free speech

The blasphemy iceberg is much bigger than Charlie Hebdo

The drama began when a Pakistani politician named Salman Taseer criticized the land's blasphemy laws that were being used to condemn Asia Bibby, a Christian convert.

This led to a man named Malik Qadri firing 20 rounds into Taseer's back, according to witnesses, while security guards assigned to the Punjab governor stood and watched the assassination. When Qadri went to trial, cheering crowds showered him with rose pedals. Later, radicals threatened the judge who found Qadri guilty.

The judge, of course, had committed blasphemy by passing judgment on the man who killed a Muslim politician who -- by criticizing the blasphemy laws and defending an apostate -- had committed blasphemy.

"Then you get the question: Can you defend the judge or would that be blasphemous? We are starting to get here very like a Monty Python element," noted human-rights scholar Paul Marshall, speaking on "Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion" at The King's College in New York City.

This kind of tragedy on the other side of the world is not what most Americans and Europeans think about when they worry about violence inspired by accusations of blasphemy, said Marshall, who currently teaches at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia. 

Secular unions vs. Holy Matrimony, Part II

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two columns on current debates about Holy Matrimony and civil unions.

Gay-rights advocates know the formula and so do their opponents: If gay marriage becomes a civil right, then religious believers who dare to defend ancient doctrines on marriage will become de facto segregationists and suffer the legal consequences.

The problem for the left is that this happens to be true.

"Before we shrug and reply, 'So what if it's religious? It's still bigotry, it's still intolerable,' we need to remember that religious liberty is America’s founding principle. It is embedded in the country’s DNA, not to mention in the First Amendment," argued gay commentator Jonathon Rauch, writing in The Advocate.

"If we pick a fight with it or, worse, let ourselves be maneuvered into a fight with it, our task will become vastly harder. ... Even if you don't happen to believe, as I do, that religious liberty is, like gay equality, a basic human right, the pragmatic case for religious accommodations is clear: Being seen as a threat to religious freedom is not in our interest."

This is the state of things, as the U.S. Supreme Court ponders whether the time is right to address this hot-button topic. Meanwhile, gay-rights groups recently won several ballot-box victories in liberal zip codes.

Some conservatives have proposed radical strategies in response, such as scholar George Weigel's suggestion that it may be time for the Catholic church to "preemptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law."

That would be a powerful symbolic gesture, but "taking that action would do nothing to resolve the religious-liberty issues that are causing conflicts here in America, or will cause additional conflicts in the future," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. Even if traditional religious leaders attempt to legally separate Holy Matrimony from secular marriage, it is still the government's definition of marriage that will decide a variety of issues outside sanctuary doors, especially in public life.

"The other question, " he said, "is whether those on the cultural left will be willing, at this point, to settle for civil unions. ... We will need people on both sides to work together if there are going to be meaningful compromises."

One divisive issue in these gay-marriage debates overlaps with current fights over White House mandates requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called "morning-after pills." These Health and Human Services requirements recognize the conscience rights of employers only if they are nonprofits that have the "inculcation of religious values" as their primary purpose, primarily employ "persons who share ... religious tenets" and primarily serve those "who share ... religious tenets."

Critics insist this protects mere "freedom of worship," not the First Amendment's wider "free exercise of religion."

Here is the parallel: In gay-marriage debates, almost everyone concedes that clergy must not be required to perform same-sex rites that violate their consciences.

The question is whether legislatures and courts will extend protection to religious hospitals, homeless shelters, summer camps, day-care centers, counseling facilities, adoption agencies and similar public ministries. What about religious colleges that rent married-student apartments or seek accreditation for their degrees in education, counseling or social work? What about the religious-liberty rights of individuals who work as florists, wedding photographers, wedding-cake bakers, counselors who do pre- or post-marital counseling and other similar forms of business?

These are only some of the thorny issues that worry many activists on both sides of the gay-rights divide. Law professor Douglas Laycock, then of the University of Michigan, provided this summary in a letter to the governor of New Hampshire.

