The governing body of the fast declining 1.4 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) last month passed an overture concerning religious freedom. The document denounced religious freedom protections for persons “[depriving] people of their civil and human rights to equal protection under the law”, using “’religious freedom’ to justify exclusion and discrimination.”
Presbyterian commissioners gathered for the biennial General Assembly June 16-23 in St. Louis. On the agenda were topics like gun violence, racism, and other social justice issues. Also present was the topic of human rights in relation to religious liberty. Members of the Social Justice Issues Committee asserted religious freedom has the means by which individuals “discriminate against or impose one’s views upon others.” In the resolution drafted as a response, the committee wrote “’religious freedom’ has become a weapon aimed at excluding, marginalizing, and discriminating against a vulnerable population.” The PCUSA has come to understand that the Church is “to be opposed to discrimination on matters of gender orientation and identity, and in support of freedom of the conscience in matters of reproductive rights.”
This view echoes what LGBTQ organizations and abortion rights advocacy groups have been saying. Instead of siding with religious freedom, as many U.S. religious bodies have, the PCUSA has sided with sexual progressives. Ironically, in the early 1990’s, the PCUSA endorsed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but the liberalized denomination, which has since abandoned its previously orthodox stance on sexuality, has backtracked on religious freedom. Clearly secular individualism and autonomy are, for the Presbyterian Church (USA), taking precedence over both historic Christian teachings and traditional respect for conscience rights.
Commissioners at the General Assembly tried to rationalize the document by highlighting cases they felt exemplified exploitation of religious freedom for discrimination. The Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Christian baker who declined to bake a gay wedding cake, was cited. In the committee’s view, the plaintiff, Jack Phillips, sought to “justify discrimination by cloaking it in constitutionally protected ‘religious freedom’.”
Presbyterians also claimed the Supreme Court Justices ruled unfairly in Burrell v. Hobby Lobby concerning the provision of contraception. The decision ruled private businesses cannot be forced to subsidize contraceptives and abortifacients if at odds with conscience and religious beliefs. Other cases cited included a 2016 Texas ruling by District Judge Reed O’Connor stating that “doctors could refuse to treat transgender persons as well as women who had previous abortions”. Also cited was an Illinois law stating Catholic charities could decline adoption to unmarried and same-sex couples. Several other jurisdictions have effectively forced Catholic adoption agencies to close because they won’t collaborate with LGBTQ. Presbyterians, in this case, side with governments against the church.
The Social Justice Committee “concluded that no form of discrimination is defensible on religious grounds.” For the committee’s supposed theological basis for this idea, they wrote that “the fundamental principle of universal human dignity rests on the biblical foundation that humankind is created in the image if God (Gen. 1:27).” The intent was to put biblical weight behind the idea that not to perform certain tasks or condone certain activities means to deny the image of God that is in each person.
In its simplest form, the Presbyterian Church (USA) overture claims Christians and others should comply and participate in any activity asked of them by the state and wider society regardless of whether or not it goes against religious beliefs. If Catholics are asked to provide insurance policies that include contraception, according to the PCUSA, they should provide it. If pastors are asked to perform a homosexual wedding, they should, without question, do so. Religious hospitals and personnel, regardless of mission statements or personal beliefs, should perform abortions.
The Presbyterian Church USA purportedly strives to balance religious freedom while retaining “equal respect for the dignity of all persons.” Now, almost certainly, the commissioners would respect the rights of religious pacifists to refuse service in the military, or for religious persons to refuse collaboration with immigration and border policies they deem unjust. Rather, it appears the Presbyterians refuse religious freedom primarily when it’s contested by the ongoing and expanding demands of the now 50 year old Sexual Revolution.