Religious Freedom: Rising Threats to a Fundamental Human Right

“Religious Freedom: Rising Threats to a Fundamental Human Right”

At a conference held on July 16, 2015 at Georgetown University sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Baylor University, and the American Bar Association Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities: Committee on Religious Freedom, the Keynote Conversation featured Rep. Keith Ellison and Dr. Katrina Lantos-Swett (Tufts Univ.) and was moderated by Judge Ken Starr.

Ellison went to an all boys Catholic High School, yet when he got to Wayne State College he was an open-minded person in a seeking mode ready to hear some new messages. He heard a compelling message and was member of the Muslim community by the age of nineteen. His household was both tolerant and religious, and his mother debated more with his Baptist minister brother than with him. When he agreed to be sworn in on the Qur’an it caused a controversy which ended when he was sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s copy.

Ellison acknowledges that there were early religious fights in this country but believes that the attitude of the framers sent us on a trajectory hat has served us well over time. He noted that some European countries think freedom of religion means freedom from religion, but he argues that religious freedom does not mean the freedom to be the same, but the freedom to be different. The freedom to be unorthodox and the freedom of public expression, to wear symbols of one’s religion are essential. He thinks we Americans on this subject are onto something really good and shouldn’t be shy about standing up to say freedom of faith.

Starr added that freedom to express one’s faith in the public square is essential noting that Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1849 says, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Ellisons said that religious freedom is good because freedom of conscience is good. Religion may not always be a good thing. Some devout people have done things of which we are not proud, but religion promotes many good things like honesty, charity, and a sense of public responsibility. It must be coupled with tolerance.

Starr asked what would Ellision tell visiting Chinese dignitaries on the importance of religious freedom? He replied that religion is a source of imagination and creativity. If you limit it you are limiting the thought process. The assumption that we need uniformity in order to have social cohesion is completely wrong. Consider Somalia which is thoroughly homogeneous and violently divided. Ellidion noted that in the U.S. we have mass killings over race or other things, but rarely over religion.

Responding to Starr’s observation that some research showed that in countries that allow Christian missionaries to operate with freedom, prosperity, health and education are positively affected, Ellison said that if you want a liberal arts education, it is the Christians who are offering it. Education in Muslim schools is memorization, not critical thought, which he does not consider to be education. He himself is the product of Catholic education, a Catholic in the Catholic school with Jewish and other non-Catholic classmates. He asserted that in the public schools they are not trying to educate but to indoctrinate with loyalty  to the leader.

Lantos-Swett said the core of religious freedom is the right of people to live in accordance with their conscience, according the full range of their beliefs. It goes to the essence of our dignity and identity as human beings, and out of it come our other rights like speech, association, the press, etc.

Starr asked what role should religious freedom issues playing the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policies. Ellison replied that while it may not satisfy the idealist, foreign policy will away have to balance our ideals against our security and economic interests. We should speak our values in the international forum and we should make it clear that if other countries go too far–whatever that is–it will affect our trade policies. The question is then how far do we push this before we annoy our allies? Because of his failure to act in the Gujurat riots, the current PM of India couldn’t get a visa to come to the U.S. until he became PM.

Lantos-Swett feels that it is in our pragmatic interest to put religious freedom higher up. We tend to put religious freedom in a box and bring it out when convenient. Societies that respect religious freedom tend to be stable with better status for women, etc., while those that do not tend to be breeding grounds for terrorism that does not stay within its borders. She noted that a huge percentage of our foreign service officers are such secular individuals that they are not prepared to interact constructively with those who feel that are being viewed as a specimen in a museum rather than as a worthy partner.

Ellison agreed, noting that during the negotiations with Iran, Kerry took breaks to Sunday services and Zarif took breaks to go to Friday prayers. He said he would like the U.S. to be more vocal against FGM.

Starr noted that the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988 anticipated the kinds of issues about which we should be thinking and said that HR1150 is now before Congress with a specific provision for training foreign service officers in the culture of the countries to which they are deployed, and religion is an important part of culture. Lantos-Swett said that Article 18 of the Universal Declaration has a capacious view of religious freedom, and Starr noted that it included the freedom to change one’s religion.

Starr asked how do we measure the limits of religious freedom and majoritarian practice? Ellison thought the individual right should be given some, but not absolute deference, noting that School children get winter break at Christmas time and spring break at Easter time, adding that there is a Christian majority is a fact of life and deserves respect. Lantos-Swett referred back to the individual right of freedom of conscience as the key to understanding these issues, saying that the American spirit of pragmatism and seeking a reasonable accommodation will continue to serve us better than absolutism or triumphalism. Government should not prohibit people from doing what their conscience demands nor prohibit them from doing that which their conscience prohibits.

In response to my questionb as to whether the Strict Scrutiny Test which has served so well to defend freedom of speech was not the solution to balancing religious freedom against majoritarian intrusion, Starr said that strict scrutiny was imported into religious freedom in the Sherbert case and came back 10 years later when SCOTUS essentially unanimously supported Yoder’s right to pull his children from school. In the Smith decision it was abandoned for a weaker standard of general applicability, but Congress reinstituted strict scrutiny with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which he thinks every American school child should read.

I reminded him that strict scrutiny requires more than just that the government demonstrate a compelling interest. They must also prove that they have met that interest by the least restrictive means possible. Starr agreed, noting that in the Hobby Lobby Case the government was deemed to have met the compelling government interest test but not the least restrictive means possible test. In The Little Sisters of the Poor Case he thinks it will come into play again, but only if the record is properly built. He quoted Brandeis: “Facts, facts, facts.”

A Hindu questioner asked how appropriate are apologies issued for crimes committed hundreds of years ago but that shaped the world today? Lantos-Swett thought that most people would welcome that acknowledgement of past wrongs, but I think it would be a mistake to call proselytizing an abusive practice but added that a distinction needs to be drawn between abusive practices and legitimate sharing.

Star added that proselytizing is a contentious term. The invitation should be a warm and cordial invitation.  SCOTUS defended the Cantwells’ right to use inflammatory language as they knocked on people’s doors in a Catholic neighborhood.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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