Conscience

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March 12, 2016

Georgia’s Religious Freedom Bills: Christian Duty and American Ideals

The attack on religious freedom by those professing Christian faith shows more clearly than anything else their fundamental departure from both Biblical Christianity and American ideals.

One of the most recent examples of this is clerical opposition to Georgia’s religious freedom bill, HB757. The proposed legislation would protect the liberty of conscience of marriage officials against having to perform same-sex ceremonies. As noted by Atlanta’s Channel 11 News, the bill states that it is:

“relating to marriage generally, so as to provide that religious officials shall not be required to perform marriage ceremonies in violation of their legal right to free exercise of religion.”

Similar legislation being considered gives merchants protection against any requirements to participate in homosexual weddings.

The clerical opposition, Clergy Against Discrimination, claims most basically that the full exercise of religious freedom would allow believers to “harm or exclude others.” This is the perennial “right not to be offended” claim that is always heard from the cultural left on everything from school prayer to Christmas celebrations. To state what should be obvious, religious freedom means nothing if it can be set aside when someone is offended.

The group gave as their reasons for opposing the legislation:

  1. It puts religious beliefs above the “common good.”
  2. There would be costly lawsuits.
  3. Religious freedom is already protected in the federal and state constitutions.
  4. Religious Freedom Restoration Acts give business the right to discriminate on a religious basis.

Additional reasons given by opponents of the bill were the threat of business retaliation, which proved decisive in defeating religious freedom bills in Arizona and Indiana, and the claim that dissent from a liberal understanding of inclusivism is divisive.

It is likely that the threat of business retaliation is decisive in the opposition of Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, and that of the Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, which makes final enactment seem remote, and yet religious freedom is not an issue on which Christians or others committed to religious freedom can ever cease to advance.

“I don’t think we have to have anything that allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith … it is important that we protect fundamental religious beliefs but we don’t have to discriminate against other people in order to do that and that’s the compromise I’m looking for,” Governor Deal said. But no “compromise” is possible, because “people of faith” will either be required to violate their consciences, or they won’t, and only if their right to decline same-sex ceremonies is recognized in law will they have the legal protection they need. Essentially, he proposes that religious freedom, and apparently, Christian faith, should be altered to include acceptance of homosexuality. It is true, as the governor said, that Christian faith certainly mandates that Christians “reach out” to everyone, including “outcasts,” but not, as this writer has noted, to the extent of contributing to sinful actions. We should “reach out” with the gospel of salvation from sin and good works which do not contribute to sin (Matt. 18:7).

The response to the crisis of conscience by those seeking to deny religious freedom is to play on popular emotional reaction to rhetoric. Is “religious freedom” good? Then “discrimination” is bad, and they hope for a stronger emotional reaction to that word. But the meaning of the word “discrimination” is to pick one thing over another, which is the essence of freedom. If there is no discrimination at all, then there is no freedom. But perhaps one only means to condemn “invidious” discrimination. As noted above, that means freedom must be set aside if others are offended, which is no freedom at all.

To see where right and justice lies, another word should be heeded, namely “conscience.” It is wrong to require action in violation of conscience, and that is what “civil rights” that protects homosexual behavior (as distinct from homosexual persons) involves. No one should have their private behavior protected from adverse judgment; to do so amounts to a discrimination against viewpoints, as the Georgia bill’s advocates claim.

The first objection the clerical group cited, the “common good” argument, is the worst, and the one that most clearly shows ungodly character of this clerical opposition. Among the most basic truths taught in Scripture is that our first duty is to God and his commandments. This is clear in the cases of Abraham (Gen. 22:1-24), of Israel’s many apostasies and the faithful remnants who suffered (Exodus through II Chronicles), of Daniel’s three friends who faced death rather than acquiesce in idolatry (Dan. 3:8-18), of Peter and the apostles who refused to be silent about Jesus when so commanded (Act 5:17-29), and of Jesus himself who would not disown himself as God and Messiah (Matt. 26:63-67); (Mk. 14:60-64); (Lk. 22:67-71); (Jn. 18:33-37). This is quite sufficient for all followers of Christ, and also should be sufficient for all of God’s creatures. Both believers and unbelievers are, in terms of God’s absolute justice, required to obey God unconditionally (Rom 1:29-32).