"I support same-sex marriage," he stressed. Nevertheless, the "net effect for human liberty will be no better than a wash if same-sex couples now oppress religious dissenters in the same way that those dissenters, when they had the power to do so, treated same-sex couples in ways that those couples found oppressive.

"Nor is it in the interest of the gay and lesbian community to create religious martyrs in the enforcement of this bill. ... Every such case will be in the news repeatedly, and every such story will further inflame the opponents of same-sex marriage. Refusing exemptions to such religious dissenters will politically empower the most demagogic opponents of same-sex marriage. It will ensure that the issue remains alive, bitter, and deeply divisive."

Russia, rock, riots and religion

It wasn't easy being a rebel in the Soviet Union, back in the 1970s when Sergy Ribko was a rock drummer who cherished whatever scraps of music and media made it through the Iron Curtain. Most of all, the self-proclaimed hippy who would later become a Russian Orthodox priest loved The Beatles.

The band taught "us to think about the meaning of life, good and evil, even about God and eternity, taught us to understand and love freedom in all its manifestations," wrote Ribko, in an open letter addressed to the "Dear and Highly Esteemed Sir Paul McCartney" that has been translated from Russian and circulated on the Internet.

"The absence of freedom was extremely felt in that totalitarian country, in which we were doomed to be born and live. The 'iron curtain' separated us ... from our mates in the free world where they could create and live according to their desires. ... Moreover it tried to hide from us the Heavens and God."

What would inspire the rector of Moscow's Church of the Holy Spirit to write such a personal letter to a rock patriarch in the West?

Here's the blunt answer -- Pussy Riot.

McCartney released a letter backing the members of this infamous music group who were recently sentenced to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Their crime was a "punk prayer" in which they pleaded, in highly profane terms, with the Virgin Mary to oust President Vladimir Putin.

"I hope you can stay strong," concluded McCartney, "and believe that I and many others like me who believe in free speech will do everything in our power to support you and the idea of artistic freedom."

For Father Ribko and many others, the key is not that Pussy Riot attacked Putin, but that the group's members recorded their YouTube video as they danced, prostrated and pretended to pray directly in front of the holy doors at the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The video included images from another church invasion, as well.

"Some months ago Russia witnessed an act of evil. We, Russian believers, perceive this event in this way," wrote the monk.

"All this Bacchanalia was filmed and shown to the world. ... When Pussy Riot blaspheme in the street, it is their private affair. Many people do the same. But if they break into our church, disturbing praying people, blaming our God, out faith, our patriarch, they offend personally each of us."

It's crucial that these events have unfolded in a land still struggling after a blood-soaked century that included the worst sustained persecution in Christian history. The Communists closed 98 percent of Russia's churches and killed 200,000 bishops, priests, monks and nuns, while another 500,000 or more believers were sent to die in labor camps. Millions more died in purges under Joseph Stalin.

Members of the Soviet League of the Militant Godless -- including Alexandra Kollontai, a self-proclaimed "female Antichrist" -- took special glee in vandalizing churches, desecrating the relics of saints and performing profane, crude, blasphemous skits in, or even on, the altars of Orthodox sanctuaries. As their ultimate act of desecration, the Soviets in 1931 leveled the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

"Christ the Savior was a central shrine both of the Orthodox faith and of Russian national pride, and for that reason, the Bolsheviks targeted it for destruction," noted historian Philip Jenkins, author of "The Lost History of Christianity" and numerous other works, in an online commentary about the Pussy Riot case.

"Not until 1990 did a new regime permit a rebuilding, funded largely by ordinary believers, and the vast new structure was consecrated in 2000. The cathedral is thus a primary memorial to the restoration of Russia's Christianity after a savage persecution."

For many believers, these new acts of sacrilege at the altar of this symbolic cathedral resembled old Russian nightmares. Try to imagine, wrote Jenkins, protesters seizing a European synagogue that had been rebuilt after the Holocaust and using it as the setting for a profane video mocking Jewish prayers.

