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U.S. religious freedom is being eroded, advocates say

Misconceptions and ignorance are weakening the Constitution's 'first freedom.'

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They followed that agreement with another on religious holidays, and a third on equal access for religious expression. Those national agreements provided local districts with safe guidelines for bringing religion constitutionally into the schools.

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'We need respect'

"Those were the formative agreements, but more significant are the local communities that have found common ground and created their own policies" as a result, Haynes says. "That's the most satisfying – seeing Americans from all different backgrounds sitting together and coming up with a plan for how to deal with these issues in their schools."

Good textbooks and resource materials are now widely available. "Fairfax County, Va., near where I live, has 11 world religion electives!" Haynes says.

Why teach about a variety of faiths? Religious freedom is like apple pie and motherhood – everyone says they're in favor of it. But, as the survey showed, many aren't so sure it should protect groups they may see as offensive.

"Of course in the 18th century, that would have been the Baptists; in the 19th century, that would have been the Catholics and Mormons; and today, it could be Muslims for some people, Wiccans for others," he explains.

Education about religious liberty and about various faiths is necessary in a diverse culture because there is a direct link between knowledge and respect, these experts say.

"Tolerance is too wimpy a word," Seiple says. "It's respect that we need." Respect doesn't mean agreeing theologically, he hastens to add, but on the right of others to follow their conscience.

Witte – who 10 times has been chosen "most outstanding professor" by Emory's law students – has carried that same conviction into the international arena.

In the 1990s, he directed a five-year global project on the religious foundations of human rights, which involved 1,000 scholars of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Together they created a framework for the field, thought through the problems of religious freedom across the globe, and identified challenges to be faced in the next millennium.

Three major issues identified

Three major issues came to the fore: the problem of proselytism, women's rights and how they are accommodated in various traditions, and jurisdiction over marriage – and to what extent autonomy in this area can be given to religious traditions.

"In the ensuing 15 years, these have become the big questions," Witte says. Indeed, with globalization, religions are elbowing each other all over the planet, and Witte ended up leading another project on the problems of proselytizing.

That project helped spawn a major dialogue currently under way among the world's religious communities, which aims to hammer out a code of ethics on issues related to conversion. Many flashpoints exist, whether it's a question of apostasy in Islam or how some Christians go about their evangelizing.

These advocates of religious freedom view the US experiment as clearly the world's most successful, but also far from secured. One danger sign for 2008? What looks to them like a superficial and divisive use of religion in the presidential campaign.

"It's fair for candidates to talk about their faith," Haynes says. "But when they suggest being religious or of a certain religion is what qualifies them ... then it undermines religious freedom. That's a dangerous message to send at a time we really do need to learn to live with our differences."