Category archives: Religious Liberty

Atlanta Mayor Steps up Disparaging Attacks on Chief Cochran

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.

January 29, 2015

Last week, Chief Cochran lodged a complaint (known as a “charge of discrimination”) with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging that the City of Atlanta discriminated against him for his religious beliefs when it fired him after he authored a book on Christianity which mentioned homosexuality.

Information emerging publicly to this point (such as the city’s own admission that no one has even alleged that Chief Cochran ever treated anyone unfairly based on their sexual orientation) reveals the chief’s already-strong case for religious discrimination. Chief Cochran’s allegations in his complaint only bolster his case:

After the complaint was filed, the city quickly released the following statement in response.

Former Chief Cochran filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and declared under penalty of perjury that the statements in the charge are true and correct. Unfortunately, the only truthful portions are his statements about his tenure as Chief and the identity of those in the room with him during two meetings. Everything else is patently false.

The City will respond directly to the EEOC at the appropriate time to inform the agency that instead of “unspecified policies,” Mr. Cochran was informed at the time of his suspension that he had failed to follow the City Code in seeking to engage in an outside income-producing venture. He was also informed that the issue was not the religious nature of his book, but the fact that he was espousing theories about certain groups of people that were in conflict with the City’s policy of inclusiveness. He was further informed that there was an issue with his espousing these beliefs while identifying himself as the Atlanta Fire Chief and while falsely claiming that his job description required him to run the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department on the basis of these beliefs. Finally, Mr. Cochran was informed that distributing the book to members of his command staff in the workplace was improper and sent a message to his staffers that they were expected to embrace his beliefs.

Although Mr. Cochran continues to claim that the City Ethics Officer authorized his publication of the book, that claim is as untruthful today as it was when first uttered. Mr. Cochran was told that the City Code required him to get the approval of the Board of Ethics before publishing his book, something he admits he never did.

Mr. Cochran states in his EEOC charge that he was told his faith influenced his leadership style and that this was the reason for his termination. What he was actually told was that his distribution of a book about his beliefs within his department had caused his employees to question his ability to continue to lead a diverse workforce.

The religious nature of his book is not the reason he is no longer employed by the City of Atlanta. The totality of his conduct—including the way he handled himself during his suspension after he agreed not to make public comments during the investigation—reflected poor judgment and failure to follow clearly defined work protocols.

Mr. Cochran continues to make false statements and accusations, even under penalty of perjury to the EEOC. This is just further proof that he has shown himself to be the wrong person for a leadership role in the City of Atlanta.

The city’s response reveals several things:

  • The fact that the city feels it needs to immediately and publicly respond to this complaint shows that the city is aware of the public importance of this debate. Typically an immediate public response to a legal filing is more general and cursory than the city’s here. Typically specific and targeted responses like the city’s first appear in the legal response. Yet the city is coming out swinging, which shows it realizes that this public debate over Chief Cochran matters. The city’s behavior here is unusual because now these statements can be used against the city if it contradicts them at all in future legal proceedings (this is typically why lawyers don’t want their clients to talk). Perhaps the city realizes it is losing this battle though, and it is scrambling to catch up a diffuse public support for Chief Cochran.
  • The viciousness of the city’s response (accusing Chief Cochran of committing perjury, and the sharpness of the city’s language in disputing him) reveals the nerve that the EEOC complaint touched.
  • The city is very sensitive about this being perceived as religious discrimination, but that’s exactly what it is. Specifically, the city says Chief Cochran’s religion is not at issue, but that his “theories about certain groups of people” are a problem—as if those two can be divided. Aside from the fact that this misrepresents Chief Cochran (he didn’t say anything about “groups of people” but spoke of a variety of sexual conduct that any one or more persons may engage in), the city is trying to parse something which can’t be parsed. The chief’s orthodox and faithful Christian views on sexuality are what inform his views of a variety of sexual conduct, including but not limited to homosexual conduct, which he believes (in concert with historic and orthodox Christian teaching) departs from God’s standard. The city is trying to ignore the fact that faithful Christianity directly informs views on sexuality. When the chief is punished for these views, he’s being punished for his religion. Thus this case has everything to do with religion.

If the city forces Chief Cochran to modify his views of sexuality as part of his discussion of his religion in his book, it is forcing him to deny and suppress the expression of his religion. Whatever the city wants to say, this case is all about religion.

Tarnishing Freedom in Georgia

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.

January 28, 2015

It is reported that down in Georgia, opponents of individual rights and personal freedom are ratcheting up their smear campaign against proposed religious liberty legislation known as the “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act,” which is designed to ensure that individuals’ consciences cannot be easily trampled by intrusive government regulation.

