Tag archives: Conscience Protection

How Should Christians Use Religious Exemptions for Vaccine Mandates?

by David Closson

September 27, 2021

After months of promising that his administration would not mandate COVID-19 vaccines, President Joe Biden has changed course. Earlier this month, the president issued an executive order requiring millions of federal employees to either get the vaccine, get tested weekly, or face dismissal from their job. Shortly after the executive order, the president handed down another mandate, requiring all employers with more than 100 employees to mandate their workers be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Businesses that do not comply with the rule can be fined up to $14,000 per violation. The new regulation is supposed to be drafted and implemented by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Understandably, many Americans are frustrated by the president’s about-face on mandating vaccines. Vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans alike are concerned about what kind of precedent such a sweeping executive order could set. Those who do not want a COVID-19 vaccine are concerned about how the mandate will personally affect them. As I explained in a previous article, there are serious legal, constitutional, moral, and conscience concerns related to the president’s vaccine mandate. Thus, it is no surprise that many people are asking about exemptions.

Ever since the president’s announcement, the question of religious exemptions has been the subject of a lot of discussion, especially within churches and the Christian community. If there are no clear biblical admonitions against receiving a vaccine, are there any grounds for a religious exemption?

On the legality of such requests, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an influential Christian legal non-profit that defends religious freedom in the courts, provides the following advice

You must first determine if your objection is based on a sincerely held religious belief against taking any of the available vaccines (since they are different), or whether your objections are based on other medical, health, cultural, or political, but not religious, concerns. Many people have medical or other concerns which do not rise to the level of an actual religious belief. A belief that taking a vaccine is unwise or could be harmful will normally be considered a medical or health objection, not a religious objection.

As ADF points out, many objections to vaccines are not religious in nature. Many Christians objecting to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine are doing so based on medical, personal, or political concerns. But there is another category of objections—“conscience objections”—which are related to religious objections. Like religious beliefs, conscience claims are deeply personal and connected to the core of a person. Christians believe our conscience is a God-given internal faculty that guides moral decision-making. One of the roles of our conscience is to convict us when we do something wrong. Our sense of guilt or shame following a wrong action comes from our conscience.

Christians believe that willfully acting against one’s conscience is sinful. Romans 14:23 teaches that “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This admonition seems relevant when the action involves something as personal as injecting a vaccine into one’s body which, according to Scripture, is a “temple of the Lord” (1 Cor. 6:19). Believers are called to be stewards of their bodies, and this stewardship should be exercised in line with one’s conscience.

These reflections are important when considering the propriety of requesting a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate. Nothing in the Bible forbids Christians from getting vaccinated. Yet others in the Christian community will object to getting vaccinated—whether on conscience, religious, or other grounds. Because Christians believe it is sinful to do anything that goes against one’s conscience and it is wrong to force anyone to do what they think is morally wrong, it is appropriate to respect and accommodate those who have legitimate, morally informed reasons for requesting an exemption.

Finally, those seeking an exemption would do well to examine their hearts and motivations for seeking an exemption. As Christians, our actions should be carried out in faith and with a clear conscience. Additionally, pastors should consider only submitting vaccine exemption requests on behalf of members of their congregation. This provides a level of accountability to the process and keeps insincere appeals and possible abuse in check.

Keeping these principles in mind, what follows is an example letter that can be submitted by one’s pastor as part of a request for an exemption to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Those consulting this model letter should feel free to modify it to ensure it accurately reflects the sincerely-held beliefs of the individual requesting the exemption. Please also be aware that such a letter from one’s pastor is not legally required to initiate a request for a religious exemption but can nevertheless be submitted by those who wish to do so.

Example Letter:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing on behalf of [Church Member] as [he/she] is requesting to be exempt from the COVID-19 vaccine mandated by [his/her] employer. After this mandate was announced, [Church Member] requested to meet with me and discuss how [he/she] should respond as a committed Christian and member of [Name of Church].

It is true that, thus far, Christians have come to varying conclusions regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, with many deciding to take it while others have not. Although Christians haven’t all come to the same conclusion about the vaccine, what they all share is a biblically informed belief that every single person is made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). Part of being created in God’s image is to be endowed with a conscience, a God-given internal faculty that guides moral decision-making. A role of our conscience is to convict us when we do something wrong. Our conscience inflicts distress, in the form of remorse, whenever we violate what we believe is a morally appropriate course of action.

Significantly, Christians believe that to willfully act against one’s conscience is sinful. Romans 14:23 teaches that “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This admonition seems especially pertinent when the action involves something as personal as injecting something into one’s body which, according to Scripture, is a “temple of the Lord” (1 Cor. 6:19). In other words, Christians believe it is sinful to do something that goes against their conscience and therefore morally wrong to force anyone to do something against their conscience. Christians believe sincere conscience objections should be respected and that no one should be forced to do something they believe is morally impermissible.

[Church Member’s] request for a religious conscience exemption to the COVD-19 vaccine is influenced by the church’s historic teaching on abortion (i.e., the intentional killing of unborn children in the womb). Fetal cell lines were used in the development and production of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, and fetal cell lines were used in the testing of the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines. Passages from the Bible—including Exodus 21:22-25, Psalm 51:5-6; 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:4-5, and Luke 1:39-45—affirm the personhood of the unborn. [Church Member] believes in the sanctity of the unborn and that receiving the COVID-19 vaccine would be a violation of [his/her] conscience, which prohibits [him/her] from even a remote complicity with the sin of abortion.

