Tag archives: Religious Liberty

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.

How Should Christians Think About Biden’s Vaccine Mandate?

by David Closson

September 20, 2021

On September 9, President Joe Biden announced new executive action concerning COVID-19 vaccines. According to the president’s plan, all employers with more than 100 employees must require their workers to 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 mandate follows a recent mandate that all federal employees receive the vaccine, get tested weekly, or face dismissal from their job. 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 (although some think this is without legal authority). Currently, it is unclear what type of medical, religious, or conscience exemptions will be granted concerning the vaccine mandate.

How should Christians respond to President Biden’s sweeping vaccine mandate? Specifically, how should Christians think about religious exemptions and accommodations? Admittedly, these are complex questions on which many biblically grounded Christians differ. But given the scope and far-reaching consequences for civil liberties, conscience rights, religious freedom, and the ability of families to make health decisions, these questions deserve careful consideration and reflection.

Legal Concerns

First, there are serious concerns that President Biden’s vaccine mandate is illegal and unconstitutional. No federal statute or constitutional provision expressly gives the president the authority to impose a sweeping vaccine mandate on private businesses and their employees in this manner, and the Biden administration has an extremely questionable reading of the statute they claim gives him this authority. Some states have already threatened to sue.

At the very least, Christians should be aware of the legal and constitutional concerns related to the president’s order. Once the new rule goes into effect, the mandate might not withstand the likely barrage of lawsuits challenging its legality.

Role of Government

Second, questions about the legality and constitutionality of President Biden’s vaccine mandate should prompt Christians to think about the proper role of government. The Bible teaches that government has been ordained by God. According to Paul, “Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:2, ESV). In the United States, the primary governing authority is the U.S. Constitution. This means that when a president or any government official pursues a policy that oversteps their prescribed realm of authority, they are acting unlawfully. Of course, when our elected officials issue directives within their rightful scope of authority, Christians are bound to comply, so long as obeying does not require us to sin against God, a Christian’s highest authority (Acts 5:29).  

But do we have an obligation to automatically and always obey the government? Similarly, how should Christians respond if a mandate or law is not illegal, but they personally don’t like the law or find it inconvenient? For example, what’s the proper Christian response if the government were to mandate a weekly exercise routine or require its citizens to wear pink hats on Thursday?  On these questions, Christians should be humble and willing to learn from one another. We should also endeavor to think biblically about the role and purpose of government. 

One helpful way to think biblically about the role of government is through the concept of sphere sovereignty, a philosophy of society developed by Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). According to Kuyper, life is divided into distinct, autonomous jurisdictions such as the state, family, church, and the individual. Although these spheres interact and may even overlap at points, there are clear lines of demarcation related to sovereignty that should not be crossed. For Kuyper, the state is empowered with limited oversight responsibility over the other spheres. However, the state’s authority is derivative, and dependent on God. Thus, the state must never attempt to monopolize power. Moreover, the state should respect the sovereignty of the individual. The state may intervene when a dispute arises between individuals and other spheres, but the state must never assume an outsized role and take over the tasks of society.

In short, sphere sovereignty is a model of diffused power that Kuyper believed was rooted in the structure of nature. Because authority is distributed across society’s vast array of institutions, no single entity or sphere accumulates ultimate sovereignty. Consequently, God’s position as supreme sovereign is preserved. Kuyper’s reflections are helpful when applied to the role of government. In fact, Kuyper’s thought follows the logic of Romans 13 which teaches that the state exists to punish evildoers and exact God’s wrath on those who do wrong (v. 4). Romans 13 does not teach that Christians should uncritically comply with the state no matter what is being demanded. As theologian Thomas Schreiner explains, “[Romans 13] is a general exhortation that delineates what is usually the case: people should normally obey the governing authorities.” In other words, the God-delegated purpose of the governing authorities is to punish evildoers and reward those who do good.

An implication of these principles is that when the government goes beyond its prescribed limits, it is acting unjustly and loses legitimacy. Applying the logic of sphere sovereignty to the vaccine mandate, the government does not have the authority to force us to inject a substance into our bodies that we do not consent to. This is outside the government’s jurisdiction, so it is appropriate for individuals to be wary about forced vaccination. The issue of bodily integrity is important, and Christians should be very concerned when the government oversteps its jurisdiction into the realm of the family and individual.

Of course, it is important to note that this appeal to bodily integrity is different than the popular but logically flawed pro-abortion slogan “my body, my choice.” For one, abortion deals with two bodies: the mothers’ and her child’s. The mother and child are two separate people; they are genetically distinct. Abortion violently destroys the body of the unborn child and interrupts the natural process of pregnancy, permanently severing the relationship between mother and child.

Political Concerns

Third, there are relevant political considerations related to the president’s mandate. In short, if Joe Biden can enact a mandate as broad and sweeping as this one, is there a mandate that this president or a future president can’t hand down in the name of public health? What’s the limit to what the president can compel American families and private companies to do? As it stands, the president’s mandate would affect about 100 million people. This fact alone necessitates careful consideration of the scope of presidential authority and power.

It is worth noting that the president’s directive is far more extreme than the orders handed down by Democrat governors and mayors. Throughout the pandemic, Democrat leaders have embraced measures such as mask mandates, lockdowns, and school closures. But the president’s mandate goes even further. In fact, Biden’s heavy-handed action threatens to increase vaccine hesitancy rather than persuade the unvaccinated to comply with the order.