Our American and constitutional heritage of religious freedom is not specifically Christian, but acknowledges religious duty as the supreme moral requirement of everyone. This is most notably clear in James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” in which he states that:

“It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no mans right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance”.

Similarly, Madison’s proposed First Amendment to the United States Constitution of June 8, 1789, originally stated, said:

“The civil rights of none, shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.”

As noted by the present writer, American law gave approximately 3,000 exemptions to generally applicable law by the mid-1990s. It is nonsense to claim that protections for the religious conscience will lead to a religious state, or theocracy. While Christians do believe that a theocracy will prevail at the end of history, a regime of religious freedom precludes theocracy, since there can be no single religious system. What threatens is a secularism that denies liberty of conscience.

And denying liberty for the religious conscience is what secularists have in mind in the interest of their secularist utopia. In their utopia, opposition to their vision of the good life, which at the present time includes acceptance of consensual adult sexual activity and freedom from the fear of hellfire, is considered violence in itself, and cannot be tolerated. It is from this vision that social liberals determine what the “common good” should be for everyone, with any dissent labelled “divisive” or “discriminatory.”

Other objections, really threats, on the part of opponents of religious liberty include the possibility of lawsuits (by those trying to overturn the law in court, i.e., if we don’t get the legislative result we want, we’ll sue), and business retaliation against Georgia. Business retaliation did defeat religious freedom laws in Arizona and Indiana because Republicans in those states caved in, but not in North Carolina, where a similar law protecting the religious freedom of marriage officials was passed over the governor’s veto. Nor was religious freedom defeated in Houston, where a local sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) bill threatened to require access by both sexes to public rest rooms, and was overturned in a referendum.

Finally, although state and federal constitutions contain clauses which proclaim religious freedom, they are not effective in protecting liberty of conscience on sexual issues, because liberals use the belief/action distinction made by courts in some decisions against religious liberty (you can believe what you want, but you can’t act on it) to reduce religious liberty to a mere freedom to believe, no matter how sincere, important or intense the religious commitment is. Regrettably, the practicality of the current situation with respect to religious liberty is that these constitutional guarantees must be supplemented by laws protecting liberty of conscience against legal requirements.

Contrary to Georgia’s governor, legislators, and liberal clergy, both the Christian faith, which enjoins obedience to God, and the American liberal tradition, which supports conscience objection against what a citizen may consider immoral, mandate that marriage officials, as well as religious educational and social services, and, indeed, merchants providing goods and services to the public, be free to decline action which contributes to homosexual behavior. Legislators in Georgia, other states, and the United States Congress should respond to the crisis of conscience in sexual morality by enacting laws which protect people from being required to take actions they believe are immoral.


18 Responses to Georgia’s Religious Freedom Bills: Christian Duty and American Ideals

  1. Curt Day says:

    There is a significant difference between allowing religious institutions and ministers to refuse participating in same-sex weddings from letting businesses do the same. Whereas with religious institutions, such as churches, these are voluntary organizations that one can easily do with or without in public square. But such is not the case with businesses since the essentials and extras of life are supplied solely through the private sector in our economy.

    To allow a business to discriminate against a group, especially a group that has formerly been hurt by discrimination, not only enables the possible partial or ful deprivation of goods and services to those in that group, the discrimination itself furthers the marginalization of people in that group. It tells the people in that group that they are not good enough to be treated as equals in society so that society can in various ways quarantine them.

