Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Great End in Religious Instruction

For this Throwback Thursday Post, I am going back to this adaptation of William Ellery Channing's words I did for Starr Island RE Week in July 2010.  They are definitely worth re-posting!

  • The great end in religious instruction is to stir up the minds of all of us - our children, youth, young adults, adults and elders. 
  • To journey together as we look inquiringly and steadily with our own eyes and strive to see what others see. 
  • It is to inspire a fervent love of truth. 
  • To touch inward springs. 
  • To prepare all of us for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to our decision. 
  • To quicken and strengthen the power of thought. 
  • To awaken the conscience, the moral discernment. 
In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish the spiritual life. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Submission and Fasting: Deepening Our Understanding

I preached this sermon on Sunday July 27, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story:  “Mullah Nasruddin Feeds His Coat” Middle Eastern Islamic folk tale
Reading: "Ramadan Reflections to Welcome the Muslim Month of Fasting" Huffington Post

The month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, is about to come to an end on Monday evening - it ends with the sighting of the crescent moon.  As we begin to dive deeper into understanding of Islam and fasting let's begin with some basic facts about Ramadan and Islam.  Islam runs on a lunar calendar like Judaism.  Unlike Judaism, Islam does not add leap months to keep the holidays at approximately the same time of year each year so Ramadan can occur during any season of the year.  

Fasting during the month of Ramadan is an obligation found in the Qur'an and is one of the five pillars or obligations of the Islamic faith. The other four pillars or obligations are Shahadah - belief that there is only one God and Mohammad is his messenger, Salat or ritual prayer 5 times a day; Zakat to give 2.5% of one's savings to the poor and needy and to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in one's life if one is able.  

Ramadan is a festive and sacred time, a time of both solitary practice and communal celebration.  While each person conducts the fast individually, families and communities gather before sunrise and sunset to share a meal.  The breaking of the fast each evening, iftar, is a celebratory meal that by tradition begins with the eating of dates.
As I was preparing for this Sunday I once again consulted with friends on Facebook about what they would want all of us as Unitarian Universalists to know about Ramadan.  My friend Kim, who is not Islamic herself but her husband and sons are and she fasts with her family during Ramadan, wrote " Ramadan is a beautiful spiritual practice. It's time set apart for contemplation, communion with God, focus on family, and a deepened empathy with those who regularly go without. It should not be practiced with emphasis on the sacrifice, rather with great appreciation for the abundance in our lives! It does take effort and it can be difficult, but that makes it all the more meaningful..."

Another, Ali Faruk from  Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA offered me his sermon called "Keeping  Your Soul Happy."  During Ramadan the body fasts so that the soul can be fed.  He preached "I encourage myself and I encourage you to pay careful attention to our souls. I remind myself and I remind you to never fall into the temptation of feeding our bodies in an attempt to satisfy the soul. I remind myself and I remind you to always be diligent in our worship, because in our worship (ibadah) as a metric, as a measurement for the health of our soul and the need to bring our lives back into balance."

It can seem contrary to us here in the west to think of fasting all day everyday without even water as being celebratory.  In a culture that often glorifies excess and impatience in getting one's needs and desires met, fasting all day can seem overwhelming and we wonder why would anyone do it.  Yet fasting is a central spiritual practice in most if not all the world religions. Judaism has six days of fasting during the year - not just Yom Kippur. The second most important fasting day within Judaism was July 15, overlapping this year with Ramadan.  It marks the destruction of both the first and second temples and falls within a three week period of mourning.  While within Christianity the practice has been greatly diminished, it is a part of the tradition.  Roman Catholics fast only a couple of days out of the year by consuming only one full meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on those days and every Friday during Lent.   Fasting is a long standing spiritual practice throughout the world.

Both Islam and Judaism exempt the children and those who are ill or pregnant from the obligation to fast.  If a person is not well and cannot fast on a particular day during Ramadan, they can make up the day of fasting when they are well.  

