Christian Liberty in Crisis

Note: This story was previously published at the website, solasociety.com, however, I decided to republish it here as well in its entirety.
Recent years has found clashing worldviews to be garnering its share of media attention, political discussion, and private outrage. With elevated concerns about protecting personal interests and beliefs people across the United States commenced both informal and formal studies about the issues concerning them. Therefore, it is not surprising to know that the United States government performed its own studies, releasing their own findings and recommendations.
That report landed like a bomb . . . only it failed to explode. Rather than a design flaw, that may have actually been the intention: to leave as little impact and residual wake as possible. The report was released last week with an infinitesimal amount of attention. The reason being that tightly packaged within the confines of the report are premises with the potential to undo the core of the constitution and unleash the anger of conservative, evangelical Christians.
The report, entitled “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties” was the result of the work of the United States Commission on Civil Rights and was released on September 7th. From cover to cover, it is 306 pages and encapsulates the ‘work’ of commissioners who are appointed by the president to provide information regarding national civil rights policies and laws. Originally established in 1957 as part of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, the commission has found itself being reauthorized (the last time being 1994) and its powers expanded over the years.
What You Should Know
After a number of court challenges and opinions being released in regards to the conflict between government imposition (Affordable Care Act), (perceived) discrimination, and religious liberty, the commission engaged its power to conduct its own study. That study resulted in the report that we now have today. Its summation is found in its five recommendations:
  1. Overly-broad religious exemptions unduly burden nondiscrimination laws and policies. Federal and state courts, lawmakers, and policy-makers at every level must tailor religious exceptions to civil liberties and civil rights protections as narrowly as applicable law requires.
  2. RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act), protects only religious practitioners’ First Amendment free exercise rights, and it does not limit others’ freedom from government-imposed religious limitations under the Establishment Clause.
  3. In the absence of controlling authority to the contrary such as state-level, RFRA-type statute, the recognition of religious exemptions to nondiscrimination laws and policies should be made pursuant to the holding of Employment Division v. Smith, which protect religious beliefs rather than conduct.
  4. Federal legislation should be considered to clarify that RFRA creates First Amendment Free Exercise Clause rights only for individuals and religious institutions and only to the extent that they do not unduly burden civil liberties and civil rights protections against status-based discrimination.
  5. States with RFRA-style laws should amend those statutes to clarify that RFRA creates First Amendment Free Exercise Clause rights only for individuals and religious institutions. States with laws modeled after RFRA must guarantee that those statutes do not unduly burden civil liberties and civil rights with status-based discrimination.
What does that mean to the casual reader? Religious freedom does not guarantee the freedom to practice religious belief (see especially point number three). Instead it is restricted by the activities of a secular society. That’s obviously my paraphrase and certainly comes out of my own biases. However, based on what the report reveals, I don’t think it is out of line.
While the main report is relatively short, it contains auxiliary information that is more telling than the report itself. Perhaps the most revealing part of the report is that it comes with statements sanctioned or directly written by every member who sits on the civil rights commission. Following the report are also rebuttals and information offered up by 11 different panelists, mostly consisting of ethics and civil liberty lawyers and teachers.
What You Should Learn
For those concerned about religious freedom, the report should raise a number of concerns because the findings and recommendations are far-reaching. In fact, without limitations and push back, it is not out of line to see the door open to repealing the First Amendment of the United States of America (to further consider the weightiness of that, if we have the freedom to repeal the first and most fundamental of guarantees, and truly very basis for this country’s existence, it would take much less to repeal any of the others). While that concern should be the overarching basis for analyzing this report, there are five distinctive lessons that come out of reading the report:
  1. Lack of Newsworthiness: The fact that this story is not a story at all is alarming. I confess my personal knowledge of it comes from Dr. R. Albert Mohler’s discussion of it today on The Briefing. Between his own work and the work of his research assistants, Mohler is the preeminent source for noteworthy news, and it still took a week before they caught on to it. What is being discussed here is monumental in terms of freedom and religious liberty, and the fact that it is not in our headlines says a lot.
  2. Lack of Definition: Throughout the entire report, panelists and commissioners repeatedly refer to the constitutional language of ‘inalienable rights.’ The problem here is that the term ‘rights’ lacks any clear definition. A term that once carried a specificity to what it included, it has been generalized to include anything and everything. There are no privileges anymore; everything falls underneath the definition of right and deserved. We see this in the redefinition of marriage. Marriage to society is a right guaranteed to them according to its own standards, when in actuality it is a privilege granted by God to create a greater picture of God’s character.
