Religious Freedom

A Parched Patch of Prejudice

The U.S. Constitution with an American flag. Photo courtesy of Mark Hayes via Shutterstock

Conservative Christians are claiming that their religious freedom requires free rein for legalized discrimination.

That’s a clever argument. It seems to claim the moral high ground, to align itself with basic constitutional principles, and to put bigots in the victim role.

The argument is utter nonsense, of course. Freedom of belief has nothing to do with compelling other people to bow to that belief. If anything, freedom of belief should lead to a broad umbrella of diversity, not a parched patch of prejudice.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, after all, sought to guarantee freedom — of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petitioning the government — not to grant freedom to some and not others, depending on the whims of the powerful or pious.

Religious Liberty vs. Civil Rights: A Balancing Act

A man exits the Supreme Court building with an American flag after its rulings on same-sex marriage. RNS photo: Adelle M. Banks

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer may have ended the latest controversy in her state by vetoing a “religious freedom” bill that threatened gay men and lesbians, but the nation’s legislatures and courts are just getting started.

While religious liberty remains a “core value” in Arizona, Brewer said Wednesday, “so is non-discrimination.” And therein lies the balancing act that’s at the root of several other disputes.

The answer isn’t simple. Congress and the states often carve out exceptions for religious beliefs. The Supreme Court has consistently made room for religious exercise. And unlike race and gender, sexual orientation is not a protected class — yet.

You Brought Me a Beer — and Took My Picture

Mug of beer, Yellowj /

Mug of beer, Yellowj /

My flight home from Phoenix over the weekend got pushed back, so I wound up spending an extra night at an airport hotel. Also, I got an $8 food voucher from the airline. I decided to eat at the hotel.

The restaurant was located on the top floor of the hotel with a nice view of downtown. There was a small bar near the entrance. A handful of hotel visitors were enjoying complimentary drinks and watching the Olympics on a flat-screen television.

I was greeted at the door by Melody, a transplant from Erie, Pa., who doubles as a bartender and a server. When I mentioned that I had a food voucher, she offered condolences for my scrambled travel plans. She also offered me a free beer.

Glass of red ale in hand, I picked a table in a corner of the restaurant, ordered a spinach salad and went back to reading a book about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the long struggle to get the country to live up to its ideal that everyone should be treated as an equal child of God.

I couldn’t help but think about my 10 days in Arizona watching the state legislature debate and ultimately pass a bill that would allow business owners and individuals to refuse service to anyone on grounds of religious freedom. The impetus was a New Mexico case involving a photographer who refused to take photos of a gay couple.

The bill was promoted as a religious liberty issue. Opponents pointed out that it was the definition of discrimination — people would be singled out for unequal treatment.

Kansas, Arizona Bills Reflect National Fight Over Gay Rights vs. Religious Liberty

A man holds a gay pride flag in front of the Supreme Court on June 26, 2013. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks.

Gay rights are colliding with religious rights in states like Arizona and Kansas as the national debate over gay marriage morphs into a fight over the dividing line between religious liberty and anti-gay discrimination.

More broadly, the fight mirrors the national debate on whether the religious rights of business owners also extend to their for-profit companies. Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether companies like Hobby Lobby must provide contraceptive services that their owners consider immoral.

The Arizona bill, which is headed to Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk for her signature, would allow people who object to same-sex marriage to use their religious beliefs as a defense in a discrimination lawsuit.

Sikhs Stand up to Bullying as They Try to Build Understanding

Prabhdeep Suri speaks about his experiences with bullying at the Guru Nanak Foundation of America. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks.

Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, Prabhdeep Suri has been the only Sikh in his class, and it’s been obvious.

Like all Sikh boys, he wore a patka, a head covering for his uncut hair that’s worn out of respect for his gurus. To his classmates, the patka was a license to stare, taunt, isolate, punch, and kick him. It was a target to knock off his head. It was the reason they called him “Osama bin Laden” and “terrorist.”

“He came home crying three days out of five,” his mother, Harpreet Suri remembered. “They were taking his patka off almost every day.”

