Why Christians must support religious freedom for everyone

Why Christians must support religious freedom for everyone

Indian Muslims shout slogans during a protest against the Chinese government, in Mumbai, India, on Sept. 14, 2018. Nearly 150 Indian Muslims held a street protest in Mumbai, demanding that China stop detaining thousands of members of the minority Uighur Muslim ethnic group in detention and political indoctrination centers in the Xinjiang region. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

The fundamental human right of religious freedom is under attack around the globe today like never before. While this disturbing trend should concern everyone, it should be particularly alarming for Christians, because a Christian worldview requires us to care about religious freedom — including the religious freedom of others.

Christians believe that God is sovereign over the affairs of man, but he also gives us the freedom to choose to follow him. Just as God provides all human beings that freedom, we must ensure that others have the same ability to decide their religious beliefs and live according to those beliefs (or lack of belief), whether the attacks come from governments forcing people to believe a certain way or nongovernment groups using violence or pressure to push people to adopt or abandon certain beliefs.

This understanding of the freedom that God has given mankind to make the most significant decision of life is why, as Christians, we must care about the plight of those suffering for their religious beliefs — even when those beliefs are very different from our own.

As the head of a Christian organization, I have the responsibility of advocating on behalf of Christians when their ability to freely practice their faith is inhibited by bad government policies or social pressure. It is essential work, and I will continue to highlight these issues.

Yet this same faith also compels me to defend the freedom of others. Advocating for the religious freedom of non-Christians, far from being incompatible with the Christian worldview, is actually required by it. The promotion of the fundamental human right of religious freedom is the product of a fully formed Christian worldview.

This is why, as Christians, we must care about the plight of those suffering for their religious beliefs — even when those beliefs are very different from our own.

My time as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has exposed me to a wide range of religious freedom concerns around the world.

Jewish tombstones are seen desecrated with swastikas in the Herrlisheim Jewish cemetery, north of Strasbourg, in eastern France, on Dec. 13, 2018. Dozens of tombs were defaced. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

In China, the government has detained over 1 million Muslim Uighurs and subjects them to Communist Party indoctrination, forced labor and torture. Increasingly violent anti-Semitic attacks against Jews are on the rise in France. In Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly face criminal charges for practicing their faith. Iran’s Baha’i community is attacked for its religious identity. Yazidis in northern Iraq have been hunted mercilessly by ISIS, all for simply what they believe.

These examples are all gross violations of the fundamental human right to religious freedom. In the face of such religious freedom violations and atrocities, it is my duty as a Christian to pray for these people and advocate for their religious freedom on their behalf.

Americans — and I would argue the entire world — benefit immensely from the religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution. At the core of the American experiment is the idea that a human being’s obligation to God is sacred and deserves protection from any encroachment of government power. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in many other countries, and the abysmal state of religious freedom has caused much suffering worldwide.

Not every country needs to adopt a government system like the United States. However, every country is morally obligated to protect the right of conscience of its citizens — and that means ensuring that people are not persecuted because of their religious beliefs, and are free to live them out in community with others.

That freedom necessarily includes the ability to change one’s faith as well as to share beliefs with others without fear of reprisal. Governments must adopt and enforce legal protections for people of all faiths, and societies must be sure to cultivate a culture of understanding and protection of religious freedom.

In the effort to promote international religious freedom, Christians must remain informed, advocate for policies protecting religious communities and submit these issues to God in prayer.

Religious freedom is not merely an American right. It is a human right that we are compelled to protect and promote for all people of all faiths everywhere.

(Tony Perkins is the newly elected chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and is also president of the Family Research Council. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY UNDER FIRE?: Supporters of religious freedom and against President Obama's HHS mandates on faith institutions rallied in front of the HHS building on March 23. New protest rallies led by Catholic and conservative groups are taking place around the nation. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)

Last Friday at noon, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Capitol Hill and at rallies across the nation to protest President Barack Obama’s health-care law and, specifically, the law’s mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Conservative politicians and activists led the charge, with leaders such as Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann declaring, “This is about, at its heart and soul, religious liberty. … We will fight this and we will win.” Bachmann’s battle cry represents a growing movement of religious conservatives who contend that the president’s plan violates their freedom and beliefs.