"Not only would international media fully support the governments in those circumstances, but they would complain bitterly if police and courts showed any signs of leniency," argued Jenkins. "However serious a group's grievances, there is absolutely no justification for expressing them with such mind-boggling historical insensitivity, and in such a place. Anywhere but there!"

Gagging the military chaplains 2.0

Every now and then, bishops write letters for their priests to read to the faithful during Mass. In 1996 the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services sent a letter to its chaplains instructing them to urge their flocks to back the "Project Life Postcard Campaign" in support of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

Father Vincent Rigdon wanted to follow this order in rites at Andrews Air Force Base. But there was a problem. Pentagon officials had issued a gag order against chaplains preaching sermons that mentioned this anti-abortion effort.

The standoff ended up in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which in 1997 backed Rigdon and an Orthodox Jewish chaplain.

"What we have here," concluded Judge Stanley Sporkin, "is the government's attempt to override the Constitution and the laws of the land by a directive that clearly interferes with military chaplains' free exercise and free speech rights, as well as those of their congregants. On its face, this is a drastic act. ...

"The chaplains in this case seek to preach only what they would tell their non-military congregants. There is no need for heavy-handed censorship."

That settled that, for a decade or so.

However, debates about military chaplains have a way of living on -- in part because chaplains work in a church-state minefield that requires them to answer to the government, as well as to God.

Thus, the Pentagon powers that be flinched again when the current leader of the military services archdiocese sent a pastoral letter to his chaplains to be read -- from pulpits -- during Masses on Jan. 29.

In it, Archbishop Timothy Broglio joined with most of America's Catholic bishops in blasting new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rules that will require the vast majority of religious institutions to include free coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptives in their health-insurance plans. This would include sterilizations and the abortifacient drugs known as "morning-after pills."

This Obama administration move, he argued, "strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of any faith. The federal government, which claims to be 'of, by, and for the people,' has just dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those people -- the Catholic population -- and to the millions more who are served by the Catholic faithful. It is a blow to a freedom that you have fought to defend and for which you have seen your buddies fall in battle."

However, it was another passage that seems to have triggered alarms at the Army office of the Chief of Chaplains.

"We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law," stressed Broglio. "People of faith cannot be made second-class citizens. ... In generations past, the Church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. I hope and trust she can count on this generation of Catholics to do the same."

Soon after this letter was distributed, the Army chaplaincy office emailed senior chaplains asking them not to read it during Mass. Instead of obeying their archbishop, priests were told they could briefly mention the letter and place copies at chapel exits. Only Army leaders objected to Broglio's message.

The archbishop then talked with Secretary of the Army John McHugh, who -- according to the military services archdiocese -- backed away from the gag order. In turn, Broglio agreed that the "we cannot -- we will not -- comply" reference, with its hint at civil disobedience, would be removed from the text if and when it was read by Army chaplains. The line remained in printed copies.

The controversy simmered all week, with leaders on both sides backing away from further conflict.

By Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was hinting that the Obama administration might be willing to work with religious groups to see "if the implementation of the policy can be done in a way that allays some of those concerns."

Also, Carney said he didn't know if President Obama had prayed about the HHS rules controversy, but "he did consult with some religious leaders about it. ... When you seek to find the appropriate balance ... you have to weigh all of these factors, including the need to provide services to women and, obviously, the issue of religious belief."

God hates almost everyone, saith Phelps

The true believers from Westboro Baptist Church carried their usual battery of offensive signs on March 10, 2006, as they staged their fateful protest near the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. One contained a stick-figure cartoon of two men having sex. One proclaimed "Thank God For Dead Soldiers" and another "God Hates You." During the demonstration these signs faced what the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., and his family call the pro-America "pep rally" that greets them wherever they go -- throngs of counter protesters, journalists, military veterans and police.

"We're not picketing the funeral," stressed attorney Margie Phelps, in a standing-room-only showdown with student journalists at the recent College Media Convention in New York City. "We're picketing the pep rally."

