As the U.S. prepares to celebrate its Independence Day on July 4, Joliet area religious leaders shared their thoughts on religious freedom.
Sabeel Ahmed, director of GainPeace, an outreach division within the Islamic Circle of North America; Aamer Abdul-Jaleel, GainPeace community liaison and marketing lead; Anwaar Khan, GainPeace board member and president of the Muslim Association of Bolingbrook
Religious freedom looms large for these three practicing Muslims.
In 2016, GainPeace ran a six-week “Liberty and Justice for All” billboard campaign. On June 21, the same group launched an eight-week “Learn Islam from its Source” campaign.
The group also offered to provide free copies of the entire Quran in English or Spanish to anyone who requests it by calling 800-662-4752.
As far as religious freedom, Ahmed mentioned verses in the Quran that refer to freedom in a general way, along with verses that restrict it, such as the prohibitions against lying, cheating and murder.
“With the freedom comes responsibility and accountability to God,” Ahmed said.
Abdul-Jaleel welcomes diversity in expression but is concerned a lack of education could take away those freedoms, especially for those who practice Islam. He also worries that negative messages in “mainstream media, election campaigns, and all of the different flavors of travel bans” puts Muslims “in a vulnerable state,” he said in an email.
We can’t go backwards,” Abdul-Jaleel said in an email. “We need to continue building forward and bridging alliances instead.”
Khan said he hopes education about the Islam faith will allow people of all faiths to celebrate their similarities and understand the differences.
Sandy Costa, elder with Treibh na Tintean, Universalist Unitarian Church of Joliet
Costa said she is a member of an interfaith women’s group, Women of Faith for Justice. She recalled when one of its organizers asked her to join, and Costa said she wasn’t certain the group was “ready for her version of interfaith.”
“I’m openly pagan,” Costa said. “And a lot of people don’t understand what that means and are afraid of it.”
Costa is one of the elders of Treibh na Tintean (Gaelic for “Clan of the Heart), a 20-year-old pagan group that’s part of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Joliet. Still, Costa said she is surprised how many people in the Joliet and Northern Illinois area know about paganism.
To Costa, religious freedom means that she and her group “are free to conduct our rituals and openly espouse our religious tenets.” Costa said being “an openly religious person” is a fundamental American right and guaranteed in the Constitution.
“And there is no reason why that can’t cover me and my spiritual beliefs, as well as those of everyone else,” Costa said.
It’s frustrating for Costa when she encounters people who espouse religious freedom but only for certain belief systems.
“I’ve had people tell me I’m a terrible human being because I’m pagan,” Costa said. “These people don’t know me. They should judge me after they get to know me.”
Jim Dougherty, secretary of the spiritual assembly, Bahá’ís of Joliet
Dougherty said Bahá’ís have no clergy, but they do have laws (such as not using drugs or alcohol) and want the freedom of practicing that faith unencumbered. That includes the freedom of enforcing their laws, he added.
“The purpose of life is to worship God,” Dougherty said. “And I want to worship God as I choose to worship God, not the way someone else tells me to worship God.”
That’s not the case in some Middle Eastern countries, where Bahá’ís are persecuted or where the Bahá’í faith is not recognized, Dougherty said. By contrast, the Bahá’ís wish to live peacefully with people of all faiths, Dougherty said.
“We think all faiths originate from the same source, from the same God,” Dougherty said, “and we choose to worship freely with all of them. We wish all faiths to be able to worship as they see fit.”
The Rev. Keith Forni, pastor, First and Santa Cruz Lutheran Church, Joliet
“Well, I think the opportunity to express the faith of one’s choice and of one’s own tradition and heritage, and to do so openly and without constraint, is one of the key elements in the formation of this nation,” Forni said. “That attracted many people who did not experience such freedom in other parts of the world. It also has some contemporary applications, certainly, with issues that are before us at this time.”
Forni referenced two examples. One was Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which spurred the Supreme Court ruling.
The other was the growing number of modern-day Christian martyrs in other parts of the world. Forni said his church prays for those persecuted for their faith and called such martyrs “a great inspiration for those of us who embrace the faith and challenge us to understand what a cherished gift it is.”
Of Trinity, Forni said he “cheered” the ruling.
“It does not result, in my view, in the promotion of particular religions,” Forni said, “but rather gives access to resources that are useful in enriching the life of that preschool through its recreational activities that should be available to all who conduct such schools.”
The Rev. Andrew Harrison, St. Luke Orthodox Church, South Chapel, New Lenox
In an email, Harrison said, “As a former chaplain I know the feeling about religious liberty. When you were asked to do a general prayer at an official military gathering, you were expected to address a generic God. If you mention Jesus Christ, you were considered not inclusive. This would effect [sic] your rating as a chaplain. This is not religious liberty. You should be able to pray the way you would normally pray. Religious toleration means to tolerate.”
The Rev. Peter Jankowski, pastor, St. Patrick Catholic Church, Joliet
Jankowski feels it’s a blessing in the U.S. that people of all faiths get to live in the freedom of their belief – and in the freedom of their disbelief – without state interference.
“We are not forced to believe something,” Jankowski said. “We choose to believe it.”
That choice, as well as the free will God gives, makes the faith experience richer, Jankowski said, which he likens to falling in love.
“A relationship with God is the same as a relationship with any other person,” Jankowski said. “The more time you spend with the person you love, the stronger that relationship becomes. That can’t be done unless it’s freely done.”
Coerced religion or a state religion where everyone is mandated to follow a certain religion takes away the beauty of love freely given.
“It’s no longer free will,” Jankowski said. “It’s servitude.”
Jankowski bemoans the oppression and death in other parts of the world in the name of religion. Having the freedom in the U.S. to live the faith of one’s choosing provides opportunities for ecumenical discussions and discovering areas where various faiths agree.
“I think the fact that we have that choice is good for the country and it’s good for faith,” Jankowski said.
Rabbi Charles Rubovits, Joliet Jewish Congregation
“Everyone believes in God in a different way, and everyone should be free to worship God in his or her way,” Rubovits said.
And Judaism has, historically, been reasonably tolerant of other religions as long as they don’t adversely affect Jews, he added.
People are searching for the ultimate answer – or perhaps the ultimate question – but no one can be certain a singular approach to God is the only correct one, Rubovits said. That’s true whether a person believes in God as creator, in evolution, or even if one has no belief in God.
“We just don’t know,” Rubovits said. “Judaism believes in one methodology; Christianity believes in a slightly different method; Islam is different. What about the Wiccans? What about the American Indian? What about the Hindus or Buddhists? Who’s say to they’re wrong? They should be free to worship as they feel.”
Rev. Edward L. Winfrey Jr., pastor, The Way Church of Joliet
“When I hear ‘religious freedom,’ to me, it means the ability for people to practice their personal religious beliefs in our country and to do so without discrimination,” Winfrey said.
Although society is becoming more inclusive in terms of religious expression, Winfrey feels it still has strides to make. At times, it seems to Winfrey, mainstream society is becoming less tolerant of Christianity, he said.
“Obviously there is room for growth,” Winfrey said of religious freedom as a whole. “And us, as a country, should be able to live up to those things we declare and that our forefathers declared.”
Winfrey said he find the topic of religious freedom “intriguing.” Lately, he’s taken time to educate himself further on the topic. He, too, cited the recent Supreme Court ruling, as well as religious persecution in other parts of the world.
“We’re really blessed to be able to assemble without those types of fears,” Winfrey said.