Growing up, I had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school until my senior year. As a result, I know first-hand the strong commitment to pro-life causes that many Catholics hold. For instance, as a choir member, it was an annual tradition for us to sing at the youth mass that occurred before the Right to Life March, a protest against Roe v. Wade. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty were topics that came up regularly in religion class. So it came as no surprise when I heard that 34 Catholic organizations have filed 12 federal lawsuits challenging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”).

Under the mandate, employers are required to provide access to contraceptive services as part of their health plans at no cost. However, as President Obama stated during a February 10 press conference, “[W]e’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish that right.” Knowing that many religious institutions oppose the use of contraceptives, originally all churches were exempted from the requirement. Now, that exemption is extended to any religious organization that has an objection to providing contraceptives; in those cases, the insurance company is responsible, not the organization.

To many people, including Christians, this sounds reasonable. So, why are Catholic organizations complaining?

The problem, they argue, is in the definition of “religious organizations.” In a lawsuit filed by Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., the plaintiffs state that the mandate requires religious organizations to satisfy four criteria.

• First, the organization’s purpose must involve teaching and sharing religious values.

• Second, employees must subscribe to the same faith.

• Third, the organization must primarily serve those that subscribe to the same faith.

• Finally, the organization must be a non-profit.

“Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms,” the lawsuit continues, “religious employers must plead with the Government for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious.’ ” Failure to adhere to the mandate could lead to penalties and fines. Since many Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, charities, and schools, employ and extend services to people of different faiths (and many people who claim no faith at all), it would be difficult to prove they are exempt from the mandate based on religion.

“If a group isn’t perceived as ‘religious,’ then they will be forced to provide drugs that violate their doctrine,” says Chieko Noguchi, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of the plaintiffs. “If the government can order us to violate our conscience, then what comes next?”

But don’t think that this is just a Catholic issue. According to the mandate’s opponents, it affects all Americans who profess to believe in God.

“One of the central missions of any church is supporting the less fortunate in our communities,” writes Lutheran pastor Joe Watkins in a June 3 editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “With this mandate’s redefinition of a religious institution, many charitable operations will effectively be driven out of business. Under the new law if you are a Lutheran charity and you provide help to or hire non-Lutherans, you cease to be a religious institution. The same goes for Catholics, other Protestant denominations, and all other faith-based organizations.” He also argues that this will not only impact all religious groups, but also those who are either influenced or helped by these groups, since more time would be dedicated to religious background checks for potential employees and clients.

“It is distressing that our government would opt for a coercive and unfair regulation that requires us to make such an impossible choice,” Watkins wrote. “As a church, we have always opposed the use of drugs and procedures that are abortion-inducing. … Under this new governmental regulation, though, just by simply following our beliefs, we will face penalties under law.”

Watkins isn’t alone in his critique of the mandate. Back in February, some 2,500 Catholic, evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and other religious leaders signed a letter asking the President to “reverse this decision and protest the conscience rights of those who have biblically based opposition to funding or providing contraceptives and abortifacients.” Also, the Catholic Church is planning to invite evangelicals for their upcoming event “Fortnight for Freedom,” which will take place the two weeks between June 21 and July 4 in order to bring attention to religious freedom issues.

In his speech announcing changes to the mandate, President Obama reflected on his first job in Chicago working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhood. “I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”

I am living proof of the positive effects of the faith-based organizations that President Obama described. I’m a proud, non-Catholic alumna of a Catholic school who understands why Catholics and their supporters are upset and concerned by the Affordable Care Act’s implications for religious freedom. By defining what a religious organization is, the HHS mandate could potentially hinder Christians from living out their faith with integrity. We, as Christians, are called to serve others no matter what. As a self-professed believer, President Obama should’ve recognized this.

What do you think?

Are Catholics and their conservative allies overreacting to the mandate or do they have a point?

NYC Churches Win Reprieve

SPEAKING OUT: Tianna Williams joined hundreds of others outside the Tweed Courthouse in New York Jan. 19 to confront the city on its controversial restrictions on houses of worship. (Photo: Christine A. Scheller)

Sixty-eight New York City churches that were evicted from public schools February 12 only missed one Sunday of worship in those schools before U.S. Chief District Judge Loretta A. Preska issued an injunction against the city’s Board of Education, saying that “losing one’s right to exercise freely and fully his or her religious beliefs is a greater threat to our democratic society than a misperceived violation of the Establishment Clause.”