    Specifically, the allowing of businesses to refuse to provide goods and services to those from the LGBT community is to reintroduce aspects of Jim Crow only with a different target. And those efforts alone, let alone in conjunction with a failure to speak out against certain parts of the status quo such as our war/militarism/patriotism, destruction of the environment, and an economic system that furthers wealth disparity in this nation is providing unnecessary stumbling blocks to nonChristians which make them hostile to the simple preaching of the Gospel.

    And many of us don’t see these stumbling blocks because many of us feel entitled to practice discrimination against the LGBT community. It’s that feeling entitled to discriminate which causes us to see any pushback from society as persecution and an attack on our freedoms. The pushback is not an attack on our freedoms; it is a challenge to privleges we are assuming. Thus, we are becoming blind to what prohibits others from listening to the Gospel. And that is all because many of us feel that society should punish the LGBT community by not viewing those from that community as equals.

    • Mike Ward says:

      Forcing the ministers will be next.

      • Curt Day says:

        Mike,
        That is speculation. We will have to wait and see.

      • mitchw7959 says:

        Happily, the rector of our parish, who had known my now-husband and me for 13 years, didn’t need to be forced to celebrate a blessing of our marriage—with an assist from my uncle and godfather, who is also a priest in our denomination. In fact, they were excited to do so, and parishioners from our church, longtime friends from college, and our parents, siblings and cousins all joined us for a great day of love and joyful communion.

        The scenario that you envision is one of those vague, scary “slippery slopes” that, giving our country’s long-standing First Amendment case law, just isn’t going to happen. Sure, there are ongoing efforts within just about every denomination and faith tradition to develop a better understanding of LGBT people, and there will continue to be advocacy from within for inclusivity, tolerance, and celebration our lives.

        But that’s not any level of government forcing unwilling minsters to conduct same-sex nuptials, it’s the Holy Spirit speaking to God’s people.

        If it’s the possibility of losing tax-exempt status that worries you, then perhaps your hypothetical minister should take care not to violate long-standing laws about endorsing candidates or engaging in blatantly partisan political campaigns.

        • Oshtur says:

          Men do not have “husbands.”
          Your “marriage” is a silly sham.

        • Mike Ward says:

          All my life the Left has screamed that your just being an alarmist these things will never happen. And a few years later they always start demanding the things they swore before they would always oppose.

    • Phil Griffin says:

      Eventually those who object will shut down, or not enter, those services or businesses I suppose. I don’t see the benefit. There is unnecessary tension on this issue and I don’t think it has to be that way. There is room for compromise.

      • Curt Day says:

        Phil,
        There are two problems. The first has to do with the leftover attempts to have society marginalize those from the LGBT community. That must be resisted. The second problem is when each group only cares for its own concerns and tries not to listen to the other group.

    • RickPlasterer says:

      Curt,

      I’m glad you agree that clergy should not be required to perform homosexual weddings. This is widely held in society, but there are ways this right can be eroded (such as requiring the church, but not the clergyman, to provide space for the ceremony).

      On the right of conscience not to contribute to homosexual behavior in the public world, it has to be answered on two levels, our duty to God and to the state. As I noted in the article, to contribute to sin is sin itself (Matt. 18:7). Therefore to provide goods and services that contribute to homosexual behavior is itself sinful. It remains sinful, and due God’s punishment, even if the law of the state requires it. This should settle the matter for Christians (and of course, everyone is morally obligated to obey God).

      As far as the state is concerned, it is simply wrong at a moral level, and the free exercise of religion should support this at a legal level, to require action that violates one’s conscience. A professedly neutral state may have to forbid religiously required action, but never require religiously forbidden action.

      Your comments shows that you accept the basic claim of homosexual liberation, which is that an attack on homosexual behavior is an attack on homosexual persons. The merchants who have been taken to court, and the lawyers who have defended them, have carefully pointed out that they are happy to provide homosexual customers with flowers, personal photographs, cakes, lodging, etc., but not if these goods and services contribute to homosexual behavior.

