Threat to one faith endangers freedom for all, warn leaders

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Noting significant threats to religious liberty in modern U.S. society, speakers at a recent national conference stressed that all faiths are threatened by restrictions on the freedom of believers.

"Religious freedom is a human right," said Rev. Eugene F. Rivers, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community, at a recent conference in Washington, D.C.

He stated that "the black churches want to work with those who are serious about fighting" against all infringements upon religious freedom.

 "We want to work with all of the religious communities around us, because we understand that there are lines that have to be drawn" in order to support religious freedom for all, he said.

Rivers was one of several panelists of various faith backgrounds who spoke last month at the National Religious Freedom Conference, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center's American Religious Freedom Program.

He warned that African-American churches have been threatened with losing tax exempt status for preaching against same-sex marriage.

"We as people of faith must understand that either party will now throw you under the bus," he said, encouraging leaders who value religious liberty to band together to halt impositions upon religious freedom.

Other speakers pointed to religious liberty threats facing their own respective religious communities.

"Orthodox Christians are like the canaries you bring into the mine," said the Very Rev. Chad Hatfield, chancellor of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminar. He explained that Eastern Orthodox have historically faced manipulation and persecution at the "hands of Caesar" throughout the world and even within recent United States history.

Amardeep Singh, director of programs for the Sikh Coalition, criticized a recent federal regulation addressing bullying because it does not name religious belief as a protected class under the new law. He noted that the Sikh community is particularly sensitive to this omission because of the violence and persecution faced by Sikhs in the United States.

Shaykha Reima Yosif, founder of the Al-Rawiya Foundation, a group aiming to empower Muslim Women through the arts, noted that many threats to religious liberty come not from government but from society itself.

"Because of the fact that I am easily identifiable, I am an easy target for harassment," she noted, adding that apathy towards religious freedom "makes our work as faith leaders all the more important."

Rabbi Abba Cohen, D.C. director of Agudath Israel of America, cautioned that "no faith group can abide the weakening of religious freedom."

He pointed specifically to the threat posed by the controversial HHS mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance covering contraption, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

The greatest threat to religious freedom, he explained, center on the ongoing debate about "religion's place in society."

"We see now that religion is often treated with derision and ridicule, treated mockingly and sparingly," he said.

Legislation to protect religious freedom is particularly important, he said, because "the law is a teacher" and hostile regulations create hostility, which then lead to more restrictive laws against religious freedom.

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Elder Lance Wickman, emeritus general authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stressed that "there need not be a conflict between differing conceptions of human dignity, but unfortunately, that is a conflict that is rearing its head."

While historically, religious belief has been valued within society, he said, religious freedom has been portrayed in secular world lately "as something akin to a hobby" that is "less intrinsic to who we are" than other identities.

Instead, religious faith is portrayed "as a mere lifestyle choice," and "a new closet is being constructed for traditional religious beliefs" within the public square, particularly on contentious public topics such as sexuality.

He warned that "every loss for religious freedom risks emboldening the state" and increasing its restrictions upon religion.

"The right to the freedom of religion requires more than the absence of totalitarian restrictions on the freedom of expression," Elder Wickman said, emphasizing that people must be able to live their faith freely in society.

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