Interfaith leaders criticize government’s religious liberty report

Gianluca Cuestas
Elder Dallin H. Oaks said people will continue attempting to override religious freedom on college campuses during a BYU devotional in September. He emphasized the importance of this freedom, as well as the freedoms of speech and assembly. (Gianluca Cuestas)

A group of interfaith leaders, including Presiding Bishop Gérald J. Caussé, issued a letter Wednesday calling on the United States government to reject a recent government report attacking religious freedom.

The letter voices concerns about a report, issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and is addressed to President Obama, Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R—Utah) and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R—Wisc.).

“We wish to express our deep concern that the Commission has issued a report, ‘Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Non-Discrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,’ that stigmatizes tens of millions of religious Americans, their communities, and their faith-based institutions, and threatens the religious freedom of all our citizens,” the interfaith leaders state in their letter.

The concerns voiced by religious leaders counter the report’s pessimistic tone regarding the coexistence of religious liberty and anti-discrimination legislation. The government report examined religious exemptions to things such as same-sex wedding ceremonies. Pessimism regarding such exemptions was especially evident in the commission’s policy recommendations.

“Overly-broad religious exemptions unduly burden nondiscrimination laws and policies,” one recommendation reads. “Federal and state courts, lawmakers and policy-makers at every level must tailor religious exceptions to civil liberties and civil rights protections as narrowly as applicable law requires.”

A struggle for balance

Further included among the commission’s findings is their opinion that “religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights.”

“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,” Commission chairman Martin R. Castro wrote in a statement attached to the report.

Bishop Caussé, along with other religious leaders contributing to the letter responding to the report, acknowledged that religious freedom isn’t easy to implement into legislative policies. However, they argued that the commission’s tone and attitude towards religious organizations in the report is offensive and stigmatizes religious Americans as obstacles to a fair and just society.

“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 interfaith group wrote. “And yet that is precisely what the Civil Rights Commission report does.”

The interfaith group continued by arguing the freedom to express ideas and disagreements on policy in the form of debate is a crucial part of American democracy.

“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 interfaith group wrote. “Such attacks on dissent have no place in the United States where all religious beliefs, the freedom to express them, and the freedom to live by them are protected by the First Amendment.”

Apostolic counsel

Protecting religious freedom while maintaining civility with those who disagree has been a topic addressed by both Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Dallin H. Oaks in recent BYU devotionals.

Elder Oaks expressed sentiments similar to the interfaith leaders in a BYU devotional this past September.

“A more common and more personal challenge to free speech in current policy debates is the labeling of opposition arguments as ‘hate speech’ or ‘bigotry,'” Elder Oaks said. “This kind of name-calling chills free speech by seeking to penalize the speech of opponents—personally, socially, or professionally.”

Elder Oaks continued by examining the meaning of “bigot.” He said the word often is a conversation stopper because of its negative connotation and “frequently appears against religious believers and groups that maintain traditional beliefs about sexuality in their internal membership requirements.”

“Incidentally, my dictionary defines bigot as ‘a person who is utterly intolerant of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from his own,'” Elder Oaks said. “Who fits that description in this contest of motives and opinions?”

In a speech given during Education Week in August, Elder Holland acknowledged society’s growing shift away from religion. He also expressed the importance of defending religion and living according to religious values because religion holds society together.

“We live as families, friends, neighbors, and nations,” Elder Holland said. “That calls for ties that bind us together and bind us to the good. That is what religion does for our society, leading the way for other respected civic and charitable organizations that do the same.”

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