      Yet the essence of homosexual rights, agreed to by the Supreme Court on down, is that homosexual behavior is what defines homosexuals as a community, and is thus due protection. But think about it, should personal behavior be protected from adverse judgment (i.e, discrimination)? If behavior can be claimed as part of personal identity, and is thus due the “liberty” and “equal protection” of the 14th amendment, the worst behaviors would have to be legal. That is, if we are being consistent and not picking and choosing whose personal behaviors to favor.

      I agree that Christian doctrine about homosexuality is painful. I believe that one of the reasons Christians are now in such a terrible position on this issue is that too much emphasis was put on changing the orientation of homosexuals and not enough of the difficulty of obeying God. And if we don’t have a homosexual orientation, there is still plenty of difficulty in obeying God and certainly in sexual matters. But this doesn’t mean that God is an oppressor, but that we are sinners.

      For the non-Christian world, it remains the case that painful truths are not wrong. I believe that evidence shows that homosexual behavior, being a misuse of sexual capacity, has destructive consequences, and that should be reflected in law and public policy. But it can’t be if it is a constitutional right, as the Supreme Court has declared. Even then, it remains morally wrong to require people to violate their consciences, and the free exercise of religion in the federal and state constitutions ought to support that.

      Rick

      • Curt Day says:

        Rick,
        IN terms of the public space, we will have to disagree. Religion cannot be used as an excuse to marginalize groups in society. Remember that what when a business provides goods and services to a person or legal event, it is not a sign of support. And if we were to be consistent here, then Christian businesses could only provide goods and services to weddings supported by the Scriptures. In addition, Christian restaurant and hotel onwers could not provide goods and services to any married couple, same-sex or heterosexual, that was not part of a Biblically supported marriage. Having done all of that, then any refusal to provide goods and services to same-sex couples could not be construed as discrimination. But if Christian businesses are providing goods and services to married couples who marriage, by the definition of the Scriptures, is adulterous, then refusing to provide goods and services to same-sex weddings and same-sex couples is discrimination.

        This view that we cannot engage with same-sex couples as business owners forgets a key issue: how we will share society with others. Are we going to share society with nonChristians as equals or are we seeking a privileged position where we use the law to gain some measure of control over nonchristians?

        Considering that according to Romans 1, homosexuality is a natural outgrowth of unbelief, I don’t believe that society is morally obligated to prohibit homosexual relationships and marriages. We certainly allow for the freedom of religion and Christian businesses do provide goods and services for other religions even though they are false religions. So why are we target homosexuals?

        Finally, to not provide goods and services to same-sex couples is nothing more than a return to parts of Jim Crow only with a different target. We do have a right to discipline people in the Church whose sexual behaviors are not biblical. But we have no right to do the same in society. And, in fact, to try to do so will only result in bringing dishonor to the Gospel. We need to stop focusing on our own “righteous” behavior here and look to serve others, including the LGBT community, because they deserve respect and because such an approach makes sharing the Gospel with them easier and more effective. For us to try to punish those from the LGBT community in society for behaviors that follow unbelief is to try to rule over society and to conflate, to some degree, the Church and the public square. And there is nothing in the Scriptures that justify us treating the LGBT community that way in society.

        • RickPlasterer says:

          Curt,

          While we could go on and on arguing, there are some points you raise that I feel should be replied to. The most basic point is that to contribute to sin is sin itself. Shortly after Governor Brewer vetoed Arizona’s RFRA in March, 2014, I posted an article discussing this (“No, Jesus Would Not Bake a Cake for a Homosexual Ceremony”). You might want to look at the article and see my reasons for saying that we must obey God in this matter, regardless of what the state requires.

