Tampering With Freedom of Religion

But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever. —John Adams

President Ronald Reagan often called the White House a “bully pulpit,” meaning its power and prestige gave the president of the United States the ability to speak out on issues and influence policy. So when the current administration started substituting the phrase freedom of worship for the traditional freedom of religion, people started paying attention.

President Barack Obama has made this substitution frequently, as has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted the shift and complained about it in its 2010 report, despite the fact the USCIRF was created by and is reportable to the White House.

According to the USCIRF, the new language signals “concrete policy implications” for religious freedom because freedom of worship is “a much narrower view” of religious liberties.1 This is a critical point because the new phrase follows an international trend that differs radically from the religious-freedom principles in the First Amendment.

Under international law, worship is a limited right within a church body; it fails to include public evangelism. Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights articulates this “right.” It protects “teaching, practice, worship and observance” but overtly and explicitly fails to protect public preaching.

The UN’s 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance uses the same approach on matters of religion. Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms allows evangelism to be banned to protect “public order.” In 1997 the European Court of Human Rights used Article 9 to ban evangelical Christians in Greece from certain efforts to share the gospel.

Mistreatment for Faith-Based Groups
Along with changing freedom of religion to freedom of worship comes the stifling of faith-based organizations.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) has introduced a bill (HR 5466) dealing with substance abuse and mental health programs. It would prohibit all religious charities dealing with such matters from receiving federal grants “unless the applicant [faith-based group] agrees to refrain from considering religion or any profession of faith when making any employment decision.”

So a Christian drug-rehabilitation center for troubled youth, for example, could not partner with the federal government to turn those lives around unless the organization agrees never to consider the faith of prospective employees when hiring. This approach is exactly what then-U.S. Sen. Obama (D-IL) was talking about during his 2008 presidential campaign when he said any religious group—such as a Christian social service or humanitarian charity—“cannot discriminate” on the basis of religion in hiring practices if it applies for a federal grant.2

The position starkly contrasts that of the George W. Bush administration. Under Bush, the Department of Justice said that, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 1993 and amended in 2000, faith groups are entitled to apply for federal grants without being forced to hire unbelievers. This was done to counteract the dwindling protections for free exercise of religion afforded by Supreme Court decisions. Sen. Obama promised this policy would change under his presidency, and it is a promise that may well be kept.

Lest there be any question about where his administration stands, here is testimony from U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., Obama’s choice for that job. In a hearing May 14, 2009, before the House Judiciary Committee, Holder was questioned by Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-VA) and gave the following answer on behalf of the administration:

Mr. Scott….How can we therefore have a policy allowing people with Federal money hiring people and denying opportunities solely based on religion?

Mr. Holder….I think that we want to have Federal contracting done on a basis of ability, need, and without respect to religion….That is the kind of America I think this Administration wants to have.3

Helping to fashion that “kind of America” is Sonya Sotomayor, who replaced retiring Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter. She recently provided the all-important fifth vote that helped to create the slim majority that favored restricting the First Amendment rights of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) in Christian Legal Society (CLS) v. Martinez.

CLS had been denied official recognition as a student organization on the campus of Hastings College of the Law, a public institution that is part of the University of California. For faith-based reasons, CLS refused to allow unbelievers (practicing homosexuals in particular) to hold positions of leadership in the group. CLS said the action would violate its Bible-based mission and statement of faith. Hastings would have required CLS to bow to atheists, Muslims, and active homosexuals who wanted to run for officer positions in the ministry.

On June 28, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled against CLS. Justice Samuel Alito Jr., in his dissenting opinion, was blunt about the consequences of the majority ruling: The decision, he wrote, really means there is “no freedom for expression that offends prevailing standards of political correctness in our nation’s institutions of higher learning.”

Restrictions Against Religious Employers
In 2009 both houses of Congress introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009 (ENDA), which may mean that Christians who refuse to hire homosexuals, lesbians, or transvestites would face lawsuits that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. ENDA prohibits all but our nation’s smallest employers from refraining to hire people based on the “actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” of any job applicant or current employee. These bills have been a major agenda item for the homosexual movement and are still pending in Congress.

What about religious employers? A supposed “exemption” exists; but after analyzing the language, I am thoroughly convinced it provides little or no protection for faith-based employers. It fails to give any deference to the religious beliefs of any for-profit Christian employer, such as a Christian bookstore or Bible-based counseling center, and would also end up regulating many nonprofit Christian ministries as well.

During his campaign, Obama supported the ENDA model and endorsed it. And his support has not waned. In 2009 I testified against ENDA in both houses of Congress on behalf of my organization, the National Religious Broadcasters, reiterating my opinion that the religious freedoms of Christian organizations would be radically assaulted by this legislation.

ENDA supporters elicited the position of the Obama administration through the testimony of Thomas Perez, Obama’s new assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights. He boldly urged passage of ENDA. He also tried to allay fears about it by inaccurately downplaying its effect on faith groups. “Nothing in ENDA,” he claimed, “infringes on an individual’s ability to practice his or her faith, to hold and adhere to religious beliefs, or to exercise First Amendment rights of free speech on these or other issues.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Super Bowl Halftime
What are the prospects for reversing these disastrous policies over the next two years? Slim indeed.

I see the struggle over religious liberties as the Super Bowl of constitutional issues. We are at the halftime in this great conflict, and the score is against us.

In July 2010, the administration backed a gay-rights group for international acceptance (the first ever), helping the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission gain UN approval as an officially recognized, international, nongovernmental organization (NGO). This organization is reportedly so radical it has even publicly supported criminal penalties for those who oppose homosexuality.4 Clearly, Christians will be the first in the crosshairs if this outrageous approach is adopted.

Yet despite everything, it is good to remember that neither our fate nor that of America is determined by the cultural or political landscape. As Patrick Henry told our soon-to-be-born nation in 1775, we worship a God who is intimately involved in the affairs of state. In Richmond, Virginia, Mr. Henry thundered this reminder:

The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.5

Of course, the battles we face today over religious liberty are not fought with muskets and cannon shot; rather, they are great debates that require our perseverance, courage, the full engagement of our civic citizenship, and a Scripture-guided wisdom. There well may be “giants in the land.” Nevertheless, here is our resolve; and it comes from a source that far transcends Washington politics or earthly power: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lᴏʀᴅ your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9).

  1. Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, May 2010, 16-17 <uscirf.gov/images/annual%20report%202010.pdf>.
  2. Greg Baylor, “Sen. Obama & the Faith-Based Initiative,” The Center Blog, July 1, 2008 <religiousfreedom.blogspot.com/2008/07/sen-obama-faith-based-initiative.html>.
  3. S. House, Hearing Before the Committee on the Judiciary, 111th Cong., 1st sess., May 14, 2009 <judiciary.house.gov/hearings/printers/111th/ 111-83_49682.PDF>.
  4. Charlie Butts, “Obama backs ‘gay’ group at U.N.,” August 1, 2010 <onenewsnow.com/Printer. aspx?id= 1105652>.
  5. Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” March 23, 1775 <americanrhetoric.com/speeches/patrickhenrygivemeliberty.html>.

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