“A law is not neutral if its object is to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation,” Preska wrote in the ruling that was issued Friday afternoon. “The policy also is not neutral because it discriminates between those religions that fit the ‘ordained’ model of formal religious worship services and those religions whose worship practices are far less structured.”

For example, she said under the current policy, a Catholic or Episcopal service could not meet for worship in a New York City public school, but a Quaker meeting or Buddhist meditation service that did not follow a prescribed order and/or was not led by an ordained clergy member could.

She cited new facts that document “excessive government entanglement with religion” and referred to the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, saying the court had “emphasized the wide berth religious institutions are to be given with respect to their core activities, including worship.” She also found that the BOE’s ban on religious worship services is “ineffective” in achieving its stated goal of avoiding a violation of the Establishment Clause.

“The objective, fully informed observer who passes by the Board’s schools and witnesses a wide variety of community groups meeting on weeknights, followed by a Jewish Friday night service, a Ramadan Saturday evening service, and finally a Sunday morning Christian worship service, could not reasonably infer that the Board was endorsing religion in its public schools. Rather, the informed observer would conclude that the Board opens its schools during non-school hours to a diverse group of organizations pursuant to a neutral policy generally aimed at improving ‘the welfare of the community,” Preska wrote.

The BOE did not show why less restrictive measures, like installing signs outside the schools “disclaiming endorsement,” would be ineffective in achieving its goal, she said.

Email communications presented for the first time between the BOE and the Rev. Brad Hertzog, pastor of Reformation Presbyterian Church, about his church’s latest application to meet at P.S. 173 in Queens demonstrated that the BOE did not take descriptions of the church’s proposed activities at face value, she said.

A BOE representative had pressed Hertzog to describe church activities like reading and studying the Bible, prayer, singing, and fellowship as worship. Hertzog said he could not do so because he did not know how the BOE defined worship.

“The email string attached to Hertzog’s declaration reveals the improper manner in which the Board inquires into religious matters and ultimately determines whether particular sectarian practices amount to ‘worship services,’ a determination that only subscribers to the religions themselves may make,” Preska wrote.

She said all organizations are required to certify that their activities are in accordance with BOE policy and thus certification should be “no different for the Boy Scouts than for a synagogue seeking to hold Torah study classes.”

“Apparently the Board only asks those organizations that plan to use the schools for religious purposes to certify compliance with the ban against religious worship services. These revelations certainly suggest that religious organizations are targeted throughout the application process,” Preska wrote.

The BOE “has evidenced a willingness to decide for itself which religious practices rise to the level of worship services and which do not, thereby causing the government’s entanglement with religion to become excessive,” she concluded.

Her ruling does not give houses of worship permanent access to New York City public schools, but allows them to keep meeting while the Bronx Household of Faith continues to pursue its case in the courts.

The church sought the injunction on Feb. 3, arguing from First Amendment violations it said had not previously been ruled on in the case. While 67 churches made other arrangements for Sunday services last week, the Bronx Household of Faith was issued a last minute 10-day reprieve that preceded this ruling.

New York City Council Member and pastor Fernando Cabrera said in a press release that he is “hopeful about the preliminary injunction,” and “believes it should push the New York State legislature to act.”

A bill that would effectively overturn the BOE’s worship ban passed the state senate earlier this month, but the state assembly version of the bill has not yet been brought to the floor for a vote.

“The New York State Assembly should wait no longer,” said Rev. Cabrera. “Speaker Sheldon Silver expressed concerns about the bill and now it is sufficiently evident that there are indisputable grounds to repeal this policy. The bill has 74 formal co-sponsors in the assembly, and others who support it. If it were brought to the floor today, it would pass.”

City attorney Jane Gordon told The Associated Press that the BOE will pursue another appeal. Gordon described Friday’s injunction as “inconsistent with the recent Second Circuit order and that court’s prior decision on the case’s merits.” The BOE will “consider pending applications from churches for school space this weekend,” AP reported.

