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Parvez Ahmed Headshot

Protect Religious Freedom of All Americans

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As it was in 2008, the campaign for the Presidency of the United States has turned ugly over the question of religion. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has attacked President Obama over his "phony theology," which he later said was in reference to President Obama's "radical environmentalist" agenda. That environmentalism, even if supposedly radical, is being confused with theology is beyond bizarre.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney accused President Obama's administration to have "fought against religion," a reference to the Obama administration asking all employers, including faith-based (but not churches), to cover contraception in their health insurance drug plan. President Obama's compromise, which allows women to receive contraceptives without religiously affiliated organizations having to directly pay for it, has earned the support of many Catholic employers and women's health providers. But it was not enough to stop Mitt Romney from making ludicrous accusations. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, not to be outdone, has accused President Obama of "infanticide."

During the contraceptive controversy, a few religious leaders accused President Obama for allowing the state to interfere with religion, certainly a line that should never be crossed. But this principle should be equally applicable to both state and religion. Religious leaders should not interfere in matters related to state.

While many religious leaders act responsibly by refusing to use their pulpit to sway voters, some have waded into the thicket of political fights by acting as surrogates to political candidates and parties. Franklin Graham, a well-known evangelical preacher, recently cast doubt about the president's faith. The candidates for president all remained silent, suggesting a tacit encouragement for using doctrinal purity to determine eligibility for political office. Such silence seems paradoxical given that three of the candidates are religious minorities, two Catholic and the third a Mormon. Moreover, why has religion been narrow-casted so as to revolve around a few hot button political issues of abortion, contraception and gays, to the exclusion of arguably more important topics such as poverty, justice and corruption, issues that all religions discuss at length?

Had Mitt Romeny, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich been consistent in their defense of religious liberty, one may have been slightly forgiving of their hyperbolic rhetoric. But they chose to wave the flag of religious liberty only when it suited them politically, after all Catholics make up nearly one quarter of the electorate. Disconcerting is their silence when other religious minorities are subject of government intrusion of their constitutionally protected rights.

A recent Associated Press investigation has revealed that the New York Police Department monitored Muslims in New York and surrounding states for no other reasons except their faith. According to the AP,

"Police trawled daily through student websites run by Muslim student groups at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers and 13 other colleges in the Northeast. They talked with local authorities about professors in Buffalo and even sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip, where he recorded students' names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed."

No wrongdoing was alleged for any of the monitored students. The AP report shows a disturbing infringement of the constitutional rights of freedom of religion (First Amendment) and freedom from illegal search and seizure (Fourth Amendment). Silence from the Republican presidential candidates, including the libertarian Ron Paul, is deafening.

President Obama's silence is also disconcerting. However, in the past his Justice Department assured Muslim leaders that the Obama administration will remain vigilant against religious profiling. Following an investigative report in the Wired Magazine, which showed material being used for training law enforcement contain many falsehoods about the American Muslim community, FBI Director Robert Muller met Muslim and Arab leaders. He assured them that the Bureau is removing from the curriculum any material that contains factual errors or stereotypical depiction of Muslims and their faith. Recently, President Obama apologized when reports surfaced of Qurans being mistakenly burned at the U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.

Religion is very close to the heart of all who practice their faith. Making religion a wedge issue is a great disservice to our nation, where diversity of religious views is our strength. The great poet Rumi pricked our conscience best when he asked, "Why do you stay in prison, when the door is so wide open?" Why take a narrow view of religious liberty and only express outrage when it is politically expedient? Such opportunism undermines the pluralistic fabric of our nation, which requires all of us to work together to solve our problems, even while holding dear our deepest differences.