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ACLU chief makes stop in Durango

Robert Galin/Durango Herald

“Religious liberty has not always been easy, and it has not always been consistent,” Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said during an address Sunday to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Durango.

By Robert Galin Herald staff writer

“Never take religious liberty for granted,” Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado told the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Durango at their regular Sunday service. “We don’t need to think alike to love alike.”

Woodliff-Stanley, who also is an ordained Unitarian minister, was appointed to head ACLU-Colorado last October. He was invited to Durango in part because of an opinion piece he wrote for The Denver Post in November, he said in an interview.

In his sermon Sunday, Woodliff-Stanley said, “Religious freedom is something I hope we never take for granted. The forebears of out faith certainly couldn’t take it for granted,” he told the congregation.

He then explained how the Unitarian church developed and the struggles it went through, much like the struggles of other faiths when they begin.

Woodliff-Stanley said that throughout history people have been forced to follow the religions of their leaders. If they didn’t it often meant they forfeited their lives, he said.

He noted that in the midst of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, there was one Unitarian king, John Sigismund of Transylvania, who decreed religious freedom. Sigismund established Unitarian congregations.

The term Unitarian means “the oneness of God,” according to the faith’s website.

“A good number of the people who fled Europe for the colonies that became the United States came here with religious freedom in mind,” he said. “But they were not all the same.”

Yet they also came to establish ideal religious communities, and they represented a variety of Protestant faiths, including Anglican, Calvinist, Quakers and Baptist, and there were Catholics and skeptics, like Thomas Paine.

America’s religious diversity also included the Native American spiritual beliefs and some of the religions brought by the African slaves, until they became Christianized, he said, noting Thomas Jefferson’s connection to Unitarianism.

Jefferson once expressed the belief that Unitarianism might become the faith of the country, according to the Thomas Jefferson Monticello website. Jefferson did not believe in the Trinity or in Jesus as divine, but, in “a letter to William Short on Oct. 31, 1819, he was convinced that the fragmentary teachings of Jesus constituted the ‘outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man’,” according to the website. Short was Jefferson’s private secretary when the latter was ambassador to France.

Woodliff-Stanley said in early America, the Baptists were among the strongest supporters of separation of church and state.

He noted many beliefs exist in the U.S. today and said, “for the most part, we don’t kill each other.”

Many European states, which have official religions, are actually more secular, he said.

American religiosity is tied to the freedoms that Americans can believe as they see fit, he said.

But he said, “Religious liberty has not always been easy, and it has not always been consistent,”

For example, even though there is no religious test for public office, “it is nearly impossible to be elected to office almost anywhere in the United States if you are an atheist or if you are a follower of almost any non-Christian religion,” he said.

Woodliff-Stanley said he probably spends more time on religious-liberty issues at the ACLU than any other topic.

Religion can be used to deny constitutional rights to a variety of people, including the lesbian-bisexual-gay-transgender community, just as it was used to deny blacks their rights before the passage of the civil-rights laws, he said.

“Whatever religious liberty means,” Woodliff-Stanley said, “it cannot mean the ability to impose religious practices on those who may not share the same religious beliefs.”


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