Here's a tough question for American pastors: If local school officials voted to limit the freedom of Muslim students to publicly practice their faith, would you urge your flock to protest?
Those who believe in religious liberty must answer "yes," according to the Rev. Rick Warren, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.
"If a school district tells me that a Muslim girl can't wear a headscarf to school, I'm going to oppose that rule," he said, during a recent forum held by the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
"If they say she can't wear a headscarf to school," he said, then "tomorrow they're going to say that I can't wear a cross and carry a Bible."
This raises another question: If the leader of one of America's most prominent megachurches headed to the barricades to defend the rights of Muslims, would the press coverage say that he is taking a "liberal" or a "conservative" stand?
Then, would Warren receive the same label if he protested in support of a local Christian college's rejection of the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover all FDA-approved forms of contraception, sterilizations and morning-after pills?
Both protests would be in support of freedom of religion.
"The worst thing that could happen" in public discourse today, Warren said, would be for the term "religious liberty" to become a "code word for one side or the other, for liberals or conservatives, or Republicans or Democrats. ... That would be a fatal mistake for the party that didn't support the first freedom of this country."
Recent American debates about religious liberty have centered on whether the White House or any other branch of the government can decree that "freedom of worship" is more worthy of protection than the "free exercise" of religious freedom, a much broader constitutional concept.
While the HHS disputes will almost certainly reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the organizers of the Georgetown forum dedicated just as much attention to limitations on religious freedom worldwide, a trend being documented in annual reports by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The most recent survey noted: "Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, three-quarters of the world's approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, up from 70 percent a year earlier. ... The rising tide of restrictions ... is attributable to a variety of factors, including increases in crimes, malicious acts and violence motivated by religious hatred or bias, as well as increased government interference with worship or other religious practices."
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