I can affirm that [Church Member] is acting in accordance with [his/her] sincerely-held religious beliefs in requesting a religious exemption. As [Church Member’s] pastor, I affirm that I have spoken with and prayed with [Church Member] about [his/her] request for an exemption. I can affirm that [he/she] is simply trying to follow [his/her] conscience. Therefore, during these difficult times, I prayerfully request that [Church Member’s] employer honors and respects [his/her] request for a religious exemption, just as I hope it would honor the beliefs of its other employees of faith who conscientiously object to receiving the vaccine.

Sincerely,

[Pastor’s Name]

[Church Name]

For further information on exemption requests and information on legal assistance, visit PrayVoteStand.org/vaccine.

Holy Boldness: The Uncommon Courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

by Worth Loving

March 2, 2021

Even though George Orwell’s 1984 is a work of fiction, the last two years might lead one to believe that it is a true story—just with the wrong title. In his book, Orwell writes of a government that dictates its own version of the truth and silences anyone who dares to challenge their approved groupthink.

Mere days after the major networks called the 2020 presidential race for Joe Biden, many who questioned the integrity of the election were quickly banned from major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. What started with former President Trump being banned turned into much more. Even groups like Focus on the Family have been banned by Twitter for proclaiming biblical truth about gender and sexuality, not to mention the many Christians and Catholics who have been persecuted in America over the past decade for running their businesses and ministries according to their deeply held religious convictions. For example, take Jack Phillips, Barronelle Stutzman, the Little Sisters of the Poor, or dozens of others. None of these people wanted the battle they were given, but they were not willing to sacrifice truth and justice on the altar of political correctness.

In the midst of a raging “cancel culture,” it might be tempting for many Bible-believing Christians to keep their faith to themselves and not speak up against governmental policies that are antithetical to biblical teaching. But, throughout history, God has called His people to stand up against the rising tide of antibiblical teaching and policies, no matter the consequences. One of the greatest modern examples of this kind of courage and heroism is the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I recently finished Eric Metaxas’ brilliant biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. If you’ve never read any of Eric Metaxas’ works, I cannot recommend him enough. His biographies read like novels, and it’s hard to put them down. Ironically, I finished this incredible biography on what would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 115th birthday, February 4, 1906.

Born into an affluent German family, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prominent and well-respected theologian of his time. He graduated from the University of Berlin in 1927 and went on to receive a doctorate in theology for his influential thesis, Sanctorum Communio (Communion of Saints). After graduating, Bonhoeffer spent time in Spain and America, broadening his horizons and allowing him multiple opportunities to observe worship practices of other denominations. He spent a year in Barcelona, serving as a pastor to a German congregation. He then traveled to New York to complete a fellowship at Union Theological Seminary. During this time, he met an African-American student named Frank Fisher who invited Bonhoeffer to attend church services in Harlem. Bonhoeffer was greatly affected by this and spent much time interacting with the congregation and listening to Negro spirituals. In particular, Bonhoeffer was greatly displeased with the racism against African-Americans in the United States at that time, which further influenced his hatred of Hitler’s atrocities against the Jews in Germany.

The early 1930s were especially tumultuous for Germany. After World War I, the League of Nations had imposed crushing economic penalties on the country, leading to mass unemployment. Coupled with the instability of the Weimar Republic and the lack of leadership from Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany was ripe for a charismatic leader to take over. Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin in 1931 and was ordained as a pastor in the German Evangelical Church at age 25. Ironically, Bonhoeffer came to prominence at the very time another leader was rising to power—the infamous Adolf Hitler. At noon, on January 30, 1933, Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany.

Hitler’s election was widely praised by the German population, who were desperate for hope of an economic turnaround. Even a majority of the German Evangelical Church supported Hitler. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not one of them. In fact, two days after Hitler was elected chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address criticizing “The Fuhrer” concept. In his address, Bonhoeffer said the following before his broadcast was cut off mid-air, a tell-tale sign of Hitler’s intent to silence any opposition to the Third Reich:

The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority…we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him…The church has only one altar, the altar of the Almighty…before which all creatures must kneel. Whoever seeks something other than this must keep away; he cannot join us in the house of God…The church has only one pulpit, and from that pulpit, faith in God will be preached, and no other faith, and no other will than the will of God, however well-intentioned.

Mere days after Hitler became chancellor, he began planning his takeover of Germany. His first step was to take over the government. The Nazi Party held a fraction of the seats in the Reichstag, but Hitler knew his opponents were divided and unable to unite against him. A few days after assuming the chancellorship, Hitler and the Nazis staged a burning of the Reichstag building and blamed it on the Communists. It was a perfect plan. Now, the German people, who were already in a desperate situation, would give up just about anything to preserve their nation. The next day, Hitler convinced President Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire Edict. It decreed: “Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications; and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.” Within days, Nazi storm troopers were storming the streets, beating and arresting their political opponents. A month later, Hitler convinced the Reichstag to pass the Enabling Act, effectively abolishing its lawmaking power. In less than two months, Hitler had become a dictator.

