Conservatives Call For 'Religious Freedom,' But For Whom? Republican presidential candidates decry what they call a "war on faith." Religious conservatives say they face anti-Christian bigotry. But the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment reveals a double standard.

Conservatives Call For 'Religious Freedom,' But For Whom?

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Freedom of religion is a major campaign issue among Republican presidential candidates this year. Under this administration, they say, Americans with strong religious beliefs have become less able to practice their faith in public. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas says this presidential race is a religious liberty election. He's put the issue at the center of his campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing) Crown him, crown him.

GJELTEN: An event Cruz hosted last month at Bob Jones University in South Carolina was billed as a rally for religious liberty. As his special guests, he invited people who felt they'd been persecuted for their Christian beliefs. Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach from the state of Washington, told about how he used to lead his players in a prayer at the end of every game.


JOE KENNEDY: I would go and kneel on the 50-yard line and, you know, give thanks for the opportunity to lead these young men.

GJELTEN: Until the school authorities said he couldn't do that anymore.


KENNEDY: They told me that I was not allowed to pray with the kids, and if I wanted to pray, I had to wait 'til every single person has changed and left. And I had to go and pray out on the 50 all alone.

GJELTEN: And then Ted Cruz took the stage.


TED CRUZ: What kind of country have we become when kneeling in prayer is treated as an act of civil disobedience?

GJELTEN: Stories like the one coach Kennedy told, Cruz said, show that religious freedom is under threat in America. And it's one reason he's a candidate for the Republican nomination.


CRUZ: And if I am elected president, on the very first day, I will instruct the Department of Justice and the IRS and every other federal agency that the persecution of religious liberty ends today.

GJELTEN: For Cruz and other candidates, the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare and the legalization of same-sex marriage show how religious people under this administration have been forced to accept practices that go against their faith. Even Jeb Bush, hardly an evangelical favorite, has set up a Religious Liberty Advisory Council. Evangelical leaders don't say Christians suffer in America like in other countries, but they say if any Christian gets in trouble for demonstrating his or her faith too openly, others become more self-conscious about expressing their faith. One group offering free legal services and representation to people who think their religious freedom has been infringed is the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Asma Uddin, one of the fund's attorneys, says she and her colleagues object to the way government tries to keep religion confined to a private sphere.

ASMA UDDIN: To the extent that it comes into the public square, it can't have any sort of real impact. Religion's OK as long as it doesn't really affect anything in any significant way.

GJELTEN: At issue here is the First Amendment. It says the government can neither establish religion nor prohibit its free exercise. Those who favor school prayer say it should be allowed under the free exercise provision. Those who want religion kept out of public settings point to the ban on establishing a religion. Barry Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

BARRY LYNN: There is no war against the legitimate exercise of your rights as a religious person to express yourself. What there is a problem with is when you decide you want the government to bless it, to fund it, in some way to support your particular religious ideas.

GJELTEN: In fact, those fighting for more religious liberty have some hurdles to overcome. First, their arguments have to apply across the board. Attorney Asma Uddin is a Muslim, and in her work with the Becket Fund, she has seen a double standard when it comes to whose religious freedom warrants protection.

UDDIN: There is a problematic element around religious liberty among certain segments of the population that seem to be very much in favor of religious liberty, but only for Christians and explicitly not for Muslims.

GJELTEN: Donald Trump wants to keep Muslims out of the country. Ben Carson says he couldn't support a Muslim for president. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have both said they'd only accept Christian refugees from Syria, no Muslims. Asma Uddin says she often encounters anti-Muslim sentiment, like when she spoke recently at a Stand Up for Religious Liberty rally.

UDDIN: I went up to the podium and said I am here as a Muslim-American supporting your religious freedom, but I fully expect that in return you support mine. And there was just a moment where you see hundreds of people suddenly silent and looking at me.

GJELTEN: One evangelical bothered by the double standard on religious liberty is Russell Moore. He heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention.

RUSSELL MOORE: If we really believe in religious liberty, then religious liberty applies to everyone. And that means that I'm not threatened by non-Christians having religious liberty. As a matter fact, I think the only way the gospel can advance is with free consciences. And I think evangelical Christians particularly ought to be the most vocal about religious liberty for our non-Christian neighbors and friends.

GJELTEN: Another challenge for religious liberty advocates is changing social mores. Among Ted Cruz's guests at his religious liberty rally were an Iowa couple who got sued for not allowing a same-sex wedding at a chapel they owned. Cruz introduced them as heroes, but in their testimony the couple acknowledged that their own children disagreed with them when it came to same-sex marriage. Surveys and facts show that Americans in general are becoming less religious, more secular. Russell Moore worries the importance of religious freedom is no longer appreciated as it once was.

MOORE: We have many people in the culture-making institutions in this country who simply don't understand a religious belief. They don't understand how religious belief can be a motivator in people's lives.

GJELTEN: Some evangelicals say secularism itself is a kind of religion. So when government limits Americans from exercising their faith in public, maybe it's favoring one religion - secularism - over others. Not surprisingly, secular people disagree - that story next week. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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