One of America's leading evangelical preachers says religious freedom is beginning to erode in the United States as court rulings and lawsuits threaten a central tenet of the First Amendment.

Ted Haggard told the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association here on Thursday that public religious speech has come under fire so often in recent years that in some people's minds "a Christian evangelical is the same as a Muslim fundamentalist." Haggard is president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents some 30 million conservative Christians from 52 denominations comprised of more than 45,000 congregations.

He said some would like to see to it that "anyone of faith never have a voice in the public square. Think of what would have happened if that had been the view during the civil rights era with Dr. Martin Luther King," whose pastorate became a bully pulpit for social change. Quoting King, he said, "It takes a God-intoxicated people to change society," and using his faith, King provided "one of the greatest services to America in the past hundred years."

The freedom to speak religious persuasion in public has historically had "much to do with preserving the United States as we know it today," yet the U.S. Air Force Academy in Haggard's own Colorado Springs, Colo., is being sued for allowing proselytizing there.

He questioned how any court could come to delineate religious speech that is "harmful" from that which is not. Are Democrats who try to persuade Haggard to switch political parties "proselytizing" based on the intensity of their presentation? The government trusts Air Force cadets to discuss all kinds of weighty philosophical and scientific topics "except religious ideas, and they need to be protected from those ideas because they are just so tender?"

If proselytizing is outlawed there, the logical extension is greater restriction on religious speech everywhere, he said.

"We're in a situation now for the first time in American history where the institution of 'non-establishment' is being threatened," he said, referring to the First Amendment's prohibition of state-sponsored religion. By restricting religious speech to only that proscribed by government, "we may have the first (state) established church in the history of our republic.

"When government starts saying it's the government's business to tell a Mormon chaplain what goes on in a Mormon meeting, we'll have our first established religion," he said.

During a question-and-answer session with reporters, Haggard was asked about evangelical attitudes toward Muslims now that a handful of high-profile preachers has been publicly hostile toward Islam in the recent past. He said none of them speaks for evangelical leadership through the national association, but only for themselves.

"We work for an atmosphere of open, respectful exchange." Religious leaders of all stripes should be free to "debate and talk and go to lunch together" even as they disagree theologically.

"It doesn't work to take a gun and try to persuade somebody. We believe in the marketplace of ideas."