01/22/2015 11:54 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

President Obama's Articulation of Religious Freedom

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Little did I expect that on my first day as executive director of Interfaith Alliance, the most concise articulation of our mission would come from the President of the United States. Even less likely, that it would come during the State of the Union address. But there it was, in three sentences, an endorsement of our mission: It's why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world.

It's why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims  --  the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That's why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

The President did not need to defend those principles, merely declare them. These are our fundamental American principles, applied in the context of contemporary life. They are not always easily lived, and have lately have been frequently challenged at home and abroad. However it is during times of adversity that we must renew our commitment to freedom and inclusion. Everyone gathered at the Capitol and everyone watching and listening from a distance could take no exception to simple declaration of American values. Though we have at times fallen short, we continue to strive towards these freedoms: protection of people of faith and those who profess no faith; securing self-expression; opposing political incarceration; equality for all.

It is no coincidence that those are precisely the rights guaranteed to individuals by the Constitution. And while our country's founders may not have anticipated the variety of citizens and residents who seek the protection of those rights, I firmly believe that presented with our beloved community, Jefferson, Mason, Adams and the rest would have affirmed President Obama's words.

The power of what he was saying was amplified for me as I was actually watching the speech from the White House along with 300 others, invited to share their reactions on social media. It was pretty clear to me that Interfaith Alliance and its agenda held a unique place in that gathering. There were people from all walks of life. People of different physical abilities, orientations, races and faiths were all in the room. All ages were represented (though I think I was part of the "older cohort"). But I was there listening for the President to address the particular issues that make up Interfaith Alliance's agenda.

Good people can disagree on the details of how we apply values and principles to law and life. The members of Interfaith Alliance are unwilling to surrender those interpretations to the loudest voices, the most extreme advocates, or to those who believe some people are more equal than others.

Part of the measure of a country's greatness is its willingness to protect the least powerful and most vulnerable with the same integrity as the privileged. This is a standard by which we have not yet achieved our potential. Almost all of the values spoken by President Obama were at play in two recent Supreme Court decisions. One of them, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, did not meet that standard of greatness, in our opinion. By allowing an employer to impose religious beliefs on employees' access to health care, the court restricted essential access for many citizens. The other, Holt v. Hobbs, rose to the ideal by protecting the right of an inmate in a state prison to grow a beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. An employer holds a privileged position over his employees; no one has less power in this country than an incarcerated criminal.

With that in mind, we were delighted to read Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's concurring opinion in Holt v. Hobbs. It was a clear reflection of the principles in the State of the Union and a sentiment we share:

Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, accommodating petitioner's religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner's belief. On that understanding, I join the Court's opinion.

It reflects the call made by the President: "Leading -- always -- with the example of our values. That's what makes us exceptional." Those words strike me as the essence of what Interfaith Alliance is all about -- leading with the example of our values.

That's our mission and that's my mission. I hope it is your -- deeply American -- mission as well.