Friday, June 28, 2013

Religion: Religious liberty in America: an enduring promise

Religious liberty in America: an enduring promise
by Holly Hollman and Hoda Elshishtawy
Washington, DC – Americans face many challenges that threaten to undermine their obligation to protect religious pluralism and the rights of fellow citizens. Earlier this month in Tennessee, for example, a program on public discourse designed to answer questions about Islam was continuously disrupted by protesters and hecklers, some of whom claimed that Islam is evil.

Yet we should not diminish what has been called “the most successful experiment in religious liberty the world has ever known” – the United States of America. Whatever challenges we face, the two of us, from a Baptist organisation and a Muslim organisation respectively, agree that protecting religious liberty is paramount. Protection of religious liberty requires careful attention to upholding the principles enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guard the right to practice one’s faith without government interference.

In many respects, religious liberty serves as a baseline for democratic participation. Religious liberty — and consensus on its importance — creates the conditions for people of all religions (or no religion) to influence lawmakers on various policy concerns. A mutual commitment to the right of religious liberty for all allows people of faith or of none to share their opinions, agree or disagree and attempt to persuade others about various matters related to the public welfare. In this sense, religious liberty is fundamental not merely for its own sake, but also because it facilitates robust democratic debate.

One way of appreciating the rich tradition of religious liberty is to understand how religious communities enjoy religious freedom and why they feel called to protect it. At a conference earlier this year on the meaning of religious liberty, we shared the stage to discuss the meaning of religious freedom and our common ground.

As General Counsel for a Baptist organisation dedicated to protecting religious liberty, Holly’s perspective is shaped by the historical experience of Baptists, a congregation-based Christian denomination that suffered persecution because of the union of civil and religious authorities in Europe and in the American colonies. That experience fuelled disestablishment efforts that influenced the Founders and led to the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Central to Baptist understanding of religious liberty is the conviction that this freedom must be protected for all because a threat to any faith is a threat to all faiths.

Today, this enduring vision forms the basis of a shared commitment across many faith groups in America, each dependent on it for survival.

Hoda, as Legislative and Policy Analyst for MPAC, is acutely aware of the importance of protecting religious liberty in an increasingly religiously diverse nation. Despite the protection of religious liberty by law, there are many challenges associated with being part of a minority faith, both in terms of promoting understanding of Muslim beliefs and practices as well as in seeking acceptance as part of the wider religious and political fabric of the country.

Despite many successes, difficulties remain. Even events designed to promote understanding may be disrupted. The recent forum in Tennessee was an effort to foster dialogue after a local county commissioner’s ill-conceived attempt at humour on social media suggested Muslims should be greeted while holding a shotgun. But, in the same state, civil rights groups and interfaith allies have successfully banded together to pave the way for a local mosque in Murfreesboro to expand, overcoming the objections of an anti-religious freedom campaign and resulting in a victory for religious liberty. America’s successful transformation into the most religiously diverse nation on earth has largely rested on the promise of the First Amendment.

Unlike other aspects of our democratic society, protection of religious liberty is not subject to the will of the majority. The religious liberties each citizen enjoys are subject only to a duty to protect the same rights for others, even (and perhaps especially) where there are deep theological differences and disagreement. As it turns out, we don’t have to look very far to find common ground: we need only consult our constitution, which guarantees religious liberty for all. Religious liberty is what we all have in common. As we face new challenges, we must hold fast to that truth.


* Holly Hollman is General Counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Hoda Elshishtawy is Legislative and Policy Analyst for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 June 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.