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Defending President Obama’s Faith

Belonging Before Believing

Critics are once again questioning President Obama’s faith.

Questioning the President’s Faith

Yesterday, in an interview that was supposed to be about testimony at congressional hearings on the Affordable Care Act contraception mandate, MSNBC host Martin Bashir grilled Dr. Craig Mitchell, an associate professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, about a recent upsurge in attacks on President Obama’s Christian faith.

Bashir became incredulous when Mitchell said the president wasn’t the first to “have that charge leveled against him.”

“People do have their concerns and it’s not wrong for them to express those ideas,” said Mitchell. “What I know is that he says that he’s a Christian, so I have to take him at his word.”

“That kind of response is damning someone with faint praise,” Bashir replied as he pressed Mitchell again and again to affirm the president’s faith based on both his words and his deeds.

Speaking Up for the President

No one who knows the president would question his Christian faith, Florida mega-church pastor Joel Hunter said today on a press call that was designed to counter “escalating attacks on President Obama’s faith and engagement with the faith community.”

“I’m very saddened by that kind of evaluation because it’s obviously coming from a political stance rather than a personal stance,” Hunter said. He attributed recent comments by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and the Rev. Franklin Graham that cast doubt on President Obama’s faith to election year politics.

“When we get together, we don’t talk about policy or politics. We talk about his personal life, his family. We pray for the country,” Hunter said of his informal role as pastoral adviser to the president. “I often find myself thinking: I wish a good number of my congregation were as devoted to daily spiritual growth as this man is. So it really grieves me to hear people questioning his faith. I’m just sorry that it’s part of the political process.”

Actions Speak

Other religious and non-profit leaders on the call talked up the good works they’ve been engaged in with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Thabiti Boone, for example, praised President Obama for the Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative he launched in 2010.

Boone is the international representative for Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative and said his organization has been “on the ground since day one” with the president, working to strengthen families. Seven hundred Omega Psi Phi chapters have committed themselves to improving the importance of fatherhood, Boone said. They’ve done so by partnering with local fatherhood programs in their communities, identifying mentorship opportunities, and advocating with elected officials.

Boone is also a fatherhood advisor to the Allan Houston Foundation and said the foundation is working with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office in New York City to support the president’s initiative. Given Bloomberg’s intransigence on the New York City Board of Education’s decision to prevent religious groups from renting public school space for worship, UrbanFaith asked Boone if the mayor works with faith-based groups on the initiative.

“Yes, he’s working to increase opportunities of how does he connect and tie in with the faith-based community in New York City?” said Boone.

Relationships Are Stronger Than Ever

“The state of the federal government’s relationships with faith-based groups is stronger than ever. Common ground is sought and it is found. Religious freedom is respected and partnerships are being developed in record numbers,” said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president emeritus of the National Council of Churches.

She also said she appreciated the fact that President Obama asked the White House Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Advisory Council, on which she served, to respect religious freedom. She quoted the president as saying, “If we lose religious freedom, we lose democracy.”

Hunter, who worked with the previous administration’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, said, for President Obama, the office is “an expression of who he is as a Christian.” Hunter recalled a pre-2008 conversation he had with the president, in which they both agreed that faith communities are underutilized in solving the nation’s problems.

“When I did get to hear his testimony for the first time—this was well before he was president—I was struck by how much it involved service to neighbors and how his call to Christ was about helping out the poor and the vulnerable. That was just part of his understanding of what his faith was. And so, all of this work that is being done is not simply good government. It is also a genuine part of how he understands his own responsibility and his own faith,” said Hunter.

Mistakes Were Made

UrbanFaith asked if any participants on the call would concede that the administration had stumbled recently in its communication with religious groups and citizens?

Boone said that as he has traveled the country, speaking to churches and other faith-based groups about fatherhood and mentoring, he’s found increased interest in and support for the president’s programs.

Hunter said that from a white evangelical perspective, “The first iteration of the announcement on the contraceptive ruling was a stumble.” However, he said he appreciates the fact that the administration acted to correct its “mistake.”