A web page titled “Better Georgia” purports to state concerns with the legislation, House Bill 29, but is filled entirely with omissions and misrepresentations regarding H.B. 29 and how religious liberty law actually works. Let’s fact-check some of its ridiculous claims.

Claim:

This bill would open the door to people who would use their religion to opt out of laws from child welfare to discrimination. It would lead to legal chaos over whose religion is more important in the eyes of our courts and lawmakers. The legislation would give criminals who abusetheir children or spouses a new excuse and make it even more difficult for police officers to put abusers behind bars.”

Veracity Level:

False. Child abuse is evil, and no one defends it. However, it is indeed offensive for Better Georgia’s out-of-state backers to imply that religious believers in Georgia are to blame for such abuse. Moreover, no religious freedom laws, including H.B. 29, permit people to “opt out” of child welfare laws, nor do such laws allow people to abuse their children.

Better Georgia had better check its fact-checkers.

The truth is that under H.B. 29, as with any strict scrutiny application to religious claims, an individual first has to prove they have a sincere religious belief, which has been substantially burdened by the government action in question. Only then can the claim move forward. Even then, if the government can show it has compelling interest in burdening the religious practice, and has done so through the least restrictive means, it is allowed to burden the religious exercise in question.

Thus, H.B. 29 does not automatically permit religious claims to win, but does provide a method for sincere conscientious objectors to be protected, while winnowing out those using religion as a pretext to escape application of general laws. This standard has been used in constitutional law for decades, and has been applied to religious claims for over 20 years under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), without any of the alleged “concerns” and “fears” RFRA opponents point to.

In its 1990 decision Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court significantly restricted free exercise rights, holding that laws infringing on religious exercise did not violate the First Amendment as long as they were neutral and generally applicable. In Smith, an individual sought and was denied unemployment benefits by the State of Oregon because he used peyote—a criminalized, controlled substance—yet he claimed his use of peyote was a religious practice protected by the Free Exercise Clause. The Supreme Court rejected this claim, holding that if a neutral and generally applicable law (such as the uniformly applicable criminal law in this case) happens to infringes on religious practice, such a law does not violate the Free Exercise Clause.

Many rightly saw Smith as a reduction in the protection afforded religious liberty, and the reaction to the Court’s decision was overwhelming. In 1993, a coalition of groups from across the religious and legal spectrum—from the Southern Baptists to the ACLU—came together to urge Congress to pass a law restoring strong protections for free exercise claims. The political support for such a law was also overwhelming, including strong backing from Democratic Congressional leaders such as Senator Ted Kennedy and Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Jerry Nadler. RFRA was passed unanimously by the U.S. House, 97-3 by the Senate, and signed into law by President Clinton. In over 20 years that the federal RFRA has been in existence, there is been no documented pattern of abuses such as those no claimed by the opponents of H.B. 29. As others have asked, where are these alleged child abusers and discriminators who are supposedly walking away from criminal charges under RFRA? They simply do not exist.

RFRA never was and should not be a partisan issue, as it protects those of all faiths and political persuasions. A review of RFRA and free exercise case law reveals its benefit to everyone from Muslims to Jews, Christians to Santeria adherents, and Native Americans to more obscure sects (among others), as they seek to protect their beliefs and consciences from being burdened by an ever-more intrusive government. Moreover, RFRAs cut across racial and social lines, and apply in a variety of factual scenarios, such as property disputes, restrictions on caring from the homeless, conscience objections to abortion, and restrictions on using controlled substances in religious ceremonies. They are not fact-specific. They are not race-specific. They are not religion-specific. And they are not political party-specific.

Despite this fact, many will attempt to manipulate the clear text of the law for partisan aims. Even a group of law professors writing in opposition to the bill can’t conceal their political agenda. They write:

The Federal RFRA, however, arose in a political context very different from the current one. The Federal RFRA responded directly to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), which many people perceived as a significant setback in constitutional protection for the religious liberty of vulnerable minority faith groups. The coalition that supported RFRA included Democrats and Republicans, people of all faiths, and groups that cared generally about civil liberties.”

So what these law professors—who might purport to neutrally explain the law and not promote partisan views—openly admit is that they only care about certain religious rights. Moreover, they imply that the people who supported RFRA in 1993 cared about “civil liberties” while those who support it now don’t. The truth is that some of those who supported it then still support it now. Shameful. These professors might as well just admit they are elevating their political preferences over the equal application of a neutral law. In addition, their position purporting high-minded concern that H.B. 29 might “invite” discrimination is contrary to a proper understanding of First Amendment law and its strict scrutiny standard (which RFRA codifies). The Supreme Court has consistently held that First Amendment rights are to be elevated over nondiscrimination principles—in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual Group of Boston (pertaining to free speech) and in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (pertaining to freedom of association).

