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What the Religious Right Doesn't Get About Religious Freedom | Commentary

As Congress gets ready to reconvene, there’s a renewed sense of urgency in the Middle East. The Islamic State is wreaking havoc across Iraq and Syria with a frightening mission to wipe out religious minorities. This sectarian violence highlights why international envoys focused on religious freedom must become a priority in Washington.

Just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama signed a bill creating a new position at the State Department — special envoy to promote religious freedom of religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. Also, the Senate has yet to approve the president’s July nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the new ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. Filling these posts need to happen immediately.

Saperstein is well known for his strong support of religious minorities and church-state separation. He would demonstrate that our nation’s religious tolerance and secularism are key elements of peaceful co-existence and social stability, sharply contrasting with the Islamic State and other terrorist groups who use religious zealotry to justify violence.

But, a blogger for the Christian conservative Family Research Council is raising concerns over the rabbi’s nomination. A known progressive, Saperstein would represent everyone’s beliefs fairly and equally, including the non-religious and that’s got the religious right shaking in its jackboots.

FRC blogger Rob Schwarzwalder’s litany of complaints against Saperstein includes the rabbi’s criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision. Saperstein objected to the court’s finding that corporations have religious freedom rights to deny employees contraceptive coverage in their health insurance in violation of the Affordable Care Act.

Coming from a minority faith, Saperstein is attuned to the religious oppression to come now that corporations — mostly representing the majority faith — may impose religious dictates on employees. His ambassadorship will undoubtedly urge freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion — something chilling to the FRC and its ilk.

The group I represent, Openly Secular, is calling on the Senate to quickly confirm Saperstein when the body reconvenes a week after Labor Day. Our organization, a coalition made up of more than two dozen secular organizations, supports Saperstein because we share a common mission: to stem intolerance and support diversity of belief, including that of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers.

Saperstein is a rabbi of global prominence who has led the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for more than three decades. If confirmed, he will also be the first non-Christian to hold the position.

Schwarzwalder claims Saperstein’s Judaism is not a problem, but calls the rabbi’s liberalism “troubling.” He points with derision to Saperstein’s role as a board member for People for the American Way, an organization devoted to defending equality. In Schwarzwalder’s words, the group’s “‘progressivism’ includes the marginalization of faith in public life, unrestricted access to abortion-on-demand, and what People for the American Way calls ‘dumping’ the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Let’s analyze this together, shall we?

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