In our very individually oriented culture it can seem strange to us to be connected with communities around the world. I have to say one of the things I miss about being Roman Catholic or even Episcopalian was the being part of a worldwide religion. I remember going to Mass in Switzerland during my post-college whirlwind Europe trip.  I didn't understand a word of the liturgy yet I was welcome there, I belonged. It didn't matter that I could not say the responses or sing, I was within my faith community, these were my people.  

Spiritual practices like fasting build a sense of community through common practice.  Muslims around the world are fasting together during this month.  I would imagine that fasting on one's own for even one day would be challenging without support and nearly impossible for a month. Yet a sense of being part of a worldwide practice, the knowledge that one is in community with people around the globe would be inspiring and motivation to keep going. It is also a sense of tradition, in which each one is connected with all those who are presently fasting and with all the generations of Muslims who have gone before.  Also each night the fast is broken in community, in prayer.  The day of fasting is celebrated with a common meal, giving something to look forward to after a long day.  Like Nasrudin in our story, who longs for the delicious feast awaiting him and even more the connections with others, to be in community after a hard day of work and fasting.

While we do not have a strong tradition of shared practice and even a certain disdain for tradition, this is slowly changing.  Over time we as UU's have developed more of a sense of shared practice - things like the symbol of the Chalice and lighting a chalice during worship and at meetings; the flower communion and water communion.  We have discovered a power in shared ritual and practice.  

So let us turn our attention to submission.  Submission is a notion that we both as Americans and as Unitarian Universalists struggle with.  After all it connotes a relinquishment of free will and thought.  It can bring notions of blind obedience to authority like the colonies before the American Revolution. Yet in Islam submission is not to secular authority, it is submission to the Holy, to the Spirit. Yet we religious liberals, we who do not have a sense of shared belief, many of us having no belief in a transcendent deity, struggle with the notion of submission.  Our sense of faith instead is in humanity, in human action, in not submitting.

Submission, as I see it, is the understanding that we are not in control.  It is the acceptance that things happen outside of our control and no matter how much we may plan and prepare, life will happen.  These can be unexpected gifts of joy and unspeakable sorrow.  Right now there is plenty going on in this world that we here may feel like we have very little control of.  The on-going conflict in Gaza, the kidnapping of school girls in Nigeria, Ukraine, poverty and on-going inequality here in the United States, the gridlock of our political system, the arrival of unaccompanied children at the borders of the United States fleeing violence and poverty.  Now these are not the actions of a transcendent deity and yet they are also not actions of any one person.  Rather they are the collective results of many choices and lack of choices.  Submission reminds us that we are not in charge, not in control.  It is that sense of transcendence and awe that comes with staring into the night sky and realizing that we are one small dot in a large and amazing universe.  Submission is that acknowledgement and amazement that life exists, that we live and breathe and love and none of that happens because we made it happen.

There is a freedom and rest in submission.  Throughout the Hebrew and Christians scriptures there is a call to submit, to surrender.  There is longing from the writers for rest, to set down the burden.  When we set down the burden, in a paradoxical fashion we have more to give to helping fix it. If I let go that I am in control, then suddenly I can be freed to act.  If I accept that I cannot do everything, then suddenly I am free to do what I can, to use what I have to help. If I stop, set down the burden and look up, I can once again be blessed by the amazement of creation, of the world and universe around me.

For Muslims, Ramadan sets aside an entire month to feed the soul, to focus on surrender and submission.  In submitting to the obligation to fast, there is an opening to slow down, to pay attention, to intentionally gather together in community.  As Eboo Patel tells us in our reading, the fasting requires him to slow down, to stop going at "mach speed."  To do something we do every day, often with little attention, to do it intentionally, with care.  In going without food, one can remember those who do not have a choice but to go without. The discomfort brings home the discomfort experience daily by those who fast not by choice, not as submission but who have no choice.  

It is also an embodied practice - fasting means we are disciplining the body for the sake of a larger purpose. This is similar to those who fast for justice causes - like the recent Fast for Immigrant Families.  In choosing to intentionally fast whether for religious or justice reasons, we embody the practice. It is not just in our heads, it is not just about reason, it is now in our bodies.  