Indeed, the text of H.B. 29 itself reveals an open-mindedness and neutrality which is at opposition to such political posturing, and at odds with the narrow-minded, politically-charged misrepresentations being thrown around on the internet by Better Georgia. Before unquestioningly getting on the bandwagon, everyone needs to take a deep breath and look at what actually is going on.

The alleged “incidents” highlighted by these scaremongers at Better Georgia are exactly that—scaremongering. The case of the toddler in Canada who died after severe application of Seventh-day Adventist dietary rules (aside from the issue that this is anything but a “pattern” of behavior) would not be an issue under H.B. 29 or any similar law—the government has the most compelling of interests in preventing deaths of children. The religious liberty claim would therefore flatly fail in that case. Rather than highlighting one scaremongering scenario which occurred in Canada, these purveyors of smear could focus on instances of suppression of religious practice closer to home. Georgians know better, as they recognize the threats illuminated by Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran’s termination due to his religious views.

Indeed, Chief Cochran’s recent firing clearly illustrates the threat to religious expression which is alive and well at home in Georgia. Despite the city’s assertion that Chief Cochran’s religion is not at issue in his termination (while his “discrimination” allegedly is), the city is trying to disconnect two areas—Chief Cochran’s religious beliefs, and human sexuality—which cannot be disconnected. The chief’s orthodox and faithful Christian views on sexuality are what inform his views of a variety of sexual conduct, including but not limited to homosexual conduct, which he believes (in concert with historic and orthodox Christian teaching) departs from God’s standard. The city is trying to ignore the fact that faithful Christianity directly informs views on sexuality. When the chief is punished for these views, he’s being punished for his religion. His case has everything to do with religion, and reveals the hostility to religion present in Atlanta.

Moreover, Better Georgia’s “example” of the Canadian child abuse scenario reveals a deeper issue—sloppy analysis and a lack of critical thinking. Better Georgia links to a story about a religious believer’s alleged child abuse, yet fails to point out that no religious claim was even brought in the case. Of course, the fact that this “example” took place in Canada with its entirely different legal system was lost on the group too. It’s almost as if Better Georgia has scoured the web for any information it can find which links bad things happening with religion. The group certainly has not come up with a legitimate example showing any serious danger of H.B. 29.

Even the group’s touting of an opinion piece by a Georgia district attorney misses the mark. The examples in that piece involve criminal prosecution for child abuse without any discussion of a successful religious defense. Child abuse and other cases involving bodily harm to human beings are prosecuted routinely nationwide every day. These take place in states with laws like H.B. 29. Yet how often have we heard about successful religious freedom defenses to such prosecutions? Why can’t Better Georgia or any of its opponents point to any?

The reason they cannot is that such defenses are not successful. Multiple courts in multiple states have held that preventing child abuse is a compelling government interest. Georgia courts have already held that the state has a compelling interest in the welfare of children. As noted above, under H.B. 29 and similar laws, the government can burden religious beliefs when it has a compelling government interest. In failing to discuss this point while asserting the dangers of H.B. 29, District Attorney Cooke has misrepresented the danger of the bill and needs to revisit his analysis.

Another “case” cited by H.B. 29 opponents is a situation involving parents beating their son to death. According to Better Georgia, these parents might be able to walk away from criminal charges because of H.B. 29. Not only is this an absolute distraction from the issue, but it is an insult to Georgians’ intelligence that they might consider H.B. 29 to legitimately offer a defense to such actions. Better Georgia claims “abusers will be able to hide behind religion in court.” Really? How would they do that under H.B. 29? This group, which is shamefully playing on Georgians’ fears based on cooked-up nonexistent situations, has not pointed to one legitimate explanation of how this scenario would be permitted under the strict scrutiny standard laid out above.

Indeed, Better Georgia does not even highlight any attempted legal defense using a religious freedom claim. The fear that there would be one appears nonexistent. Yet, sadly, this simplistic reduction of how religious freedom law works manipulates human passion and deliberately confuses in order to promote division and hatred of religious people—based entirely on misrepresentations. Better Georgia should be ashamed. Georgia does deserve better.

It’s unclear what Better Georgia is even specifically basing its claims on in these alleged “concerning scenarios.” Perhaps it is looking at language in Section 50-15A-3 to exclude the bill’s application to parental rights regarding “the care and custody of such parent’s minor children.” But any simple reading of this provision reveals that it is stating the area of parental rights as it currently exists is to be left unrestricted by the additional protections of H.B. 29. Therefore, the state will continue to be able to regulate parental rights as it currently does, and this bill does not alter that. Indeed, H.B. 29 notes that these parental rights issues are to be left unrestricted “as provided for under the laws of this state and of the United States.”

