Speaking Out for Religious Liberty

August 19, 2010

Over the past couple of months, there has been a lot of heated and often inaccurate rhetoric about a proposed Islamic center in New York Center (often called the "Ground Zero Mosque" even though it is not at Ground Zero and is not just a mosque). Although many politicians and activists are playing on fears in this situation to gain a political advantage, there are many people who fortunately are speaking out for religious liberty rights for all people, which is a bedrock American value. Robert Parham wrote an Ethics Daily column noting that CNN host Fareed Zakaria and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show were setting strong moral examples by speaking out for religious liberty even while many religious and political leaders fail to defend this basic tenet of American democracy. Zakaria gave back an award and $10,000 (that recognized his support for the First Amendment) because the organization that honored him took a stand against the Islamic center. He explained why in a Newsweek column. Stewart has, in his own unique way, brought more truth to the debate than most of what airs on the so-called "news" channels (see videos here, here, here, and here).

Others have also spoken out for religious liberty. President Barack Obama said it well in his remarks at a Ramadan dinner:

This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure.
Although Obama has been criticized for his remarks, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson defended Obama and correctly noted that as president, Obama's duty is to uphold the Constitution:
No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment.
Tim Kaine, former Virginia Governor and current head of the Democratic National Committee, also spoke out for religious liberty rights:
I'm going to go with my Virginians, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, on this one. They put the religious freedom - to worship the religion of your choosing - as the first amendment of the constitution for a reason. ... We don't prefer people and we don't punish people based on their religion. I'm not the New York zoning commissioner, I don't know the reason for the decision, but we can't stop people from doing something that others could do because of the religion they practice.
The New York Times similarly argued:
Defending all Americans’ right to worship - and their right to build places to worship - is fundamental to who we are.
A group of Muslim and Arab Republicans released an open letter warning fellow Republicans to tone down the rhetoric concerning the proposed center. In it, they urged support for religious liberty rights:
Not only does the First Amendment to our Constitution protect the right of these private citizens to worship freely, it also prevents Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion. Our party and the leaders in our party should not be engaged in judgment issues of the location of a cultural center and a house of worship in direct contravention of the First Amendment.
U.S. Senator Russ Feingold similarly argued:
In the end I believe in freedom of religion. ... If somebody owns property and it's within the zoning rules, if they want to build a house of worship that is a fundamental right. And I would make the point I am for freedom on this point, and freedom of religion is fundamental.
Congressman Joe Sestak stated:
I believe in the constitutional right of religious freedom and that the separation of church and state applies equally to everyone.
And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered a great speech about religious liberty and this case. In it, he declared:
Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. ... This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. ... I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.
It is a dark, dangerous path we take when we start limiting religious liberty rights. Hopefully, our nation will listen to these and other voices that remind us that our nation is at its best when we provide religious liberty for all.