WASHINGTON – Freedom of religion in 2013 can best be described as an endangered species, argued the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, at the Ethics and Public Policy Center's 2013 National Religious Freedom Conference Thursday in Washington, D.C. He urged those in attendance, representing many different faith communities, to "rise up" and defend that freedom by speaking truth to power with civility and grace.
Rodriguez began by reminding his audience of all that faith does for them personally and for their communities: "We gather today as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs motivated by a spirit of interfaith cooperation. We are here by faith and for faith."
Faith, he said, "equips us to cross over obstacles," "encourages us to survive the fires of life," "empowers us to see the invisible, embrace the impossible, and hope for the incredible," and "exhorts us to care for the poor, speak for the marginalized, welcome the stranger all while doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly before God."
Yet, Rodriguez added, they live in a time when the freedom to express that faith is threatened. "Freedom of religion in America can best be characterized in the year 2013 as nothing other than an 'endangered species.'"
Rodriguez cited the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring most employers, even religious employers, to cover contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs in their health care; and, the recent revelation that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups, including pro-life groups and evangelical groups, for audits.
"You see my friends, to silence faith is to silence the moral conscience of our nation," Rodriguez preached. "To obstruct religious liberty is to obstruct the forces that reconcile righteousness with justice; covenant with community, sanctification with service, and faith with action. To oppress religious freedom is to deny the prophetic while granting amnesty to the pathetic."
America's "commitment to religious pluralism, diversity, and tolerance" is her "greatest export" and what makes the nation "exceptional," Rodriguez argued. In America, he added, religious freedom is based upon the premise that the freedom comes from God, not government; and, people serve God, and government serves the people. But, "the rejection of this foundational framework will surely result in chaos, angst, and the potential termination of our noble experiment."
Rodriguez ended by recalling a nature show he saw. A lion was attacked by predators and was near defeat. When the predators saw the lion had no more strength, they went for his cubs. At that point, the lion did the only thing left he could – he roared, and the predators fled.
"It's time to release a collective faith filled roar," Rodriguez urged. "I stand committed to roar when my Muslim brothers are threatened. I stand committed to releasing a roar when my Jewish brothers and sisters stand threatened. For as a Christian, as an evangelical, I understand that defending religious freedom stems not from the agenda of the donkey or the elephant but rather from the agenda of the lamb. This is not a conservative, liberal, Christian, Jewish or Muslim endeavor. Protecting religious freedom emerges as the quintessential exercise within this experiment we call the American experience."
The 2013 National Religious Freedom Conference was a one day event hosted by the American Religious Freedom Program of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a program dedicated to protecting and strengthening religious freedom. The conference was bipartisan and multi-faith, featuring speakers from Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Latter-day Saint, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, Muslim and Sikh faith communities.
At the conference, William Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was honored with the 2013 American Religious Freedom Award for helping to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) when he served as an advisor to President Bill Clinton.