Not a Muslim Issue? What's Missing from the Bishops' Statement on Religious Freedom

By Metzger, Gregory | Commonweal, July 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Not a Muslim Issue? What's Missing from the Bishops' Statement on Religious Freedom


Metzger, Gregory, Commonweal


The USCCB's recent statement "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," which calls for resistance to growing threats to religious freedom, mentioned Islam once. Defending religious liberty, the bishops wrote, "is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue." The bishops' case for the universality of their cause would have been more persuasive if, in their list of specific concerns, they had included examples of how compromised religious liberty is, in part, a "Muslim issue." One phenomenon they might easily have mentioned is the rise of "anti-sharia" laws in the United States.

Currently more than a dozen states are considering legislation to ban courts from considering what these lawmakers rather simplistically characterize as "sharia law." "Sharia" refers to a broad range of interpretations and applications of Islamic teachings and customs. American courts have traditionally allowed such religious understandings to have a place in arbitrating disputes in areas like marriage, divorce, and charitable giving. Under the guise of resisting jihadist interpretations of sharia, the backers of anti-sharia legislation would threaten this arrangement. Oklahoma, the first state to pass anti-sharia legislation, shielded non-Islamic faiths from the implications of the law by specifically targeting Islam in language that has already been ruled unconstitutional in two federal courts. Attempts to reword these laws to make their specifically anti-Muslim intent less obvious have served to clarify the threat they pose to all types of religious freedom. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stood with Muslim groups in opposition to the law passed by the Florida House on March 1, describing the supposed threat of sharia law as "completely illusory" and warning that Florida's legislation would threaten Jewish customs as well as Muslim ones.

The ADL is not alone among religious-freedom advocates in its concern over such laws and the conspiratorial fears of those who champion them. Leading voices from across the ideological spectrum, including some prominent supporters of the bishops' emphatic statement, agree that anti-sharia laws represent a profound threat to religious freedom. For instance, in the same issue of First Things containing the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement on religious liberty that the bishops quote in their document, there is an article by Robert K. Vischer, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, titled "The Dangers of Anti-Sharia Laws" (March 2012). Interfering with American Muslims' "meaningful religious liberty and meaningful access to the courts," Vischer says, is "unjust to Muslims and sets a dangerous precedent for other religious groups." Christians and Jews "should consider the way these laws not only misunderstand the faith of their Muslim fellow citizens but threaten their own religious liberty." Furthermore, he argues, political support for anti-sharia laws "serves only to fan the flames of religious intolerance while nurturing public acceptance of the notion that the religious commitments of our citizens have no place in our courts." Vischer noted the prominence of anti-sharia rhetoric in the GOP's presidential race:

  Newt Gingrich ... has described sharia as "a mortal threat to
  the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world
  as we know it." Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann signed a
  pledge to reject "sharia Islam and all other anti-woman,
  anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control". ... Even Mitt
  Romney felt obliged to insist that "we're not going to have
  [sharia] law applied in U.S. courts."

Vischer and First Things are not the only supporters of the bishops' statement who have expressed grave concerns about the anti-sharia-law agenda. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, arguably the organization most in line with the bishops' objections to the HHS mandate, has been on the record for years in strong opposition to anti-sharia rhetoric and laws.

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