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What Republicans and Democrats get wrong about religious freedom

Here's what faith leaders and legal experts believe has gone wrong with public understanding of and engagement with religious freedom.

SALT LAKE CITY — Republicans and Democrats both fail religious freedom, but they do so in different ways, according to Tim Schultz, who delivered the keynote address at a Tuesday symposium on religion and inclusion.

The political right is often guilty of ignoring the needs of religious minorities, while the political left can act as if Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Hindus are the only people of faith who need to be protected, he said.

"Let's vow to intentionally do better," he urged the crowd assembled at the Utah State Office Building, which included policymakers, legal experts and faith leaders.

Schultz's stark assessment of the religious freedom landscape capped off a morning of tough conversations at the event, which was co-sponsored by the Sutherland Institute and Parity, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group. Panelists from a variety of political and religious backgrounds described how difficult it is to find common ground these days, including in high-profile clashes between religious liberty and LGBTQ rights.

"We're really good at getting our argument fine-tuned and figuring out who are our friends and enemies," said Sharon Groves, vice president for partner engagement at Auburn Theological Seminary. "We're not good at actually listening to people."

That's bad news for more than just religious freedom, panelists said. Human rights aren't safe when we stop recognizing each other's humanity.

"We have to learn more about each other and look past scary headlines and Facebook posts," said Asma Uddin, a senior scholar with the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, D.C.

Loss of unity

Schultz began his remarks by looking to the recent past, when religious freedom was much less controversial.

In 1993, LGBTQ rights and religious freedom advocates, Republicans and Democrats, joined together to pass new federal protections for faith groups. As recently as 2013, similar measures passed state legislatures with strong bipartisan support.

In the last five years, that "kumbaya" spirit turned into "kumba-nah," he said, noting "there's a great deal of suspicion and animosity around religious freedom."

"Now it's scare-quoted in headlines and referred to as 'so-called religious freedom,'" Schultz said.

Americans share the blame for that shift, according to the symposium panelists.

Republicans overlooked the concerns of minority groups, including gays and lesbians. Democrats acted as if sincerely held religious beliefs could change. Christians fixated on their own fears instead of ensuring all faith groups were safe.

"Under the current administration, religious freedom has become partisan instead of universal, a way to divide instead of unite," said Uddin, whose book, "When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom," will be published in July.

As a result, people suffered and continue to suffer.

Muslim death row inmates are refused access to a spiritual adviser during their execution. Catholic nuns must file lawsuits to avoid violating their conscience. Members of the LGBTQ community lose jobs or apartments because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

We need a better path forward, said Howard Slugh, co-founder of and general counsel for the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.

"We need to introduce nuance back into the discussion," he said.

Path forward

Symposium panelists have different visions of what that better path should look like.

Some faith leaders want churches to take the lead in defusing tension. Uddin hopes legal experts will do a better job explaining what religious freedom laws do and do not guarantee.

Schultz remains focused on the political sphere, and thinks both Republicans and Democrats should reform their ways. The political left needs to recognize the value faith groups bring to society, while the political right needs to show that religious freedom is about more than side-stepping LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws.

"If you're politically conservative and you don't like that smear, then put your money where your mouth is," Schultz said.

Each speaker, however, seemed to return to a common theme: Individual relationships and conversations matter. If you're sick of widespread misunderstanding, then work to address your own misconceptions.

"Make friends with somebody who doesn't share your faith," Schultz said.

Elder Allen D. Haynie, General Authority Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he's experienced the power of conversation across lines of difference multiple times in recent years, especially in his work addressing clashes between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights.

He described meeting with a friend about 10 years ago who was outraged by his support for Proposition 8 in California, which prevented same-sex marriage. Elder Haynie and the woman sat together for an hour sharing their beliefs and concerns.

"By the end of the hour, she understood my feelings and I understood hers. We remain good, good friends," Elder Haynie said, noting that conversations like that lead us to discover common ground.

Policymakers and people of faith don't have to agree on everything in order to ensure that religious freedom is protected, Uddin said. They just have to agree that even claims they reject deserve protection.

"We may think that another person's belief is wrong, but the premise behind religious freedom is that people have a right to be wrong," she said.