Last year marked a setback for religious liberty in the United States, and 2016 promises more challenges for the cherished freedom, according to the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy entity.
Much of the blow in 2015 to what is often referred to as America’s “first freedom” came through advances by same-sex marriage and non-discrimination policies for sexual orientation and gender identity. The struggle between religious liberty and sexual liberty appears destined to continue this year and beyond.
Religious freedom’s status as “the next frontier of the culture war” is “nothing less than tragic to our constitutional order,” said Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “Only a few years removed from being a revered topic of consensus, religious liberty is now frequently scare quoted and dismissed by media figures as a ‘license to discriminate.’“
As a result, Walker wrote in a Dec. 28 post for the ERLC’s Canon and Culture blog channel, 2015 “will long be remembered as a momentous time of change for religious liberty in American history. And unless the course is reversed, religious liberty will continue its descent.”
The events of 2015, ERLC President Russell Moore said, offered a reminder of the crucial nature of religious liberty and the significance of seeking to protect it.
“It is mandatory that conscience freedom be protected from both government overstep and the pressures of cultural conformity,” Moore said in written comments.
“Christians in particular must model the championing of religious liberty by rejecting the angry pandering of some politicians and advocating on behalf of all, especially the vulnerable and uprooted,” he said. “Only by championing religious liberty for all can evangelicals embody our theology of what it means to be made in the image of God.”
Among the challenges to religious liberty in 2016, Walker wrote, will be:
A Supreme Court decision on the objection by religious, nonprofit organizations to the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate;
The election of a new president, whose judicial appointments will “dictate the future of religious liberty jurisprudence for generations to come;”
The effort to force Congress to consider “problematic causes” such as the Equality Act, which would establish “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected classes under civil rights law.
The Equality Act, which was introduced in 2015, is “the most sweeping, anti-religious liberty measure” he has seen proposed by lawmakers, Walker said. “Were this bill ever to pass, it would end public debate and designate the beliefs of any individual with a moral and/or religious objection to the federal statute, regarding an entirely new sexual ethic, as discriminatory.”
While there were some encouraging developments for religious liberty last year, too many were disconcerting, Walker said in his analysis of the top news events regarding religious freedom.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage was “no doubt the biggest religious liberty event of the year,” Walker wrote. The high court’s majority displayed an “unscrupulous regard for religious liberty,” and the minority strongly criticized the majority’s treatment of defenders of traditional marriage, he said.
The decision’s effect “on culture and religious liberty cannot be overstated,” and its “full scope” remains uncertain because the country is still in the “immediate aftermath” of the opinion, Walker wrote.
Other distressing developments last year regarding religious freedom, Walker wrote, included:
Increasing charges of discrimination against religious colleges and universities that receive federal funds while considering applicants’ religious values;
The U.S. Department of Education’s threat to pull federal funds from an Illinois school district for refusing to allow a transgender male student to use the girls’ locker room;
Hillary Clinton’s “impassioned pro-gay rights speech” to the Human Rights Campaign in which she endorsed the Equality Act and promised she, if elected president, would eliminate funding for agencies that support adoption only by heterosexual households;
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposals to end Muslim immigration and close mosques;
Compromise legislation approved in Utah to protect both gay rights and religious liberty – a measure Moore and Walker concluded “offered too many concessions that disadvantage religious liberty without guaranteeing sufficient protections in return.”
Among encouraging developments last year, Walker wrote, were:
Unanimous Supreme Court decisions – Reed v. Town of Gilbert and Holt v. Hobbs – that protected the free speech rights of a church and the religious free exercise of a prisoner, respectively.
The defeat by Houston voters of an ordinance approved by the City Council that would have expanded non-discrimination protections to encompass sexual orientation and gender identity.
As “the most media-frenzied event,” Walker cited the jailing of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis for refusing to abide by a judge’s order to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. At the time, Moore and Walker urged both sides in the dispute to seek a satisfactory compromise. New Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin has since issued an executive order in an attempt to achieve a solution.
Walker’s article may be read at canonandculture.com/religious-liberty-in-2015-a-year-in-review/.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)