By Stan Rasmussen
Published on June 7, 2018

Last month, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty hosted the 2018 Canterbury Medal Gala in New York City. Stanford Swim, Sutherland Institute board chairman, and I were privileged to attend this impressive event on May 24 honoring the work of Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik in defense of religious freedom.

Rabbi Soloveichik is the leader of the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, Shearith Israel in New York City.

The efforts of the Becket Fund – and the individuals and organizations that are both its benefactors and beneficiaries – provide a sterling example of people with significant differences in beliefs and perceptions deciding to collaborate in efforts to preserve and defend principles and values they share.

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As expressed by the good rabbi, “Today in America people of faith inspire each other, sustain each other, so that an alliance over religious freedom can form – without diminishing our religious differences – a fellowship.”

In his acceptance speech, Rabbi Soloveichik likened lighted candles to the “soul,” the distinctive essence and identity of individual people, as he discussed religious freedom and essential efforts to defend it.

“[A] verse in Proverbs allows us to understand the lesson of [the Hanukkah lamp] ritual. ‘The soul of man is the candle of God.’ Lighting candles outside the doors of our homes expresses that when people of faith leave their homes and enter the world, they take their beliefs and their religious identity with them. They do not check their beliefs at the door when they enter the public square. Their souls, the candle within each person, illuminates their path wherever they may lead.

“… this understanding of faith and of its role in society is deeply American. …

“And this ultimately is what religious liberty is all about. As the Hanukkah lamp reminds us, when we leave our houses of worship or our homes and enter the world, our souls come with us. When the Little Sisters of the Poor enter society and seek to serve, they bring their souls with them. When an evangelical Christian builds a company and employs people, he brings his soul with him. When Catholics heal in a hospital or create a college or an adoption agency, they bring their souls with them. When Jews or Mormons or Sikhs or citizens of any faith seek to answer or serve society, they bring their souls with them. Their faith is the candle within. Its suffuses all they do. And when the state demands disloyalty to one’s faith as the price for entering society, that is an assault on the human soul, and that is intolerable, because ‘the soul of man is the candle of God.’ …

“Enemies of religious liberty seek to cut at the candle that is the human spirit, to carve it according to their will, to amputate souls from citizens as a price for entering society so that nothing but a desiccated stub of humanity remains. They choose to forget that Almighty God has made man free. … But we do not forget this, and tonight we celebrate it. And we, all of us here, express our profound gratitude to the leaders and the lawyers and the staff of Becket, to those on the front lines of the fight for religious freedom.”

A profile published by the Deseret News several days prior to the Becket award dinner gave readers an introduction to Rabbi Soloveichik and the Becket Fund and to their committed efforts. In Future Voice for Religious Freedom, writer Kelsey Dallas included enlightening questions and answers. Among them:

Deseret News: Becket’s most recent Supreme Court cases illustrate the various concerns that fit under the broad category of religious freedom. For example, in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., Becket argued on behalf of corporation leaders who, for religious reasons, did not want to pay for contraception coverage for their employees. Are all religious freedom fights created equal?

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik: What I love about Becket is precisely that they fight for the religious freedom of all Americans. They fight for the rights of the Little Sisters of the Poor, of the Muslim prisoner not to have to shave his beard and of a Sikh who wants to wear his turban while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. These cases show the true mosaic of faith that is America.

Some cases are more controversial, and some are less controversial. I don’t see the underlying issues as being different. They become different for some when they get connected to the culture wars.

But for Becket, these are all issues of religious freedom. We need to believe and fight for religious freedom for everyone.

DN: When you talk about why you do the work that you do, you often say “as a Jew and as an American.” Why do you use that phrasing?

MS: The heart of the American idea is a recognition that, for believers, our faith is the most important thing to us. And that to ask a person of faith to shed their religious identity as a price for participating (in the public square) would be to ask them to amputate the most central part of their souls.

So, for a Jew to say that his Judaism or for a Catholic to say that his Catholicism or for a Mormon to say that his Mormonism is the most central part of himself is actually a very American thing to say. The American approach to religious freedom recognizes how central faith is to believers.

So, when I say, “as a Jew and as an American,” I mean first that my Jewishness and my adherence to Judaism is the most central aspect of my identity. But that’s not in tension with my identity as an American.

I’m also referring to the story of Jews in America, which inspires my passion for religious liberty.

The rabbi’s timeless message is particularly relevant this week, as the U.S. Supreme Court has reiterated the truly inclusive nature of religious liberty in its Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. Perhaps he would appreciate the echo in the court’s ruling of his message that people of faith should not be placed at a disadvantage for refusing to leave their “soul” behind when they enter the public square.

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