Why Religious Freedom Should Be Precious to All

Ken McIntyre /

Grateful neighbors wished to honor the seven Brooklyn firefighters riding Ladder 101 who perished after pulling up to the burning north tower of the World Trade Center on a crystal-blue morning nine years and 10 months ago. The community won city approval to rename a portion of a street near the Red Hook firehouse, also home of Engine 202.

When new street signs with the words Seven in Heaven Way went up last month, though, the atheist lobby began to raise heck. It’s “the wrong thing to do,” one American Atheists official insists.

“What’s wrong, actually, is this kind of sweeping intolerance,” Heritage’s Jennifer Marshall writes in an op-ed for the McClatchy-Tribune wire that’s running in newspapers from South Carolina to Kansas to California. “This is no time for confusion over the meaning of religious freedom.”

Marshall, director of Heritage’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, writes:

Considering the threat of terrorism and America’s appeals for Muslim societies to reject Islamist extremism and embrace freedom, it’s important we understand the nature of our own liberty. … Religious freedom, the cornerstone of all freedom, is freedom for religion not hostility toward it. Far from privatizing or marginalizing religion, the Founders assumed religious believers and institutions would take active roles in society, engaging in the political process and helping to shape consensus on morally fraught questions.

Six months after Pope Benedict XVI spoke out for religious liberty in celebrating the World Day of Peace, Marshall notes, Islamic scholars Abdullah Saeed and Mustafa Akyol addressed the issue in recent posts on the Witherspoon Institute’s “Public Discourse” website. Beginning with the Quran, Saeed and Akyol make faith-based cases for true freedom — which Muslim societies typically don’t extend to women or religious minorities, whether Christian, Jew or Hindu.

Catholic bishops from North Africa and the Middle East, who traveled to Venice for a conference of the Oasis International Foundation as the street-name flap unfolded in Brooklyn, know these limits on liberty all too well.

As Marshall, author of “Why Does Religious Freedom Matter?” for Heritage’s Understanding America series, writes:

Most nations are dominated, demographically anyway, by adherents of particular faiths. But every denomination—and the atheist camp as well—is a small minority somewhere on the planet. This reality underscores why religious liberty, not the radical secularist or theocratic systems at either end of the spectrum, should be precious to everyone.

The radical secularists, including those bent on setting up roadblocks to Seven in Heaven Way, have wandered off the sure path to freedom.