Columnists > Voices

Losing liberty

Religious freedom is under attack in the Western democracies-and in the name of human rights

Issue: "Passing the Olympic torch," Sept. 4, 2004

At a time when Christians are murdered in the Middle East, imprisoned in China, and enslaved in northern Africa, it may seem strange to worry about freedom of religion in America and the West. Though American Christians are a long ways from being overtly persecuted, the right to the free exercise of religion is nevertheless being chiseled away. And though religious freedom has been considered foundational to all other rights, ironically, the new assaults on religious liberty are coming in the name of human rights.

Outlawing religion can be done in two ways: by restricting what a religious group teaches or the way its followers live out their faith, or by requiring actions that go against a religion's teachings. Consider three cases:

• Authorities in Sweden jailed a pastor for preaching that homosexuality is immoral and a violation of biblical teaching. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 30 days in prison for violating Sweden's law forbidding "hate speech" against homosexuals.

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The Pentecostal pastor Ake Green is said to have forced the issue, announcing that he would break the law again, inviting authorities to hear his sermon, and sending them a tape when they did not show up. Still, the fact remains that a minister was arrested and imprisoned for preaching a sermon in his own church. Canada has passed a similar law, and gay activists are promoting hate-speech laws for the United States.

• The California Supreme Court ruled in March that Catholic Charities must include contraceptive coverage in its health-insurance plans for employees, even though birth control violates Roman Catholic teachings. California law exempts churches from its contraceptive mandate, but the court ruled that a parachurch organization is not a church. The decision was upheld on appeal, but it now goes before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Twenty other states have similar laws. Most include "conscience clauses" exempting church bodies, but some do not. Wisconsin has no such law, but state attorney general Peg Lautenschlager issued a ruling that mandates birth-control coverage anyway. Her ruling specifically includes the "morning-after pill," which induces abortion, and does not exempt churches and pro-life organizations. The attorney general's action will have the force of law if approved by a court.

Meanwhile, pro-abortion groups are working to require insurance plans to cover abortions. NARAL and the ACLU are also trying to use the courts to force Catholic and other church-related hospitals to actually perform abortions, arguing that if they take federal funds they may not "impose their religious beliefs" on patients who want to abort their children.

• Organized efforts are underway to punish churches that become involved in conservative politics by taking away their tax-exempt status. In Kansas, the pro-gay-marriage Mainstream Coalition is sending teams to churches in an attempt to nail any pastor who preaches politics by turning him in to the IRS. Many churches are already under investigation, including those of Jerry Falwell and Ronnie Floyd, whose First Baptist of Springdale, Ark., is the biggest congregation in the state.

The IRS code prohibiting churches from engaging in partisan political activity dates from 1954, when Sen. Lyndon Johnson inserted the provision in order to silence one of his critics. So far, it is being very selectively enforced. Democrats regularly use black churches for rallies and registration drives, to the point that candidates often give political speeches as the Sunday morning sermon. Only conservative churches are threatened for what a pastor might preach from the pulpit.

What should Christians do to protect religious liberty? Legal threats have legal remedies. Hate-speech bills that criminalize moral judgments must be defeated. A bill called the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act would protect the right of hospitals, insurance companies, and other healthcare providers to refuse to commit abortion. It easily passed the House but is bottled up in the Senate. Passage depends on electing more Republican senators. A bill called the Safe Harbor for Churches Act would loosen restrictions on churches speaking up about politics, but it was killed in the House. Another bill, the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, would remove the restrictions entirely.

Protecting religious freedom will mean forming strategic alliances. Even Christians who have no problem with birth control should support the right of Roman Catholics not to be coerced into violating their own teachings. Even Christians whose theology rejects the preaching of politics from the pulpit should support the right of other churches to preach whatever they want. And notice how much protecting religious freedom will hinge on the next election.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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