The year 2016 has seen much conflict for religious freedom, not just domestically but worldwide. As individuals fight to defend this basic and fundamental human right — sometimes sacrificing their very lives — we find ourselves asking many questions about the future.
“My life is always filled with more questions than answers,” Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said in May as he stood in front of 500 people, honoring his longtime friend and former Cuban political prisoner, Armando Valladares.
No one knew it would be Wiesel’s last public appearance before his death two months later.
To those present, he asked a question he said had haunted him throughout his life: “What is it in the human being that he or she is capable of the worst and the best? So fast — literally sometimes overnight, in one hour — a person can change.”
At this time of year, we naturally reflect on what kind of people we want to be and what we have accomplished. But it is equally important to ask those same questions of ourselves as a society. How are those of us who have a voice working to defend those who do not? How are we fighting to protect those more vulnerable than ourselves?
Right now the people of Cuba are yearning for change following the death of a dictator who ruled the island with an iron fist for over 50 years. Will religious people now be able to worship freely? Will LGBT individuals be free to live their lives without fear of imprisonment and torture? Will artists and poets be allowed to express themselves free from censorship?
Though Elie Wiesel’s time in the Nazi concentration camp and Armando’s Valladares’s 22 years in Castro’s gulags may seem a bygone era, the unanswered question of how to evoke change for the better in ourselves and society lingers. Can we remain silent while others suffer?
Just this month the world looked in horror as Aleppo burned. In Egypt, a bomb detonated at Cairo’s main Coptic Cathedral, killing 24 people. Millions have fled their war-torn homes, hoping for peace in a new country, while ISIS commits genocide against Christians and minority Yazidis.
Though lives have not been endangered, questions of protecting freedom of conscience have been poignant here at home as well. We’ve been forced to question how the government found itself fighting the Little Sisters of the Poor, nuns who dedicate their lives to serving the elderly poor.
A month after hearing their case, presented by Becket Law, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with what the Little Sisters had argued all along: the government has other ways to provide contraception to women who want it without hijacking the nuns’ health plan or forcing them to violate their faith.
We’ve also confronted the idea that it’s okay to infiltrate a Native American religious ceremony to search for supposed “illegal use” of eagle feathers. For the past decade Pastor Robert Soto and many of the Lipan Apache tribe of Texas have been fighting for the return of 50 eagle feathers confiscated during one of their religious services, in what the government dubbed “Operation Powwow.”
Although power plants and wind turbine farms have legal exemptions for eagles killed by their machinery, the government claimed it was illegal for the Lipan Apache to use molten feathers found on the ground. Thankfully, in what the Wall Street Journal called “a victory for religious freedom,” the government ultimately settled the case, returned the feathers, and admitted it was wrong to send an undercover agent to raid the powwow.
Meanwhile, Sikh members of the military are still left questioning when they will be allowed permanent accommodations to both honor their faith and continue their exemplary military service. Nearly a year ago, the Becket Law had to sue to get a temporary accommodation for Captain Simratpal Singh, allowing him to wear his beard and turban while serving, even though thousands are regularly given accommodations for medical or tactical reasons.
Though he received a bronze star for clearing IEDs in Afghanistan, the Army wanted to subject Singh to discriminatory gas mask testing. After Becket Law and the Sikh Coalition filed in court on his behalf under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the military continues to postpone issuing a permanent religious accommodation.
Following a year of questions, this next year should be one of answers.
How can we, as a society stand up against those who try to strip individuals like Captain Singh, the Little Sisters of the Poor and Lipan Apache Elder Robert Soto, of their rights?
The answer is simple: give voice to your convictions.
Melinda Skea is the director of communications of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.