- - Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the first night of votes, during every week that Congress is in session, something special happens.

There is no media. There is no fanfare. Yet Room 219, just a few steps from the House Floor, is crowded with members of Congress. They are quietly praying.

Ten years ago, when I first began praying in Room 219 before votes every week, I typically prayed alone, sometimes joined by a colleague or two. These days however, Room 219 is often standing room only, as members of Congress from different backgrounds and walks of life put aside political differences and unite in prayer for our nation, our leaders, our president and each other.

All members of Congress are welcome to attend and pray. Many who do so are members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, a group I founded in 2005 to pray for our nation and to engage the legislative process to protect the free exercise of faith for Americans of every faith or no faith.

Today, along with my co-chair, Sen. James Lankford, this group of nearly 100 lawmakers is dedicated to the idea that the free exercise of religion is a fundamental human right that is essential to a free society. Every American should be free to live and work according to his or her beliefs without fear of punishment from the government. This foundational truth is enshrined in our Constitution and is part of the DNA of our nation.

Congressional Prayer Caucus Members focus on engaging the legislative process to protect the ability of every American — of all faiths or no faith — to exercise the First Amendment right to the free exercise of their religion. Why? Because essential to the human dignity of every individual is the ability to live by one’s moral convictions, and not be coerced by the government to compromise those convictions.

For example, Prayer Caucus members have actively worked to pass concrete protections for the free exercise of religion in the military. These protections are already having a direct and positive impact on service members of all faiths. The Air Force has updated their regulations to better empower commanders to make decisions regarding the protection of religious expression. In July, a congressionally-commissioned report from the Department of Defense inspector general’s office recommended updating the process for handling accommodations requests — an area which has been a particular concern for Sikh and Jewish service members who desire to serve their country but who need an accommodation to serve with the outward signs of their faith.

Another area where Prayer Caucus Members have been active is in promoting and protecting First-Amendment rights on college campuses. Restrictive speech codes have been widely acknowledged as a systemic problem on college campuses around the country because they can stifle, rather than promote, opportunities for college students to learn to robustly debate and respectfully disagree in an open forum.

In 2014, after California State University revoked the recognized student organization status of several student groups, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and CRU, Prayer Caucus Members urged University leadership to reverse their decision and protect student First Amendment rights of religion, speech, press and association.

Whether it is working to protect free speech, reinforce religious freedom for all faiths in the military, protecting public prayer, or supporting the autonomy of churches and faith-based organizations, the Congressional Prayer Caucus represents the commitment of nearly 100 members of Congress to ensuring that every American is free to live according to their faith.

This is an issue that should unite our nation. Protecting the free exercise of religion in this nation is something that all Americans should rally behind, regardless of religion or political persuasion, because it is a matter of ensuring and protecting basic human rights. Protecting one American’s freedom is protecting every Americans freedom — whether they are of any faith or no faith at all.

Rep. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican, is founder and co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

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