Point of View

NC needs a freedom of religion refresher course

April 12, 2013 

It is becoming increasingly clear that some members of the N.C. General Assembly are in critical need of a refresher course on the meaning of religious freedom.

When asked by a constituent whether she would support a Muslim offering a prayer before the state legislature, Rep. Michele Presnell responded by saying, “No, I do not condone terrorism.” She went on to justify her position by saying we “need to start taking a stand on our religious freedom or it will be whisked away from us.”

Presnell’s comments follow the just-quashed attempt to enable North Carolina to establish an official religion in clear violation of the U.S. Constitution – again under the guise of religious freedom. These preposterous acts show no grasp of the reality of a historic understanding of the meaning of religious freedom and show how desperately we need to improve education on the meaning and importance of religious freedom in our nation.

In fact, Presnell’s comments contribute to a climate in which more and more attempts are made to “whisk” away the religious freedom of American Muslims. Make no mistake, the rights of other minority religions would fall quickly in the environment sought by this North Carolina legislator.

Already American Muslim communities have had to fight tooth and nail for permits to build mosques against pushback from their neighbors; once built, their mosques and religious schools have been vandalized and attacked. Hate crimes are still being committed against individuals who so much as “look Muslim.” Is that religious freedom? Is that what Presnell desires for all religions?

It is my duty as a religious leader, as a defender of religious freedom and simply as an American citizen concerned with the future of our democracy to remind Americans that being a Muslim is not synonymous with being a terrorist and supporting the American Muslim community’s right to worship is not synonymous with supporting terrorism. The time is long past for us to stop demonizing this American faith community and judging a faith practiced by billions by those who twist and misappropriate its teachings to serve their violent goals.

Presnell and I agree that we must always take a stand for our religious freedom – and I truly mean “our,” collectively. As a Baptist, I cannot fight just for my own freedom to worship. I fight for my Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian (and the list goes on) sisters’ and brothers’ rights as well – and the rights of those who choose not to worship. That is the inclusion at the heart of what our First Amendment-given religious freedom means.

To tell the truth, religious freedom has always been in need of defending in America. But a bill that could have led to a statewide-established religion, a bill that sought to “defend” religion against a spate of court cases invalidating several North Carolina county boards’ practices of opening sessions with (almost exclusively Christian) prayers harms religious freedom vastly more than protects it.

Neither my Christian faith nor my religious freedom is in any way threatened by these court cases. Legislative prayers, if they are to continue, should be nonsectarian and inclusive. Here again, having such prayers delivered by clergy of other faiths in no way threatens my faith.

Our Muslim neighbors have as much a right to exercise their faith, to build houses of worship, to be included in interfaith ceremonies as I do as a Christian minister – and to be free from the kind of heated rhetoric employed by too many political and opinion leaders today.

We would all do well to remember that it is the lack of an established religion that has enabled so many religions to flourish side by side with a freedom in our nation unparalleled in any other nation in the world.

Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance a national, non-partisan grassroots organization that celebrates religious freedom.

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