Religious liberty is messy

It's a weekday morning in Dallas and, as the office crew gathers in the coffee lounge, a staff member hands out invitations to a seminar called "Moses and Jesus Were Frauds."

A hypothetical case, but one that echoes real life. Would this be religious harassment? What if the person was plugging a revival at First Baptist?

More questions: A third-generation Russian Pentecostal pastor asks an American megachurch for help. Is this an attack on Mother Russia? Or an underground Catholic priest in Beijing insists that Pope John Paul II is the true vicar of Christ. Is this a subversive act?

These are busy times for those who monitor clashes between the laws of heaven and earth. As always, one person's gospel is another's heresy and believers keep shooting at each other's sacred cows. Meanwhile, consumers in the spiritual marketplace are searching for answers. This raises questions about tolerance. For starters, is it safe to let politicians, police or even priests judge whether a man with a megaphone -- or an Internet site -- is a prophet or a lunatic? What if your children want to join his flock?

"This is definitely a worldwide phenomenon. We are seeing these kinds of conflicts from Saudi Arabia to Israel, from Russia to China and right here in the United States," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. "The big question seems to be: how do you treat religious minorities fairly if they seem to impinge on a society's core image of itself?"

It's impossible to legislate patience and understanding - even in free societies. Yet governments are being asked to take sides, often to defend the powerful or to appease those offended by aggressive religious faith. Here are a few snapshots from the front lines.

* Russian President Boris Yeltsin vetoed a recent bill to severely restrict the freedoms of Protestants, Roman Catholics and other groups said to threaten the "spiritual culture in the society," granting a virtual monopoly to Russian Orthodoxy. Talks continue about a slightly revised bill.

* Conservative religious-rights groups have circulated appeals on behalf of Mark Harding, a Canadian Christian arrested for "hate speech" after making inflammatory public statements and circulating tracts claiming that "Muhammad was a false prophet." His allies are raising money to defend his free-speech rights, while also contacting the U.S. Senate's foreign relations committee.

* Israeli leaders continue to discuss an "Anti-Missionary Bill" that would essentially ban all efforts linked to religious conversions. This would severely restrict the work of traditional Christians, "Messianic" Jews who claim Jesus as Messiah and even outreach programs by non-Orthodox Jews.

* In the United States, a broad coalition of religious groups remains concerned about Supreme Court's June ruling against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That bill had required the government to show a "compelling interest" before taking actions that infringed on the religious practices of individuals or groups.

There are, on occasion, quiet victories in these conflicts -- when people strive to balance the rights of believers with loud voices with those who have thin skins. Last week, President Clinton ordered federal agencies to guarantee the religious rights of their workers, hopefully establishing a standard to guide the private sector. The new guidelines address issues ranging from religious apparel to handling holy days, from water cooler debates about abortion to supervisors inviting employees to church.

One crucial passage notes: "Employees are permitted to engage in religious expression directed at fellow employees, and may even attempt to persuade fellow employees of the rightness of their religious views, to the same extent as those employees may engage in comparable speech not involving religion. Some religions encourage adherents to spread the faith at every opportunity. ... But employees must refrain from such expression when a fellow employee asks that it stop or otherwise demonstrates that it is unwelcome."

And there's the rub. To give believers the right to speak their mind, others will need to tolerate a few highly opinionated messages. Some religious groups will face competition in the marketplace of ideas. Religious liberty is messy, but it beats all the alternatives.