Defending Religious Freedom at Home — and Abroad

News Analysis: Church leaders discover that the ‘first freedom’ isn’t what it used to be.

Coptic Christians in Los Angeles protested in October against the killings of people during clashes in Cairo between Christian protesters and military police, and what the demonstrators say is persecution of Christians.
Coptic Christians in Los Angeles protested in October against the killings of people during clashes in Cairo between Christian protesters and military police, and what the demonstrators say is persecution of Christians. (photo: REUTERS/David McNew)

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. bishops press their case for broad religious exemptions in federal and state laws, they have also lobbied Washington to secure religious freedom abroad.

Amid rising political turmoil in the Middle East and South Asia, religious minorities have become targets of sectarian violence, and U.S. Church leaders want President Obama to embrace the issue as a foreign-policy priority. Yet, they also recognize that secular trends in the West have relegated this issue to the backburner, and U.S. policymakers must be prodded to engage and even penalize nations that persecute Christians.

In testimony
before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights Nov. 17, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., asked the White House and Congress “to place a higher priority on religious freedom and the role that it plays in foreign policy.”

“[T]there is too little public evidence that protection of religious freedom is factored into major bilateral foreign-policy decisions on a day-to-day basis,” asserted Bishop Ramirez, a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

“The president and the secretary of State should consider more closely presidential actions that might be applied to those states where particularly severe violations of religion freedom occur,” he added, while acknowledging the importance of annual religious freedom status reports released by the U.S. government.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently issued its annual report, which confirming that Catholics and other religious minorities faced persecution in India, Egypt, Iraq and China, among other nations.

During the House subcommittee hearings, Congressman Chris Smith, the chairman of the subcommittee, noted the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt and called on the Obama administration to make “the protection of the Coptic Christian communities a priority in our diplomatic engagements with the government of Egypt” — the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

Bishop Ramirez, a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, argued that Washington must give greater weight to the 2011 report’s designated “Countries of Particular Concern (CPC),” as required by the International Religious Freedom Act, which mandates the annual report.

Freedom to Debate

During his testimony before the subcommittee, Bishop Ramirez reported that members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had met with the Pakistani Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated in March. His testimony also noted that a delegation of U.S. bishops visited Baghdad last month to review the concerns of Iraqi Christians, as American troops prepare to depart the country by the end of 2011.

During the U.S bishops’ semi-annual meeting last week in Baltimore, Bishop George Murray of Youngstown, Ohio, and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., briefed the media on their meetings with Iraqi Christians in Baghdad and called on the Obama administration to use its leverage with the Iraqi government — a major recipient of U.S. aid, to secure an orderly transition and protect the rights of religious minorities.

Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute, echoed the USCCB’s concerns about the plight of Iraqi Christians, whose numbers have been cut in half since the 2003 U.S. invasion, with many fleeing both military conflict and sectarian violence instigated by Islamic militants.

“The U.S. will remain an important ally for Iraq in technological, economic and defense areas. The U.S. government should make the protection and recognition of equal rights of citizenship for the Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities a redline for our alliance,” said Shea.

But as advocates for religious freedom press for Washington to make the issue a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, they acknowledge that many in the West no longer embrace religious freedom as a fundamental civil right at home or in the developing world — where nations with Muslim majorities are still debating their future path.

“Religious freedom is not solely freedom from coercion in matters of personal faith; it is also freedom to practice the faith individually and communally, in private and public,” stated Bishop Ramirez, during his testimony before the House subcommittee.

“Freedom of religion extends beyond freedom of worship. It includes the freedom of the Church and religious organizations to provide education, health and other social services, as well as to allow religiously motivated individuals and communities to participate in public-policy debates and thus contribute to the common good,” he noted.

What’s So Special?

Bishop Ramirez’s testimony implicitly engaged efforts by the Obama administration to reassess the traditional weight given to the free exercise of religion and constrain the distinctive institutional practices of faith-based institutions in the public square.

For example, during oral arguments for a key First Amendment case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. solicitor general’s assistant, who represented the EEOC, proposed that the justices make no distinction between secular and religious employers.

Indeed, during the same day that Bishop Ramirez appeared before the House subcommittee, Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs hosted a symposium on “What’s So Special About Religious Freedom?”

While some Church leaders might find the question puzzling, the wide-ranging discussion at the symposium signaled that religious freedom no longer holds pride of place as the “first freedom” for Western elites. Meanwhile, in the developing world, anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws are present in a spectrum of political systems.  There are legal scholars who contend that natural-law arguments, which defend the inviolability of the individual conscience to be free from coersion,  should be set aside in cultures that give more weight to shared “communal beliefs.”

During the symposium’s featured debate between two well-credentialed constitutional scholars, Michael McConnell of Stanford University and Noah Feldman of Harvard University, the Harvard scholar asserted that “the liberal state cannot embrace a theory of liberty that privileges religion over other comprehensive and world-making doctrines.”

Feldman—who contributed to the development of Iraq’s new constitution, after the U.S. invasion dismantled the regime of Saddam Hussein—contended that any special preference for religious freedom meant that the state affirmed faith-based “truths,” or that religion was being used to promote the interests of the state. “Both perspectives violate liberal neutrality,” he insisted.

But McConnell argued, “Religious freedom is the ‘first freedom’ not because of its location in the Bill of Rights … but because the separation of church and state was the genesis of liberalism. The struggle between spiritual and temporal authorities laid the groundwork for the … limited state.”

In prepared remarks, McConnell asserted that religion “plays an unrivaled role in human life. It is an institution, a worldview, a set of personal loyalties and a locus of community, an aspect of identity and a connection to the transcendent.”

“In any particular context, religion may appear analogous to some other aspect of human activity,” McConnell concluded, “but, in its totality, it stands alone.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.