That may sound like a trivial detail, but it was central to the legal and, at times, theological arguments that unfolded when the Snyder family's lawsuit reached the U.S. Supreme Court. This led to a sweeping 8-1 ruling on March 2 in favor of Phelps, his family and their tiny independent congregation in Topeka, Kan.

When arguing her case -- both to the high court and the young journalists -- daughter Margie Phelps stressed that a key point in the Westboro message is that the "you" in the slogan "God Hates You" was not a reference to Matthew Snyder, alone. The central idea of their protests is that God hates all sinners who have not repented and embraced their church's hellfire-and-brimstone view of America's moral decay.

When Phelps discussing those facing God's wrath, she included just about every imaginable religious and political group. While Westboro is best known for its conviction that America is speeding toward judgment day because of its acceptance of gay rights, her conference remarks also included nasty shots at Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists and Pentagon officials, among others.

Most of the students cheered her critics, mocked her stabs at humor and jeered her attempts to justify her beliefs. Yet the crowd remained rather quiet when, in a taped dialogue with First Amendment Center leader Gene Policinski, she repeatedly noted America's long heritage of protecting the free speech rights of dissenters.

"The Christian in me could barely sit still and listen to Phelps twist the Bible. ... Yet almost paradoxically, the American journalist in me felt a little bubble of pride," said Rebecca Young of the University of Dayton, in an essay posted online afterwards. "As angry and upset as I was at the ideas espoused, I was proud of a profession and a country that acknowledges their freedoms don't just exist when it's convenient."

To understand Westboro and its beliefs, stressed Margie Phelps, it helps to know that the church's tactics have evolved during the past two decades and the 45,000 protests it claims to have staged at a variety of public events, including about 800 funerals.

For a decade, the central message was that America needed to repent and turn away from sin. But as the death toll kept rising in Iraq, she said Westboro's leaders concluded that, "It's too late now. ... This nation is doomed." Above all, they were infuriated when many of the funerals for the fallen turned into patriotic rallies.

"We watched as the politicians, the media, the military, the citizenry and the veterans used the occasion of these soldiers' deaths to publish a viewpoint," said Phelps, describing the First Amendment arguments she used before the Supreme Court. "And we said, 'We don't agree with your viewpoint. God is not blessing America. It is a curse that that young soldier, the fruit of your nation, is lying in there in that coffin.' ...

"That is not a blessing of God. ... The soldiers are dying for your sins."

The bottom line, concluded Margie Phelps, is that Westboro Baptist simply "joined that public debate" on public sidewalks, while following all existing laws that govern public protests. Now, national outrage about the court decision has strengthened the convictions of the Phelps family.

"These are desperate times, calling for desperate measures and we are going to get these words into your ears," she said. By focusing on military funerals, the leaders of Westboro Baptist "know that we are hitting three of your biggest idols -- the flag, the uniform and the dead bodies. ...

"We are going to finish this work. The Lord God Jehovah has our back."

College campus holy wars

Anyone who explores academic hallways on American campuses will find lots of cartoons posted on professors' office doors and bulletin boards. But what if the cartoons included the Prophet Muhammad?

In one famous case, a professor at Century College in Minnesota dared to post the Muhammad cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper. Facing fierce criticism, she put the images behind a curtain so that anyone passing her bulletin board would not see them unless they chose to do so. Administrators quickly created a policy requiring advance approval of all posted items.

It's easy to find hot religion buttons on campuses. What if a club tried to screen Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and administrators banned it, citing its R-rating and controversial content? What if the same administrators allowed a play on campus in which a character pretended to perform a sex act on an image of Jesus?

What if a Jewish group sponsored a campus lecture by an Israeli official and it had to be cancelled due to heckling by Palestinian students? What if a professor urged students to destroy a campus-approved display of tiny crosses, created by pro-life students, that symbolically represented their opposition to abortion?

These cases are real and there are hundreds more.

