Political scholar says religious freedom unites society

William A Galston Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution s Governance Studies Program Credit Brookings Institute CNA US Catholic News 5 31 13 William A. Galston, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies Program. | Brookings Institution.

Through respect and healthy debate, society can find a balance in respecting the rule of law while accommodating the religious beliefs of different groups, said political scientist William Galston.

"Religious liberty belongs to no party, no ideology, no creed: it is our common property and our shared inheritance," he explained in a May 30 address.

Galston gave the speech upon being honored at the National Religious Freedom Award Dinner in Washington, D.C. The May 30 event was sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center's American Religious Freedom Program.

Currently a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Galston has participated in six presidential campaigns. He also teaches at the University of Maryland and previously served as the director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, as well as an advisor to a number of organizations focused on public policy and the good of society.

He received the 2013 National Religious Freedom Award at the event for his leadership in helping to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act during his time as an advisor for President Bill Clinton.

The act, signed into law by Clinton 20 years ago, prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person's free exercise of religion unless doing so is necessary to further a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive way to do so.

Galston reflected upon his memories surrounding the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying that "President Clinton knew what he was doing when he pushed for and then signed" the act.

He noted that the law passed nearly unanimously in the House of Representatives and the Senate following a "misguided Supreme Court decision" that threatened religious liberty. In the former president's words, the goal of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was to encourage "everybody to do what they believe is the right thing to do," relayed Galston.

"Religious liberty must not be another weapon in or victim of the cultural battles that define and oftentimes disfigure our politics," he warned. "It must become an isle of unity in a sea of perdition."

However, because "faiths diverge not only on points of theology and ritual, but also in their consequences for public policy," he observed, there will always be challenges in striving towards a society where all can practice their faith freely.

These differing conceptions of the good must not be minimized, he explained, and society must realize that religious freedom is not absolute, but that there are some boundaries surrounding the acts which a society finds impermissible.

However, Galston emphasized, society must offer basic accommodations, or else "we ensure nothing but endless conflict."

"We are arguing then about the kinds of considerations" needed for religious practice, a subject upon which people of good will can reasonably disagree, he said, adding that discussions concerning religious freedom must therefore incorporate an element of compromise from all parties.

"There are ways of conducting this necessary and unavoidable argument that strengthen society, and others that weaken it," he said, cautioning against aggressive political battles.

Instead, Galston suggested that "by regarding and treating those with whom we disagree as fellow seekers after justice and truth, we make it more likely that they will seek justice and truth rather than dominion."

"In the heat of the moment, let us allow the cooler voice of reason and the quieter voice of conscience to be heard," he said of the compromises and accommodations needed to protect religious liberty.

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