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Originally published Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 4:38 PM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

An ecumenical conversation about government and religion

Bruce Ramsey listens in as four religious leaders, each from conservative denominations, talk about how far government ought to accommodate religion.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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Two Christians, a Muslim and a Jew meet a group of Republicans.

No joke. It happened last week in Redmond at a meeting of the Eastside Republican Club. Four religious leaders, each from conservative denominations, talked about how far government ought to accommodate religion.

The conversation began with money and property. Joe Fuiten, senior pastor at Cedar Park Assembly of God in Bothell, noted that most people think churches don't pay property taxes. And they do. In Washington they pay if they own more than five acres per church.

"We have 46 acres," he said. "I spend close to $100,000 a year in property taxes."

Former KIRO attorney Gordon Conger, now a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said local governments have "land-use regulations impeding the construction of churches."

Other issues were explored in hypothetical questions. For example: What should be done if a Sikh refuses to take off his turban to wear a construction helmet?

"Sign a waiver," said Fuiten. "Let him wear a turban."

The audience liked that answer. But Jawad Khaki, president of the Ithna-Asheri Muslim Association of the Northwest in Kirkland, didn't. The man's safety was important, too.

"The right way is to make an accommodation," Khaki said. Maybe you make a special helmet.

A few snickers were heard.

The question was changed. Suppose it was a ceremonial knife, and the Sikh wanted to take it to school.

That was different, said Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky of the Chai Center of Greater Seattle. That was putting the safety of others at risk.

This time the Mormon offered an accommodation. "A ceremonial dagger could be dull," Conger said.

Another question was Stormans v. Selecky, the case of the pharmacy owner who refused to sell the "abortion pill."

All four agreed that a merchant ought to be free not to sell a product, though Bogomilsky said, "From a Jewish perspective there is nothing wrong with selling an article you don't believe in." A seller is not responsible for what the customer does.

"It's a Jewish loophole," he said. The audience laughed.

Khaki said Islam has no such loophole.

Born in Tanzania, Khaki is a former Microsoft vice president for Windows networking technologies. To last week's crowd he praised America for allowing him freedom of religion, and condemned Osama bin Laden, who had been killed the day before, as a criminal. But the Kirkland imam also spoke of America's "unjust foreign policy" that was too focused on "oil and Israel."

A "hmmm" of disapproval rippled through the Republicans, who tend to favor Israel.

Only once that evening did a panelist take a jab at another's faith. This was when Fuiten, the Christian evangelical, said, "We have 1,400 years of history to see that wars come out of Islam."

That is a charge you hear on the right. On talk radio I have heard the question, "Do you think Islam is a religion of peace?" — implying that it is not. Yet the same question might be put to Christians and Jews. Have their nations not been involved in conquest and war? Did Muslims invent the Crusades? The atomic bomb?

Khaki didn't return the punch. It was Bogomilsky who spoke:

"As a Jew I have something to say. Healthy religion breeds peace. Islam is wholesome. The Koran is pure."

On that ecumenical note, the tension melted away. We all left, each with his own belief.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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