Why Religious Freedom Matters

on November 1, 2019

Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty discussed his new book “Free to Believe” at the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 29. The book was written to inform Christians in particular and the general public as well concerning to true nature of the religious freedom guaranteed by the American constitution and legal tradition. He believes both audiences often lack the background for proper understanding and focus on the topic, which is really the foremost topic in the nation. At issue in most cases is the claim that religious individuals or organizations are legally required to violate their religious beliefs.

He began by noting a meeting with religious institutional leaders in 2014 in which he said “the sense fear was palpable.” He observed “a lack of knowledge” about religious freedom as a legal doctrine by these Christian leaders. They also seemed to have no adequate understanding of how to engage the issue of religious freedom theologically.

In his book Goodrich attempts first to explain “why religious freedom matters.” Although many believers think of religious freedom first as a legal or political issue to be won, the first concern should be why it is right. He noted “stories in the Bible where people were commanded to do things in violation of their conscience.” It is part of the Biblical doctrine of creation that “we are made for a relationship with God,” and so people desire a transcendent reality. When the state “interjects itself” between God and his creature, it is guilty of injustice.

For the wider world, he cited the statements of the American founders that the constitutional order requires “a moral people.” Religion, they held, generates the “moral virtue” necessary for a free society. It also inspires and produces much educational, medical, and charitable work. Additionally, religious freedom is “the foundation for all our other rights” because it concerns something in the heart of human beings “that the government is not allowed to touch.” All other freedoms from state authority found in the Bill of Rights flow from this idea. Finally, religious freedom is needed in itself because it is part of the human search for “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” The imperatives of conscience result from this.

Goodrich sees real threats to religious freedom in America in five areas. These include “religious autonomy,” which is now felt especially by campus ministries in universities, which may be denied freedom to determine their leaders and membership. Religious schools (despite the Hosanna Tabor decision in 2012 that religious instruction is free of the antidiscrimination regime) face lawsuits concerning employment, even where employees have signed agreements to conform to religious teaching. This, he said, is not true of nonreligious organizations, which do not face antidiscrimination lawsuits from employees who disagree with their core commitments.

A second area of threat to religious conscience is abortion, where there is an attempt to require that abortion be socially acceptable, making conscientious objection by health care providers illegal. He said that the Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor decisions were victories at the Supreme Court, but there continue to be lawsuits contesting this area.

Thirdly, homosexuality continues to advance legally, with acceptance of homosexuality required in more and more areas. Here too, what is really sought is social acceptance. Personal and organizational decisions by religious parties that involve an adverse judgment against homosexuality are subject to private lawsuits and government policies forbidding such decisions. This can affect the ability of religious parties to obtain and retain professional licensing, accreditation of schools, and tax exempt status of nonprofits. Contracts and grants to religious organizations can be denied because the organizations have policies against homosexuality. Even in areas such as foster care, where religious organizations may provide excellent and much needed service, antidiscrimination objectives take priority. Prohibiting discrimination against homosexuality is based on an analogy with racial discrimination, which is prohibited because it is regarded as morally repugnant. The audacious effort, then, is to practically declare traditional sexual morality morally repugnant with the force of state law. In the end, Goodrich maintains, the government must find a way to respect the dignity of people on both sides.

Two other areas include minority religious groups, and the public expression of faith. Regarding minority groups, Goodrich believes that “many Christians … have done quite poorly in this area.” He said that simple self-interest should mandate concern for the freedom of different religious groups, since that is what protects one’s own religious freedom. The Hobby Lobby decision, important to traditional Christians, was justified in appeals court by analogy to an earlier decision protecting a Muslim prisoner’s dietary requirements. By contrast, the denial of religious freedom to Indians in the ceremonial use of peyote in the landmark Employment Division vs. Smith case in 1990 had a devastating impact on Christians.

Finally, faith in the public square has been an issue for decades, as religious monuments on public property and prayers at public events have been attacked. Here state neutrality is the key, he said. The state should neither promote nor “show hostility toward” particular religious groups.

In thinking and acting with respect to religious freedom, Goodrich said that Christians should “re-acquaint ourselves” with the Biblical message to the church under persecution. This message is an admonition to faithfulness, joy even in pain, and love of enemies. Additionally, focus on religious mission, employment practices, and awareness of possible risks are called for in the current environment.

This writer would observe that while there is greater awareness of the threat to religious freedom, affluence, the continuance so far of church life relatively unchanged, and hostile framing of the issue by the news media all contribute to a lack of focus on a life and death struggle for traditional Christianity which only gets more intense with time. The energy against religious freedom is driven by pain and resentment against the hard demands of the Christian faith, first and foremost its sexual morality, but behind that resentment at the narrow gate of doctrine and practice to life in God. The effort on the part of many in society to have the state guarantee a good life for everyone necessarily conflicts with religious faith, which addresses the meaning and value of life.

Maintaining joy in times such as ours and particularly love of enemies, as Goodrich admonished, may not be easy. But it is among the Scriptural mandates, and in contemplating the God of Scripture, it more easily becomes real.

  1. Comment by Jim on November 2, 2019 at 9:09 am

    I can love my enemy by helping in a time of need. I can love my enemy by refraining from doing him harm. I need not nor should not cease from efforts to stop my enemy’s attempts to inflict harm upon my fellow Christ followers. Too often Christians mistake the loving of their enemy as a mandate to avoid confrontation at all costs. If that were true, John the Baptist would’ve lived a long life.

  2. Comment by John Schuh on November 5, 2019 at 9:55 am

    A lack of leadership is the problem when so many Christian leaders equate faith and social justice.

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