For a nation born out of religious liberty, recent poll numbers reveal a country sharply divided over current religious freedom proposals in Indiana and Arkansas. Within the Democratic Party and among young voters, there is little disagreement on where they stand. (Spoiler: They’re opposed.) But this need not always be the case. In fact, progressive communities such as Yale should lead the charge in supporting religious liberty.
Take for example, life-long Democrat and two-time Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Katrina Lantos-Swett ’74. During her visit last Friday to the Yale Law School, Lantos-Swett lamented that religious freedom is increasingly a partisan lightning rod. And yet, as a proud New Hampshirite, Lantos-Swett is not only fighting for religious freedom, but also coming precariously close to making good on her state’s famous motto, “Live Free or Die.”
Indeed, earlier this year, when Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for criticizing powerful religious leaders in his home country, Lantos-Swett went beyond the condemnatory press release — she actually volunteered to take lashes on Badawi’s behalf.
The effort appears to have helped abate — at least temporarily — the egregious punishment.
The daughter of two Holocaust survivors (her father is the late Democratic congressman Tom Lantos), Lantos-Swett is a convert to another minority faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her background, she says, has helped shape her into a progressive who is deeply passionate about religious liberty — a rarity these days.
“Religious liberty is freedom of conscience,” she says. “It is the freedom to believe and live that belief or the freedom to not believe at all — sometimes atheists are the most persecuted groups in authoritarian regimes.”
According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, approximately 75 percent of the world’s population currently lives under high or very high restrictions on belief or religious practices. While some countries, such as China and North Korea, stifle religious activity, others such as Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia deploy blasphemy laws to enforce — often by threat of death — rigid orthodoxy. Nor is the West immune from religious illiberalism.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year, 18,000 marchers took to the streets of Dresden, Germany to protest Muslim immigration. Meanwhile, across Europe, there are increasing pockets of anti-Semitism.
Lantos-Swett is troubled by what she sees. Serving her second stint as the Chair of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, she and her fellow commissioners are charged with reviewing religious freedom violations and then recommending policies to the President, State Department and Congress.
Though Democrats and young voters in the U.S. are often hesitant to take up the banner of religious freedom, President Barack Obama eloquently reminded us in 2009, “Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. … That’s why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.”
Indeed, as Lantos-Swett could tell you, the story behind her state’s motto is similarly instructive.
In the 1970s, New Hampshire decided to place the motto “Live Free or Die” on all non-commercial automobile license plates. Soon, however, Jehovah’s Witness George Maynard began covering up the words “or Die” on his license plate on religious grounds. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Maynard did not believe in death. God’s Kingdom “offers everlasting life,” he explained.
But there was only one problem: Altering the license plate was a violation of the law. Consequently, Maynard was charged, convicted, nearly jailed and repeatedly fined.
And still he adamantly refused “to be coerced by the State into advertising a slogan which [he found] morally, ethically, religiously and politically abhorrent.”
Taking up the case, the Supreme Court eventually ruled on Maynard’s behalf, upholding “the individual’s right to hold a point of view different from the majority and to refuse to foster … an idea they find morally objectionable.”
For those who face physical and mental oppression for their beliefs, including Badawi (who still remains imprisoned), the issue of religious freedom is unquestionably a matter of “Live Free or Die.”
While Republicans will likely continue to champion this cause without prodding, progressives should not let political bickering blind them to religious liberty’s unfinished work both here and abroad.
Hal Boyd is a second-year student at Yale Law School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .