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Religious Freedom: Under Assault?

Religious Freedom: Under Assault? February 29, 2012

Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a well-known attempt to find common ground without whisking away differences, has recently issued a statement on religious freedom. Read the whole statement here, but the paragraphs below are the paragraphs that document the threat against religious freedom today and the strategy ECT recommends. (There’s much to say about issues surrounding such a statement, but the issue under discussion today is not who has been omitted but is freedom under assault?)

Do you think religious freedom is under threat? Do you think this statement taps into history of oppressed peoples? of those who fought for freedom by suffering? What are the best strategies?

As the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has noted, Christians face harassment in more countries than any other religious group. In the words of the World Evangelical Alliance, Christians are “the largest single group in the world . . . being denied human rights on the basis of their faith.”

Overt persecution of Christians is widespread in many Islamic societies. Christians are murdered by radical Islamists in churches in Egypt and Iraq. Bibles are not permitted in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi national curriculum continues to teach students to “kill” Jews and apostates, view Christians as enemies, and spread the Islamic faith through “jihad”—a teaching it promotes by funding the distribution of extremist textbooks throughout the world. In some Islamic states, conversion to another religion is a capital offense. In Iran, a Christian pastor who refused to recant his faith has been brought to trial for apostasy. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws forbid any criticism, however mild, of Islam. Muslim persecution of Christians is not confined to one area of the world, for these practices can be found in Indonesia and northern Nigeria as well as the Middle East, North Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian subcontinent. Nor is it likely that the “Arab Spring” will lead to a springtime of religious freedom in the Islamic heartland and beyond. Indeed, if radical Islamists come to power, the situation of Christians and other religious minorities will become even more perilous.

Islamic societies are not alone in their persecution of Christians. The remaining communist states in Asia—North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and Vietnam—and “postcommunist” states such as Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan restrict religious freedom in their determination to control all aspects of social life. In India, Christians are persecuted by Hindu radicals who burn orphanages and schools for no reason other than their Christian sponsorship; here, too, conversion to Christ can be life-threatening.

Religious freedom is under assault even in countries where the language of human rights is part of the public moral vocabulary. In Canada, for example, Evangelical pastors have been fined by “human rights commissions” for preaching biblical morality in matters of human sexuality. In Great Britain, couples have been denied foster children because of their commitment to teach the young the moral truths inscribed in the Bible. In Poland, a Catholic magazine editor was fined by a court for speaking the truth about abortion. In these and other instances, coercive state power is being deployed to impose a secularist agenda on society while driving religious faith and practice out of public life.

By these and other means, “religious freedom” is reduced to a private lifestyle choice. In Europe and Canada, what amounts to state-established secularism erodes the exercise of full religious freedom by impeding the public witness of Christian communities. It also substantially threatens the free exercise of religious belief in preaching and catechesis.

In the United States, religious freedom is being encroached upon and reduced through the courts, in administrative policy, and in our culture. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), through the office of the solicitor general, recently challenged the longstanding interpretation of the “ministerial exception” to antidiscrimination and other employment laws in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. The legal arguments presented by officials from the executive branch of government would have dramatically reduced the constitutional protections that allow Christian communities to choose their ministers according to their own criteria. Fortunately, in a unanimous decision the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the ministerial exception.

While the Supreme Court has protected the right to determine religious leaders, the capacity of religious believers to form and sustain distinctive institutions is threatened today. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has proposed “preventive services” regulations that require provision of FDA-approved contraceptives, including abortifacients like Ella, and sterilization. These regulations threaten the religious freedom of insurers, employers, schools, and other religious enterprises that conscientiously oppose contraception and abortion. Limiting conscience protections to those in religious institutions that serve only their own members, as some have proposed, criminalizes the public witness of religious organizations such as Catholic universities and other religious social welfare institutions.

Administrative and regulatory policies pose further threats to religious freedom. Christian doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health-care providers are being put at professional risk by policies that compel all health-care workers to undertake procedures and provide prescription drugs that many of them regard as immoral.

We also note that the attempt to redefine marriage through coercive state power has already brought pressure to bear on Christian ministers, despite exceptions provided in legislation. Further, in no state where the redefinition of marriage has passed the legislature has the religious institution exception provided all the religious freedom protections needed for individuals and groups that oppose the legalization of same-sex unions in those states.

This, then, is their commitment section:

We live in the greatest period of persecution in the history of Christianity. In the twentieth century, noble martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko gave their lives for Christ amid a cloud of witnesses greater in number than those martyred for the Name in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history. That witness continues today in the self-sacrifice of men like Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian cabinet officer murdered because of his defense of the religious freedom of all of his fellow Pakistanis.

As Evangelicals and Catholics who seek to honor the witness of these and other martyrs, we pledge to work together for the renewal of religious freedom in our countries and around the world. We will resist the legal pressure brought on Christians in the medical profession, the armed forces, and elsewhere to participate in actions that they deem immoral on the grounds of both faith and reason.

We acknowledge that the state enjoys its own sphere of competence. But we remind the modern democratic state that it is a limited state. We applaud the United States Supreme Court’s decision to sustain the long-held ministerial exception. In the same spirit of concern for religious liberty, we ask that legislators formulate explicit conscience protections for health-care workers. And we counsel legislators to intervene and reverse the coercive efforts at the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies to mandate health coverage and adoption procedures that will force religious institutions to betray their foundational principles. In these and other areas, we must vigilantly defend religious freedom.

We also join together in asking our federal governments to defend religious freedom in conducting the foreign policy of the United States and Canada. We recognize the complexities into which such a commitment inevitably leads; we also see the evidence of history, which teaches that religiously free societies are better for their people, and safer for the world, than societies in which persecution is culturally and legally affirmed. Thus we call on our public officials to undertake prudent measures to advance the cause of religious freedom in full.

In all of this, we believe we are acting as Christians have been commanded to act, and speaking as citizens of mature democracies ought to speak. Our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and our baptism in the name of the Most Holy Trinity, compels us to defend the religious freedom of all who are created in the image of God. Our gratitude for the religious freedom that has been a hallmark of North America for over two centuries compels us to work to defend religious freedom in the United States and Canada, and to work for the religious freedom of others in all lands. For the sake of the common good, we, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, urge our fellow citizens and our public officials to join us in the renewal of religious freedom: to defend religious freedom for all persons and to guard against its erosion in our societies.

 

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