For Unitarian Universalists this is a growing edge.  We are a rational, heady people and that is a gift.  It is a wonderful thing to use the gift of our minds and intellect.  Yet we often struggle with being embodied people, with being human with feelings and desires.  James Luther Adams, UU Theologian and Minister, pointed this out as the greatest flaw in liberal religion - that human beings are not simply rational creatures.  For fasting is not rational - there is no rational reason to deny the body food and drink everyday for a month.  Oh we may fast for 8-12 hours for a medical test or surgery.  Yet on the surface, fasting makes no rational sense.  Yet throughout the world, people fast intentionally for religious and justice reasons.  They may fast for a day or a month. Prisoners have fasted to protest unjust imprisonment or treatment.  

As the month of Ramadan comes to an end, as the month is closed with feasting and celebrating throughout the world, let us reflect on what we may have to learn from Islam.  What might shared spiritual practice look like within our faith community?  What might submission mean for us?  

I will close with the words of Sarah Sayeed: "This Ramadan, may we strive to be as fully present as possible, experiencing our physical hunger and thirst as the soul’s yearning for divine nourishment. May we find new meaning in our daily prayers and be refreshed by extra supplications. May Muslim communities be as the flowering trees of well-tended orchards, growing in abundance the fruits of patience, kindness, compassion and love."  May all our communities be as the flowering trees of well-tended orchards, growing in abundance the fruits of patience, kindness, compassion and love.

May it be so.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Longing Revisited

I have been wrestling with longing.  Longing for things to be different.  Longing to be able to do and be more. Longing that I am not even sure what it is I am longing for.  I think many of us are feeling this way.  Longing for peace, longing for an end to the behavior of those who are supposed to be serving us in government, longing for belief in something larger than ourselves, and a longing for a sense of security.

As I was re-reading my previous post on Longing, I realize I am still looking for that sense of embodied spirit.  It does take courage to face longing because it threatens to overwhelm, to consume.  It can bring you to a dead stop with the sheer enormity of the feeling. I long to surrender and trust in Spirit, trust in the words of Julian Norwich that "all will be well, all manner of thing will be well."  Surrender requires courage, it requires we let go of the illusion that we are in control. It requires the courage to surrender, to trust that all will be well even when your ego is screaming no. I struggle to find that courage.  I struggle to trust because I want to be in control, I want to know I can fix it, that I can make it better.  The truth is I don't know that I can and even an deeper truth is that most things I can't fix or even make better.  Yet I always struggle to let go and trust because I am not sure what it would mean to do that.  So I live with the longing, I struggle with it, some days I fight with it, and some days it just seems to take over.  Some days the longing spurs me to do better and other days it is overwhelming.  On the days it is overwhelming I am forced to trust that it will be well, that tomorrow is another day. As long as I am alive I get another day to wrestle and another day to learn to surrender. Another day to figure out what I can change and to accept what I cannot. Another day to surrender to Spirit and to trust that all will be well.

What are you longing for in your life?  What is calling to you?  What gives you the courage to face the longing?  What can you change and what must your learn to accept?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Delicate Balance: Freedom and Responsibility

I preached this sermon on Sunday July 13, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.
Story:  "The Ant and the the Grasshopper," an adaptation of an Aesop fable
Reading: An excerpt from “Unitarian Universalism in Societal Perspective” Dr. Robert Bellah, Ware Lecture 1998

A Delicate Balance: Freedom & Responsibility

I have been doing a great deal of reading and reflecting on the topic of Freedom and Responsibility, the individual and the common good. Religion in the public square is a particular passion of mine and a focus along with ethics for my Masters of Theological Studies.  Recent news events such as the Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby, the growing wealth and income inequality, the stalemate in our government and now children from Guatemala and El Salvador arriving at our borders, alone, scared and waiting in detention centers to be sent back home to poverty and violence bring these issues to the forefront.  As I have been reflecting on these issues, I ask what is to be the response of our faith community, of Unitarian Universalism to the delicate balance of freedom and responsibility, the dignity of the individual and the interdependent web.

