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Opinion: When words become sticks and stones, we abuse our freedoms

Despite great diversity in religious belief and practice, we believe religious leaders and faith communities are uniquely positioned to promote respect and civility.

Our rights to the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech are enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These rights are clearly spelled out – government can’t tell us how we can worship or what we can say. 

But with these freedoms comes the great responsibility to exercise them responsibly and honorably.

Imam Abdur-Rahim Ali, Elder Rick Balli

We abuse our rights when we twist religion and distort speech to serve selfish ends, to disrespect or exclude, or to incite, inflame or harm. When we abandon our obligation to speak and act respectfully we ultimately put our rights at risk. We turn words into the hurtful sticks and stones of the children’s rhyme.

Despite great diversity in religious belief and practice, we believe religious leaders and faith communities are uniquely positioned to promote respect and civility so we can not only enjoy freedom to worship and speak, but freedom from polarization, extremism and hate. 

How can faith leaders help increase understanding and defuse combativeness?

First, start with the great truth we hold in common: We are all part of one human family. Various religious traditions teach God is the creator and parent of all. Everyone. Likewise, science confirms it: We are all one human family.

Religious leaders model this belief when we form interfaith alliances and collaborate on service to the wider community. We bring our resources, talents and faith together to feed and shelter the homeless, promote literacy and self-sufficiency, welcome refugees and much more.

 One real-life example is JustServe.org. Anyone using this website can find volunteer opportunities for themselves, their families or their groups. Many different churches and faith-based nonprofits post service activities there.

Beyond alliances with fellow churches, religious leaders reach out to government and civic leaders to help solve problems in neighborhoods and communities. For example, the mosque, Masjid Taqwa, is in the planning stages to create affordable housing in our northeast Denver neighborhood. Many churches provide mental health counseling, addiction recovery programs and employment services. 

In his address last Tuesday during Colorado Religious Freedom Day, which this year had the theme of “United in Diversity,” Gov. Jared Polis acknowledged, “For generations, communities of faith have led the way for positive change.”

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So how does all this faith in action promote respect and civility? 

When religious leaders meet and work together, we forge bonds of trust, reliance and love. When our congregants follow our examples and work side by side with members of other faiths, often of different races and cultures as well, they overcome misinformation and bias. When we understand and care about the people who may be hurt by our words, we speak more respectfully, civilly, even lovingly. 

Blessed with freedoms protected by the Constitution, our responsibilities are to use religion and speech to serve, understand and respect all of our fellow children of God. 

This respect and kindness is the antidote for fear, hate and extremism. And religious leaders must lead the way.


Imam Abdur-Rahim Ali is resident Imam of the Northeast Denver Islamic Center (Masjid Taqwa) and a frequent speaker on Al-Islam around the country. Elder Rick Balli is a Denver-based Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


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