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Faith leaders call on Obama, Congress to reject controversial religious liberty report
The faith leaders and other religious freedom advocates behind the new letter are distressed by how far religious liberty has fallen in the eyes of some policymakers. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
A diverse group of religious leaders, including the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' ad hoc committee on religious liberty and the presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have called on President Barack Obama and Congress to reject the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' recent report on religious freedom law.

"We wish to express our deep concern that the commission has issued a report, 'Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Non-Discrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,' that stigmatizes tens of millions of religious Americans, their communities and their faith-based institutions, and threatens the religious freedom of all our citizens," reads the group's letter, sent Wednesday to President Obama, Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch, R- Utah, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Released last month, the commission's report offered a grim view of efforts to balance religious freedom protections with local and state anti-discrimination measures.

"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," wrote commission Chairman Martin R. Castro in a statement attached to the report.

Castro and the seven other commissioners, who are legal experts of varying political and professional backgrounds, struggled to find a path forward from ongoing debates over religious exemptions to same-sex wedding ceremonies and the rights of LGBT students enrolled at religiously affiliated colleges.

"Federal and state courts, lawmakers and policymakers at every level must tailor religious exemptions to civil liberties and civil rights protections as narrowly as applicable law requires," the commissioners wrote.

In their letter, interfaith leaders acknowledge that religious freedom is a difficult concept to translate into law.

"We understand that people of good faith can disagree about the relationship between religious liberty and anti-discrimination laws in our country, and how that relationship should best be structured," they write.

However, they argue that the tone of "Peaceful Coexistence" was inappropriate and offensive because, at times, it paints people of faith as roadblocks to a fair and just society.

"We are one in demanding that no American citizen or institution be labeled by their government as bigoted because of their religious views. That is precisely what the commission report does," the letter reads.

The letter's 17 signatories include the Most Reverend William E. Lori of USCCB; Bishop Grald J. Causs of the LDS Church; Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson of Zaytuna College; Russell Moore of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; and other religious freedom advocates.

Growing divide

The faith leaders and other religious freedom advocates behind the new letter were distressed by how far religious liberty has fallen in the eyes of some policymakers.

And they are right to worry about the status of conscience rights protections moving forward, said Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School and expert on religious freedom law.

Laycock wasn't a co-signer of the letter, but he, too, blasted the report for making no effort to balance the competing rights of religious freedom and nondiscrimination.

"It simply said the nondiscrimination interest always wins," Laycock wrote in an email. "There is a rigid and often hateful intolerance on the nondiscrimination side of these issues, and this report is a product of that."

The report came after three years of trying to reach a consensus on the appropriate legal response to situations in which nondiscrimination law and religious freedom are in conflict. Commissioners consulted with 11 expert panelists, reviewed public comments and studied related laws and rulings, such as the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"Peaceful Coexistence" includes the commission's briefing, which is about 25 pages in length, and an additional 275 pages of statements, rebuttals and responses, some of which characterized the report as a flawed attempt to address and resolve ongoing conflicts.

"I voted in favor of these findings and recommendations only because this report has already been delayed for over three years, and was concerned that a 'no' vote from me would be used as an excuse to further delay the report," wrote commissioner Peter Kirsanow, a Republican, in his lengthy response to the report.

A key theme of the report is that religious freedom, one of the core principles guiding American democracy, is a difficult concept to translate into policy.

"The law allowing religious exemptions from otherwise applicable laws has not followed an even course," note the commissioners.

Laycock said the process of balancing civil rights protections with religious accommodations has grown even more difficult in recent years because it has become politicized. Policymakers are aligning against opponents instead of seeking compromise.

"We have a deeply polarized nation in which neither side (of the religious freedom debate) respects the rights or liberties of the other," he said. "There are Democrats who support religious liberty as well as gay rights, and there are Republicans who support gay rights as well as religious liberty. But for the most part, the two parties have chosen up sides."

Recent state legislative action on religious freedom law illustrate the growing divide between conservatives and liberals.

"In 2013, two states passed RFRAs, Kansas and Kentucky. Sixty-seven percent of the Democrats who voted, voted in favor of those laws. In early 2015, five or six states voted on RFRA laws and support from Democrats dropped to 11 percent," said Tim Schultz, president of the 1st Amendment Partnership, to the Deseret News earlier this year.

Charles Haynes, founding director of the Newseum Institute's Religious Freedom Center and one of the letter's signatories, said he was taken aback by the commission's portrayal of religious liberty.

"The majority of the commission seems to have accepted the narrative that religious freedom is now a sword and not a shield, that it's a weapon to attack LGBT people and oppose same-sex marriage," he said.

While Haynes said there have been times when this has happened, he noted that the history of religious freedom law includes many meaningful compromises, which grew out of political opponents coming together to find fair ways to accommodate religious objectors without infringing on civil rights.

"This report should have articulated to the American people how we try to find a way to protect conscience rights even as we advance civil rights for all people," Haynes said.

What's next

It's unclear what role the commission's report will play in future policy decisions. It offers recommendations, but it's up to the Obama administration and members of Congress to translate its findings into political decisions.

Hatch, one of the leaders to whom the interfaith letter is addressed, has already argued against the commission's findings.

"The report adopts a stunted and distorted version of religious liberty, suggesting that claims of religious conscience are little more than a cloak for bigotry and hatred," he said in a Sept. 23 statement.

In response to the letter, he recommitted to upholding the value of religious liberty in a political climate in which it's been villainized.

"I share these religious leaders' deep concern and frustration with the USCCR report," Hatch said in a statement Wednesday. "As lead author of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, I intend to work with religious leaders across the country to ensure that we continue to protect the fundamental right to religious freedom, even as ill-informed government officials attempt to limit and denigrate that right."

Haynes described the letter as an attempt to spell out the concerns of faith leaders and religious freedom advocates. He wants it to put a spotlight on the flaws of "Peaceful Coexistence" before the commission's report becomes a touchstone for policy decisions.

"I want (leaders) to be aware that many of us believe the commission got it very wrong," he said.

The letter concludes by calling on the president, Hatch and Ryan to reject the notion that religious liberty protections lead to discrimination, arguing that "there should be no place in our government for such a low view of our First Freedom the first of our civil rights."
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