Texas state Sen. Konni Burton acknowledges that fighting for religious liberty is an uphill battle in today’s culture, but she sees hope.
Addressing students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), Burton recalled the Supreme Court’s precedent-setting Roe v. Wade decision, pointing out that many thought it would end the discussion on abortion.
“But actually, it led to more and more discussion,” Burton said. “In the last few years we’ve made more progress, and the next generation is more pro-life than the last generation.”
Sen. Konni Burton
Burton said pro-life legislators had to deal with the issue of abortion in incremental ways, passing bills targeting specific aspects of the practice, such as the relatively recent bill in Texas that closed numerous abortion clinics across the state. She concluded that, just as Roe v. Wade failed to silence the discussion on abortion, so recent court decisions will fail to end the protection of religious liberty.
The politics of religious liberty was the focus of a question-and-answer session in Southwestern’s “Grindstone” series April 4. Joining Burton on the panel was Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Assistant professor of ethics Evan Lenow moderated the discussion.
Duke noted that much of the conversation on religious liberty pertains not simply to one’s freedom of belief but also the larger issue of freedom of practice.
“There are many people who want to distinguish between religious freedom and freedom of worship,” Duke said. “They want to say, ‘You’re free to worship within the walls of your church building or your synagogue or your mosque, but once you leave the walls of that worship space, you’re under a different set of requirements and duties, and your religious freedom isn’t as sacrosanct as it is within the walls of your church building.’“
Driven by this mentality, efforts abound to restrict how people live out their religious beliefs, Duke said.
“Our position, and the position of many people around the states, is that it isn’t religious freedom if you can’t follow the dictates of your conscience in the way that you live and the way that you behave,” he noted.
Examining various ways that states are handling issues pertaining to religious liberty, Duke noted that a number of municipalities have passed local ordinances preventing employers from making hiring decisions based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Such ordinances are referred to as “SOGI” laws. These laws, Duke explained, essentially prevent faith-based businesses and people of faith from living out their religious beliefs.
In response, however, some states are attempting to pass laws that invalidate SOGI laws as discriminatory against people of faith, “which, in reality, they are,” Duke said. North Carolina, for example, passed a law saying that no local municipality can have a SOGI law that differs from state law. Tennessee passed a similar law several years ago.
Regarding such legislation in Texas, Burton said that while the state legislature is currently between sessions (they meet during odd-numbered years), lawmakers nevertheless are hard at work preparing bills for the next session. In fact, the State Affairs Committee received a charge from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to spend this interim period examining “measures to affirm First Amendment religious liberty protections in Texas” so they can then make recommendations “to ensure that the government does not force individuals, organizations or businesses to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
This interim period includes a vetting process in which people can voice their concerns regarding specific pieces of legislation, information about which is available online. Burton encouraged students to be involved in the process so their voices can be heard.
Addressing the notion that contacting state representatives is difficult, Lenow noted that in order to invite Burton to Southwestern, he simply emailed her through her website and received a response later that same day.
Burton counseled, “Make sure that you engage at every level and get good, pro-Constitution people in every level, and we will continue to fight. The good news is we are doing what it takes, and we’re not going to quit.”