Companies have pulled their ads from a TV show that portrays Muslims as benign. Religious groups may be required to offer insurance that covers drugs that can induce abortions. A federal judge rejected a ballot initiative on same-sex marriage partly because of its religious arguments. Are these just bubbles in the American melting pot, or signs that religious freedom is under threat?

Thomas Farr and Timothy Shah, of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, organized this discussion.

Religion in the Public Square by Tim Shah and Thomas Farr

Is religious freedom under threat in America today? Yes and no. Compared to Eritrea, where the government habitually forces Pentecostals into unventilated shipping containers until they renounce their beliefs, American religious freedom is in very good shape. But comparative evils abroad are a poor reason to be complacent about liberty at home. Today, in fact, multiple threats warrant special vigilance.

Liberty Is Elusive for Sikh Americans by Rajdeep Singh

For religious minorities in the United States, the promise of religious freedom remains unfulfilled. Sikh Americans, in particular, continue to face relentless challenges in the post-9/11 environment. Worse still, American law affords inadequate protection to Sikhs against religious discrimination and, in some cases, reflects deep-seated stereotypes about American identity.

As American as Religious Persecution by Noah Feldman

Religious liberty has two parts: freedom to worship and freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion. On the first front, the United States is doing great – and has been since the 1700s, well before we even had the First Amendment. Religious dissenters, dissidents and schismatics have long seen the United States as their Canaan, Mecca or Valhalla. Large spaces and the need for immigrants gave birth to the American tradition of laissez faire in religion, and a principled commitment to toleration has firmed up this commitment derived at first from self-interest.

A Campaign Against Patriotic Muslims by Salman Al-Marayati

Yes, religious freedom for the Muslim American is under threat. Fear-mongering toward America’s Muslims and their faith is very clear. The Center for American Progress issued a report this year concluding that anti-Islam groups are financed by a $43 million industry. This garrison of Muslim-haters views Islam as either a theological or political threat in the United States, and their work is reminiscent of the pre-Nazi propaganda produced by Wilhelm Marr that regarded Judaism as a threat to Germany.

Recently, a reality TV show called “All-American Muslim” was aired on TLC, and it became a controversy because it did not include a terrorist. Advertisers are being pressured to pull their support because the show was “offensive.” In other words, Islam cannot be defined by the mainstream in America. It must be defined through the lens of extremism.
Popular books about Islam in bookstores are “The Trouble With Islam Today” and “Why I Am Not a Muslim.” Law enforcement officials are being trained by anti-Muslim bigots so that profiling of Muslims is the norm. Hate against Muslim children in elementary and secondary schools is on the rise.

Human Rights vs. Religious Freedom? By Helen Alvare

Skepticism about the good of religious liberty is growing. Recently, the federal government stopped working with experienced, highly regarded agencies whose religious conscience prevented their providing abortions or contraception; federal employees said they awarded grants instead to lesser-ranked providers. Under proposed federal health care mandates, almost no religious employers would be exempt from providing insurance that covers contraception, including forms that function as early abortifacients; only organizations that primarily serve and hire co-believers qualify for the exemption. Commentators accurately quipped that the ministries of Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa would not qualify. The rhetoric accompanying these moves is hyberbolic: Representative Nancy Pelosi accused Catholic institutions of a willingness to let women “die on the floor.”

Federal Law, at Least, Is on Our Side by Hamza Yusuf

My friend, Cheikhna bin Mahfudh, was about to fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco recently and needed a quiet spot for his noontime Muslim prayer. Fortunately, his business class ticket gave him access to an exclusive airport lounge. Just when he was about done praying, which involves four units of standing, bowing and prostrating, and can look like yoga to the uninitiated, an employee came up to him and said, “Sir, it is not permissible to pray here!” He replied: “I was just exercising. Is that a problem?” The bemused man then said: “Oh, sorry. I thought you were praying.”

Public space is sacred in America. It has the sanctity of that small space you carve out on the grocery checkout conveyor belt, where the little bar you set down lets others know that they cross that line with consequences. We don’t like it when others don’t conform, when they deviate from the norm, and when they do, we become flustered.

A Risk Even for the Majority by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

Asking whether religious freedom is under threat implies that we know what religious freedom is. Religious freedom has multiple histories and is understood differently in different times and places. For example, for some today, religious freedom connotes the possibility of an individual to believe or not as she chooses and to act consistently with that belief within the bounds of law. For others, religious freedom implies the right of religious communities to a degree of autonomy or self-governance. A few would argue that religious freedom demands withdrawal and separation from a larger society so as to enable a common way of life. Still others would say that the priority today should be religious coexistence, rather than freedom; that freedom is a misguided goal, whether for individuals or communities, the appropriate goal being to live with difference and without conflict. And of course, to enforce any version of religious freedom also requires a determination as to what counts as religion.

Falling Short of Our Ideals by Michael Mconnel

This nation was founded on the principle of freedom of religion – the right of individuals, families, churches and voluntary religious associations of all sorts to live their lives in accordance with their own understanding of God’s will. That commitment remains strong today.

But our practice often has fallen short of the ideal, as Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims and others could attest.

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