  3. Lack of Understanding: Even the makeup of the panel is interesting to note. Of the eight-member panel, four are democrats, three our declared independents, while only one is a republican. All of the democratic and independent members have been appointed by President Obama, while the republican was appointed by President Bush. I’m not criticizing the process. Every president is free to appoint who he chooses and political affiliation is no guarantee of stance on issues. However, the president has made his own position on Christianity clear (remember his inaccurate comments about Christians being the cause of a number of wars?). So it would not be unreasonable for this group to follow his lead. But the makeup of people reveals even more, and not just on the commission, but in regards to the panelists as well. Each individual has a respectable pedigree in his or her own right. Many teach or practice law in the realm of civil rights. However, not one of them expresses religious belief. This is crucial because how can one accurately assess a situation about religious liberty without being overtly religious? They have no understanding of the issues at hand.
  4. Lack of Impartiality: The most shocking statement comes from the chairman of the group, Martin R. Castro. While others spent pages defining their positions, Castro writes the following and nothing more:
The phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamaphobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance. 
Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over civil rights and civil liberties of others. However, today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see “religious liberty” arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of “state rights”) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans. This generation of Americans must stand up and speak out to ensure that religion never against be twisted to deny others the full promise of America (pg. 29 of the report, which is linked below).
First off this statement offers genuine support about the misconceptions and sheer lack of jurisprudence given to understanding religious issues. Furthermore, this statement is coming from the chair of the commission. He is the man who has been placed in charge of a group of individuals to uphold the mission of the civil rights commission which states that it was established as “an independent, bipartisan, fact-finding federal agency . . .”. [1:http://www.usccr.gov/about/index.php] Those statements serve as a clear indication that this commission is not merely biased, but is deeply-rooted in an specific agenda.
  1. Lack of Regard for Christianity: While a lack of impartiality no longer surprises Christians, Castro’s statements confirm something even greater: There is a war against Christianity. On page 167 of the report, Commissioner Peter Kirsanow points out that Castro has singled out Christianity in his own response. This is a scary thought, because Castro is not saying that the issue is about stifling religious freedom, but about stifling Christians. What’s interesting about this statement, is that Castor is tasked with leading a group of people whose goal is to ensure nondiscrimination, and yet his very means of doing so is through discrimination. He is guilty of engaging in the very hypocrisy that he accuses Christians of.
In many ways, these five points are not surprising. What is surprising though is the lack of care in shielding the bias of the members and the devaluation of people with a religious heritage.
What You Should Respond
Reading such a report has the propensity to raise the fear level of Christians to frightening degrees. It is understandable because of what is at stake for so many. As a result of this fear the tendency of many usually results in one of two extremes: do nothing or do everything. Some will want to rush out, sounds the alarms, and raise the troops in order to wreak havoc upon this injustice. While others will want to disregard as something that is untenable.
As Christians though, certainly there is something we must do, but with a degree of civility and respectability, right? Of course. The Lord reveals through Paul to Timothy that people will come to this point (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-4). He also tells us to stand firm and give a defense (1 Peter 3:15). So I would suggest to you our response can be summarized with three words:
  1. Trust: First, is simply to trust God. The Lord reigns over the earth (Psalm 47:2). With a great plan from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) the Lord orders all things (Proverbs 16:4). Our trust should not be placed in human authorities but in the plan that the Lord has set in motion. We are dependent upon Him in all things, and that includes depending on Him in uncertain times.
  2. Test: Second, I would suggest that we should always be testing what is said to determine if it is truth. In the midst of false teaching John instructs believers to be on guard and test all things in order to know the truth (see 1 John 4). While what is being said here is very blatant, we didn’t get to this spot overnight. It comes from years of undermining Scriptural truth. Therefore, we must always be discerning to it.
  3. Testify: Finally, as Peter wrote in his first epistle, it is important to give a defense. We see Peter and Paul do this repeatedly through Acts. Perhaps the greatest defense of God’s truth is found in Acts 7 as Stephen declares the realities of God prior to being stoned. The circumstances are not always conducive for testifying to the truth, but the instruction remains. Even Paul in the midst of being in prison for proclaiming the truth encourages Timothy to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:1-2).
It is not our place to be scared into submission to the culture, but instead it is our place to be strengthened into service to the Christ. We have security in our Lord; not a security that encourages us to act foolishly, but to declare truth in a manner that is consistent with the character of God. It is a weighty task, but one that comes with backing from God through the Holy Spirit.
Links for Further Study:
  1. For a look at the complete report click the following: http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/Peaceful-Coexistence-09-07-16.PDF
  2. For more thoughts, consider listening to Dr. Al Mohler’s The Briefing on September 15, 2016 here: http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/09/15/briefing-09-15-16/