What does the term religious freedom mean to you? I’ve been trying to wrap my head around what it means to me for about two years now, ever since I began to understand the increasing penetration of the state into areas of conscience. Here are three notable examples, among many, of that growing phenomenon:
- A student chapter of The Christian Legal Society was denied any status on the campus of the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco on the basis that it would not forfeit its requirement that all members commit themselves to Biblical norms of sexual morality. The U.S. Supreme court ruled 5-4 that the group’s rights were not violated by a “take all comers policy.”
- A Christian wedding photographer in New Mexico was fined under the state’s “human rights act” for refusing to take the business of a same sex couple who wanted her to photograph their civil union ceremony.
- Tyndale Publishing Co., in what it calls “a deliberate attack on its and its owners’ consciences and religious freedoms," has filed suit against the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services Department mandate that all employers that fail to meet its definition of a religious institution must provide their employees with insurance that includes free contraception, including abortion inducing drugs. Tyndale is a Bible and Christian book publishing company founded to fund the Tyndale Foundation, a non-profit with a specifically religious purpose. It is the thirty-first privately held company or institution to file suit seeking relief from the mandate. Note: Crippling fines in the millions of dollars await companies that do not comply by the 2013 deadline.
A growing community of thinkers, policy makers, judges, and politicians – a community much larger than the current administration – believes that religious liberty should be confined to how we spend the eleven o’clock hour on Sunday mornings. Beyond those narrow limits our allegiances, and thus our obligations, are to the state and whatever the state defines as moral, and just, and fair. By that logic if you, as a Christian business person, choose not to hire someone living in an adulterous relationship to work in your bridal shop, or someone convicted of accounting fraud to work in your accounting firm, (both behaviors which the Bible condemns), you could be forced, by some as yet unwritten law, to hire them.
Matthew J. Franck, of the Witherspoon Institute, has summed up the issue in a brilliantly written piece that appears in the September issue of Imprimis, the magazine of Hillsdale College.
The right of conscience, then, is a right not to be compelled to speak or act as though what one knows to be true is actually false. For one has a duty to truth, and no higher duty than to the truth about the highest thing.
Franck then quotes founding father James Madison, from an address he made to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785, on the priority of our relationship to God over that of the state:
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, (meaning it precedes, comes before) both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.
Religious freedom is much more than what songs we sing on Sunday and where we sing them. It is much more than whose book we read, and preach, and teach from. It is the freedom of conscience to do, personally, and communally, in private life and public business, in professional practice and political action, what we believe God requires of us. This freedom and this duty precede any obligation we have to the State.
We are letting it slip away. We need to defend it.
For further reading: