celebrates religious freedom by championing individual rights, promoting policies that protect both religion and democracy, and uniting diverse voices to challenge extremism. Founded in 1994, Interfaith Alliance brings together members from 75 faith traditions as well as those without a faith tradition to protect faith and freedom. For more information visit www.interfaithalliance.org.