In April, Hitler’s merciless persecution of the Jews had begun with the boycotting of Jewish businesses. Bonhoeffer spoke up against these atrocities and urged leaders of the German Evangelical Church to reject the infiltration of Nazi philosophies. But his cries fell on deaf ears as most Germain Evangelical Churches capitulated to every single one of Hitler’s demands, including barring “non-Aryans” from becoming ministers and replacing the Bible with Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto. As a result, Bonhoeffer joined forces with another prominent Berlin pastor, Martin Neimoller, to form the Confessing Church. The Confessing Church held true to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was supreme over the Church, not Der Fuhrer.

Later that year, Bonhoeffer took a bit of a sabbatical and accepted a two-year appointment to serve as the pastor of a German-speaking Protestant church in London. But he soon felt the call to return to his native Germany and returned to Berlin in 1935. By this time, Hitler’s persecution of the Confessing Church had begun. One leader had already been arrested, and another had fled to Switzerland. The next year, Bonhoeffer had his teaching credentials revoked upon being accused of being a pacifist and an enemy of the state.

In 1937, Nazi occupation of Germany intensified. The SS shut down the seminary of the Confessing Church. As a result, Bonhoeffer began to travel throughout the country, leading private seminaries for his students. It was during this time that he wrote one of his most famous works, “The Cost of Discipleship.” In it, Bonhoeffer gives the following challenge:

It is high time we broke with our theologically based restraint towards the state’s actions—which, after all, is only fear. ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak.’ Who in the church today realizes that this is the very least that the Bible requires of us? The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together to do this.

In June 1939, fearing he would be required to swear an oath to Hitler, Bonhoeffer fled to the United States. But, once again, he soon felt a call to return to his beleaguered country. After less than two years in the U.S., he returned to Germany.

Upon returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer’s rights to speak and publish were revoked. He soon joined forces with the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. Within this agency, he found many military officers who were opposed to Hitler’s regime and learned of numerous assassination plots. During the next few years, Bonhoeffer actively worked undercover for the German resistance movement and helped smuggle Jews to neutral Switzerland.

In April 1943, the Gestapo learned of Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the resistance and arrested him. He was confined to Tegel Military Prison for the next year and a half but was treated well compared to many other prisoners who were in concentration camps. Sympathetic guards helped to smuggle his writings out, including his magnum opus, Ethics. A few months before his arrest, we catch a glimpse of Bonhoeffer’s courage in his essay entitled “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943.” In it, he boldly declared the following:

Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.

On July 20, 1944, the most famous attempt to assassinate Hitler—“Valkyrie”—failed when the Fuhrer escaped with only minor injuries. Coupled with the Allied victory at Normandy a month earlier, Hitler felt his grasp on power slipping and subsequently mounted a ruthless campaign to rid Germany of anyone working to undermine the Reich. As a result, Bonhoeffer’s involvement in other attempts to assassinate Hitler were uncovered. He was later transferred from Tegel prison to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Bonhoeffer spent the next eight months at Buchenwald. But rather than being overcome with despair at his misfortune, he continued to minister to his fellow prisoners through prayer and Bible studies.

On Easter Sunday, April 7, 1945, Bonhoeffer was transferred to Flossenburg and given a court martial. The next morning, he was hung by his Nazi captors, likely ordered directly by the Fuhrer himself. Just before his execution, Bonhoeffer told his cellmate, “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.” The camp doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s execution later wrote, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

A month later, the Allies liberated Germany and its concentration camps. Hitler committed suicide with his wife Eva Braun in their underground bunker. It was Victory in Europe Day. Four months later, World War II was over.

Bonhoeffer did not fear death. In a sermon delivered in London in November 1933, he said: “No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence…Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.”

II Timothy 3:12 (KJV) tells us that “all who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” As I have studied this passage recently, two distinct points have captured my attention. First, Paul writes of those who “will live godly.” I do not believe Paul is speaking here of a private faith, one that allows for a comfortable Christian life. No, Paul is referring to Christians who will take a stand for Christ, risking relationships, jobs, incarceration, or even death. Second, Paul writes of persecution at the end of the verse, not as a possibility but as a certainty for all who choose to take a public stand for Christ. It is not a question of “if” but “when.”

Like Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized the weight of this verse and accepted it. Bonhoeffer knew the consequences that he, his family, his friends, and his colleagues might face if he chose to speak up against the Nazis. But his desire to speak truth against injustice was greater than his fear of the repercussions. In the end, he faced death as boldly as he had spoken out against the Nazis for the past 12 years. And while Bonhoeffer did pay the ultimate price for standing up for justice, his sacrifice and example live on. A month after his death, Germany and the Jewish people were liberated from Nazi oppression. Many today are still learning about his life, reading his works, and gaining inspiration.

The day may be coming in the United States when Christians who dare to speak up will be persecuted for their faith. In fact, a number of Christian-owned businesses and ministries are already being targeted and harassed. And while I pray we never have to give our lives, we may face broken relationships, lost jobs, and even prison time. God has given each of us a choice. We can either cower to the demands of a tyrannical government or we can risk everything for the cause of the truth.

May we all remember the remarkable life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the days, weeks, and years to come as we each are faced with similar decisions. And may we all be reminded that no matter what persecution we face, it is only temporary compared to an eternity in Heaven: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NKJV).

How Blasphemy Laws Violate Religious Freedom

by Rachel Nicole

November 23, 2020

What do an Austrian woman, an Indonesian Buddhist, and a Pakistani couple all have in common? In the past year, all of them were taken to court and found guilty of blasphemy laws in their respective countries.

