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U.S. religious freedom is being eroded, advocates say

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In an era when the US is promoting democracy and freedom of conscience around the world, such knowledgeable people say, it's crucial to get the experiment right here at home.

One organization seeking to boost understanding and respect for this fundamental freedom is the Council for America's First Freedom, based in Richmond, Va. The council sponsors a variety of public education programs, including a nationwide high-school essay competition.

And each year on Jan. 16 – the date in 1786 when Virginia passed the nation's first law guaranteeing religious liberty – the council hands out First Freedom Awards to individuals whose actions have made a significant difference. The three 2008 recipients have advanced religious freedom domestically and internationally:

• For two decades, Dr. Haynes of the First Amendment Center has helped local school districts and communities across the US find common ground to resolve conflicts over religion and values. He recently helped the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe draft guidelines for the study of religions in European classrooms.

• Mr. Witte, director of Emory University's Center for the Study of Law and Religion, has led major global projects related to religion and human rights among scholars from the major faiths; the projects have broken new ground on key issues.

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