Obama's Religious Freedom Record

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current doctoral candidate at Cambridge University. Photo: Courtesy Judd Birdsall

Barack Obama’s critics allege that the president doesn’t practice what he preaches on international religious freedom policy. Last week they pounced on an apparent gap between presidential rhetoric and reality.

On Thursday, the same day that Obama issued his annual Religious Freedom Day proclamation, Religion News Service published an article highlighting his administration’s failure to quickly nominate a new ambassador at large for religious freedom.

Suzan Johnson Cook resigned in October and a successor has yet to be named. It took the administration well over a year to nominate Johnson Cook in the first place, and then a skeptical Senate took an additional year to confirm her. During her brief tenure Johnson Cook never escaped criticism that she was unqualified for the job.

Even so, Obama used his proclamation to affirm, “America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose.” He promised that his administration “will remain committed to promoting religious freedom.”

Wanted: A New Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom

RNS photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Suzan Johnson. RNS photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON — It’s been three months since the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned as the State Department’s religious freedom watchdog, and those who decry religious persecution in Syria, Sudan, and elsewhere are wondering how long it’s going to take the White House to name a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Many in the field hope it’s someone with a more diplomatic background than Johnson Cook, a former Clinton administration official and popular Baptist minister whose international experience was mostly acquired on the job.

The other factor: the more than two years it took for the Obama administration to choose Johnson Cook and to get her confirmed by the Senate.

“A continued vacancy will confirm the suspicion that already exists among foreign governments, persecutors, victims and American diplomats that the issue is not a priority,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

The White House has been tight-lipped about the timeline for a decision, as well as about any candidates it may be considering for the position, which Congress created in 1998 to highlight and alleviate religious persecution worldwide.

Here’s a short list of five names swirling around Foggy Bottom, culled from experts who work in the field and were asked who they see as likely to be under consideration, or as particularly qualified for the job.

5.3 Billion People Face Harsh Religious Freedom Restrictions

“Levels of government restrictions on religion” map courtesy of Pew Research Center / Via RNS

Global religious hostilities reached a six-year high in 2012 and affected more people than government curbs on religious freedom, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest report on religious restrictions around the world.

The report, released Tuesday ahead of National Religious Freedom Day on Thursday, shows that 74 percent of the world’s population experienced high levels of social hostility toward religion, up from 52 percent in 2011.

The sharp rise is due to hostilities in China, which for the first time in the survey’s six-year history, scored a “high” level of religious strife. Home to more than 1.3 billion people, China experienced an increase in religion-related terrorism, mob violence and sectarian conflict in 2012.

The greatest levels of social hostilities toward religion were felt in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Somalia, Israel, and Iraq, according to the report.

Christians in Libya Cast Anxious Eye at Religious Freedom

A Catholic priest converses with an Anglican pastor at Christ the King Anglican Cathedral in Tripoli. Photo: Fredrick Nzwili/RNS

Church leaders in Libya remain hopeful that Christians in the mostly Muslim country will be allowed to practice their faith, even as the country appears to be moving towards Shariah law.

In December, Libya’s General National Congress voted to make Shariah the source of all legislation and institutions. The vote came amid international concerns over the diminishing Christian populations in North Africa and the Middle East, and increased Islamist influence in countries engulfed by the Arab Spring revolution.

Libya has undergone a two-year transition since 2011 when demonstrations toppled Moammar Gadhafi. Before the revolution, Christians were granted religious freedom, but with the change of power, they have been arbitrarily arrested, attacked, killed, and forced by the Islamist groups to convert to Islam.

Frank Wolf, Champion of Religious Freedom, Will End Congressional Career

Rep. Frank Wolf, at the National Day of Prayer on May 2, 2013. Photo: RNS / Adelle M. Banks

Rep. Frank Wolf, one of the loudest and most persistent voices in Congress for the right of people around the globe to practice their religions freely, will not seek an 18th term.

“As a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for justice and reconciliation, and to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Wolf, a Presbyterian, said in a statement Tuesday.

The Republican from Northern Virginia, who will turn 75 in January, said he will work on human rights, religious freedom, and other social issues in his retirement.