To address the challenges to religious rights and freedom of conscience, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is helping sponsor a panel discussion open to the public Oct. 10 in Washington. The Manhattan Declaration is co-sponsoring the event.
The need to discuss religious freedom is both timeless and timely, said Walker, the ERLC's director of policy studies and the panel discussion moderator.
"Religious liberty is a first freedom, because if you aren't free to believe and act on your beliefs, you're not a citizen in a free country; you're on Leviathan's road to serfdom," Walker told Baptist Press.
He also acknowledged Americans are "living in a time where subtle and not-so-subtle infringements are happening that undermine religious liberty."
Those intrusions on freedom of conscience are found in the expansion of legalized same-sex marriage and the Obama administration's abortion/contraception mandate, Walker said.
Gay marriage, legal now in 14 states and Washington, D.C., has resulted in growing clashes with religious freedom. For instance, photographers and bakers who have refused to participate in same-sex ceremonies because of their Christian convictions have lost in court or suffered financially, despite their appeals to religious liberty.
Led by Roman Catholics and evangelicals, individuals, institutions and businesses have filed more than 70 lawsuits against the abortion/contraception mandate, a rule from the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the 2010 health care law. The regulation requires employers to pay for coverage of workers' contraceptives, including drugs that can cause abortions. The Obama administration has failed to provide adequate conscience protections despite pleas the last two years from the ERLC and its allies.
The Oct. 10 event, "Faith, Culture & Religious Freedom in 21st Century America," will include panel members who are advocates for religious liberty but differ politically and vocationally.
In addition to ERLC President Russell D. Moore, the panelists are Ross Douthat, a conservative editorial columnist for The New York Times; Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation; Kirsten Powers, a columnist for The Daily Beast and a former Clinton administration official, and Timothy Shah, associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
The ERLC's Walker responded to questions from Baptist Press regarding the purpose of the panel discussion:
Baptist Press: Why is it important to address the issue of religious liberty at this time?
Walker: There are two main reasons to be discussing religious liberty.
First, there's a lot of misunderstanding about what religious liberty is and is not. People conceive of religious liberty as a right to piety or worse, a concept loosely attached to the "separation of church and state." Piety and separation are surface level issues. The bedrock of religious liberty says that the state can't play the role of God by compelling someone's conscience. Religious liberty is a first freedom, because if you aren't free to believe and act on your beliefs, you're not a citizen in a free country; you're on Leviathan's road to serfdom. Perhaps most importantly, religious liberty is about fulfilling the duties that our conscience perceives as right and true.
Secondly, we're living in a time where subtle and not-so-subtle infringements are happening that undermine religious liberty. Issues like the advance of same-sex marriage and the HHS mandate are causing real and palpable concerns about the ability of a person or business to run their business in accordance with their faith.
Baptist Press: Why is the ERLC addressing the issue with a variety of panelists in Washington, D.C.?
Walker: Washington, D.C. is home to our nation's Capitol, where the seat of power and governance over our first freedoms are physically manifest. The Christian's relation to the state is one of prophetic witness. What better place to bear witness to our freedom than in the place where freedom symbolically rests? Our selection of panelists was deliberate. We have well-known columnists, policy experts and academics on one stage. Religious liberty isn't just a Republican issue; it's an American issue that deserves support from a wide array of professions. We hope to embody this truth in the panel we've assembled.
Baptist Press: What do you hope to be some results of the panel discussion?
Walker: We hope one result will be a heightened awareness of the issue. Our desire is to create enthusiasm for religious liberty by having provocative and influential thought leaders from different disciplines help us think through the dynamics, importance and challenges of religious liberty in 21st century America. We want an educational experience, but also a fun, lively and conversational tone that allows for clarification and nuance.
The Oct. 10 panel discussion will be held 7 - 9 p.m. Eastern time at the Miracle Theater, 535 Eighth St. SE, in Washington. The free event will be live streamed at erlc.com. Those on Twitter may follow @erlc and tweet using the hashtag #erlclive.
Tom Strode is Washington Bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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