According to Family Research Council’s newly updated publication, Criminalizing Conscience: The Status of Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Anti-conversion Laws Around the World: “Blasphemy laws generally prohibit insults to religion… in many Muslim-majority countries, they are often abused when allegations of blasphemy are made against religious minorities—often with no evidence—to settle unrelated disputes and vendettas.”

In 2018, an Austrian woman offered two seminars on Islam. She presented facts about the Prophet Mohammed’s life, including his marriage to an underage child. Soon after, she was convicted of blasphemy due to her “derogatory” remarks. The European Court of Human Rights refused to overturn the conviction, deferring to the Austrian courts’ judgment that her actions were “capable of arousing justified indignation.” However, even humanists agree that the case sets a bad precedent for Europe.

Indonesia has recently made great strides toward becoming a moderate Muslim nation. But blasphemy laws remain a problem. In 2018, a Buddhist woman was convicted of blasphemy after asking a nearby mosque to lower the volume of its speakers broadcasting the call to prayer. The Indonesian Supreme Court rejected her appeal in April 2019. She was paroled one month later.

In a particularly extreme case, an illiterate Pakistani couple, Shagufta and Shafqat, were arrested after a Muslim cleric claimed he had received a blasphemous text message from Shagufta’s phone. Authorities charged both Shagufta and Shafqat with “insulting the Qur’an” and “insulting the Prophet.” These crimes are punishable by life imprisonment and death, respectively. However, the texts they are accused of sending were in English, and the impoverished couple is illiterate, unable to text in English or their native Urdu. The couple remains imprisoned on death row, separated from each other and their four children. A recent report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that, as of December 2019, at least 17 people were on death row after being convicted on blasphemy charges.

Amid such dire human rights violations around the world, President Donald Trumpprioritized religious freedom in his administration, going as far as to make international religious freedom an issue ofnational security.

FRC President Tony Perkins has also been a consistent advocate of religious minorities who have fallen victim to religious persecution. In 2018, Perkins was in Izmir, Turkey, representing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) at the trial for Pastor Andrew Brunson. He traveled with Brunson back to the U.S. upon the pastor’s release. Perkins was at Pastor Brunson’s side as he prayed for President Trump in the Oval Office within hours of reentering the United States.

From the very beginning, FRC has worked alongside the Trump administration to promote faith, family, and freedom, including religious freedom. On October 30, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order on Advancing International Religious Freedom, declaring religious freedom protection as both a domestic and foreign policy priority. The order dedicates $50 million for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund programs that promote and defend religious freedoms abroad.

The global community must come to terms with the human rights abuses that have been inflicted on religious minorities all over the world. Although the persecuted belong to various faiths, Christians remain the most heavily persecuted religious minority in the world.

Americans believe that freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech are God-given, unalienable rights. In contrast, a great majority of the world’s governments do not hold the same beliefs. At a time when the voices of so many oppressed religious minorities are being snuffed out, Family Research Council is determined to amplify its effort to promote religious freedom in the U.S. and around the world.

To learn more about blasphemy laws and other laws that threaten the fundamental right to religious freedom, check out FRC’s publication, Criminalizing Conscience.

Rachel Nicole is an intern focusing on international religious freedom with the Center for Religious Liberty in FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department.

Supreme Court Takes a Look at Religious Liberty for Adoption Providers in Fulton Case

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

November 4, 2020

Today, the Supreme Court heard telephonic oral arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that concerns the right of religious foster care agencies to speak and act consistently with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Catholic Social Services (“CSS”) is a religiously affiliated ministry that has provided foster care services in the City of Philadelphia for over 200 years. Part of its work requires it to evaluate prospective foster parents to certify that they meet state standards. Because of its sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, CSS considers same-sex couples to be unmarried and is unable to certify them as foster parents. Although an LGBT-identified couple has never approached CSS, if this were to happen, CSS would simply refer the couple to another agency that would be able to certify them. Nevertheless, the City of Philadelphia stopped referring children to CSS.

At the Supreme Court, several of the justices demonstrated willingness to protect the religious beliefs of CSS and similar agencies. Justice Kavanaugh emphasized the fact that CSS’s beliefs have never prevented an LGBT-identified couple from fostering a child in Philadelphia. He stated that:

It seems like Philadelphia created a clash … and was looking for a fight and has brought that serious, controversial fight all the way to the Supreme Court even though no same-sex couple had gone to CSS, even though 30 agencies are available for same-sex couples, and even though CSS would refer any same-sex couple to one of those other agencies.

He emphasized that on this controversial issue, the government should seek “win-win answers” and try to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs as much as possible:

[G]overnments should be looking, where possible, for win-win answers, recognizing that neither side is going to win completely on these issues given the First Amendment on the one hand and given Obergefell on the other … [W]e need to find a balance that also respects religious beliefs … And what I fear here is that [a position that does not allow any exemptions for organizations like CSS] would require us to go back on the promise of respect for religious believers.        

Justice Alito expressed concern that the City had attempted to suppress a viewpoint with which it did not agree:

[I]f we are honest about what’s really going on here, it’s not about ensuring that same-sex couples in Philadelphia have the opportunity to become foster parents. It’s the fact that the city can’t stand the message that Catholic Social Services and the Archdiocese are sending by continuing to adhere to the old-fashioned view about marriage.

