American religious leaders have taken a valuable step toward united concern about governmental intrusion on religious liberty. They see the problem as so threatening that last week they held the first national conference on "government intervention in religious affairs." Now the thrust of the meeting needs to be carried forward.
The 300 participants represented more than 120 million church and synagogue members, 90 percent of the nation's organized religions. The basic message was that what diminishes the freedom of one diminishes the freedom of all, that all religions have a common interest in ensuring the rights of each religion, that they ought to keep in touch to understand and resist the pressures on religious liberty.
So far, as was said at the conference, the pressures have been scattered, affecting now one group and now another. It was an emerging pattern, a potential tide of intrusions, including inadvertent ones, that brought the call for scrutiny and alertness.
Among the cited developments are state laws ignoring the religious identity of church schools, local tax laws discriminating against new religious groups, regulatory codes under which government is expected to define religion, federal laws affecting church education, employment, and public expression. The upshot seems to be that government is narrowing the definition of religious activity. Some speakers pointed out that there was no conspiracy or concerted governmental action involved. But some saw the hand of a rising secularist philosophy on such levers of power as taxation and prosecution.
It is not a simple situation. Often more can be achieved in protecting religion through thoughtful case-by-case progress than through confrontation on the whole matter of religious liberty. If such progress is spurred by the recent conference, the likelih ood of confrontation ought to be reduced.