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770 KTTH debate: Is religious liberty under assault?

Professor James Wellman, Valerie Tarico, Ben Shapiro, Reverend Monica Corsaro and Michael Medved participated in a debate this week. (KTTH photo)

Tea Party favorite Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) recently said “religious liberty has never been under more assault [in this country].” Is that an accurate statement, or is it hyperbole to stoke passions ahead of an important midterm election?

KTTH AM 770 hosted a panel discussion Thursday evening on the implications of recent laws and court cases concerning religious freedom.

770 KTTH host David Boze opened the debate with a few examples of potential religious tyranny – not in Pakistan, Nigeria, or China, but here in the U.S.

In Newark, N.J., two Muslim police officers were denied a religious exemption for their beards; Catholic adoption agencies have been shuttered because they would not adopt kids to gay couples; and Hobby Lobby has had to petition the Supreme Court for permission to refuse providing health insurance that offers contraceptives the owners disagree with on religious grounds.

Those examples get to the question underpinning the entire religious freedom debate: is intolerance toward religion growing in our culture, or is cultural diversity expanding, leaving less room for Judeo-Christian beliefs that have been the majority in America since the beginning?

Debating that question were hosts Michael Medved and Ben Shapiro; chair of the comparative religion department at the University of Washington James Wellman; Huffington Post religion columnist Valerie Tarico; and the Rev. Monica Corsaro of the Rainier Beach United Methodist Church, who’s known locally for chartering a Boy Scout troop led by a gay man.

The question of shrinking religious liberty in the U.S. is a tough one, not easily answered in a sentence, or even in a 1-1/2 hour debate. But the panelists – often contentiously – batted the question around, touching on specific issues like Hobby Lobby and Corsaro’s Boy Scouts troop.

Certainly, the audience who came to watch the debate was interested to hear a passionate defense of religious liberty, especially from Medved and Shapiro.

Rubin Romero, a KTTH listener from Puyallup, said that he feels his rights as a Christian are being encroached upon, pointing to the Arlene’s Flowers case. Last year, Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued shop owner Barronell Stutzman for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

“I want to hear from conservative leaders about how this issue can be talked about,” Romero said.

“I want to know what the world is going to look like for our kids,” Romero’s wife, Laura, added. “Are they going to be able to stand up and say that [they are] Christian?”

Angie Kahler, who was at the debate with her husband, Mark, said that she’s an active Christian, but that her faith has prepared her for persecution.

Religious oppression “is not like it is in other countries here; we’ve got it easy,” she said. “As a Christian, you expect persecution; it doesn’t come as a surprise to me.”

At the beginning of the debate, Boze asked all five panelists if they believed a recent statement by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who said, “religious liberty has never been under more assault in this country.”

With the exception of Shapiro, all panelists said that religion in the U.S. is not really under assault, especially compared to other countries around the world – places where religious minorities are actually hunted and murdered.

“Religious liberties are under assault all over the world, but not so much in the U.S. – especially compared to places like China and Nigeria,” Medved said.

“It depends on the country, but in the U.S., religious liberty is fairly secure,” Wellman said. The perception that religious liberty is shrinking, Wellman continued, may be due to a growing base of secular and atheist Americans who want their voice heard more so than in the past.

“They’re beginning to say that they want their voice in the public sphere. For the first time, there’s competition in the public square,” he said.

“The use of government as a weapon against religious activities, that threat is quite deep,” Shapiro said, before making the prediction that, in a few years, states like Washington will begin to revoke the nonprofit statuses and business licenses of religious organizations if they refuse to perform gay marriage ceremonies.

One interesting rhetorical moment came during the discussion of Corsaro’s Boy Scout troop. Corsaro said that the Boy Scouts had violated her church’s religious liberty by revoking the troop’s charter. The Boy Scouts, she said, should respect that her church accepts gays, and allow it to operate a troop led by whomever.

“Our belief is that we’re open to all,” she said. “So, I do believe out religious liberty was violated.”

Shapiro refuted her assertion, saying that her agreement with the Boy Scouts was basically just a contract, and a provision of that contract was that a gay person could not lead a Boy Scout troop. She was well aware of the Boy Scout’s gay troop leader stance, he said.

One of the final topics offered a chance for levity. Boze asked about public schools and the censoring of Christian Christmas traditions. Shapiro and Medved retold stories about having to participate in Christmas pageants as Jews. Medved lamented the great Christmas carols, and the lame Hanukkah ones.

“I will never forgive the dreidel song,” he said.

Wellman said that, though domination of religion in public schools is probably bad, having no religion in school is also bad – because it ignores a large and important part of our culture.

“Let’s have multiple religious celebrations,” he said. “That’s much better than being nude of religion in schools, which is a terrible cultural destruction.”

Listen to the full debate

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