Religious liberty in the crosshairs

800px-Cathedral_of_the_Madeleine,_SLC_The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has recently concluded hearings on religious liberty and the invaluable Kathryn Lopez of National Review has published an interview with Peter Kirsanow, one of the commissioners, about what he learned from that experience.

The entire interview is worth reading. Commissioner Kirsanow explains the commission’s interest in the topic:

In many respects, religious freedom has always been a civil-rights issue. It’s perhaps unique among civil-rights issues in that it was the impetus for many of the first American colonists to risk their lives to settle in the New World. That’s something that’s in our national DNA.  But over the last few decades there’s been a creeping erosion of our religious freedoms.

One thing Commissioner Kirsanow learned from the experience is “that there’s increasing hostility toward the religious — particularly, but not limited to, Catholics — who are seen as nettlesome impediments to an expanding benevolent state.”

Kathryn asked whether the commission heard concerns “about overreach of nondiscrimination laws” and Commissioner Kirsanow responded:

Absolutely. Scores did.  In fact, I’ve never seen such alarm about governmental overreach during my twelve-year tenure on the Commission. For example, students expressed concerns about the antidiscrimination rules in place at some universities that prohibit religious groups from requiring their leaders to sign a statement of faith or adhere to certain moral codes. Bishop Paprocki wrote about the nondiscrimination requirements in the Illinois civil-union law that drove Catholic Charities out of the foster and adoption business. Alliance Defending Freedom submitted a comment that detailed many incidents where small businesses were penalized by the state for exercising their religious freedom. The examples were endless.

On the potential threat to religious liberty from redefining marriage, he said:

As same-sex marriage becomes more common, it will become less and less acceptable to hold the traditional religious view that marriage is only between one man and one woman. It also means that people who are opposed to same-sex marriage based on their religious beliefs can be accused of marital-status discrimination in addition to sexual-orientation discrimination. Such individuals will increasingly be required to check their religious beliefs at the entrance to the public square — and with an ever expanding public square, that means confining religious practice to the home and house of worship.

These trends should be familiar to us in Utah since leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been very clear about the emerging and accelerating threats to religious liberty. For example speeches by: Elder Dallin H. Oaks at BYU-Idaho, Chapman University Law School and the Becket Fund; Elder Quentin L. Cook at BYU-Idaho; Elder Lance B. Wickman at the J. Reuben Clark Law Society and the 2013 National Religious Freedom Conference. This list is not exhaustive, of course.

In one exchange, Commissioner Kirsanow does hold out a very important hope in the face of these ominous developments that we would do well to heed:

LOPEZ: Do you have any hope that religious freedom can come out from the rhetorical shadows? The concerns always seem lost in rhetoric about birth control, freedom, equality, and tolerance?

KIRSANOW: It will come out of the rhetorical shadows only if religious people speak out. Tough to do when the state, the media, the academy, and popular culture often seem hostile. But it’s unwise to underestimate people who actually believe in something beyond the temporal.

The commission will issue a report in the next few months.

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