Yet the Better Georgia “advocacy” does not stop there. Alas, more fact checking is needed.

Claim:

Georgia House Bill 29 would provide a free pass for business owners who believe homosexuality is a sin to openly deny gay Americans employment or service.”

Veracity Level:

False. Neither H.B. 29 nor other similar laws applying strict scrutiny to claims of religious exercise give anyone a “free pass.” As pointed out above, the religious liberty claim has to go through multiple hurdles before receiving protection under the law. Moreover, the evidence of such “free passes” being permitted is simply nonexistent. A cursory evaluation of how other similar laws have been interpreted reveals no “free passes.” Indeed, it is notable that Better Georgia can’t even cite to one instance of a business owner “openly deny[ing]” such service!

For these same reasons, claims that the Michigan RFRA will “let EMTs refuse to serve gay people” and that the Arizona and Mississippi RFRAs from previous years are “right-to-discriminate” bills are completely misleading. When people are provided with a proper understanding of strict scrutiny’s application to religious claims, they can see that those making these “free pass” arguments are engaged in baseless fabrication.

More fact-checking is needed.

Claim:

A restaurateur could deny service to an out-of-wedlock mother, a cop could refuse to intervene in a domestic dispute if his religion allows for husbands beating their wives, and a hotel chain could refuse to rent rooms to Jews, Hindus or Muslims.”

Veracity Level:

False. Indeed, the opposite is true. The protections in H.B. 29 are the very protections needed to ensure the exercise of all religions—whether Jews, Hindus, or Muslims—is protected. If the smear campaign had cared to accurately represent this point, it would have seen that only this month, the U.S. Supreme Court protected a Muslim inmate’s right to religious practice under the same strict scrutiny standard in RFRA’s cousin—the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Indeed, H.B. 29 and similar laws protect religious exercise regardless of religion. These laws do NOT discriminate, nor do they discriminate between religions, but protect individual religious claims under the framework explained above. Moreover, they protect religious exercise in a variety of situations—such as the Texas RFRA’s protection of those seeking to feed the homeless—which are not cited in this attempt to incite hatred against religion. Any simple reading of the law will reveal all this. But apparently Better Georgia did not even do that.

RFRA never was and should not become a partisan issue, as it protects those of all faiths and political persuasions. Thankfully, some liberal organizations are willing to more fairly represent it. Aside from what Better Georgia thinks, all Americans of political persuasions and religions who care about individual expression should be supporting H.B. 29. The bill’s text and our own judicial system’s well-grounded history of analyzing religious claims lend support to this conclusion. Meanwhile, Better Georgia’s conclusions have no support whatsoever.

At the Supreme Court: A Small Church and a Big Case

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.

January 13, 2015

On January 12th, I attended Supreme Court oral arguments in a case—Reed v. Town of Gilbert—which will determine how easily the government can restrict signs giving directions to church services. Specifically, the Court is set to decide whether, under free speech protections of the First Amendment, a local government’s mere assertion that its sign code (despite on its face discriminating based on content) lacks a discriminatory motive renders the sign code content-neutral and justifies the code’s differential treatment of signs pointing the way to a church’s meeting location.

In this case, the Town of Gilbert had divided signs up based on whether they were ideological, political, or directional—and imposed different restrictions on each category of sign. Good News Community Church in Gilbert, Arizona, and its pastor, Clyde Reed, sued, claiming that signs pointing the way to their Sunday morning service (which contained religious speech and directions, and thus resulted in them being placed in the directional sign category) were treated less fairly and that this unfair treatment violated the First Amendment.

At oral arguments yesterday, both sides received their fair share of questions, but the justices were noticeably more skeptical of the town’s argument—especially its claim that it could severely restrict a sign containing ideological content announcing an event if the sign also included directions to that event, while at the same time easing restrictions on a sign containing the same exact ideological content and yet lacking directions.

The town attempted to defend itself by arguing it had an interest in preventing roadside clutter arising from numerable directional signs. But then it admitted it was granting preference to ideological and political signs because of the special First Amendment protection offered them, which prompted questions from the justices asking how the town was not impermissibly discriminating based on the content of the signs.

A breakthrough moment occurred when the town’s counsel admitted under questioning by Justice Breyer that the town could put up a sign saying: “Come to the next service next Tuesday, 4th and H Streets,” but could not add “three blocks right and two blocks left” to that same sign because that would make it a directional sign. Justice Breyer’s response: “Well, my goodness. I mean—I mean, on that, it does sound as if the town is being a little unreasonable, doesn’t it?”, pretty well captured the justices’ view of the case.