          Do Christians provide things in the course of their jobs which contribute to non-homosexual sin? Yes they do, and it’s sinful. I don’t see for instance, how one could work at a movie theater given much of what’s presented at the movies, work at a gambling casino, or serve as a judge who grants divorces (as I said in the article I referenced). Here I think homosexual activists are correct in claiming discrimination. Do Christians sometimes service weddings which are in fact celebrating unbiblical, and therefore adulterous, relationships? Yes, but when a man and woman present themselves and say they want wedding services, you ask no question of conscience sake (I Cor. 10:25). If you know that the marriage is unbiblical, then of course you shouldn’t provide services.

          But conscientious objection is not discrimination, and is widely recognized in American law (as noted in the article we are commenting on). No one would require a vegetarian photographer to photograph a butcher shop, or a pacifist photographer to photograph a military celebration. But if behaviors can be protected in law, then butchers and soldiers are objects of discrimination in those cases.

          Because there must be adverse judgment against behaviors in society, the “Jim Crow” analogy does not work, even partially. It is people, not behaviors, that are due equal protection. Whites and blacks, men and women, have an immutable characteristic, and so discrimination against those categories is discrimination against persons. (Although I think only race should be an antidiscrimination category; sex is so fundamental to human nature there may be good reasons for sexual discrimination). But homosexuals have no immutable characteristic, only their behavior. No one in this controversy is refusing to serve homosexuals, they are only refusing to accommodate their behavior. And, of course, there are many merchants willing to accommodate their behavior, so there is no serious practical problem.

          Obeying God is not driving people away from Him or the Gospel, but demonstrating one of the things repentance means. And without repentance, we cannot come to Christ. Coming to Christ means coming with all of our lives, not just in private, but in the public sphere. Contrary to secularists, religious freedom in the public square will not lead to either chaos or theocracy. We have a long tradition of respecting liberty of conscience, and many accommodations. Only if the state has its own vision of the good life is there a problem for the religious conscience. President Obama’s recent State of the Union address made it clear that the state does have its own vision of the good life in saying that it should be public policy to make people disbelieve that what they were taught about homosexuality “is wrong.” That, indeed, portends persecution for the future.
          I do sense in your comments Christian commitment, please consider that the public/private separation of faith is neither Biblical, nor finally compatable with freedom of conscience.
          Rick

          • Curt Day says:

            Rick,
            So if contributing to sin is sin itself, then businesses should have the right to refuse to provide goods and services to anyone involved with sin whether that be heterosexual or homosexual sin. And Society itself should have laws that punish sin. BTW, this should also apply to those who worship false gods.

            Or we could understand that we have certain responsibilities to provide goods and services to people refardless of their heterosexual or homosexual, consenting adult relationships and let them be responsible for how they use our provisions.

            In the former, what you have eliminated is the freedom of religion in society. We are forever playing the role of the pharisee then as others will be doing the same to us. And the kind of society mentioned by Jesus and Paul when discussing Church discipline will never exist.

            Now tell me, how liveable is the society where its members are constantly disciplining each other according to their own religious codes by blocking access to life’s necessities? Is that what Jesus commanded us to do or did He tell us to use the preaching of the Gospel to counter sin?

            In the Church, the issue revolves around using the Scriptures as the final standard for judging behavior. But unless you want to undo the freedom of religion in our society, then the question becomes this: How will we share society with others? Will we share society with others as equals or will we deprive others of goods and services lest we become defiled by providing goods and services to these “moral lepers”? Is society required to punish these sinners lest it becomes defiled by their sin and merit judgment? Please remember here that during the days of Jim Crow, some segregationists used the Scriptures to justify their treatment of Blacks.

            I hope that the above enables you to see that not treating people as equals in the name of Christ can easily drive people from God.

