Southern Baptist entity head Russell Moore and other religious representatives have called for President Obama and congressional leaders to repudiate a contention by the country’s top civil rights panel that religious liberty is used as a pretense for discrimination.
The letter from a diverse coalition of religious leaders took issue with assertions made by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) and its chairman in an early September report. In the report, the panel said religious groups “use the pretext of religious doctrines to discriminate.“
In a statement included in the report, USCCR Chairman Martin Castro said, “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”
Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), and his fellow signers urged Obama and the other recipients of their letter “to renounce publicly the claim that ‘religious freedom’ and ‘religious liberty’ are ‘code words’ or a ‘pretext’ for various forms of discrimination.”
“There should be no place in our government for such a low view of our First Freedom – the first of our civil rights – least of all from a body dedicated to protecting them all,” the letter said.
The letter, dated Oct. 7 but not released until Oct. 12, went to Rep. Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, president pro tempore of the Senate, as well as President Obama. The president, the speaker and the president pro tem appoint the members of the eight-member civil rights panel.
The letter signers – who include evangelical Christian, Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon and Hare Krishna leaders – said they understand “people of good faith can disagree about the relationship between religious liberty and antidiscrimination laws.” Yet, they said, “[W]e are one in demanding that no American citizen or institution be labeled by their government as bigoted because of their religious views, and dismissed from the political life of our nation for holding those views. And yet that is precisely what the Civil Rights Commission report does.”
In its report, the USCCR also said protections to ensure nondiscrimination “are of preeminent importance in American jurisprudence” and religious exemptions from safeguards for such classifications as sexual orientation and gender identity “significantly infringe upon” those civil rights guarantees. With such language, the commission and its chairman indicated the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people should prevail when they clash with the rights of Americans who have religious conscience objections.
The legal and legislative advances of the LGBT and same-sex marriage movements have prompted debate for at least the last decade on how the conflict between religious liberty and what has become known as sexual liberty should be resolved. The USCCR is now on record favoring sexual liberty.
The ERLC’s Moore responded to the report at the time by telling Baptist Press, “For this administration to argue that religious liberty is merely a euphemism for unlawful discrimination demonstrates how deeply entrenched our federal government is in a ‘culture war’ mentality against religious dissidents.
“This hostile attitude toward tens of millions of law-abiding Americans is tragic, and my prayer is that it would quickly give way to a recognition that soul freedom is worth defending for all,” Moore said.
The USCCR’s report “stigmatizes tens of millions of religious Americans, their communities, and their faith-based institutions, and threatens the religious freedom of all our citizens,” the letter signers said.
They told Obama, Ryan and Hatch, “Each of us opposes hateful rhetoric and actions. We believe in the equality of all Americans before the law, regardless of creed or community. But we are both determined and unafraid to speak the truth about beliefs we have held for millennia.
“Slandering ideas and arguments with which one disagrees as ‘racism’ or ‘phobia’ not only cheapens the meaning of those words, but can have a chilling effect on healthy debate over, or dissent from, the prevailing orthodoxy,” the letter signers said.
The USCCR released its report – titled “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles With Civil Liberties” – more than three years after it held a briefing involving legal experts on different sides of the issue.
In its report, the commission also endorsed findings that called for: (1) Distinguishing “between beliefs (which should be protected) and conduct (which should conform to the law);” (2) workers not being required “to live under the religious doctrines of their employers;” and (3) the “freedom to marry” not being “subject to religious beliefs.”
In addition to its findings, the USCCR made recommendations narrowing religious liberty protections. It said courts, legislators and policy-makers “must tailor religious exceptions to civil liberties and civil rights protections as narrowly as applicable law requires.”
If followed by the government, the USCCR’s findings and recommendations could severely restrict religious freedom and conscience protections for individuals, including employers, and institutions, including churches.
Signers of the letter – which was released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) – include Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, chairman of the USCCB’s religious liberty committee; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Eugene Rivers, president of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies; Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; Gerald Causse, presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and Hamza Yusuf Hanson, president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim, liberal arts school in Berkeley, Calif.
The USCCR, established in 1957 as a nonpartisan entity, consists of four members appointed by the president and four by Congress. The president names the chairman and vice chairman of the panel.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)