By Bob Allen
A Baptist minister and interfaith leader took state lawmakers in North Carolina to task for demonizing one religion while trying to establish another, despite the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom for all.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that some members of the N.C. General Assembly are in critical need of a refresher course on the meaning of religious freedom,” Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance and preaching pastor at Northminster Church, a Baptist congregation in Monroe, La., wrote in an April 12 op-ed in the Raleigh News & Observer.
Gaddy reacted to a constituent e-mail from North Carolina state Rep. Michele Presnell (R-Burnsville) linking Islamic prayer to terrorism. Asked by a voter if she is comfortable with a prayer to Allah before a legislative session, the first-year lawmaker replied, “No, I do not condone terrorism.”
Presnell said lawmakers “just need to start taking a stand on our religious freedom or it will be whisked away from us.” The exchange came on the heels of a failed resolution by two North Carolina lawmakers affirming that despite the First Amendment, the state has a right to establish a particular religion.
“As a Baptist, I cannot fight just for my own freedom to worship,” Gaddy said. “I fight for my Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian (and the list goes on) sisters’ and brothers’ rights as well – and the rights of those who choose not to worship. That is the inclusion at the heart of what our First Amendment-given religious freedom means.”
Gaddy said Muslims in the United States already have to fight tooth and nail for permits to build mosques, and once built many have been vandalized and attacked. More than a decade after 9/11, Gaddy said hate crimes are still being committed against people who “look Muslim.”
“It is my duty as a religious leader, as a defender of religious freedom and simply as an American citizen concerned with the future of our democracy to remind Americans that being a Muslim is not synonymous with being a terrorist and supporting the American Muslim community’s right to worship is not synonymous with supporting terrorism,” Gaddy said. “The time is long past for us to stop demonizing this American faith community and judging a faith practiced by billions by those who twist and misappropriate its teachings to serve their violent goals.”
Gaddy said the actions by North Carolina lawmakers lack “a historic understanding of the meaning of religious freedom and show how desperately we need to improve education on the meaning and importance of religious freedom in our nation.”
Gaddy said neither his Christian faith nor religious freedom is violated by court decisions requiring that ceremonial prayers at government meetings be non-sectarian, and he is not threatened when such prayers are delivered by clergy of another faith.
“Our Muslim neighbors have as much a right to exercise their faith, to build houses of worship, to be included in interfaith ceremonies as I do as a Christian minister — and to be free from the kind of heated rhetoric employed by too many political and opinion leaders today,” Gaddy wrote.
“We would all do well to remember that it is the lack of an established religion that has enabled so many religions to flourish side by side with a freedom in our nation unparalleled in any other nation in the world.”