Downgrading religious freedom would cheapen our own lives

A local family that helped prepare dinner shares the meal with residents of the homeless shelter at the United Methodist Church on Arch Street in Philadelphia earlier this year.

It was the fourth-grade English teacher, Sister Pauline, who gave me my first fountain pen as a reward for getting a perfect score on the spelling test. I was proud. Spelling was hard. Words such as won and one were indistinct to my Cuban ear. So I practiced.

Even as a 9-year-old, I knew I was lucky to be in her classroom. My recently-exiled-penniless parents had begged the young priest who ran the overcrowded Catholic school in Puerto Rico to allow me and my two siblings to attend. Even after we were admitted, for months at a time, my father was unable to pay our tuition. And yet the school welcomed us every day.

In the 1960s and ’70s, on mornings when I was putting on the mandatory plaid polyester uniform, desperate Cubans unable to obtain exit visas were taking their front doors off the hinges, tying them to inner tubes and converting them into makeshift rafts to navigate 90 miles of shark-infested waters between Cuba and Key West. More than 83,000 died at sea. From 1960 to 1962, more than 14,000 children said goodbye to their parents at Cuban airports, coming to the United States in what was known as Operation Peter Pan. More than 50 percent of them ended up being cared for by the Catholic Welfare Bureau.

Besides teaching me spelling, what that young nun did for me was model a life lived according to what her conscience dictated. She had left her American, air-conditioned life to teach in a hot, poor Puerto Rican school. Today, in America, people from all religious backgrounds hear the call to serve others in similar ways. Their impact is significant.

It is conservatively estimated that religious nonprofits provide more than $378 billion to the economy — that is more than the revenue of Microsoft and Apple combined. These charities benefit civil society by serving hundreds of thousands of hungry, poor, disenfranchised, and homeless people. Inspired by so many of them, I have dedicated my life to defend the free expression of all religious traditions whether popular or unpopular. And, yes, to also defend those who do not profess a religious belief and want to live according to the tenets of their conscience.

However, the ability to live according to one’s conscience is now at risk. The recent contentious national debates over same-sex marriage, contraception, and transgender bathrooms have battered the very principle that protects conscience rights. The solution to these conflicts, some suggest, is to downgrade our First Amendment rights by limiting its expression only to our homes or houses of worship.

This sentiment was further fueled last year when the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights suggested religious freedom was merely a code, stating, “[It] will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as [it] remain[s] a code word for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy, or any form of intolerance.” Finally, in a repulsive publicity stunt, O.J. Simpson’s former attorney Alan Dershowitz announced he was crafting a religious freedom defense for two doctors in Michigan who allegedly performed female genital mutilation on two 7-year-old girls. Their case goes to court in the fall.

It is vital to consider the dangerous consequences of treating our right to live according to our conscience as a lesser right. Surely, religious freedom does not protect harmful practices like female genital mutilation and it is most certainly not a free pass to justify all conduct. However, cheapening the First Amendment cheapens our own lives. After all, it is the First Amendment that protects the very core of who we are as human beings. It protects our God-given right to search for truth — whether our search takes us to organized religion or no religion at all. The alternative, to believe something but only to be able to express it in private, would force each of us to create a phantom, pale, fake version of ourselves to display publicly. How would this be a win for the right we have to live with integrity, as one whole person, according to our deeply held convictions?

More than 40 years after I took that spelling test, I wish I could find Sister Pauline. If I did, I would tell her that she taught me more than spelling; she taught me meaning. Perhaps my Cuban ear was partly right and one and won are indeed indistinct.

Kristina Arriaga, a longtime advocate for religious freedom and a recipient of the 2017 Newseum free expression award, will be part of an interfaith discussion on “Religious Liberty in Trouble?” at 6 p.m. Thursday at the National Constitution Center. To register, visit www.constitutioncenter.org/debate or call 215-409-6700.