Even some of the Court’s more liberal justices were concerned about the City’s actions. Justice Breyer stated, “What’s actually bothering me quite a lot about this case is I think that no [LGBT-identified] family has ever been turned down by this agency. Indeed, none has ever applied.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who participated in oral arguments for the first time on Monday, asked one of the attorneys whether the Court’s controversial decision in Employment Division v. Smith should be overruled. Justice Alito also questioned the “stability” of the Smith decision. If the Court were to overrule this decision, it would likely reinstate a legal standard that provides strong protection for religious liberty.

The Court’s decision could have significant implications not only for the rights of religious foster care agencies, but religious liberty in a much broader sense. The Court is expected to decide this case by the end of June, and it is certainly one to keep an eye on.

In Fulton, the Religious Liberty of Foster Care Providers Hangs in the Balance

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

October 21, 2020

During its last term, the Supreme Court garnered considerable attention by wading into the culture wars over polarizing social issues such as abortion and sexuality. Decisions to strike down a common-sense law requiring abortionists to have hospital admitting privileges and to redefine “sex” to include sexual orientation and gender identity were mourned by conservatives and applauded by liberals.

While secular activists lamented, conservatives celebrated decisions upholding the rights of religious families and schools to participate in neutral tuition assistance programs and requiring foreign organizations to adopt policies opposing prostitution and sex trafficking to receive federal funds to combat HIV/AIDS. The Court will likely remain in the public eye during its current term, when it will hear arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that will have significant implications for the future of religious liberty and foster care in America. The justices will hear oral arguments in the case on November 4.

The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” Thus, the Constitution protects religious liberty in two separate but related provisions. The Establishment Clause prevents Congress from favoring any religious denomination at the national level, while the Free Exercise Clause guarantees Americans the right to believe and act according to their religious convictions. Both Clauses also constrain the actions of the states. Prior to 1963, the right to freely exercise one’s religion was somewhat limited. While an individual’s religious beliefs were absolutely protected, his or her freedom to act on those beliefs could be fairly easily regulated.  

In 1963 and 1972, the Supreme Court decided two landmark religious liberty cases, Sherbert v. Verner and Wisconsin v. Yoder. These cases established the strict scrutiny standard, which means that when the government implements a law or policy that burdens someone’s right to free exercise, it must show (1) that it has a compelling state interest that justifies its burden on religious exercise and (2) that its law or policy is the least restrictive means of accomplishing this compelling interest. Because of their robust protection of religious liberty, Sherbert and Yoder ushered in a Golden Age of religious freedom in America.

In 1990, the Court issued an unexpected decision that dramatically changed religious liberty protections. In Employment Division v. Smith, the Court abandoned the strict scrutiny standard and held that the government only needs to show that its law or policy is neutral and generally applicable in order to overcome a free exercise challenge. This “neutral law of general applicability” standard waters down protections for religious liberty by giving the government a lower bar to overcome. The government only needs to demonstrate that the law treats religious and secular groups equally and was not enacted to target religion. Under this standard, religious individuals are rarely successful in court and must prove that they were actively targeted for their religious beliefs to prevail.

In its upcoming term, the Court will consider Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The decision will impact the rights of religious foster care agencies to speak and act consistently with their sincerely held religious beliefs. One of the plaintiffs in the case, Catholic Social Services (CSS), is a faith-based foster care agency that operates in Philadelphia. When a child enters Philadelphia’s foster care system, the City refers them to one of several foster care agencies. These agencies then evaluate prospective foster parents to certify that they meet state standards. Because of its sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, CSS considers same-sex couples to be unmarried and is unable to certify them as foster parents. However, if an LGBT-identified couple were ever to approach them (which has never happened), CSS would refer them to another agency that would be a better fit. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services has stopped referring children to CSS.

In the lower courts, CSS argued that the City’s actions were neither neutral nor generally applicable and targeted CSS because of its religious beliefs. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that there was no First Amendment violation and that Philadelphia did not treat CSS differently because of its religious beliefs. Rather, the court found that Philadelphia was merely engaged in a good-faith effort to enforce its nondiscrimination policy, which “prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in public accommodations.”  

In Fulton, one of the major issues that the Supreme Court will consider is whether it should revisit its decision in Employment Division v. Smith. If the Court revisits and overrules Smith, it will be a major victory for religious liberty that could restore the favorable strict scrutiny standard. However, if the Court declines to revisit Smith, or revisits and upholds Smith, its damaging precedent will become further entrenched in American law, dealing a major blow to religious liberty. The Court’s decision could be influenced by its recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which, as Justice Alito predicted in his dissent, could affect the speech of those who desire to “express[] disapproval of same-sex relationships …”

Allowing religious discrimination against faith-based foster care agencies would not just be a blow to the constitutionally-protected right of religious liberty. It would also be detrimental to the already overburdened foster care system. In states and localities that have forced religious agencies to close, children suffer. For example, after Illinois passed a statute that forced all foster care and adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples, nearly 3,000 children were displaced from religious agencies that were forced to close, and over 5,000 foster homes were lost. In Philadelphia, the home of a “Foster Parent of the Year” award winner who had been serving needy youth for decades was forcibly closed to foster youth, as were others. After the City ended its contract with CSS, siblings of children who had already been placed by the agency faced the daunting prospective of being forced into separate homes.  