The justices will now consider the legal issues and issue a written opinion deciding the case sometime before the end of June 2015.

While seeming more innocuous than some of the other high profile social issues which have reached the court over the last year or so, this case matters (significantly) to free speech law. It therefore matters a lot to Americans of all opinions and interests who want to take part in public debates and discussions over numerable issues in our country. Even if it doesn’t matter to them personally, it should—for it affects their legal rights under the First Amendment.

This issue is also incredibly important to the ability of churches to communicate when and where they meet, and will thus heavily impact their flourishing and wellbeing. Our local churches serve as nerve centers for communities of faith across America, and must be supported and allowed to prosper. For all these reasons, Family Research Council filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court last September asking it to rule in favor of Pastor Reed and Good News Community Church in this case.

As we argued in our brief, and as the church’s attorney argued before the Court yesterday, the Supreme Court should rule in favor of the plaintiffs and strike down the town’s ordinance here as unconstitutional. Such a ruling would not only protect the First Amendment rights of Pastor Reed and Good News Community Church, but those of any person or group our government wants to marginalize and silence in the public debate.

Family Research Council’s amicus brief in Reed v. Town of Gilbert is available here: http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF14I59.pdf

An Active President: Obama on the March As the GOP Preps to Run Congress

by Rob Schwarzwalder

December 18, 2014

Since last month’s election, the President has been a busy fellow. He’s traveled to China, heralded what he called a “turning point” in American military affairs, “signed a Presidential Memorandum that prohibits future oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay” and land areas near it and announced a new director for the White House Council for Strong Cities, Strong Communities, to boot.

FRC takes no formal position on these issues, or on those that follow (with one exception). Rather, they are listed to make the point that Mr. Obama is not going suddenly to become an inactive Chief Executive. He has an agenda the bulk of which is opposed by conservatives. Regardless, if conservatives think he will simply fold his hands and let the new Republican majorities in House and Senate do as they will, they kid themselves.

Following is a rundown of other significant post-November 4, 2014 actions by Mr. Obama; the last, on international religious liberty, is not explicitly presidential but relates to a key presidential appointment at the Department of State.

Environment: In addition to his largely unnoticed decision regarding Bristol Bay, “Obama’s most recent move is committing the U.S. to a $3 billion contribution to an international fund that seeks to help developing countries address climate change, which he will announce this weekend. It’s the president’s second major climate action in a week, following Wednesday’s announcement of a bilateral climate agreement with China. Under the agreement, the U.S. will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, while China will begin reducing its own emissions by 2030.”

Cuba: Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), the son of Cuban immigrants, gave an eloquent and impassioned critique of the President’s announcement on normalizing relations with Cuba last evening; read his Wall Street Journal op-ed on the Obama decision, as well. The Washington Post also made a potent argument in an op-ed titled, “Obama gives the Castro regime in Cuba an undeserved bailout” (yes, that Washington Post; even a stopped clock is right twice a day): “The Vietnam outcome is what the Castros are counting on: a flood of U.S. tourists and business investment that will allow the regime to maintain its totalitarian system indefinitely. Mr. Obama may claim that he has dismantled a 50-year-old failed policy; what he has really done is give a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life.”

Immigration: With respect to his Executive Order on immigration, my personal take is not on the content of the orders but instead their basis in the U.S. Constitution: “Mr. Obama hasn’t gotten what he wants, so he is acting like a monarch unconstrained by legality. This is not constitutional, republican governance. It is something else altogether – something that should evoke in everyone who values his Constitution-based liberty apprehension about what might come next.”

Internet: “Net neutrality” demands a bit more explaining. Mr. Obama has asked “the Federal Communications Commission to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility,” writes Michael Hendrix in National Review. “All Internet traffic would be treated equally, no matter the size or pace of demand. Net neutrality is a relatively young concept based on the much older notion of ‘common carriage,’ which required providers of basic infrastructure to offer common service to all.”

Yet as Nancy Scola notes in the Washington Post, At the center of the debate is a service known as IANA, or the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. Operating almost entirely out of the public eye, IANA keeps tabs on the numerical directory that makes sure the global Internet runs smoothly.” And, Scola continues, though “Republicans in Congress managed to slip a provision into the massive $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by the Senate this (past) weekend that would prevent the Obama administration from giving up part of its oversight of how the Internet runs. Observers say, though, that there’s little chance that the GOP’s legislative language will actually slow the process at all.