Our reading this morning comes from the Ware Lecture that Dr. Robert Bellah Sociologist and Author delivered at General Assembly in 1998.  Robert Bellah was a leader in the sociology of religion and his book Habits of the Heart that was required reading for any of us, like me, who studied the intersection of religion and culture.  The Ware Lecture is an endowed lecture that takes place each year at General Assembly, our annual meeting of all the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Each speaker is someone from outside of Unitarian Universalism who is asked to give us inspiration, challenge and reflection from outside our community.

Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart critiques the growing and expanding individualism in America culture at large and particularly in religion.  In one particularly strong critique he describes an interview with a woman and her religious outlook as Sheilaism - the notion that each of us can be a religious authority unto ourselves. This may not be easy to hear in our context which prides itself on its commitment to the individual and the sanctity of individual belief.  Yet our principles affirm that it is a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning." The important words in that principle  are search - not a destination and that it is both free and responsible. Responsible to whom?  Who will hold each of us accountable for our search for truth and meaning?  One of the roles of the faith community is to provide not just a place of freedom for exploration, but accountability as well. How will we here at UUCOB hold each other responsible? What does that even mean?

Bellah in this 1998 address addressed how Unitarian Universalism is part of the dissenting churches which are a majority in the landscape of religion here in America. It is not our history of theological dissension, which Bellah argues is true of the majority of Christian churches, which makes us unique rather it is the unique ways we have been active in social action and justice - our anti-racism, our commitment to LGBTQ equality, gender equality and economic justice.  Bellah however issues us a challenge in this address. He points out that the majority of our principles have to do with the individual - individual rights is one way to say it and only a few of our principles deal with the responsibility to others and the broader world. Bellah argues for a flipping of our 7th principle - the interdependent web and our 1st principle - the inherent worth and dignity of each person.

Unitarian Universalism grew up with America.  While both Unitarianism and Universalism have deep roots going all the way back to the earliest days of Christianity and were certainly part of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, Unitarianism and Universalism have their own particularly American culture. Unitarianism emerged out of the congregational churches of New England which rejected the Puritan notion of the inherent depravity of human kind.  What we took with us from the tradition is our covenantal faith - that we bind ourselves together in covenant within each individual faith community and within our association. We pledge our support and accountability.

Unitarian Universalism grew up as America grew up. Our UU founders were men of the Enlightenment just like our Founding Fathers.  Both embraced the use of reason and science, the importance of conscience and the sanctity of the individual.  Just like America, Unitarian Universalism grew up with this inherent tension between the sanctity of the individual and the common good.

Bellah in Habits of the Heart and his book Broken Covenant argues that the individualism in America carries with it a deep shadow side - which is that in stressing the individual over the common good - including in our religious community - individualism has run amuck creating a situation in which America has the weakest social safety net, we struggle with how much we should invest in our common good - like infrastructure, the environment, and in assuring that the most vulnerable are cared for. In Europe with its tradition of established religion, Bellah argues, has provided some balance to individualism leading to a much stronger social safety net, stronger environmental protections and investments in infrastructure like transportation systems, solar energy in Germany and social programs which assure a minimum standard of living.