Pennsylvania is not the only state to witness the targeting of religious foster care agencies. In Michigan, an activist couple targeted St. Vincent Catholic Charities, passing four other agencies they could have worked with as they traveled from their home to St. Vincent. Here, referrals had been made. Children in St. Vincent’s care had been transferred to other agencies working with LGBT-identified couples who were interested in adopting children in St. Vincent’s care. And in New York, New Hope Family Services, which has been serving needy children for over 50 years, was informed by the state that it must either change its policy of referring LGBT-identified couples to other agencies or cease its adoption services. A New York District Court judge recently issued an injunction on behalf of the church, preventing the state “from revoking New Hope Family Services’ authorization to place children for adoption.”

In Fulton, the Court stands poised to issue a decision that will have a lasting impact on the religious liberty of foster care agencies and perhaps that of all Americans. While we watch and wait for the Court’s decision, we should pray that God would give the justices wisdom to make the right decision.

Kaitlyn Shepherd is a legal intern with the Policy & Government Affairs Department at Family Research Council.

Christians Rejoice as Sudan Moves Toward Embracing Religious Freedom

by Arielle Del Turco

July 21, 2020

I am very pleased, God has answered our prayers,” Noha Kassa, a Christian leader in Sudan, proclaimed earlier this month in response to the repeal of Sudan’s infamous apostasy law. 

For years, Sudan had topped lists of worst violators of religious freedom in the world. But all of that changed in the spring of 2019 when the military overthrew the longstanding President Omar al-Bashir. Since then, the joint military-civilian Sovereign Council has been steadily enacting reforms, including reforms recommended by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In July, the government repealed Article 126 of Sudanese criminal law, which prohibited apostasy and required the death penalty as punishment if the accused did not repent. Sudan is the only Islamic-majority country to repeal an apostasy or blasphemy law in the last two years.

In Muslim-majority countries like Sudan, apostasy laws are intended to keep people from abandoning Islam. Such laws are an affront to religious freedom because they prevent people from choosing and living out their faith as their conscience dictates.

Sudan’s apostasy laws became famous around the world, thanks to the case of Mariam Ibraheem. In 2014, Mariam was sentenced to death for apostasy. With a toddler at home, she gave birth to her second child in jail. Mariam had been raised by her Christian mother, though her father was a Muslim. Before marrying her Catholic husband, Mariam joined the Catholic Church in 2011.

Mariam’s case prompted an international outcry, and pressure from foreign governments eventually prompted the Sudanese government to release her. Now, the law that once sentenced her to death has thankfully been repealed.

While repealing such an oppressive law may seem like an obvious move to those of us in the West, this act required Sudanese leaders’ courage. There are radicals in Sudan who did not want to see this change happen and would prefer to see Sudan’s legacy of religious repression continue. The current Sudanese government should be applauded for its efforts to create a freer society for its people.

Apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-conversion laws continue to plague religious minorities in many parts of the world. As a part of the State Department’s effort to prioritize international religious freedom in its foreign policy, U.S. diplomats should consistently urge every government who maintains one of these laws to repeal them in diplomatic meetings.

Sudan’s move toward embracing religious freedom is worth celebrating. However, it also reminds us that apostasy laws are still on the books in several countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania. Sudan’s example proves change is possible, and it should encourage us to advocate for the repeal of laws oppressive to religious liberty everywhere they remain.

China Is About to Clamp Down on Hong Kong

by Arielle Del Turco

June 26, 2020

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on June 26 that the U.S. will impose visa restrictions on Chinese officials “responsible for eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms.” This is a good step for the people of Hong Kong desperately looking for a lifeline as they watch their freedoms get trampled by the Chinese government.

Last year’s pro-democracy protests, which captured global attention, initially targeted a proposed extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China and subjected to its corrupt judicial system. Yet, this year’s threat to Hong Kong’s freedom is much worse. China’s National People’s Congress is expected to ratify a sweeping new national security law for Hong Kong next week. Newly released details indicate the law will damage many of the freedoms Hong Kongers have long enjoyed, including religious freedom.

According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984, Hong Kong is meant to enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years following the city’s return to China in 1997. With the new security law, Hong Kong’s autonomy—and the “one country, two systems” principle that has guided its government—is all but destroyed. The new law will allow Beijing to override Hong Kong law, establish a national security office in Hong Kong to investigate crimes, and enable Beijing to suppress protests or public opposition.

China is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights and religious freedom. So, what does Beijing’s encroachment into the legal system in Hong Kong mean for its religious communities?

Firstly, Christian pastors and clergy members who participated in Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests may be punished for their participation. Christians and Christian leaders played a pivotal role in pro-democracy demonstrations last year. The hymn “Hallelujah to the Lord” became an anthem for protestors. Meanwhile, Chinese officials insinuated that demonstrators were terrorists.

No dissent is tolerated in mainland China, and Hong Kong’s religious leaders who are vocal against Beijing may be extradited and tried under the new law. Christian NGOs are now expressing concern for outspoken religious leaders such as Cardinal Joseph Zen and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, who supported the pro-democracy movement.

Secondly, the new law might pave the way for Hong Kong’s Christian leaders to be silenced. According to an outline of the law released by Chinese officials, the national security concerns Beijing claims the right to address include secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.