Religious Liberty: FRC does take a position on international religious liberty: We’re absolutely, unequivocally for it. Earlier this month, the Senate confirmed Rabbi David Saperstein to be the State Department’s new U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. In his comments at his Senate confirmation hearing in September, the Rabbi said, “Religious freedom faces daunting and alarming challenges worldwide,” Saperstein said at his confirmation hearing in September. “If confirmed, I will do everything within my abilities and influence to engage every sector of the State Department and the rest of the U.S. government to integrate religious freedom into our nation’s statecraft and foreign policies.”

Amen. Christians should be praying for the Rabbi and his team as they work to advance religious liberty around the world. It’s in the interest of our country, not to mention one of the great moral imperatives of our time.

This President means no less business today than he did on January 20, 2009. That means that conservatives will have to think carefully about how we advance our priorities on issues involving faith, family and freedom in the coming two years leading up to the next presidential election. We have to consider our larger strategy as well as issue-specific tactics and also decide what our priorities are and aren’t.

Conservative leaders and activists are, of course, doing this. Let’s hope they coalesce around what issues are of highest importance and then move forward both boldly and wisely, aware that President Obama is a shrewd and determined political foe.

It’s not enough to be right. We also have to be smart.

 

Schwarzwalder previously was chief-of-staff for two Members of Congress and was a presidential appointee in the George W. Bush Administration.

Fashion Isn¿t the Most Important Thing to Come Out of Milan

by Chris Gacek

November 19, 2014

If you have some time, watch FRC’s lecture with Jim Tonkowich discussing his new book, The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today. One particularly interesting aspect of the talk was Tonkowich’s discussion of the rise of religious freedom during the Roman Empire. Of particular importance was the Edict of Milan of 313 A.D. Read George Weigel’s First Things blog on this important document. Referencing the great church historian Robert Louis Wilken (The First Thousand Years), Weigel describes the document’s foundational significance in Western political thought and practice:

[The Edict] involved all religions, not just Christianity; it went beyond mere toleration and embodied a more robust idea of religious freedom, based on the conviction that true faith and true worship cannot be compelled; and it treated the Church as a corporate body with legal rights, including property-owning rights. Thus the not-really-an-Edict of Nicomedia and Elsewhere cemented into the foundations of the West ideas first sketched by the Christian philosopher Lactantius: that coercion and true religious faith don’t mix because “God wishes to be adored by people who are free” (as Joseph Ratzinger would rewrite Lactantius a millennium and a half later, in the 1986 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation). The rather humane provisions of the mis-named “Edict of Milan” were not infrequently ignored in subsequent Western history; but that doesn’t alter the fact that the “Edict” had a profound and, in many respects, beneficial influence on the future of the West.

(Weigel quotes a passage from Wilken revealing that the Milanese origins of the documents putting the policy into effect arose from meetings between Emperors Constantine and Licinius during a state wedding.)

So, watch the lecture and learn other interesting things that will impress your friends and confound your opponents.

Hashtag Persecution

by Jourdan Stuart

November 14, 2014

When one hears a story about God’s people being persecuted for their beliefs, many examples throughout history come to mind. Adolph Hitler, the German dictator, ordered the extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust. Many of the Jews were marched into gas chambers as participants of one of the largest genocides in world history. The Biblical account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is a historic example of individuals being persecuted for their religious beliefs. In this story, King Nebuchadnezzar throws Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace for refusing to worship the king’s golden image. Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.  Is genocide on a large scale more appalling than the individuals affected by it?

One contemporary example of modern-day persecution is the story of Asia Bibi of Pakistan. In 2010, this mother of five was convicted of blasphemy for speaking out against Muhammad and was sentenced to death. Her government-justified execution does not end her story but extends to her family who are facing a similar fate.  Supporters can bring attention to her story using the hashtag #FreeBibi via social media.

Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced by the Sudanese government to death by hanging for her Christian faith.  While in prison, Meriam gave birth to her child. After much international pressure she obtained her release and was returned to the United States.

Saeed Abedini is a pastor from Idaho being held in Rajaei Shahr prison for building an orphanage in Iran.  In 2012, Saeed, after being detained for being a Christian, was denied a court hearing, and was placed in a solitary confinement facility. He has been tortured and his communication with his family has been cut off. Facility medical staff refused him treatment because he is an “unclean” Christian.  In 2014, his condition deteriorated and he was transported to a hospital outside of the prison, where he received only minimal medical attention. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called for Saeed’s release and over 610,000 people have signed a petition to that end. Saeed and his family have remained steadfast thanks to the support and prayers of godly people. Awareness is being raised for Saeed on social media through the hashtag, #SaveSaeed.