Yet here in America we are living in a time that is rapidly individualistic in a society that is growing more diverse by the day and within the context of globalization.  Bellah in our reading today tells us "an economic individualism which, though it makes no distinctions between persons except monetary ones, ultimately knows nothing of the sacredness of the individual."  I think it would sadden and outrage Bellah but not surprise him that this notion of economic individualism has now extended the rights of speech and religion to corporations.  The Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United and now Hobby Lobby have affirmed that corporations can have both free speech and religious liberty.  For today I want to focus on the Hobby Lobby decision. The Hobby Lobby decision to allow the religious beliefs of its owners to trump the religious liberties of the people who work for Hobby Lobby and the law of the United States.  Inherent in our freedom of religion is a tension between how faith communities should be afforded the freedom to organize and govern themselves and how they operate in the public square.  In Hobby Lobby the owners argued that in being required to offer forms of contraception that they believe cause abortions - regardless of the facts - is an affront to their religious liberty and freedom - an undue burden.  The Supreme Court said yes and despite all the claims in the decision that this is limited to contraception it does not take a constitutional law expert to see the next wave of lawsuits seeking exemption from all sorts of things including those related to LGBTQ equality.  Imagine for a moment the impact if all religious organizations had been exempted from the anti-discrimination laws?  What would that have done for the Civil Rights Movement?  What would our world look like if religious organizations could have opted out?  LGBTQ and Civil Rights groups have already withdrawn their support for the current version of the Employment Non-Discrimination act which has numerous exemptions for religious institutions. Our government is basically giving a free ticket to religious institutions to discriminate.  Suddenly religious liberty is not just afforded to individuals to be free to worship or not as they choose - but a right of corporations.

This all comes down to this inherent tension between the individual freedom and collective responsibility.  In each of these examples - our growing gap between the rich and poor, the crisis at our borders with children alone being held in detention centers with people shouting at the buses - go home!  Where is our compassion? Where is our empathy?  Do we ever stop to ask what would it take a parent to send their young child alone across numerous borders?  How bad must it be to do that? Ironically in our individualism we actually diminish the sacredness of the individual through greed and a lack of attention to our common good - our collective responsibility to one another.

In a world that is getting smaller, and a global economy, it is not enough anymore to say we just take care of our own.  For the actions here affect people all around the world.  Our hands are not clean and we have to examine how policies and actions here in the United States are contributing to conditions that have parents sending their children, alone, to this country with the hope of a better life.  We need to look at how our actions that privilege certain individuals diminish the well being of the whole, of us all.

What does our Unitarian Universalist faith have to tell us about this?  How do we respond?  Now first I am not here to propose policies or say that there is only one right answer.  The question for me is how do we as Unitarian Universalists offer a response to the individualism that is tearing the country quite literally apart. We have a culture right now in which Joe the Plumber can get national press and say "I am sorry your kid is dead but that doesn't trump my constitutional right to bear arms."  That right there captures the idea that the individual trumps all notion of the common good - all notion that we have to be in this together.

We UU's have at times seen the ugly side of individualism within our congregations.  We have seen individuals within congregations behave in ways that are destructive to the whole of the community.  I know at times this community of UUCOB has struggled to care for the health of the whole while caring for the individual. Here you have had to learn the importance of covenant. You have learned the importance of setting limits and boundaries - of saying if you are to be here among us then this behavior, this speech cannot take place here.  In this year of search, it is not about the search for the perfect person for an individual or even a group of like-minded individuals rather it is a search for the person who can serve the whole - can serve what is needed for the common good of the community.

A delicate balance must be struck.  Just like in our story of the ant and the grasshopper.  Too often in America the grasshopper is left out in the cold - like the ant many believe well you didn't prepare for winter and now you are experiencing the consequences.  Yet the common good, calls us to welcome in the grasshopper, to feed the grasshopper and it is then we see the unique contribution of the grasshopper - so that even the busy, hardworking ant had to agree that the winter passed more agreeably with the music of the grasshopper.

True freedom must come with responsibility. It is not enough to affirm the individual without acknowledging that we are all connected.  What happens and affects one of us, affects us all.  A balance must be found between my individual religious belief and conscience and the common good - how I embody that in the public square. Now more than ever we need a stronger sense of the common good.  We have to stop talking about our safety net as "entitlement" programs and see them as ways we balance our freedom with responsibility. To put it another way from the preamble of our Constitution - "promote the general welfare and establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility for ourselves and posterity."  As Unitarian Universalists we can model this.  We can bring a message that the individual is important, sacred, filled with worth and dignity and that none of us does this on our own. We can practice accountability.  We can practice engaging in a search for truth and meaning that is both free and responsible - that we hold one another accountable.
In a world in which corporations have been given rights previously held only to individuals, in which children are arriving alone, scared, hungry at our borders fleeing violence, and a growing number of people are simply not able to support themselves economically - we have to find to begin prioritizing the common good. It is not enough to affirm the rights of the individual - we must find a way to care for one another and realize that supporting the common good actually supports the well being of each individual.

