Prominent leaders of the religious freedom movement introduced an organization they say will work to defend religious liberty and support political candidates at all levels of government who back the free practice of religion.
Charging that religious practice is increasingly threatened by legal maneuvering and public actions that seek to limit the First Amendment's guarantee of religious rights, speakers during an online launch of the organization Jan. 18 called on Americans to join the effort.
Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, said the new organization will be known as the National Committee for Religious Freedom. It is being established as a separate nonprofit organization under the institute.
The arrangement calls for the committee to fall under the Internal Revenue Code as a 501(c)4 social welfare group rather than a nonprofit organization established for religious, charitable, scientific or educational purposes. Contributions to the new organization will not be tax deductible and the committee will not be required to publicly identify donors.
"If religious freedom is diminished and damaged in America, our beloved country will be grievously harmed, but so too will the rest of the world," Farr said during the launch event. "Our nation has built a system of religious freedom that, while never perfect, is unparalleled in the history of mankind. It stands as a guiding light for a world sorely in need of religious freedom."
The idea for the committee originated with Sam Brownback, a Catholic who served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom from 2018 to 2021, Farr said.
Brownback described religious freedom as being "at the heart of America's founding" and that it deserves to be protected for everyone. He said the United States has welcomed people of different faith traditions throughout its history, leading to prosperity and strength through diversity.
"Out of this guaranteed freedom, society flourished. The faithful built schools and hospitals. Great social movements were advanced to feed the poor, provide clean water in destitute places around the world, and combat crimes like slavery and human trafficking," he said.
However, Brownback expressed concern that religious freedom in the U.S. is eroding, sending a warning sign around the world to political leaders who would take steps to restrict religious practice elsewhere.
"America is the cornerstone nation for this foundational human right. Any loss of religious freedom here has an exponential effect overseas," he said.
Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders joined the online event through in-person presentations at the institute's Washington offices and in recorded statements submitted for the announcement. They warned of cultural and political forces for driving the rise of "secular laicism."
Among those, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty, said in a prerecorded message that at times it appears that religious freedom, which he described as "the first freedom" written into the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, has become "one of the very last freedoms" as it continues to be challenged.
"Religious freedom belongs to everybody," the cardinal said. "It's a right that everyone of us possesses in full measure. This organization is rightly dedicated to vibrant religious freedom for everybody."
One of two women who joined the program, Neydy Casilla, vice president of international affairs at Concerned Women for America, said it was "dangerous" to remain silent as religious liberty declines. The government has an obligation, she said to protect religious practice in all its forms.
"It is time for us to restore religious freedom as a fundamental right," she said.
Echoing such concerns, Frank Wolf, a former member of Congress, said religious freedom goes beyond being a cultural or "political good."
"Religious freedom protects all other freedoms. It guards against misuse of authority by the state or restrictions demanded by aggressive or vocal minorities or majorities. Religious liberty was hard won in the past and can get easily lost," Wolf said.
The committee's early efforts will focus on forming chapters in all 50 states, explained Shawn Woo, who has been named its executive director.
The campaign also is asking supporters to sign a pledge committing to protect religious freedom. The pledge is on the committee website at www.thencrf.org.