North Korean officials were detaining American, Jeffery Fowle, an Ohio native, this past spring simply for leaving a Bible in his hotel room. Thankfully, through the efforts of the White House and prayers of believers worldwide, Mr. Fowle has obtained freedom. Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae, Americans being held in North Korea for “crimes” of the same nature, were also recently released.

Many in the U.S. are not aware of the persecution experienced by Americans overseas. As noted, Americans are not immune to this persecution. We must pray that God will give strength to endure trials, and we must pray for the safe return of our brothers and sisters around the world facing persecution for their beliefs. We must also pray for our leaders to aggressively defend persecuted Christians around the world.

Beachheads of God’s Kingdom

by Rob Schwarzwalder

November 3, 2014

So, things can look pretty bleak, at home and abroad. But in addition to the fact that we have the legal right and moral duty to try to restrain evil and advance good, Christians can celebrate some very good things that are happening concurrent with the gloom that sometimes seems to surround us.

Here is some news to encourage believers who sometimes feel at sea without a rudder in the waves of our culture. Some stories deal with specific events, others with broader trends. All should help keep us steadfast as we work for life, family, and liberty.

  • The adoption movement is bringing thousands of little ones, at home and abroad, into loving Christian homes).
  • Although a recent survey says that most Americans see religion’s influence in culture waning, the survey also shows “most people who say religion’s influence is waning see this as a bad thing”. This presents a real opportunity for Christians to talk about how God’s standards for society actually work – and use them to share the good news about Jesus, too.
  • Believers in the U.S. are growing more and more aware of their suffering brethren across the globe; for example, FRC played a key role in the release of Christian Mariam Ibrahim from Sudanese captivity earlier this year. Voice of the Martyrs and Open Doors are among those leading in this area.

Is this list comprehensive? No. Does it diminish the grim news about abortion, violations of religious liberty, erosions of the family and our culture and other bad things we hear about so often? No.

But God is doing wonderful things despite the fallenness and corruption that is in the world. Let’s rejoice in that truth and from it gather continued strength to keep fighting the wrongs of our time.

Houston Mayor Withdraws Subpoenas, but Political Intimidation Continues

by FRC Media Office

October 29, 2014

HOUSTON, TEXAS., October 28, 2014 — On Sunday, November 2, Family Research Council (FRC) will host a nationwide, live simulcast event from Grace Community Church in Houston, Texas. Called “I Stand Sunday,” the simulcast will reach into over 2,500 churches and home groups nationwide. “I Stand Sunday” will provide churches across the nation the opportunity to stand with the pastors and churches in Houston, Texas who have been targeted and harassed by the city’s Mayor because they publicly challenged her efforts to advance policies that are in direct conflict with biblical morality.

FRC President Tony Perkins will serve as host for the simulcast which will also feature former Governor Mike Huckabee, Duck Dynasty’s Phil and Al Robertson, the five Houston pastors who have been targeted by the Mayor’s subpoenas, Dr. Ronnie Floyd, who serves as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, along with many other national and local Christian leaders.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins made the following comments regarding the Mayor’s announcement today and Sunday’s “I Stand Sunday” simulcast:

Standing together across the nation, Christians have sent a strong message to Mayor Parker. While we are encouraged by this evidence that the Mayor is responding to pressure and withdrawing her unconstitutional subpoenas, this is about far more than subpoenas. As we have stated since the beginning of this intrusion into the private affairs of Houston churches; this is not about subpoenas, this is not about sermons, it is not even about biblical teaching on sexual immorality, it is about political intimidation and the bullying by Mayor Parker that continues.

Despite the fact that the citizens of Houston gathered over 50,000 signed petitions in 30 days, which is 30,000 more than required by the city charter, the Mayor has refused to allow the people of Houston to vote on her unfair special rights ordinance that discriminates against religious freedom within the city and endangers citizens by declaring that public bathrooms can no longer be limited on the basis of a person’s actual biological sex.

The citizens of Houston have a right to vote, and Mayor Parker has denied them that right. America must see the totalitarianism that accompanies the redefinition of marriage and human sexuality, which results in citizens being denied their most fundamental rights.

This Sunday night, thousands of Christians from across the nation will join ‘I Stand Sunday’ to support the pastors and Christians in Houston, Texas and their fundamental rights of religious freedom, freedom of speech and the right to petition their government,” concluded Perkins

Prior to the simulcast, FRC President Tony Perkins, Gov. Mike Huckabee, Pastor Steve Riggle, Dr. Ronnie Floyd, and local church leaders will hold a 4:00 p.m. CT news conference at Grace Community Church where they will offer a preview of the event.

