Religious Liberty At Home and Abroad

Jun 12, 2015 Issues: Foreign Affairs



Since 2012, when the Obama Administration promulgated its regulation requiring employers to provide all kinds of FDA-approved contraception in all health insurance plans, we in this country have been having a thorough and passionate debate about religious liberty.

In some ways this is nothing new. The Founding Fathers knew that governments, urged on by their majorities, have always been tempted to impose popular views on minority groups, or to prohibit unpopular views merely because of their unpopularity.

That is why they included in the very first line of the First Amendment, even before the right to free speech, the express guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The Founders didn’t create that right; they didn’t invent it or fabricate it out of thin air. Rather, they recognized it as a right which all human beings have, and perpetually bound the new government to live by it.

Even before the founding of our Republic, Pennsylvania was settled as an explicitly tolerant and safe place for religious dissenters. William Penn offered something that unchecked European monarchs would not: a safe place for people of good will to live out their faith.

We have only to look around Lancaster County to see the proof of Pennsylvania tolerance and diversity: ours is a heritage enriched by generations of Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, Quakers, Jews, and other religious groups. There is probably no more religiously tolerant place in the country than right here, and we should all be proud of that.

Unfortunately, however, the wisdom that guided the Founders in Philadelphia to protect the religious liberties of every human being is not shared by much of the world. Right now, the Islamic State is doing everything possible to force Jews, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Ahmadis, and Shia Muslims, to convert at gunpoint. They have already slaughtered thousands, and razed historic sites, including an 1,800 year-old Chaldean church in Mosul, Iraq.

Countless thousands of people have given up their lives over the centuries rather than betray their deepest beliefs. They valued their faith above their property, above their health, and even above their lives. To deprive an innocent person of the freedom to live out their faith is to deprive them of a necessity.

On Thursday, I spoke to a Coptic Solidarity Conference in Washington. American legislators of both parties met with Middle Eastern Christian leaders to reinforce the bonds of our commitment to human rights. Bishops and priests told us firsthand about horrors they had witnessed, and about stories they had heard from their flock—kidnappings, murders, pillaging, and desecrations of holy sites. In lands where the Apostles once preached, in cities like Mosul that had seen empires rise and fall while their faith remained unshaken, Christianity is under real threat of extermination.

In these countries, the strong are oppressing the vulnerable for no other reason than their religious beliefs.

Those who are in Congress are in a position to help, at least in some small way, and therefore we ought to do so.

Last week, I joined with Representative Sheila Jackson Lee to introduce a resolution opposing anti-blasphemy laws.

In places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, these laws are used as pretexts to coerce and prosecute religious minorities for living out their faith. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani woman who was jailed for witnessing to her Christian faith in conversation with her friends. Under Pakistani law, this was considered criminal blasphemy.

This Spring, I also introduced the Shahbaz Bhatti International Religious Freedom Act, named for a Christian minister and member of the Pakistani General Assembly who was assassinated by the Taliban for having allegedly committed blasphemy. If it becomes law, it will authorize the State Department to sanction non-state actors like terrorists groups if they commit violations of religious liberty, such as detention, enslavement, forced resettlement, or violence. My bill would also require all American foreign service officers to be educated in the religious demography of the country in which they are posted, which will help them do their jobs by understanding the people better.

There are genuine and considerable disagreements between the major religions of the world, but there ought to be no disagreement about this: that all people, whether in Lititz or in Mosul, have immutable dignity of which no one can rightly infringe upon them.