The Day of Dialogue Sunday -- "One Nation Under God? Religion, Government and Public Policy" -- is an open forum featuring a panel of speakers with different perspectives along the church-state continuum. Then comes small-group discussion, but leave your combative "gonna prove you wrong" attitude at home. The purpose of this event is "listening to understand, find meaning and common ground."
That seems a tall order for a panel made up of a Catholic nun, Sister Alice Gerdeman; a Baptist pastor who supports religion in government, Rick Scarborough; a reform Judaism activist, Mark Pelavin; and a Muslim researcher, Hadia Mubarak. Can people from such dramatically different faith traditions find common ground?
Everybody gets nothing
"In a workspace, a pregnant female employee or a disabled employee might require different accommodations than other employees," Mubarak says. "In this, case enforcing the exact same thing for all in order to be equal -- that's not necessarily equality. We think equality is sameness, that everybody has to have the same thing to be equal.
"In Florida, where I grew up, the Muslim students at the public school system were requesting the county to give them off on their religious holiday.
Because the school board didn't want to accommodate the Muslim students, they actually said for that year they wouldn't give Christian students or Jewish students their religious holidays off. The Muslim community felt very strongly about this: 'No, we don't want them to be denied the right to have their day off either.'
"The solution is not to just deny everyone their right to religious accommodation. I think the solution is more to recognize that we are a religiously pluralistic society, and different religious groups have different needs."
As a Muslim American and a student activist, Mubarak is drawing from her personal experience to help show others that our government doesn't treat all religions the same way. She is OK with that but wants us to acknowledge the impact that has on this conversation and on decision-making.
"It's not a black and white thing that people have made it seem," she says. "There's an indirect religion to begin with. It's not like we're starting on neutral ground. It's not neutral -- there's institutionalized preferences that might not be deliberate but it's a part of the fact that Christianity's part of the social fabric of America. Of course, it's going to influence. I don't think there's a problem with that.
"We ignore institutionalized preferences for the dominant societal religions, which are Christianity and Judaism. Christianity has the longest institutionalized presence in America. For example, Sunday is the major day of worship for Christian students; that's a day the universities already have off."
Noting that Saturday -- Judaism's holy day -- is also accommodated by the practice of taking weekends off work and school, Mubarak says she isn't asking for special rights or privileges. She'd just like to see the government afford the rest of our religiously pluralistic society the same consideration Christianity and Judaism enjoy -- the right to practice religion as they choose. That means recognizing that each group has different needs.
Some religions prescribe specific times and places for prayers that don't fall on Saturday or Sunday, and others have clothing requirements. A headscarf sometimes isn't seen as an option, as wearing a gold cross on a necklace might be. But what happens when a particular religion advocates racism, or a religious belief or practice goes against a business's or institution's principles? Where do you draw the line?
"That's the fear -- that once we allow religious accommodation, it can begin to infringe upon the freedom of others or the neutrality of the public institution or government," Mubarak says. "That's a legitimate fear. I think that's a very thin line. In order to be a secular, pluralistic state, it's not to completely exclude or deny the right to practice religion in the public sphere.
"There should be a requirement for reasonable accommodation for all groups and their different needs but the line has to be drawn where that begins to infringe upon another group's right. Let's say one religious group is espousing bigotry or inciting violence. Clearly the line should be drawn there, because it's obviously infringing on the rights of another group, whether it's a religious group or not -- ethnic, minority or any group. "
This notion of religious accommodation is a strange concept for many who don't recognize that our government already does this on a regular basis, so it inspires fear. Mubarak would like people to see that there isn't anything to fear when it comes to respecting the right to practice our own religion.
"We shouldn't fear religious diversity, religious pluralism," she says. "We shouldn't fear different religious groups in our community, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist. The religiosity of one group does not threaten the religiosity of another or does not threaten the freedom of another group to practice their religion.
"When we see a new synagogue being built in one community, or a new mosque being built, that does not mean that it's taking something away from another religious group. It's not threatening the local Christian community, for example, their ability to practice their faith just as devoutly.
"One's ability to fully practice their religion and freedom is contingent upon another group's ability to have that same freedom. When one group has a freedom to do something and another group doesn't, the reality is that no one's really free. There's space for everyone."
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