Passions are boiling over on many campuses," stressed attorney William Creeley, who directs legal teams for the secular Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "Students and professors and administrators are fighting about all kinds of things, but the surface issues are often proxies for the real issue -- which is religion. ...

"The garb in which these clashes are clothed may be student rights or campus fees, but they are usually about religion, morality and sex."

A recent survey by the foundation, he said, found that 71 percent of America's campuses try to enforce codes that in some way clash with the First Amendment. Meanwhile, many private schools -- which can create covenants that limit many freedoms -- are failing to warn students, faculty and staff about the contents of the documents they sign when entering these voluntary associations.

Catholic educators at Georgetown University had a legal right to ask the abortion-rights group "Hoyas for Choice" to operate under the name "H*yas for Choice" and to deny it some campus benefits. DePaul University had a right to deny equal treatment to a group called "Students for Cannabis Policy Reform." The issue, said Creeley, is whether private-school leaders explicitly warn students and parents -- before they enroll -- about "what they are getting into."

Scratch the surface and it's easy to find religion in other campus conflicts. For example, "conservatives" often claim they face discrimination when seeking faculty promotions or jobs in prestigious schools, especially in science and political science departments. Programs that discuss Islam, or deal with Israel and the Middle East in general, continue to generate heat. Can faculty who dissect the Bible do similar textual criticism of the Koran?

However, any FIRE review of recent campus fights, said Creeley, would have to discuss whether or not religious groups on state campuses can insist that their leaders support their foundational beliefs. In other words, can a Jewish group insist that its leaders support the right of Israel to exist? Can a pro-life group insist that its leadership be limited to those who oppose abortion? Can an evangelical group require that all members of its leadership believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court -- in another 5-4 decision -- ruled that the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco could require its Christian Legal Society chapter to use an "all comers" policy for members and leaders or lose its status as a campus organization. The case pivoted on the group's affirmation that sex outside of marriage -- the union of husband and wife -- is sinful.

FIRE has tracked 40 or more disputes of this kind, noted Creeley, and there are sure to be more.

"I cannot think of anything less 'liberal' than what we are seeing on many campuses," he said. While most educators "pride themselves on offering a 'liberal education,' " many are now promoting "an orthodoxy that tempts them to edit the First Amendment. ... You end up driving certain points of view off campus and silencing the religious voices that trouble you. That's dangerous -- period."

God hates most sinners, saith Phelps

The words of the fifth Psalm are not for the faint of heart. "Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness. ... The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity," warned the psalmist.

Obviously, says the Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, this passage teaches that God hates the evil liberals who run the Southern Baptist Convention, along with legions of other Americans.

Phelps also believes that God hates the pope and plenty of other religious leaders who are called "conservatives," "traditionalists" and even "fundamentalists" in public debates about faith, morality and culture.

Southern Baptists are too liberal? Yes, that's why activists from the independent Westboro Baptist congregation in Topeka, Kan., like to picket major SBC meetings carrying those now familiar signs with slogans such as, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates America," "Thank God for AIDS" and, of course, "God Hates Fags."

With Westboro Baptist, up is down and down is up.

It may take months for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the First Amendment puzzle that is the clash between Phelps and Albert Snyder, the grieving father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. A Westboro Baptist team held a protest near the Catholic funeral of Snyder's son and church leaders also posted a website screed claiming that the divorced father raised his son to "serve the devil." A Maryland court gave Snyder $5 million, but the award was overturned.

Behind this pain and grief is a thicket of legal and journalistic thorns.

This is a case in which the mainstream press has spilled oceans of ink attacking Phelps' flock. Nevertheless, the core facts provoked the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 21 news organizations to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the church's right to hold legal protests and for journalists to cover them. News executives are especially worried because the protesters complied with all restrictions imposed by civic officials, including moving their demonstration away from the church. Snyder saw their hateful slogans in news reports and on the Internet.

This is case in which scholars have struggled to find a way to defend the free speech and religious liberty rights of Westboro believers, as well as the religious liberty and privacy rights of grieving family members.

