Bless you

Why a bunch of religious groups are picking a misguided fight with the Obama administration

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When the Catholic, Mormon, Southern Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal and other Christian churches collaborate on a letter with a Muslim liberal arts college, an Orthodox Jewish organization and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, it’s bound to get attention—especially if they’re all making the wrong argument.

Those groups all sent a joint letter to President Obama, Sen. Orin Hatch and Rep. Paul Ryan last week to criticize a recent report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties” is a 296-page-long report issued by the commission that gives recommendations on how to balance freedom of religion with non-discrimination laws. The commission is concerned with the growing use of “religious freedom” arguments that are being used to justify discrimination against different groups.

The report mentions the recent crop of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in states like Indiana and Georgia, but also points to court decisions such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc, where the Supreme Court allowed a for-profit company to deny healthcare it viewed as against its religion to women employees.

The report isn’t particularly forceful in its recommendations to avoid overly-broad religious exemptions, and most of it concerns the weighing of precedents and legal obligations. But to read the letter condemning it, which was signed by more than a dozen religious leaders, you would think it was calling for institutional atheism as the state religion.

“At the same time, we are one in demanding that no American citizen or institution be labeled by
their government as bigoted because of their religious views, and dismissed from the political
life of our nation for holding those views,” the letter states. “And yet that is precisely what the Civil Rights Commission report does.”

The letter-writers were particularly offended by a statement included in the report by commission Chair Martin R. Castro.

The phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.

Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others. However, today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see “religious liberty” arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of “state rights”) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans. This generation of Americans must stand up and speak out to ensure that religion never again be twisted to deny others the full promise of America

Castro is correct in that arguments based on religious liberty have been used in recent years to justify discrimination against all the groups he mentioned. But the letter characterizes his statement as an attempt to stifle debate.

“Slandering ideas and arguments with which one disagrees as ‘racism’ or ‘phobia’ not only cheapens the meaning of those words, but can have a chilling effect on healthy debate over, or dissent from, the prevailing orthodoxy,” the letter states.

They missed a great opportunity to end the letter with “Sincerely, the prevailing orthodoxy.”

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