U.S. Civil Rights Commission chairman says religious freedoms 'stand for nothing except hypocrisy'

Posted September 22

The nation's top agency tasked with monitoring, enhancing and making recommendations on civil rights policies released a controversial new report on Thursday proclaiming that religious exemptions can hamper citizens' civil rights.

"Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights," the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' report concluded.

While the document, titled, "Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties," is nearly 300 pages long, brief comments within from chairman Martin R. Castro have sparked the most attention.

Castro's statement, which is on page 29 of the report, opens with a quote attributed to Founding Father and former President John Adams.

It reads: "The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

This line, which actually comes from the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, has been a source of contention and debate for eons. While some say it proves that America was never a Christian nation, others believe it was simply a line placed within a treaty to temper fears among Muslims that the document — signed by the U.S. and Tripoli — wouldn't be seen through a Christian lens.

Either way, Castro included the quote in his statement before going on to discuss his views on religious liberty and discrimination.

"The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance," he wrote. "Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others."

The chairman of the Civil Rights Commission went on to say that religion today, as was the case in the past, is being used as a both a weapon and a shield by people who are looking to deny equal rights to their fellow citizens.

Castro said that religion has been used to justify slavery and Jim Crow laws in the past, and that he believes this dynamic is once again unfolding in the current dispute over the quest to find a balance between religious liberty and civil rights.

He encouraged the current generation to stand up and make sure that religion won't be twisted to deny others their rights.

A press release announcing the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, which was adopted by a majority of the eight commissioners within the agency, detailed the recommendation that federal and state courts, as well as lawmakers, tailor any religious exception to civil rights as "narrowly as applicable law requires."

Any exemptions that are "overly broad" are said to unfairly burden nondiscrimination laws, according to the statement.

The commission made a number of other recommendations as well, including a proposal for federal legislation that would clarify the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a law that precludes the government from substantially burdening citizens' religious exercise without a compelling reason.

The report called for legislation that would clarify that RFRA creates rights under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause for both people and religious groups. That said, this is "only to the extent that they do not unduly burden civil liberties and civil rights protections against status-based discrimination."

States, too, were encouraged to change any laws that are similar to RFRA to clarify, in the commission's view, that the law doesn't "unduly burden" civil rights.

Castro's statements led Roger Severino, head of the conservative Heritage Foundation's DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, to express worries over what he saw as an attempt to discredit people who are sincerely motivated by their faith, unfairly making it seem as though hate drives their efforts.

"I would expect to see such a slanted and anti-religious report come out of China or France perhaps, but am disappointed to see it come from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights," Severino told The Washington Post.

Others have had similar reactions, with Brian Walsh, president of the Civil Rights Research Center, telling The Christian Post that the report essentially says that Americans' long-held religious freedom should fall second to "new and emerging rights."

"No one in America is entitled to a scorched earth victory," Walsh said. "Our system includes checks and balances and guarantees fundamental civil rights such as religious liberty. These safeguards exist to prevent whoever currently has the greatest political power from retaliating against others."

Castro's fellow Commissioner Peter Kirsanow expressed views that were in line with Severino and Walsh, accusing his colleagues of "errors, misstatements and mischaracterizations" in his own reaction within the report.

Kirsanow specifically took aim at Castro's comments about slavery, accusing the chairman of unfairly targeting Christianity — an act Kirsanow called "puzzling."

"Of course, there were Christian slave owners in America. That is indeed a repugnant period in American and Christian history but, unfortunately, unremarkable when viewed in the context of history as a whole," he wrote. "Slavery has been an almost universal institution."

But despite its widespread cultural prevalence, Kirsanow said that it is "unusual" that Christianity played such a profound role in leading to the abolition of slavery.

Speaking broadly, Kirsanow also said the recommendations and findings in the report "should serve as an alarm to liberty-loving Americans," adding that he voted in favor of the recommendations to avoid delaying the report any further. Read the report in its entirety here.

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