In a reluctant defense of Phelps, a New York Times editorial quoted Justice Felix Frankfurter: "It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often been forged in controversies involving not very nice people." I once heard a church-state scholar put it this way: "Your religious liberties have been purchased for you by believers with whom you wouldn't necessarily want to have dinner."

What about the American Civil Liberties Union? After all, in the 1970s this organization backed the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Ill., a small community that was home to a large number of Holocaust survivors.

In a court brief backing Westboro Baptist, "we pointed out that the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech guarantees that no one can be found liable for merely expressing an opinion about a matter of public concern, regardless of how hurtful those opinions might be," noted Chris Hampton, a leader in ACLU efforts to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender causes.

The goal, she added, is to protect First Amendment principles that have been "essential to the advancement of civil rights, including the civil rights of LGBT people. Allowing Fred Phelps to speak his mind may be difficult, but chipping away at one of the fundamental principles on which our country was founded is far, far worse for all of us in the long run."

This is, of course, precisely the kind of liberal thinking that Phelps condemns out of hand, even when voiced by religious conservatives. According to his reading of Psalm 5 and many other scripture passages, Phelps believes that God hates what he calls "kissy-pooh" sermons that refuse to proclaim that God never, ever forgives homosexuals and many other sinners.

The Westboro website once warned preachers who claim that God will forgive those who repent, no matter what: "You are going to Hell! Period! End of discussion! God's decree sending you to Hell is irreversible! Hypocrites!"

"That's Bible preaching," Phelps told Baptist Press, in a 2003 interview about his beliefs. "You tell [people] that God loves everybody? You're lying on God."

'No go' zones in UK -- again

The alleged crime took place at the corner of Alum Rock and Ellesmere roads in Birmingham, England, where an officer spotted two missionaries distributing "God's Bridge to Eternal Life" tracts.

The controversial pamphlets contained comments such as, "Throughout history individuals have tried many ways to gain or earn eternal life, but every attempt has been unsuccessful." There were Bible verses, such as, "Not by works of righteousness, which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us. Titus 3:5a."

What happened next has reopened a painful debate about so-called "no go zones," areas that may as well be off limits to British citizens who do not heed Islamic laws.

According to a statement by the Rev. Arthur Cunningham, the "police community support officer" told him "you're not allowed to preach ... here. This is a Muslim area. He said, 'You know, you guys are committing a hate crime here with what you're doing. I'm going to have to call you in and take you in.' Then he took his radio and he said something like, 'There's a hate crime in progress here. I need assistance.' "

This occurred three months ago, but legal actions by Cunningham and the Rev. Joseph Abraham have created a wave of new coverage. Both men carry American passports, although Abraham was born a Muslim in Egypt and then converted to Christianity.

While declining to discuss details, West Midlands Police officials have released statements saying their investigation found that the officer acted "with the best of intentions" and that "the PCSO has been offered guidance about what constitutes a hate crime and advice on communication style."

Another statement: "We would like to assure all communities that there are not any 'no go' areas in the West Midlands Police area and we will defend the rights of the individual to freedom of expression and religious faiths."

The "no go zone" debate began in earnest when Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots, expressed fears that England is splintering into segregated communities of citizens living "parallel lives."

"It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished," wrote Nazir-Ali, in a newspaper essay that led to death threats against him.

Christianity and Islam are both evangelistic faiths, which creates sparks when their traditional, growing forms collide. However, Christian evangelism is banned in many Muslim lands and some Christian converts have faced death sentences as apostates.

In the Alum Rock case, the missionaries freely admit they were seeking converts. Abraham and Cunningham insist that they were told they would be physically attacked if they dared to return.

"The actions and words used by the officers were intimidating and were calculated to warn and-or frighten our clients and to have the effect of deterring our clients from lawfully expressing their opinions and manifesting their beliefs and to have a chilling effect on the exercise by them of their right to manifest their beliefs," according to a document prepared for police by activists at the Christian Institute. "Our clients were left with the understanding that they could not express their religious beliefs in Alum Rock Road without committing a hate crime."

