Freedom to practice religion still faces oppression

Michael Finn

The freedom to practice religion is one of the liberties protected under the First Amendment. A few weeks ago, an evangelical preacher named Tom Short occupied the front lawn of Parks Library with a Bible in hand. For the last 18 years, Short has been on a pilgrimage to universities across the nation, spreading what he believes to be the “word of God.”

Students congregated outside the Hub Café for a front seat on the action. Chris Blackowiak, sophomore in marketing and pre-advertising, stood on the sidewalk and observed Tom Short’s rants.

“He had some witty comebacks to the crowd’s comments,” Blackowiak said. “He was definitely strong-willed and persistent, even if he was a little extreme in some people’s eyes. But it’s obvious that he wants people to believe what he believes.”

Short, a self-proclaimed “campus evangelist,” might have stirred up controversy with his radically anti-gay, anti-sex and anti-science messages — but he was only exercising his constitutionally guaranteed rights, and therefore immune to any legal action.

Other religions on campus do not express their faith as openly on campus. Nicholas Spyrison, senior in statistics, is a Tibetan Buddhist and president of the Karma Kagyu Study Group. Spyrison said his religion does not need to be pushed upon other people.

“Buddhism is not something I ‘wear on my sleeve’ so to speak, so I don’t announce my religion unless it is pertinent to the conversation,” Spyrison said.

As a land-grant institution funded by state tax dollars, Iowa State is obligated to promote religious freedom under the First Amendment, and therefore cannot adopt an ‘official’ religion. But Warren Blumenfeld, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, is skeptical of the university’s secular designation.

Blumenfeld pointed out that on this campus and throughout society, the yearly calendar revolves around Christian holidays. There is also a floor-to-ceiling Christian cross in the Chapel of the Memorial Union, and the Chapel’s stone benches are engraved with the Christian cross. Evangelical Christians are unceasingly trying to convert people to their own faith, to which Chinese students are sometimes specifically targeted for “Christian conversion by members of the Cornerstone Church on our campus since they are seen as coming from a non-religious culture, and they are, therefore, particularly vulnerable.”

Blumenfeld has experienced hateful discrimination in the past. As a Jew and a homosexual, the discrimination he has received has left him with rather negative views on Christianity. He remembers one time in particular when a student wrote prejudiced remarks on a course evaluation.

“This student strongly implied that I will travel to hell if I continued to act on my same-sex desires,” Blumenfeld said. “She even went further by insisting that since I am Jewish and I do not accept Jesus as my personal savior, I will go to hell regardless of my sexual identity and behavior. Anyone who doubts this, she said, ‘Only death will tell!’”

Hector Avalos, professor of religious studies and an outspoken atheist, said that Iowa State is a Christian-preferred university. Avalos recalled a moment when, a few years ago, the ISU football team had to select a “chaplain” or “life skills assistant.”

“It was a Christian minister,” Avalos said. “No Muslims, Hindus or persons of any other religion were even considered.”

The Muslim population has also been the subject of harsh discrimination, particularly in the United States following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. This isolated incident of terrorism committed by a few Islamic radicals sparked widespread fear and distrust of the Muslim population as a whole.

“I wonder whether we have learned anything from history,” Blumenfeld said. “To stereotype and scapegoat all followers of Islam for the events of 9/11 is as invalid as blaming all Christians for the despicable actions perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who was a devout Christian.”

Christianity is not inherently oppressive to other cultures and religions. Many Christians at Iowa State remain faithful while still maintaining respect for other people of different religions.

“Every person is equally if not more deserving of my love, my joy, my patience, my kindness, my goodness, my faithfulness, my gentleness and my self-control more than even myself,” said Gabe Noll, senior in advertising and member of the Salt Company Student Fellowship, a Christian organization at Cornerstone Church.

To uphold our freedoms and promote the welfare of others, Blumenfeld said it is important to always be tolerant of others.

“When we begin to think in pluralistic ways — that my way is good for me and your way is good for you — that’s when we will begin to live in a true and cooperative global community,” Blumenfeld said.