WHO:

Former Governor Mike Huckabee

Phil Robertson, Duck Dynasty

Alan Robertson, Duck Dynasty

Tony Perkins, President, Family Research Council

Steve Riggle, Founding Senior Pastor, Grace Community Church, Houston, TX

Khanh Huynh, Senior Pastor, Vietnamese Baptist Church, Houston, TX

Dave Welch, Executive Director, Houston Pastors Council

Hernan Castano, Pastor, Iglesia Rios de Aceite, Houston, TX

Magda Hermida, Founder, Magda Hermida Ministries, Houston, TX

Willie Davis, Senior Pastor, MacGregor Palm Community Baptist Church in Houston, TX

Dr. Ed Young, Pastor, Second Baptist Church Houston, TX

Dr. Ronnie Floyd, President, Southern Baptist Convention

Todd Starnes, Host, Fox News and Commentary; Contributor, FOX & Friends; Author

Dr. Rick Scarborough, Founder and President, Vision America

David and Jason Benham, Benham Brothers Companies

Erik Stanley, Director of the Church Project and Pulpit Initiative, Alliance Defending Freedom

WHAT: News conference and simulcast event: “I Stand Sunday”

WHERE: Grace Community Church

14505 Gulf Freeway Houston, TX 77034

WHEN: Sunday, November 2, 2014

News Conference: 4:00 p.m. CT

Simulcast: 6:00 p.m. CT

To register for media credentials or for more information, please call the FRC press office at (866) FRC-NEWS or for more info please visit http://www.istandsunday.com

-30-

 

Ministers: Beware

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.

October 20, 2014

As if the over-stepping Houston major’s office subpoenaing sermons and other private communications of pastors wasn’t enough, we now receive news of two elderly ministers being told by city officials that any refusal to marry a same-sex couple could cause them to face up to 180 days in jail and $1,000 in fines for each day they decline to do so.

For many years, the husband and wife team of Donald and Evelyn Knapp have presided over wedding services across the street from the local county clerk’s office in Coeur d’Alene, a beautiful city in North Idaho. Now, they are told they have to conform to their city’s iron-fisted demand that they “marry” men to men and women to women.

In other words, from the city to the ministers: Your religious liberty doesn’t really mean a thing when it comes to the new sexuality; you must come into line in accord with our views. When the city says something related to human sexuality should be accepted, that’s the final word.

For years, we have also been told by gay-marriage advocates that no harm would come from legalizing same-sex marriages. No one would be forced to participate.

Yet it seems that day has arrived. Court-issued stays have been lifted, and gay marriages have started to proceed in Idaho. Now a minister is being told by his government that he must officiate at these “marriages.”

Now that we are past the point where we were told the gay-rights crusade would stop, should we expect it to just stop here? I’ve grown doubtful of such expectations, as the advocacy and pressure for acceptance continue full steam. No, this crusade will likely continue until all are forced to approve.

These developments have occurred incrementally. As Albert Mohler points out, “[t]his is how religious liberty dies. Liberties die by a thousand cuts. An intimidating letter here, a subpoena there, a warning in yet another place. The message is simple and easily understood. Be quiet or risk trouble.”

How true. We are more in danger of remaining apathetic to threats to our freedom when the individual threats just don’t appear to be a big deal. The danger is in the accumulation, though. Hopefully, for many, this latest “increment” will be too big to ignore.

Snoops on the Stoops of the Church

by Tony Perkins

October 15, 2014

When it comes to illegal surveillance, it looks like the NSA has some competition. In a story that’s making Texans’ heads spin, the Houston P.C. police — the same Council that passed an LGBT ordinance this year — is subpoenaing sermons, emails, and even text messages from local pastors to see if they’re promoting a voter referendum to overturn the measure.

The jaw-dropping move — one in a long line of Houston’s “gotcha” government — is only fanning the flames of outrage over the city’s totalitarian tactics. Even for Houston’s radical leadership, this is an affront to the plain language of the First Amendment, which not only gives churches the right to speak freely but the individuals leading them as well! “City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge,”said Alliance Defending Freedom’s Erik Stanley. “In this case, they have embarked upon a witch-hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it.”

Yesterday, ADF filed a motion in court to stop the senseless monitoring of churches. “The message is clear,” they explain, “oppose the decision of city government, and drown in unwarranted burdensome discovery requests… Not only will the pastors be harmed if these discovery requests are allowed, but the People will suffer as well. The referendum process will become toxic and the People will be deprived of an important check on city government.”

It’s a sad commentary on our times that a nation founded by church leaders is trying to muscle those same religious voices out of the political process. Obviously, there’s no limit to how low the Left will stoop, and how many laws it will break, to impose its agenda on unwilling Americans.

 

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