America has not always enjoyed freedom of religion. In 1773 Isaac Backus wrote his Appeal to the Public where he detailed religious oppression going on in Massachusetts. The legislature required each town to maintain pedobaptist (infant baptism) worship. The minister was elected by a majority of the people and paid by taxes levied on the whole population. Backus’ complaint was that truth should not be decided by a majority vote – since Christ said there were few on the narrow way (Matthew 7). Those whose consciences would not allow them to support the minister were often imprisoned or had their property seized.
When Thomas Jefferson was elected President, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote him concerning religious liberty in 1801:
Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty – that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals – That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions – That the legitimate power of civil governments extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.
They were concerned the new Constitution was not specific on religious liberty and needed to know if Jefferson would support their freedom or allow their oppression. Jefferson wrote back to the Danbury Baptists his famous separation of church and state letter:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
Jefferson did not banish religion from the public arena. He wrote to assure Baptists they would not be taxed, imprisoned, or maligned for failing to support a religion in which they did not believe.
In the 200 years since Jefferson wrote his letter, religious liberty has thrived in the United States. While America’s record has not been perfect, it has arguably been one of the best. However, in our own time, Christians may be watching the slow death of religious freedom.
On December 9th, the Wall Street Journal reported the case of Chuck and Stephanie Fromm who were fined $300 for hosting Bible studies in their home. The city of San Juan Capistrano claimed they had violated a city ordinance which prohibits groups of three or more from gathering without a permit. The cost obtaining such a permit can be as much as $150,000. Similar cases have appeared in San Diego, Florida, and Michigan. So far these permits have not been enforced on football parties or book clubs.
The Christian Legal Society lost its recognition as a student group at UC Hastings College of Law because it failed to abide by the school’s anti-discrimination policy. In 2004 the group declared they would not accept gays, lesbians or any members not adhering to Christian beliefs. They lost funding, meeting spaces, and their spot on the school’s website. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled 5-4 against the Christian Legal Society because they did not accept “all comers.” Justice Alito, in the dissenting opinion, noted the school’s policy had been used against only 1 out of 60 student organizations – the Christian Legal Society – and that public institutions now have “a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups.”
This fall Vanderbilt University decided to ban Christian organizations including Beta Upsilon Chi, Graduate Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society, Intervarsity, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The school adopted a policy that prohibits student organizations from holding members to any standard of belief or behavior. The issue ignited when Beta Upsilon Chi dismissed an openly gay leader. School administrators are remaining firm on the ban; no word yet if their policy of not holding student organization members to a standard extends beyond Christians. Fifteen Intervarsity Christian Fellowships have faced similar difficulties with school administrations in the past year.
Meanwhile, Catholic charities are losing funding for their adoption, foster care and human trafficking operations because they refuse to provide abortions and contraceptives and to work with homosexual couples. Rather, funds are diverted to other agencies despite the superior effectiveness of the Catholics.
In New York, over 60 churches will lose their meeting space in public schools next year after the Supreme Court refused to hear their case. While the majority of these churches maintain excellent relationships with the schools, paying rent on time and cleaning up after worship, they will have to leave because officials fear the presence of churches will influence public school children. As one Brooklyn city official commented, “It’s ironic that the Ku Klux Klan can meet freely in public schools but churches….are not allowed.”
There is probably not an all out war on religious liberty in America. What we see are the effects of a shift in the way the culture – especially elites such as politicians, professors, and pundits – views the world. For them, truth is not ultimately found in sources such as the Bible or science but in the individual who determines what is true for him or her. Thus, judgments religion makes about behavior or belief are seen as harmful and destructive; even if those beliefs are not forced on others but merely shared. While religion doesn’t force itself on Americans (no one is forced to believe) the opinions of the culture are being forced on religion. Believers are told their views are unacceptable and find their meeting spaces, funding, and positions being stripped from them.
Christians must obey Jesus in Mathew 10:16 where he told us, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” We must be wise and stand for religious liberty. We cannot thoughtlessly cast votes but must inhabit places of cultural influence and use political and legal means at our disposal. We must be innocent, at times turning the other cheek and accepting injustices against the church for the sake of our witness. Jesus says later in Matthew 10:32, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven.” Therefore, we must not compromise what we believe for the sake of changing cultural winds.
Liberty doesn’t disappear overnight; it is slowly stolen away piece by piece. Christians need to wake up from college campuses to Capitol Hill. We dare not compromise and we must guard our witness in our communities but like the Danbury Baptists, we need not go quietly.