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Los Alamitos NEWS-ENTERPRISE
On Religious Freedom
By Bill Orton
As Americans ponder questions of war and peace, tolerance and evil, it is well worth remembering that this heterogeneous nation stands as the world's greatest testament to religious freedom and tolerance.
But with the events of September 11th hanging heavy upon us, it is more important than ever that we reaffirm our national (and state) commitment to the concept of religious freedom.
What is religious freedom and how do we guarantee such a thing?
If President Eisenhower was correct -- that you cannot legislate the human heart -- than how shall any such freedoms offered by society be guaranteed by the government?
First, we should use this moment to remember the well from which we are sprung.
For myself, my family on both sides can trace our lineage back to those who came to America in search of greater freedom and religious tolerance.
My mother's family arrived in the 1630s. My father's came in the early part of the last century. One side Protestant, the other Jewish. Each seeking a refuge from persecution.
My father's father's father, Joe Orshefsky, was still a relatively young man when he retired from the New York Police Department, and it was welcome news that he was offered the position of Sheriff in south Florida.
But, it then being 1948, Joe didn't think he would get reelected with the name Orshefsky. So the entire family, including my father -- then 11 -- went to the New Jersey courthouse and changed the family name to Orton.
Certainly religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism, lingers with us today, but I am an optimist sort. When my own daughter was born in 1994, I felt that she would live free of the sort of intolerance that forced Joe Orshefsky to change the family name. My daughter was born as Lilac Orshefsky.
Symbols, like a name, are important, but September 11th has shown that, as Americans, we must now grapple with far more than symbolism.
Lawmakers here should enact a "Religious Freedoms Restoration Act," or RiFRA (said as "riff-ra"). This would be an act similar to one passed at the federal level in the 1990s, but which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down on a narrow point of legalistic interpretation.
The original RiFRA law was written by Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). It was aimed at protecting the right of people to conduct themselves within the workplace in abidance to their faith and sought from business owners a reasonable degree of accommodation to make this a reality.
For some people, this meant the ability to pray or reflect while sitting at their desks. For others, it was as simple as being allowed to wear the yarmulke. For others still, it involved being able to take brief periods of unpaid leave (like a long lunch) so as to take part in charitable good works.
The U.S. Supreme Court on a narrow legal point struck down the federal RiFRA, so it is now up to the states to create a better RiFRA act.
A California "Religious Freedoms Restoration Act" could be drafted that both avoids the constitutional pratfalls of the federal bill while still extending true guarantees to people of all faiths that they shall be freer than ever to explore and express their connection to God and to their faith.
September 11th has shown us the deep fissures that divide Americans. The success of Senators Lieberman, Kennedy and Hatch can be replicated at the state level only if lawmakers of both parties and citizens of all faiths believe that this bill is not some secret part of a hidden religious agenda.
A lawmaker pressing forward on Cal RiFRA could help to engender a vibrant ecumenical debate that rises above the harsh vocabulary that is so often used to minimize people of faith. There are so many loaded words that are applied to people of faith that serve only to sew division among our people.
A true Cal RiFRA Act is not meant to benefit a set of partisans or members of one faith. It is for all Americans. Religious freedom is what millions of our people fought and died for. Religious freedom is as valid a subject for law today as it was two centuries ago.
One of my mother's forebears, Riley Beach, served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The Confederates captured him and threw him into the dreaded Andersonville Prison. There, in the journal that he kept on scraps of paper, Riley Beach promised himself and God that if he survived the hell of Andersonville, he would become a man of the cloth. And this he did.
Today, life travels at a speed slightly faster than it did when the Reverend Riley Beach took to preaching, but America still needs to safeguard the religious freedom of our people.
It is not impossible to believe that we can find the balance and create a Cal RiFRA Act that, within the limits of reasonable accommodation, helps to guarantee that all people shall be freer to conduct themselves in accordance to their faith.
This we owe to ourselves and to future generations of Americans.
To have Bill Orton speak to your group about religious freedom or about his proposed Flag-&-Pledge Amendment, send an email message to email@example.com or call (562) 598-9630.