As Unitarian Universalists, who have grown up with America, we can help show the way. We can show that we can respect and honor the web, promote the common good and still affirm the dignity and worth of the individual. We can say with conviction "you don't have to do this alone."

Blessed Be.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reflections on Religious Liberty after Hobby Lobby Decision

Now I know plenty of electronic ink has been spilled and shared on this topic. I may not have a great deal of new insight to offer and I am going to write any way because I can't NOT write.  I can't NOT write because I am still appalled, still angry and still very concerned afraid of what is coming down the line.  I am sure that what is next is that since Hobby Lobby doesn't have to provide forms of contraception that are against their sincerely held religious beliefs than why should they have to hire LGBTQ people or provide the same spousal benefits to same sex couples.  Even religious progressives are wringing our hands a bit, as the letter to President Obama on non-discrimination in federal contracts is concerned about "unity" and respecting a diversity of religious belief - code for please let the religious people discriminate as they see fit.  I heard this once too often in liberal Christian circles ("But we can't split the Church") around LGBTQ people and that is when I left.

Religious liberty and free exercise are complex issues - where does my right to practice my religion, to live according to my conscience intersect with others and how do we balance that in a diverse society. The answers are not always clear cut but in the Hobby Lobby decision a clear line has been crossed.  Now a for-profit corporation that hires people and sells products in the public square is looking to have their religious beliefs imposed on others in the public square.  They want to impose their religious beliefs on their employees by way of denying them certain benefits in a compensation package they earn with their labor. Compensation is not just the check someone brings home it is all the benefits too.  It is the equivalent of saying you can have a vacation but you can't spend it here or there or doing this or that because my deeply held religious beliefs are against that.  In this case, female employees of Hobby Lobby cannot get coverage for those forms of contraception that Hobby Lobby has deemed as against their sincerely held religious beliefs and in a move which would have our Founding Fathers spinning - the Supreme Court said yes that is ok. Oh they may have said this only applies to contraception but you bet your last dollar that the lawsuits are lining up for people to request religious exemption from all sorts of things - particularly things around equality for LGBTQ people.

Yet I want to turn to something that may not be getting quite as much press as Hobby Lobby is at that moment. That is about an article that appear in The Atlantic.  It is a letter to President Obama encouraging a religious exemption to hiring those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.  It is a whole other blog post to write about the "right" of religious organizations to discriminate against whole groups of people.  It reminds me of those Christian ministers who told Martin Luther King Jr that he was moving too quickly on equal rights for African Americans - I am sure some of them would have loved a religious exemption too! Yet it is important to note, that these religious progressives are arguing for the ability of sincerely held religious belief to trump public good and others' religious liberty.

The letter is fascinating in that these faith leaders, many of whom have worked with the President on other issues of faith, praise him for this Executive Order that will ban discrimination in federal contracts.  Since Congress refuses to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the President will do what he can. Now what this order would do is say that organizations that hold federal contracts cannot discriminate against LGBTQ people.  So if Salvation Army has a federal contract for its work, it can't discriminate against LGBTQ persons even though its deeply held religious beliefs may call for that.  Basically these faith leaders want President Obama to allow religious organizations to discriminate as they see fit even when working with federal tax dollars.

We have seen religious organizations face this dilemma before with Catholic Charities withdrawing from the adoption business after courts ruled same-sex couples had to be treated the same as opposite-sex couples. We saw this in San Francisco when the city ordered domestic partnership benefits be offered by anyone doing business with the city. In San Francisco, places like Catholic Charities got very creative by offering a very broad definition of "domestic partner" to whom they would extend benefits and therefore be in compliance with the city regulations and in balance with Catholic teaching. Catholic Charities did not shut down, the world did not end and religious liberty was upheld by a balance between the religious convictions of the Catholic Church and the public square of San Francisco. In places where Catholic Charities withdrew from the adoption business, other organizations stepped in.   Children did not stop being placed for adoption just because Catholic Charities felt its sincerely held religious beliefs trumped placing children in homes with same sex couples.

