A coalition of religious and civic leaders has denounced a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights which said appeals to religious freedom are usually just discrimination-in-disguise.

"We took no position on the great cultural and moral debates facing our nation, except the position that in America everyone has a voice," Dr. Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute and director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, stated of the letter that he and other leaders signed.

"Our founding generation would be scandalized that a government agency has asserted, in effect, that Americans who exercise their religious freedom are doing so with evil intent, and that the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion should be considered null and void. Every American should condemn this report," Dr. Farr continued.

In September, a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights – "Peaceful Coexistence: reconciling non-discrimination principles with religious liberties" – explored the supposed conflicts between appeals to religious freedom by churches, religious groups, and employers, and claims of discrimination by employees, customers, and other members of society.

Some of the common examples of conflict highlighted in the report were businesses declining to serve same-sex weddings for religious reasons – while their customers might claim they are being discriminated against for not being served – and churches refusing to include contraceptives in employee health plans, while their female employees might claim discrimination for not having birth control coverage.

The report claimed that many persons, businesses, and groups "use the pretext of religious doctrines to discriminate" and sided against religious exemptions for persons and groups in many cases.

"Civil rights protections ensuring nondiscrimination, as embodied in the Constitution, laws, and policies, are of preeminent importance in American jurisprudence," it stated, noting 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 commission's chair Martin R. Castro, appointed by President Obama, actually decried many appeals to "religious liberty" in his own remarks, saying that "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."

In response, a coalition of Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Muslim, Baha'i, and Mormon leaders – and even leaders of non-religious groups – sent a letter Oct. 7 to President Obama, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch.

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"In light of this, we call upon each of you to renounce publicly the claim that 'religious freedom' and 'religious liberty' are 'code words' or a 'pretext' for various forms of discrimination," the coalition stated. "There should be no place in our government for such a low view of our First Freedom – the first of our civil rights – least of all from a body dedicated to protecting them all."

Signers included Farr; Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the U.S. Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty; Charles Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute; Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; Bishop Gregory John Mansour of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn; Nathan J. Diament of the Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; and Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, president of Zaytuna College.

"We write to you as the authorities responsible for appointing members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights," the letter stated, noting that the report in question "stigmatizes tens of millions of religious Americans, their communities, and their faith-based institutions, and threatens the religious freedom of all our citizens."

The leaders insisted that "each of us opposes hateful rhetoric and actions."

"We believe in the equality of all Americans before the law, regardless of creed or community. But we are both determined and unafraid to speak the truth about beliefs we have held for millennia," they stated.

Religious freedom is "the first of our civil rights," the letter insisted, and differences of opinion on matters of conscience is part of what should be a vibrant public square.

"The genius of American democracy is that it invites everyone into the public square, on the basis of full equality, to contend over the laws and policies that reflect our values and our understanding of the common good," the letter stated.

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The government must not infringe upon this debate and refer to one side as bigoted, the leaders maintained: "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."

And religious beliefs cannot be a private matter, but can and should be brought into the public square, the leaders continued:

"Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause."

"So to say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates is a practical absurdity."

The commission's report also called for the repeal of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would result in a dramatic shift of jurisprudence on religious freedom cases.

When it was published, one of the commissioners dissenting from the report, Gail Heriot, issued a scathing rebuke of the report and of Castro's statements.  

She stated that "the Commission majority takes a complex subject and tries to make it simple – far too simple. Not many legal or constitutional issues come down to good guys vs. bad guys."

"In some ways, I envy anyone who can dismiss those who disagree with him as mere hypocrites," she added.

"Does Chairman Castro really believe that the Little Sisters of the Poor, whose case is currently before the Supreme Court, are just a bunch of hypocrites? Does he believe that they are making up their concern over being compelled to finance their employees' contraception? Does he think they really just want to save money?"