China’s broad accusation of “subversion of state power” may sound familiar. At the end of 2019, well-known house church pastor Wang Yi, who led one of China’s largest unregistered churches, was sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting to subvert state power.” Beijing uses this phrase, among others, as an excuse to lock away anyone who publicly objects to the government’s practices. Should Hong Kong’s pastors expect to be next?

Thirdly, in addition to harming believers in Hong Kong, this new law is likely to have negative effects on faith in mainland China. Christianity is a legally recognized religion. However, Christian churches that register with the Chinese government are pressured to adapt their religious beliefs to Chinese Communist Party values, including socialism. To avoid government interference, many unregistered house churches operate outside of regulation but lack resources and pastoral training as they try to practice authentic Christianity. For a long time, house churches on the Chinese mainland have found support from Hong Kong’s Christians.

Churches and pastors in Hong Kong provide Bibles, training, and financial support to house churches on the mainland. One study from 2014 found that over 60 percent of Hong Kong’s churches “engage in work on the mainland, illicit or otherwise, including preaching and theological training.” If Hong Kong Christians are subjected to the same so-called “national security” laws that put Pastor Wang Yi in prison for subversion of state power, this may cut off the support and resources Hong Kong pastors feel they can safely offer. For the mainland’s increasingly oppressed churches, support from Hong Kong is a lifeline they can’t afford to lose.

On June 25, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution introduced by Senator Josh Hawley which condemned Beijing’s national security law and called on free countries to stand against Beijing’s effort to destroy basic liberties and human rights in Hong Kong. The Senate also passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act which would impose sanctions on individuals, entities, and banks that aid Beijing’s campaign to control Hong Kong and destroy its autonomy. The U.S. House of Representatives should follow suit and swiftly pass the Hong Kong Autonomy Act and send it to the president’s desk.

When the National People’s Congress announced its proposed national security law, Beijing broke its agreement to allow Hong Kong autonomy. For Hong Kong residents who cherish their political and religious freedom, the effects will be widespread and devastating. As they fear for their future, U.S. officials must do everything within their power to support the people of Hong Kong. This city has long been a beacon of freedom and prosperity in contrast with Chinese authoritarianism. Chinese encroachment into Hong Kong is a tragedy for the free world, and it is one that the United States must not watch unfold silently.

We Must Never Forget the Tiananmen Square Massacre

by Arielle Del Turco

June 4, 2020

Every year for the past 30 years, crowds have gathered in Hong Kong on June 4th to light candles, hear from former Chinese pro-democracy activists, and mourn the infamous massacre of student demonstrators by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1989. This year, no legal vigil was permitted, but that didn’t stop thousands from bringing white candles to a Hong Kong park to remember the tragedy that came to be known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Hong Kong authorities refused to allow the annual public remembrance to be held this year, claiming to be concerned about the coronavirus, but such displays are always banned on the mainland. Many of the freedom-loving people of Hong Kong—who had long identified with those who called for freedom in Tiananmen Square—now fear the Chinese government is silencing Hong Kong dissenters much like they did in 1989.            

Beijing suppresses these annual memorials. Yet, the world must remember the tragedy that took place three decades ago because it reveals what the Chinese government is willing to do—even to its citizens: to squash perceived threats to its authority.

Thirty-one years ago today, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army fired live ammunition into crowds of their own people. Chinese civilians had been demonstrating in Tiananmen Square in Beijing for weeks, calling for a more democratic government. Their protests ended in a bloody crackdown that shocked the globe.

It is estimated that several hundred to several thousand people died that day, but an official death toll was never released. Family members of the deceased victims still beg for answers.

To this day, the Chinese government does not admit wrongdoing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. When the government of Taiwan recently called upon Beijing to apologize for the violent crackdown three decades ago, a spokesman defended the legacy of communist party leadership. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declared, “The great achievements after the founding of new China fully demonstrate that the development path chosen by the new China is totally correct and in line with China’s national conditions.”

Yet, the often-violent legacy of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule is nothing to take pride in. Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution took drastic human tolls and denied the Chinese people basic human rights.

The Chinese government still withholds such rights from its citizens today. Among them is freedom of religion, a right intimate and fundamental to the human conscience.

In the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the government is in a full-on assault against religion. At least 1.8 million Uyghur Muslims are forcibly detained in internment camps where they are brainwashed and abused. Outside the camps, the rest of the region is patrolled with facial recognition technology and other means to tightly control the oppressed Uyghur minority.

Throughout the mainland, Christians are intimidated, and churches are surveilled as crosses are torn down from their buildings. Well-known house church pastor Wang Yi sits in prison serving a nine-year sentence—a grave reminder to other pastors that they ought not step out of line.

Perhaps most alarmingly, evidence is mounting that the Chinese government is forcibly harvesting organs from political prisoners. These are thought to be mostly from Falun Gong practitioners, a long-persecuted faith group entirely undeserving of the abuse they endure. 

The Chinese Communist Party may want the world to forget its ruthless history, but it is critical that we keep the memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre alive.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre exposed the blatant disregard with which the Chinese Communist Party views human lives. This disregard is unfortunately not relegated to history—it still affects the Chinese people, including religious believers. Today, we remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre and its countless victims. But let us also remember those who continue to suffer under the Chinese government’s oppressive policies.

