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Freedom of religion cannot be exclusive

April 1st, 2012

Mary Shaw

In recent years, the religious right have moved even farther to the right - to the fringes. Some have even expanded their war on women's reproductive rights to where they are condemning contraception. They even held Congressional hearings on the subject. This is despite the fact that 99 percent of American women who have ever had sex have used contraception, including 98 percent of Catholic women.

When policies were passed that require insurance companies to cover contraception (which, by the way, saves the insurers money, as birth control is a lot cheaper than pregnancy and obstetric costs), they screamed that the government is interfering with their religious freedom.

That is nonsense.

What government is really interfering with is the right's ability to impose their own religious beliefs on those of us who believe differently. What the government is doing is what freedom is really all about.

Freedom of religion in this country means freedom for all religions - not just the religion of the most vocal contingent. And it is also meant to protect us from tyranny of the religious majority. After all, it is that kind of religious tyranny that this nation's Founding Fathers sought to escape when they cut ties with England and spelled out specifically in the First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In other words, while the Christian right are free to exercise their own religious beliefs, so are those of us who see things differently. Their right to practice their religion ends at my own right to reject their religion in favor a different set of views. Still, they try to shove their own so-called values down our throats in the name of Jesus, who would surely be rolling His eyes.

Freedom of religion means going to your church and observing your own religious customs while allowing others the same liberties - even (indeed, especially) - if their beliefs and customs are different from yours.

Freedom of religion means not using birth control - or having an abortion - if you think it is wrong, but respecting the fact that those who do are breaking no law (and deserve no shaming).

Freedom of religion means building your church on one corner and tolerating a temple, synagogue, or mosque that might spring up across the street (even in lower Manhattan).

And freedom of religion means facing the fact that no religion is perfect, and that every religion has its saints and its sinners. It is unfair to blame all Muslims for the 9/11 attack, just as it would be unfair to blame all Christians for the 1996 Olympic Park bombing. For every Osama bin Laden, there is an Eric Rudolph.

As a wise man once put it, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views on politics, human rights, and social justice issues have appeared in numerous online forums and in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: mary@maryshawonline.com

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