Archive for July 17th, 2010

Religious Freedom in America Includes Everyone

By Alex Howard for The Pueblo Chieftain

One of the fundamental freedoms we enjoy as citizens is to worship in whatever manner we want to and wherever we want to.

There are virtually no restrictions on this freedom, even when a particular exercise of a belief might be illegal for the general public. Within the scope of religious expression, even the use of drugs can be legitimate. For example, the use of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, is legit for members of Native American communities but illegal for the rest of us.

Moreover, the freedom of religion principle extends well beyond what most people think of as acceptable.

While all the mainstream religions are represented within the military services, we also find niches carved out for not-so-common expressions.

Wicca, also known as witchcraft, druidism, paganism and other names, is officially recognized by the United States military as a legitimate form of religious expression.

So, what I’m saying is that the freedom of religious expression is wide-ranging and as diverse as the citizenry in America. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Rastafarians, Sikhs, Scientologists, Baha’i and all the others have their places in the worldwide religious worship palette, including here in America.

And I’ve named just a few religions. There are many more, some with which our culture has no familiarity despite a large number of adherents.

So, what should we think when a group of citizens objects to the construction of a place of worship by a religious group? We’d have to wonder whether that basic freedom of religion has some kind of limits, wouldn’t we?

Yet, this is exactly a discussion that’s taking place in New York City right now. A group of Muslims that has been using a building not too far from the site of the former World Trade Center for religious and cultural purposes wants to demolish it and build a new mosque and cultural center.

Survivors and family members of victims of the terrorist attack are not happy. The general feelings they express are of anger and unresolved emotional pain over the death of family members, friends and co-workers.

They blame (accurately of course) the attack on those who flew the airplanes and their co-conspirators. Sadly, however, the anger at the attackers has been enlarged to include Muslims in general.

That being acknowledged, prejudicial and misguided as it is, the discussion is taking on the aura of denial of the freedom of religious expression. What those objecting to the construction of the mosque seem to have ignored is that the Muslims who want to build it are American citizens, some of them second- or third-generation Americans.

These are not people who are trying to establish a radical, wacko religious cult on foreign soil. They’re Americans exercising their freedoms, just as you and I are free to do.

Should the pain of those who lost loved ones in the villainous attack on the WTC hold sway over the decision to build the mosque near that site? I don’t think so. Otherwise, any group with an emotional connection to an event could claim the right to object to some other religious building. American Muslims have just as much right to freedom of worship as other Americans. To think otherwise is, well, un-American.

-Alex Howard is a retired Episcopal priest.

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