LONSBERRY: An Hijab on the Evening News

 On Sunday night, Rochester native Amal Elhelw, a television reporter, sat down at the Channel 8 anchor desk for the first time and led a newscast, marking a milestone in her young career.


               It was also a milestone for Rochester.


               Because as she sat there, under the lights and in the community’s eye, she wore an hijab.


               It was a declaration of heritage, and a pronouncement of faith. A visible demonstration of her fidelity to her Muslim religion.


               She reported the news, and she announced where she stood with God.


               And while that might seem of significance primarily to Muslims, it actually ought to give encouragement to all believers and to all believers in freedom. Because religious expression in America is under attack by a culture and political philosophy that are increasingly hostile to “the free exercise” of religion.


                God and his followers are being pushed from the public square, with the institutions of power in our society increasingly condemning or marginalizing religious views and religious expression. Higher education, public schools, social and commercial media, and the press have all become hostile to belief and believers. Religion is something you can do for an hour a week behind closed doors, but which is not allowed to follow you elsewhere in life. Faith is seen as intolerance, and religious fidelity is denounced as bigotry.


               And increasingly the government in all its various forms, here and elsewhere, has joined the social hostility to faith.


               In the case of Amal Elhelw and her fellow believers, France – the preeminent nation of Europe – forbids women to wear the hijab while playing soccer and in a recent presidential debate the candidates discussed whether or not the religious garment should be banned nationwide by law.


               That’s in a modern nation supposedly committed to liberty.


               In China, the Uighurs – a people of some 12 million – are being culturally obliterated, physically enslaved and potentially even genocided because of their Sunni Muslim faith.


               That’s in what may soon be the most powerful and dominant nation on earth.


               In the United States, antipathy is directed toward small religions by some, and toward large religions by others – including some of the dominant forces in society. Conservative Christians, for example, have been described as “domestic terrorists” by federal officials as they have taken concerns about their children’s education to school boards. Business owners making decisions based upon their personal religious beliefs have been savaged in the press and in the courts.


               The two religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment – one prohibiting a government establishment of religion and the other forbidding government from interfering in the free exercise of religion – are routinely applied or ignored in a way to suppress public religious expression. Just this week the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether or not a high school football coach could lead a voluntary midfield prayer at the end of a game.


               And as to people in television news – what about the forehead cross of Ash Wednesday or a cross on a necklace or pin? Have you ever seen a reporter in a yarmulke, or other clothing distinctive of some forms of Judaism?


               Unfortunately, believers sometimes see freedom of religion issues only when they apply to their own particular religion. You squawk if somebody steps on your toes, but not if they step on someone else’s toes. That’s shortsighted and selfish.


               Because the truth is that all believers together have a common stake in pushing for a society that is tolerant of all religions. If one is discriminated against, all are diminished, and endangered.


               The key to defending religious freedom is exercising it. By actively, publicly demonstrating religious faith – whatever that faith may be – people help protect the free exercise of everyone’s faith. Amal Elhelw made a statement, obviously, for Muslims, but she also took a stand for Christians, Jews, Hindus and all believers. The demonstration of belief in one faith, normalizes the demonstration of belief in any faith.


               She showed, on the evening news, that a person could carry her faith with her to work and everywhere, and that serves as a powerful reminder to others as they work to carry their faith with them.


               Society increasingly wants religion to sit down and shut up.


               Earnest believers, of every faith, should refuse to do so.


               The first freedom is the most important freedom, and it is the one that should most powerfully bind us together. We won’t believe in the same things, but we will believe in the right to believe, and the right to declare our belief in our words and in our deeds.


               Like the news anchor did the other night.


               And like the rest of us should be allowed to do in our lives.


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