The Trump Administration Is About to Do the Right Thing on Religious Freedom — Again

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M. , Mary Beth Waddell, J.D.

May 22, 2020

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is about to finalize a rule it proposed last year to ensure that religious freedom and conscience are protected, the medical profession is not politicized, and patient care is prioritized. We urge this rule’s swift finalization.

This rule is great news for patients and the health care community alike. In 2016, under the Obama administration, HHS issued regulations on Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act defining “sex” in the context of “sex discrimination” to incorporate “gender identity” and “the termination of pregnancy”. Health care institutions sued, contending that the heavy hand of government was forcing them to violate their conscience and threatening their ability to operate. Understanding that HHS had exceeded its authority, a federal judge issued an injunction to prevent the Obama administration rule from taking effect.

Now, President Trump plans to clean up this mess, and protect religious freedom, for our caregiving institutions nationwide. This policy change will enable the medical community to fulfill the Hippocratic oath, while protecting the convictions of those in that community who want to hold to their religious beliefs and consciences about the biological understanding of sex.

President Trump’s proposed rule is also pro-life, and will ensure that the pro-life convictions of medical professionals will be honored. The inclusion of “termination of pregnancy” in the Obama administration rule could be read to require the provision of, and coverage or referral for, abortion. This could then lead to federal financial assistance being conditioned on the promotion and performance of acts that devalue the sanctity of human life. Thus, removing this language is important to ensuring that federal laws protecting the right of healthcare workers not to provide or refer for abortion will be upheld. 

We applaud HHS for standing with science and religious liberty to ensure that the medical community is free of political chains and can simply focus on providing the best possible care to their patients according to the best medical science.

The finalization of this rule is a high priority for religious freedom, and very important to protecting the faith of many throughout our country.

It should be finalized promptly, so that those with long-running conscience and religious freedom concerns in this area can finally put them to rest.

Crimes” in the Criminal State of China

by Dan Hart

December 5, 2019

The video is chilling. In a recently released clip from inside a Chinese police station, a lone man sits strapped into a metal cage-like contraption that looks like it is meant to subdue a wild animal, but is actually meant for the interrogation of ordinary citizens. With downcast eyes and a timid voice, he softly answers a series of questions from his interrogators, apologizing for drinking “a bit too much” and speaking “nonsense.” His crime? He apparently made a negative remark or two on social media about the police confiscating motorcycles.

What’s wrong with the police confiscating motorcycles?” the interrogator demands.

Nothing wrong with that,” the man feebly responds.

At the end of the video, after repeatedly expressing his sorrow for his “crime” in response to multiple demands by the interrogators to explain himself, the man makes a final plea for mercy. With a bow of his head, he solemnly declares, “Uncle police, I’m so sorry. I’m wrong. I know that now. Please forgive me. I won’t do it again, ever.”

Interrogations like these are now becoming a routine part of life in China. With no civil rights and an encroaching regime that monitors every aspect of daily life, ordinary citizens like this man know that if they say something on social media that the government doesn’t like and say the wrong thing to the police, they could end up in prison, tortured, or killed.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg of the human rights atrocities and abuses that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is perpetrating against its own people. Here is a brief list:

  • As we have written about previously, the CCP is forcibly harvesting the organs of religious minorities to fuel an organ industry to the tune of $10-20 billion, which provides up to 85 percent of the world’s organ transplants (more on that later).
  • The CCP has been persecuting and executing the traditionally Muslim Uyghurs since at least the 1990’s. Today, over 1.5 million ethnic Uyghurs are currently imprisoned in what the CCP calls “concentrated education and training schools,” in which detainees are subjected to indoctrination sessions, torture, sexual assault, and execution.
  • The CCP continues to mandate the number of children couples can have, which recently changed from a one-child to a two-child policy. This system is enforced through exorbitant monetary fines, forced abortions, and forced sterilizations. It is estimated that there have been more than 330 million induced abortions in China since the one-child was first implemented in the early 1980’s. A significant (but unknown) percentage of these abortions were forced.
  • The CCP’s reign of terror against religious practitioners has been ongoing since the 1960’s. Currently, religious practice is being suppressed by any means necessary.
  • The CCP is implementing a “social credit system” that rates the behavior of Chinese citizens so that their ranking fluctuates up and down. Depending on your score, you can be banned from buying plane and train tickets, your children can be banned from attending the best schools, you can be denied jobs, and you can be publicly named a “bad citizen,” among a host of other injustices.

As these human rights atrocities and abuses illustrate, China is in fact a criminal state. The final report compiled by the China Tribunal (which amassed definitive evidence of forced organ harvesting that has and is currently happening in China) makes this conclusion:

Governments and any who interact in any substantial way with the PRC [People’s Republic of China] including:

  • Doctors and medical institutions;
  • Industry, and businesses, most specifically airlines, travel companies, financial services businesses, law firms and pharmaceutical and insurance companies together with individual tourists,
  • Educational establishments;
  • Arts establishments

should now recognise that they are, to the extent revealed above, interacting with a criminal state.

FRC could not agree more. Organizations like the NBA, Hollywood, and other industries that have conveniently ignored the human rights atrocities and abuses committed by the CCP for financial gain must answer to the fact that they are dealing with a criminal state. And as we have repeatedly pointed out, the United States must address these atrocities and abuses in its current and future trade and diplomatic dealings with the CCP.

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