WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is best known for its work fighting racial discrimination. But Commissioner Pete Kirsanow has become so worried about religious discrimination that he called for a special hearing of the commission.
"There, I think, is a perception among many people -- not just people in the faith-based community -- that government has been encroaching on expression of religious beliefs," Kirsanow said.
Others like the Americans United for Separation of Church and State say this is much ado about nothing.
"Some people look at disputes over say crosses or [the] 10 Commandments at a courthouse or a prayer before a city council meeting that a court has struck down, and they'll say, 'That's a violation of religious liberty,'" AU Senior Policy Analyst Rob Boston said. "I don't see it that way."
A central focus at the hearing was the discrimination student religious groups have felt on college campuses.
At universities like Tennessee's Vanderbilt, some have been booted for refusing to strike requirements about who can lead their groups. University administrators label such requirements discrimination.
But the groups say if they're Bible-based, they can't allow people to lead who flout the Bible's authority in areas like sexual purity.
"...Everything from sexual chastity to unteachability or compulsive lying," explained Greg Jao, with Intervarsity Fellowship. "So they're integrity issues."
Commissioner Kirsanow said students feeling discriminated against by colleges out to stop discrimination is ironic.
"The repeated theme that you hear is they're being marginalized; they're in fact being affirmatively discriminated against," Kirsanow said.
But Boston pointed out if you're going to accept special privileges or aid from a college or government, you have to accept their rules.
"If you take aid from the government -- whether that's material aid like money or some type of stamp of official recognition -- it's to be expected that there are going to be some regulations and controls accompanying that," Boston reasoned.
Jao insists some student believers have felt a real sense of discrimination against them.
"When your non-discrimination rules are actually excluding students from campus, marginalizing people of faith, we think it's a significant problem," Jao said.
Kirsanow also pointed to the Health and Human Services mandate as a whole new level of assault on what many Americans feel is their religious liberty: being forced to subsidize contraceptives that can cause abortions.
"We now, I think, have gotten to a troublesome critical mass, and the HHS mandate was maybe a flag to let us know, to alert us that we need to be paying greater attention to this," Kirsanow said.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights doesn't have any legislative power, but it often has influence with Congress in shaping civil rights law.