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has reported that the officer involved in this incident is active in the local branch of the National Association of Muslim Police. The West Midlands police force also made recent headlines when it accused a BBC Dispatches program -- entitled "Undercover Mosques" -- of distorting Muslim statements about terrorism.

All of this has led to heightened tensions about how to balance Muslim concerns with British laws.

"Freedom is not, of course, absolute. It is only possible in the context of the Common Good, where the freedom of each has to be exercised with respect for the freedom of all," according to a new essay by Nazir-Ali, in Standpoint magazine.

"Freedom of belief, of expression, and the freedom to change one's belief are, however, vitally important for a free society, and the onus must be on those who wish to restrict these in any way to show why this is necessary. Nor can we say that such freedoms apply in some parts of the country and of the world and not in others."

God words vs. actions

When it comes to religion, modern Americans think religious beliefs are good, but they tend to worry about beliefs that affect other people.

As a rule, religious words are safer than religious actions.

Consider these numbers from a new Ellison Research study that shows surprising support -- on the left and right, among believers and skeptics -- for freedom of expression when it comes to words and symbols.

An overwhelming 90 percent of adults agreed that faith groups should be allowed to rent public property, such as a school gyms, if laws gave non-religious groups the same right. Asked about allowing a moment of silence in public schools, 89 percent said that was fine. Another 88 percent said teachers should have the right to wear jewelry, such as a cross or a Star of David, in public-school classes.

"There is a lot of unity out there about these kinds of issues," said Ron Sellers, president of the research firm in Phoenix. "But the specifics do matter. Wearing a cross on your lapel is not the same thing as showing up a school wearing a t-shirt with a big cross on it and the words, 'Believe in Jesus or you're going to hell.'

"There's no way to say that approving one thing is the same as approving another, even though the same principle is at stake."

The key is that religion is bad if it makes large numbers of people uncomfortable.

For example, 83 percent of the survey participants said it should be legal to put nativity scenes on public property, such as city hall lawns, and 79 percent supported the posting of the Ten Commandments in court buildings. But that number fell to 60 percent when they were asked about Muslim displays on public property during Ramadan.

This study asked another crucial question linked to a religious liberty issue that is affecting a wide variety of faith groups, especially in higher education.

The researchers asked if respondents agreed that it "should be legal for a religious club in a high school or university to determine for itself who can be in their membership, even if certain types of people are excluded." The result was a stark divide, with only 52 percent agreeing that religious groups should be able to enforce their own doctrines among their own members.

"People might respond differently if you asked the same question, but were more specific," said Sellers. "I think most Americans believe that a Jewish student union should have the right to say, 'No, you're Muslim. You cannot join our group.' But what if it's a conservative Christian group that says, 'No, you cannot join our group because you're gay'? American aren't sure what they think about that, right now."

The trend is clear. Vague talk is safer than clear action. Personal beliefs are good, but not if these doctrines lead to actions that indicate that some beliefs are right and others wrong.

Seeking is good, but finding is bad.

Judging is even worse.

For example, a new survey by the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Research team found that 72 percent of "unchurched" Americans who rarely if ever attend worship services believe that "God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists." However, 61 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the God of the Bible is "no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc."

The researchers found that 78 percent of the respondents claimed that they would be "willing to listen" if a Christian wanted to share talk about their beliefs. Then again, 44 percent agreed that "Christians get on my nerves."

"There is a sense in our culture that is acceptable to believe in anything spiritual, as long as it makes you a better person and helps you find peace," said Ed Stetzer, leader of the LifeWay Research team. "One's faith only becomes a problem when that belief actually makes claims that contradicts the faith of others."

In an age of "I'm OK, You're OK" spirituality, he added, "American spirituality has glorified 'searching' for spiritual meaning, but de-emphasized 'finding.' In other words, it is good to be looking for spirituality, but it is intolerant to actually believe you have found a right faith. ... Intolerance is defined to mean actually believing that your faith is the correct one."