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Defending religious liberty


Scott Jones March 19th, 2009

A few years ago, France decided to ban the hijab, the Muslim head scarf, in its public schools. This set off a wave of protests by the country's Muslim population. In recent years, religion has once a...

A few years ago, France decided to ban the hijab, the Muslim head scarf, in its public schools. This set off a wave of protests by the country's Muslim population. In recent years, religion has once again become a point of public disagreement and, at times, conflict in Europe. 

At the time this decision about the hijab was made, it was the height of the Bush administration, and Europeans did not hold America in very high regard. On this one point, however, we Americans could give the Europeans a lesson. I thought, "This could never happen here," and it made me proud to be an American.

In fact, in 2004 the Bush administration claimed that France was violating "a basic right that should be protected," and intervened on behalf of a Muslim girl in a Muskogee school defending her right to wear the hijab to school.

Yet, what happened in France might happen here. The Oklahoma House of Representatives recently passed House Bill 1645, which would ban the wearing of head coverings when taking a driver's license photo. Despite repeated warnings that this is an assault on religious liberty, it passed overwhelmingly, 88-8. A group of deeply religious folk ought to appreciate, promote and protect religious liberty, right? 

The bill targets Muslim women, as it strictly prohibits the wearing of head scarves. According to news reports, Rep. Rex Duncan, R-Sand Springs, who sponsored the bill, was specifically trying to address an incident in Norman involving a Muslim woman wearing her hijab while taking her driver's license photo. That incident was amicably resolved by the state Public Safety Department who, ultimately, followed their procedures without violating the woman's religious freedoms.

Besides Muslim women who wear a hijab, the bill threatens the religious liberty of Jews who wear a yarmulke, Sikhs who wear a turban, Mennonite women, Roman Catholic nuns and some Pentecostals. Combine this with the equally dangerous proposal for voter identification and we will disenfranchise religious minorities.

The bill is clearly unconstitutional. A federal court will deem it such merely because it does not make allowances for religious liberty. But the court won't even have to think twice when they read that it was intentionally targeted at a specific religious minority. Why do we want to spend money on a court case we know we will lose?

But this practical concern is not important. The important issue is the threat to religious liberty. This bill stands in opposition to the fundamental strength of the American republic. 

America's signal contribution to the history of politics was a society based upon religious liberty. Because we have valued religious liberty, we have remained a deeply religious society, in contrast to highly secular Europe, where, oddly enough, many nations still have a preferred, state-sponsored church. From early in our history, we recognized that ours was a diverse, multicultural society and that religious divisions needed to be respected. We have, at times, struggled with this issue, but, overall, I think America has done a good job. 

Let's not do a bad job here. Let us, especially those who value their own faith and freedom, be avid defenders of religious liberty.

Jones, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma, is pastor of the Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.

 
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