These faith leaders however are calling for religious organizations to be able to hold their deeply held beliefs, keep their government contracts and leave LGBTQ people out in the cold - in fact worse than that, for them to be able to fire at will any employee who they discover or whom they think is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. They don't even have to "prove" it, they can just think it and out the person goes.  One does wonder what Jesus would do?  The reality is no one has a "right" to a government contract.  If a religious organizations just can't bring itself to not discriminate against LGBTQ people than don't take the federal contract.  Don't worry some organization will, maybe even a faith based organization that affirms the dignity of LGBTQ people and their lives, will take up the work. Religious liberty does not exist in order to put one person's or organization's religious beliefs above another's especially within the public square or marketplace that is supposed to be separated from religion. That is the heart of religious liberty - the ability to practice by one's own choice, not the choice of others no matter how sincerely held those religious beliefs are.  In the public square we have to make accommodations, it may not be all our way and that is a good thing. That is something in America to celebrate. Yet what these faith leaders seem to be saying is that the government should bend, it should put the common good behind the sincerely held religious beliefs of others - even when there is a wide diversity of opinion among people of faith and people of no faith.  What these faith leaders are asking is that President Obama grant special privilege to certain faith groups over others. That is what the Supreme Court did in the Hobby Lobby decision - it said that the faith stances of the owners trumped that of the common good and most importantly of the consciences of the people who work for Hobby Lobby.  To me, this represents an establishment of religion, an establishment of certain religious beliefs over others - the very thing the first amendment sought to avoid.

Now why would these faith leaders ask for this? After praising the President for upholding the full inclusion and rights of LGBTQ persons, why would they want to give religious organizations a license to treat LGBTQ persons as second class, as less than?  Well it does it in the name of religious liberty and national unity and celebrating our diversity. It says that faith groups should be given a pass to discriminate.  It says those employees own religious liberty must be sacrificed. Their rights to employment without discrimination must be sacrificed.  Those who are gay and lesbian are good but others get to say they aren't and that view gets to win.  Oh, it all sounds very much like religious tolerance and inclusivity but really it is a letter that says while rights for LGBTQ people are important they are not AS important as the discriminatory practices of certain religious groups seeking federal money ... you want public money then you need to abide by the public values which may or may not conform to your religious beliefs/values.  Let me repeat no one and no organization has a right to a federal contract - religious beliefs or not. If an organization can't play by the rules, then it can do its work without federal grants and other faith based or secular groups that are willing to play by the rules can get those federal grants. That is how religious liberty, pluralism, and the public good operate.  Just like Bob Jones University vs the United States decision upholding the IRS's ability to revoke the University's tax exempt status because of their racially discriminatory policies - ie, Bob Jones didn't get to use its sincerely held religious beliefs and keep its tax exempt status. Yet Bob Jones still exists today. In this case religious liberty was not allowed to be used as a tool to discriminate against people in the public square. To read from the decision the Supreme Court said "Racially discriminatory educational institutions cannot be viewed as conferring a public benefit within the above 'charitable' concept or within the congressional intent underlying 501(c)(3)."  Discrimination against LGBTQ persons can also not be seen as a public benefit despite the deeply held religious beliefs of those who somehow believe that giving LGBTQ people their full civil rights is the equivalent of the end of civilization as we know it.  Plenty of people felt that about integration, interracial marriage and civil rights. Now we look back and are appalled that people could believe that, particularly on the basis of faith. Once again we need to place the common good, the public good in balance with sincerely held religious belief. Sometimes that will mean that no matter how much a person or an organization holds a belief, such as Hobby Lobby or Bob Jones University, it will have to accommodate itself to operate in the public square.  Then it will be faced with the choice of following their faith or operating in the public square.  For true religious liberty to ring, then we all need to learn to live together with all our diversity and all the beauty and challenge that comes with it!