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Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html

Friday, February 19, 2010

Politics, religion and ignorance — an unhealthy mix

Politics, religion and ignorance — an unhealthy mix
By Hussam Ayloush
IFN Guest Columnist
Thursday, 11 February 2010

Lancaster, a growing city of 145,000 people just north of Los Angeles, recently became embroiled in a heated religious controversy after its mayor called for actively cultivating a Christian city and a member of its city council wrote bigoted anti-Islam comments in an online post.

During his official State of the City address, Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris said his city was “growing a Christian community” while the PowerPoint display behind him showed a large Christian cross and the phrase “2010 Growing a Christian Community.”

He also used the speech to promote a ballot measure that would ratify the city council’s ongoing practice of inviting clergy who mostly invoke the name of Jesus Christ before city council sessions.

Last week, Lancaster City Councilwoman Sherry Marquez posted a short rant on Facebook saying “the Muslim religion is all about ... beheadings, honor killings ... they don’t even blink at killing their own wives/daughters, because they are justified by their religion ...”

In response to these two incidents, CAIR-LA, along with other interfaith and civic leaders, decried the councilwoman’s remarks and asked her to meet with members of the American Muslim community in order to begin to understand how inaccurate her comments were and to gain some understanding of the true beliefs of the constituents she seems to disdain.

Later, CAIR-LA sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice calling for an investigation into a possible violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause by Mayor Parris.

The Antelope Valley Human Relations Task Force called for an emergency meeting to investigate the remarks by both elected officials as possible hate incidents and to collect information from individuals who may have been adversely affected by those remarks.

What we are witnessing in Lancaster is an unhealthy mix of politics, religion and ignorance. This controversy needs special attention and a long-term remedy.

The issue here is not freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Both these rights are ones I cherish dearly and pledge to defend for every American, including individuals I may completely disagree with.

In the mayor’s case, the issue of concern to me and many other people of various beliefs is simply the upholding of our constitutional principle of separation of church and state, and maintaining the values of inclusiveness and fair treatment.

Parris is an official elected to public office serving Americans of diverse faith backgrounds. He is required to honor and uphold our Constitution. It is that simple.

As an elected official speaking in his official capacity at an event paid for by the city, the mayor must not promote a particular religion — a news story reported that Parris is now offering to reimburse the city for its cost of putting on the event.

In fact, no elected official should be in the business of promoting or favoring a specific religion in his/her official capacity. I would not agree with any mayor, senator, president or elected official in our country using public or elected office to advance the Muslim faith or any other religion. How would residents and citizens of other faiths feel if this happened?

We have a secular government and a pluralistic nation whose Constitution respects the practice of religion, or lack of it for those who choose. Pastors, imams, rabbis and all private citizens are welcome to work on building and promoting any religious community they wish, but our government and its officials must not.

As a person of faith, I strongly value the important positive role that religion, including Christianity, plays in benefiting society. Equally valuable is the parallel and separate role our government and Constitution play.

Being pro-Constitution is not equivalent to being anti-religion, anti-Muslim or anti-Christian.

Our nation and its citizens have thrived for more than 200 years on the Establishment Clause, which mandates that the government will not establish any official religion. The Establishment Clause has allowed all religions to be treated equally and to flourish and contribute to society.

This principle is expressly affirmed by the Supreme Court’s rulings that have fashioned two separate spheres for religion and government, and have explicitly established the government’s neutrality on religion.

Our purpose in filing the DOJ complaint is not to undermine the important positive role that religions, including Christianity, play in benefiting society, but rather to protect religious freedom and ensure that Lancaster and its elected officials abide by the same constitutional separation of church and state as the entire nation.

The city of Lancaster and other public and religious leaders have a critical job now — to take appropriate measures to ensure a secular and inclusive government representative of all residents.

Hussam Ayloush is the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greater Los Angeles Area.

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