Melissa Rogers, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former chair of the Faith-based and Neighborhood Advisory Council, agreed that the administration “did not strike the right balance with their January 20 announcement,” but affirmed the president’s decision to change course.

She said she disagrees with the administration on some church/state separation and religious freedom issues, but argued that it has “made important contributions to the furthering of religious freedom.” For example, Rogers said the Department of Justice has repeatedly “gone to bat” for houses of worship to prevent them from being zoned out of communities.

“That’s really spectacular work. It’s work of the first order in terms of promoting religious freedom. That work hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves,” said Rogers. “It would be a mistake to overlook very important achievements like the Department of Justice’s work to ensure that our religious institutions, that are so important to us, are able to locate across America in a way that does so much to further faith and to protect the religious freedom of the faith community.”

Time ran out before UrbanFaith could ask if, as critics charge, the administration is downgrading it’s support for religious freedom internationally.

What do you think?

Is the president’s faith fair game in an election year?

Obama’s Contraceptive Correction

COURSE CORRECTION: President Obama and Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during their Feb. 10 announcement of a compromise on the contraception mandate. The compromise was a response to the concerns of religious organizations that believe contraceptives violate their religious faith. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Newscom)

Last week, President Obama, along with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, unveiled a compromise agreement for implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). The president, of course, had been getting hammered by both his political friends and foes following a decision to not exempt faith-based organizations (other than houses of worship) from a condition in his healthcare reform requiring employers to cover their employees’ contraception costs.

The Obama administration claims that the compromise balances “individual liberty” and “basic fairness.” Individual liberty here refers specifically to religious liberty claims, especially those made by religiously affiliated organizations like Catholic Charities, hospitals, and universities. Basic fairness, by contrast, signifies groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-choice America, and other advocates who argue that a woman’s wellbeing hinges upon access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare, including contraception. The latter group further maintains that access to such care reduces health-care costs. Opponents generally concede the cost point, but balk at the idea that religious employers should be legally required to pay for or directly provide contraceptive services, an activity which contradicts papal doctrine within the Catholic Church.

President Obama’s compromise predictably attempts to solidify support from progressive Catholics and blunt the “war on religion” critique of political conservatives. Yet another question remains: how did Obama, who received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, so thoroughly misjudge the objections of his supporters, particularly Catholic ones?

One possible account is that Obama failed to gauge the consequences of implementing ACA based on a narrow definition of religious employers. Justice in healthcare markets is not simply a question of who gets coverage, of what sort, and who pays for it. It’s also about the moral significance and legal scope of religious exemptions from mandates within ACA. Under what circumstances are religious groups exempt from laws which bind other organizations? More pointedly, what exactly constitutes a religious employer?

Does it refer exclusively to houses of worship or are religiously affiliated colleges, universities, and social service agencies included? The Obama administration chose the “house of worship” definition, presumably thinking they arranged an acceptable balance between liberty and fairness. The immediate and intense response to their decision convinced the administration that their restrictive definition was perceived not as an attempt to ensure that all recipients of taxpayer dollars play by the same rules, but as an attempt to force religiously affiliated employers to pay for coverage that violates their religious convictions.

I doubt that the administration intentionally sought to marginalize religious liberty in implementing the new healthcare law. Obama, after all, is a Christian who, as he notes, started working in Chicago as a community organizer, paid by the Catholic Church to mobilize Catholic parishes. It would seem odd to undermine the religious liberty of the organization which helped refine his sense of public service.

Nevertheless, the administration apparently neglected to sufficiently consult the fragile coalition that made his ACA possible in the first place — one thinks of Catholic Health United, columnists like the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, and others.

In 2008, President Obama campaigned as an individual change agent who could transform partisan politics and the machinery of public administration. The reality is that, more often than not, politics is a reactive enterprise of elected officials issuing then clarifying public statements; implementing laws, then revising that process in response to organized money, organized people, and organized voices.

Obama initially struck the wrong balance between religious liberty and access to preventive healthcare, giving due attention to the latter principle and insufficient attention to the former. To his credit, he listened and corrected his misjudgment.

When the government upholds an important principle and simultaneously shortchanges the civil right to freely exercise religion, it is the responsibility of religious groups to petition the government for a redress of grievances. That responsibility, after all, is also a civil right.