Religious freedom confusions: Banning mosques and vouchers for Muslim schools

Louisiana Republican Rep. Valerie Hodges wants a do over. When she enthusiastically supported Gov. Bobby Jindal’s private school voucher program this year, she had no idea Muslim schools and Christian schools would enjoy the same access to public funding.

“I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school,” Hodges told the Livingston Parish News. The paper said Hodges “mistakenly assumed that ‘religious’ meant ‘Christian.’”

“Unfortunately [the voucher program] will not be limited to the Founders’ religion,” Hodges said. “…There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently. I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”

The controversy brings to mind the larger national debate over religious liberty, spurred by the health care reform law’s requirements that employers provide coverage for contraception and by laws that protect gay people from discrimination.

Although the move for new religious liberty laws has been spearheaded by Catholic and evangelical groups, critics have said the proposals would blow open exemptions in state and federal stautes, effectively setting up a separate legal standard for any person or group claiming to be motivated in their actions by faith.

The idea that adherents to non-Christian faiths, for example, could seize on proposed broader religious liberty exemptions to practice their faith and their rituals outside the boundaries of current law rarely enters mainstream conversation. When it does, outspoken Christian lawmakers can seem as befuddled as Hodges seems in Louisiana today.

Indeed, Colorado state Senator Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, this week suggested Muslim residents of the state shouldn’t even be afforded the religious freedoms presently available to all Americans. He agreed with controversial Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, a speaker at the Western Conservative Summit held recently in Denver, that lawmakers should prohibit the construction of mosques in the state.

“Mosques are not churches like we would think of churches,” Grantham told the Colorado Statesman. “They think of mosques more as a foothold into a society, as a foothold into a community, more in the cultural and in the nationalistic sense. Our churches– we don’t feel that way, they’re places of worship, and mosques are simply not that, and we need to take that into account when approving construction of those.”

Similarly, in 2010, high-profile Colorado Springs Christian-right state Senator Dave Schultheis introduced legislation that would have cleared the way for religious instruction in Colorado public schools. A “Public Schools Religious Bill of Rights,” he called it. It was a matter of religious liberty, he said.

Just weeks after he introduced the bill, however, Schultheis lamented that the Air Force Academy chapel in his district opened up space for Wicca and Druid worship in the name of religious liberty.

“Where will this end?” he tweeted.

Exactly, says Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law who specializes in constitutional state and religion questions.

Legislation proposing greater religious freedoms “sounds like apple pie,” she wrote in a 2010 essay. “Who could disagree with that?”

[ Image: "School Bound" by Meanest Indian ]

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About the Author

John Tomasic

Writer, editor, web wrangler. He has worked for art, business, culture, politics publications and for a UN war crimes commission.
jtomasic@coloradoindependent.com | 720-432-2128 | @johntomasic

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