"Protect Our Freedom of Religion: An Alert to Danger for All Religious Persons"

by The Reverend Rebecca E. Willis

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ..."

With this simple statement in the First Amendment of our Constitution the legal basis of our freedom of religion is set forth. But such simplicity belies the historical complexity out of which it arose. Among the original thirteen American colonies, there were closed colonies who only allowed members of a particular religious group to establish residence. In the most extreme cases interlopers were hanged if they refused to leave. There were proposals for established religion, i.e., churches financially supported by tax monies, but of course, only the "approved" religions were so supported. Indeed, prior to the Revolutionary War several of the original colonies had established religions. Tax monies were then collected from all citizens whether or not they were members of the established religion. These colonies discriminated against Roman Catholics, Jews and dissenting Protestants who refused to abide by the laws which benefitted the established religion. In five of the original colonies the Church of England, or Anglicans, enjoyed a privileged status while in three of the New England colonies the Congregationalists held a preferred status. In 1774 eighteen Baptists were jailed in Warwick Massachusetts for refusing to pay taxes to support the town's Congregational minister.
        It was out of the pressures for exemptions from the taxes for religious support and the differences between the colonies, as well as the foresight of the framers of the Constitution and in particular Thomas Jefferson, that we have this brilliantly simple statement which protects our religious freedoms. Although, what is protected is specifically the legal status of religion.
        Legal protection is only half of the story. The other half is society practice and social pressures. After over 200 years of religious freedom most of us take for granted that we can go to the church of our choice. We take for granted that our own church can exist and prosper within the society without attacks or discriminations against the organization or its members. We figure that like "mom and apple pie," going to church on Sunday is a respected or even revered part of the American scene.
        My question to you is a simple one. Can any of us rest assured that we can continue to enjoy our religion of choice if that choice is not assured for all religious groups? What if they don't go to church on Sunday, but on Saturday? What if their beliefs differ from our own? What if they are not Christian? Where is the dividing line? Does that make them a "cult" and not a "religion"? What is a "cult" anyway? It has become a dirty word, and once that term is applied it becomes a way of making some religious groups less equal than others.
        The mental picture that is conjured by the term "cult" is colored by the extreme cases that have made the headlines. I do not mean to diminish the horror of an event like the Jim Jones tragedy. It is an event of this type that comes to many minds when the word "cult" is mentioned. But in the wake of one tragedy we must not foment another. Just because one group of people surrendered their individual choice to the control of a fanatic does not mean that we should tar and feather all minority religions or condemn any religion that we do not understand. The necessary distinction to make here is to understand that ninety-nine percent of all minority religious groups never cause harm to any individual. These groups must all be protected. If all religions are not free and safe within our society, then none are safe and none can enjoy freedom of religion.
        I would like to speak in particular about the Watchman Fellowship. In their web presence they list a myriad of groups as "cult." By their own count this list includes some 1,000 groups. Yes, they are just presenting "information," but information taken out of context and stated in the most damaging way possible. Their avowed purpose to quote their web page is to "have some part in revealing the darkness of the cults, and ... bring about the downfall of the cults and ultimate delivery of their people." While they claim to support religious freedom, and stand behind their free speech in making their statements about these 1,000 groups, their purpose is to "bring about the downfall" of all groups who do not agree with them. Someone will have to explain to me how this is different from wanting an established religion. Oh, no, not in legal terms. But in societal terms, yes. We cannot be a society with religious freedom if it is only freedom for the few. It must be religious freedom for all, whether their beliefs are the same as mine or not. Otherwise it is not freedom. The Watchman further states about their 1,000 targets: "... group claims to be Christian, but because of their aberrant beliefs on central doctrines of the faith (God, Jesus, and salvation), the organization is not considered by Watchman Fellowship to be part of orthodox ... Christianity." These conservative fundamentalist individuals are proclaiming themselves as the judges of who is Christian and who is not.
        As a member of the clergy of the International Community of Christ, Church of the Second Advent, I find this exceedingly disturbing. And the very most disturbing is that minority religious groups are damaged by the derogatory slant placed on the so-called research reports of the Watchman. People stumble across these reports on the Internet without being aware of the agenda of the authors. They mistake it for an objective and unbiased report, when in fact it has a declared aim of destroying minority religious groups. If we are to fulfill the promise of our Bill of Rights, freedom must be freedom for all. Religion has played an important part in our history in this country not established religion, but respect for the right of all to practice their religion of choice. It has been our freedom of religion that has drawn many diverse religious groups to this country where they become an integral part of our multifaceted society. Unlike the Watchman who would have only those who practice religion and believe as they do, I join my fellow ministers in the Advocates for Religious Rights and Freedoms to hope and pray that this great gift of religious diversity and freedom will be passed on untarnished to future generations.

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