          • RickPlasterer says:

            Curt,
            As I noted in my previous post, we could go on and on arguing, but I do want to emphasize that, regardless of what the state requires, Jesus clear words in Matthew chapter 18 indicate we are not to do anything that would cause anyone to stumble. In all societies, with whatever government requirements, we are to obey God, rather than men, and take the penalty if necessary, as many are now doing.
            Conscientious objection is not an imposition on anyone. This has long been recognized, and was noncontroversial until the arrival of sexual liberation. Christian businesses should be able to decline goods and services that contribute to homosexual or heterosexual sin, Muslim cab drivers should be able to refuse to transport alcohol, Catholic hospitals should not be required to perform abortions. It works. But not for people who want to impose their own vision of the good life, as the American left now does.
            Rick

          • Curt Day says:

            Rick,
            First, I fully agree that we are to do nothing that causes people to stumble. But note the conditions prior to each of French, Russian, and Spanish Revolutions. The Church supported wealth and power and thus the reputation of the Gospel suffered during and after each of those revolutions.

            Here the issue is different. The Church is not providing explicit support for or is silently complicit in protecting the sins of those with wealth and power. Rather, the Church has to decide how it will treat those outside the Church but inside society. Will we share society as equals with those who ard different? We currently do that in terms of recognizing other religions–that is we do that to an extent. But here, those of us who own or operate businesses have to realize that they are the only source for goods and services in a Capitalist economy. And to allow them to discriminate is to setup the possiblity that those in the group they are discriminating against can experience a partial or full deprivation of said goods and services because of their group affiliation.

            Right now laws are being crafted that will reintroduce a part of Jim Crow only with a new target. And those laws are being written so that those of us who represent Christ are the perpetrators of the discrimination. Now remember that you believe that we should not be providing stumblingblocks to those who would hear the Gospel. But it is too late for that. For the history of our nation, from the criminalization of homosexuality to the current effort to gain legal permission to discriminate against those from the LGBT community, too many of us have been fighting a battle against those from the LGBT community in order to prove our own (self-)righteousness by how we disassociate with these sinners and/or trying to marginalize those from the LGBT community

            Another way to put is to say that we rhave refused to share society with the LGBT community as equals. And really, there is no New Testament rule or example that supports such a refusal. Conservative Christianity is seeking a privileged place in society so that it can write society’s laws to ensure that those from the LGBT community will never be treated as equals. And again, we do this to prove our (self-)righteousness as well as try to get society to punish the LGBT community.

            See, our own efforts to prove how pure we are is standing on the shoulders of our conscience telling us to treat the LGBT community in one way while Biblical love is telling us to treat them in a completely different way. And too many of us are choosing the wrong shoulder for seeking advice.

            As for your analogies, treating those from the LGBT community with love is not comparable with being forced to perform abortions nor even with transporting alcohol. What you cited are actions while theses laws are targeting people.

      • mitchw7959 says:

        “Homosexual behavior, being a misuse of sexual capacity, has destructive
        consequences, and that should be reflected in law and public policy.”

        Please share with us what such reflections in law and public policy might be. State prosecution and/or imprisonment for homosexual conduct?

        • RickPlasterer says:

          mitchw7959,
          President Obama’s recent statement referred to in my reply to Curt Day is a good place to start. In claiming that the state should attack the belief that homosexuality is wrong, he attacked liberty of conscience. At the present time, the U.S. government, and other western governments, are spearheading a worldwide attack on conscience, both internationally and in domestic policy.
          If the same logic were applied to the use of hard drugs, such as heroine, we would have to say that the penalization of drug use is discriminatory, and hard drug use should be accommodated instead. Drug users, like homosexuals, form a definite subculture, suffer physical ailment from their behavior, and are the object of public hostility. So they would qualify for protection by arguments used by homosexual liberation. Such arguments may be advanced in the future.
          You are asking if the sodomy laws were just, and yes, they were just, and yes, they did result in suffering, but that doesn’t make homosexual behavior right. For our society today, and for other western societies, the most reasonable approach to homosexuality would be to treat it like smoking – discouraged, but legal.
          On the topic of homosexuality, the truth is painful, but the truth should be accepted by the state and society.
          Rick

  2. Kyle says:

    “Clergy Against Discrimination” ought to be honest and call itself “Clergy Against Christians.”

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