By Ramona Siddoway
“[Religion] remains the most powerful community builder the world has known,” says Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. “Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history.” Many secularists and young adults erroneously believe that personal freedoms and religion can be separated, that religious freedom (or lack of) has little or no effect on other liberties of our day-to-day life.
As Dallin H. Oaks, an Apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reiterated in his address on May 16, 2013, “Religious freedom must not be seen as something serving only the interests of churches and synagogues. It must be understood as a protection for religious people, whether or not their beliefs involve membership or behavior. Support for the First Amendment free exercise of religion should not be limited to those who intend to exercise it, individually or through denominational affiliation.”
Why should we care? Why should it matter to a person who is not affiliated with a specific religion (or if he or she is an atheist) if the government oversteps its bounds and interferes with any religious organization? “Our country’s robust private sector of charitable works originated with and is still sponsored most significantly by religious organizations and religious impulses. This includes education, hospitals, care for the poor, and countless other charities of great value to our country.” (Italics added.)
For instance, the hospital system was developed by and originated with the Catholic Church. If the government begins dictating how a religious organization functions (such as whether a Catholic hospital must provide services or products that are counter to deeply held religious beliefs) – and depending on the severity of punishment for non-compliance – we face the very real possibility of these entities “closing shop.” And since 1 in 6 people are currently treated in Catholic hospitals everyone, regardless of religious beliefs, would suffer the devastating effects of such a decision.
Many of the rights we enjoy today – the fruits of the civil rights movement and women’s right to vote – emanated from religious people and organizations who believed in the dignity of the human regardless of color, creed, sex, or religious beliefs. Stifling a person’s right to practice – or to not practice – their religious beliefs how, when, and where they choose stifles everyone’s rights and has the potential to metastasize, thus trampling other rights our founding fathers were striving to create and maintain in this new land. The Bill of Rights was set in place to protect principles and the free exercise of religion, even if a particular practice or belief is not seen as popular by the mainstream population.
In our secular and morally relative world the subject of religion has often been approached as something backward, ignorant, narrow-minded and naïve. Educational textbooks today have taken religion out of history, turned and twisted it out of context, and put it back in place in an attempt at misleading students from its proper role in the shaping of American culture, ethics, and politics.
We must be careful to not narrowly define religion. Houston has now passed New York as the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the United States. Because of this influx there has been a huge growth in such religions as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. It would be socially and educationally irresponsible to ignore or turn a blind eye to the effects and contributions these religions now have and will have on the culture, ethics, and politics of not only Houston but the United States as well.
We must all be anxiously engaged in securing and maintaining the free exercise of religion, which includes not only the right to choose our religion but also choose how to practice – or “exercise” – those beliefs without government restriction, control or interference. How we go about this may be as individual and personal as our differing religions, but I strongly believe that any attempt we make in the defense and strengthening of religious freedom and liberty is not wasted. Becoming involved in an interfaith community, such as this one, is a good start. We can work together in our common goals, insist on our constitutional rights of free exercise of religion, and not be timid about voicing our concerns and principles based upon our consciences. We have a right to be in the public and political arena. We can disagree without being disagreeable, but we must be firm. By standing shoulder to shoulder – in and with tolerance – we have a much better chance of strengthening and securing these rights, not only for ourselves but also for those that follow after us.
Ramona Siddoway is a freelance writer and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormons) where she volunteers in the Public Affairs department. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Interfaith Houston.