Conscience Concerns

Fourth, questions about religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate have prompted debate in the wider society, including among Christians. Notably, there is nothing in the Bible that forbids Christians from getting vaccinated. Many Christians, citing verses like Philippians 2:4 (“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”), have cheerfully received COVID-19 vaccines out of a desire to protect not only their own health but also the health of their loved ones and neighbors. Meanwhile, other believers have reservations or sincerely held conscience objections to receiving the vaccine, believing it is morally impermissible or not right for them.

If there are no clear biblical admonitions against receiving a vaccine, are there any grounds for a religious exemption? On this question, Alliance Defending Freedom, an influential Christian legal group, 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.

While the objections of some Christians to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine are rooted in medical, personal, and political concerns, the concerns of others qualify for what might be called “conscience objections.” Like religious beliefs, conscience claims are deeply personal and connected to the core of a person. Now, when talking about conscience, as with anything, it is important to define our terms. In short, Christians believe conscience is a God-given internal faculty that guides moral decision-making. Our conscience convicts us when we do something wrong. A rightly functioning conscience inflicts distress, in the form of guilt, shame, or 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; therefore, it is morally wrong to force anyone to do something that violates their conscience. In the context of the vaccine mandate, it seems appropriate to honor and respect those who have legitimate, morally informed reasons for receiving or not receiving a vaccine.

Abortion Concerns

Fifth, when it comes to religious freedom concerns and the vaccine, concern about complicity with abortion has been raised. On this front, it is worth noting that for 2,000 years, Christians have been clear on their convictions about abortion (i.e., the intentional killing of unborn children in the womb). According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, 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 (but not in the vaccines themselves). 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. Many who believe in the sanctity of life sincerely believe it is inappropriate to have even the slightest connection with abortion, even if that connection is remote. For that reason, some have chosen to forego a vaccine while many other pro-life Americans have chosen to get the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine and avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to the latter’s use of fetal cell lines in its development and production.

Finally, as a general note, when abortion-derived cell lines are used in the development, production, or testing of vaccines, the Christian community—including those who chose to get vaccines—should express disapproval about the continued use of these cell lines and request that laboratories and pharmaceutical companies not use these cell lines in the future.

Final Reflections

In short, President Biden’s vaccine mandate has proven to be divisive and frustrating to millions of Americans. After months of promising that his administration would not mandate vaccines, Biden has done an about-face. (As recently as July, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about vaccine mandates and responded, “Can we mandate vaccines across the country? No. That’s not a role that the federal government, I think, even has the power to make.”) Many Americans are understandably outraged. As those called to take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5), Christians cannot respond to the vaccine mandate simply out of emotion but must think carefully and biblically about the announcement. Legal challenges will determine whether the order is constitutional and therefore enforceable.

But beyond the specifics of the mandate, Christians should think biblically about the role and authority of government as well as the propriety and wisdom of appealing to religious freedom exemptions. Religious freedom is a precious right afforded to those who live in this country and should never be abused. Although some Christians think it is unwise to appeal to religious freedom exemptions when the Bible does not prohibit vaccines, it is nonetheless the case that millions of Christians believe taking a COVID-19 vaccine is not the right decision for their health or have sincere conscience objections to being forced to do something they deem even remotely connected to an immoral practice such as abortion. Therefore, rather than bully, cajole, or coerce our fellow Americans, it seems prudent to respect each other’s religious beliefs, consciences, and moral convictions concerning vaccines.

Will Schumer Go All the Way for Biden’s ED Nominee Catherine Lhamon?

by Meg Kilgannon

August 5, 2021

In a pleasantly surprising departure from their usual rubberstamping of Biden administration nominees, Senate Republicans earlier this week managed a party-line vote against Catherine Lhamon, Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education. The 11-11 deadlock means Lhamon will not advance to the floor for a confirmation vote without intervention by Senate Democratic Leadership.

Lhamon’s fate was sealed by her actions during her previous stint as assistant secretary for Civil Rights at OCR during the Obama administration. In 2016, Lhamon disregarded established procedure and the proper role of federal agencies when she jointly issued a “Dear Colleague” letter that threatened to remove funding from schools that did not enforce gender identity ideology throughout their operations. Not only did this letter require schools to allow biological boys who self-identify as girls into restrooms and locker rooms meant for biological girls, but this letter also required schools to place biological boys who self-identify as girls in the same housing as biological girls in overnight accommodations. The letter allows schools to honor a student’s request for a single occupancy accommodation “if it so chooses.” Lhamon further trampled constitutionally protected rights by requiring schools to “treat students consistent with their gender identity even if their education records or identification documents indicate a different sex.” The letter further noted, “The Departments have resolved Title IX investigations with agreements committing that school staff and contractors will use pronouns and names consistent with a transgender student’s gender identity.”

During Lhamon’s tenure, the Department of Education’s official website began publishing a “shame list” that religious schools could be placed on simply for requesting a waiver from Title IX provisions that violate their religious beliefs. Lhamon has indicated that the religious liberty of these schools should be construed as narrowly as possible while the re-definition of “sex discrimination” should be construed as broadly as possible. In a 2015 statement regarding these waivers, Lhamon acknowledged that they are legally allowed but stated that the Department of Education would “vigorously enforce Title IX’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex, including gender identity, in every applicable school.”

Under Lhamon’s leadership, the OCR was weaponized against those accused of sexual assault on campus, proving her willingness to exert power over schools through Title IX compliance by fiat. This amounted to an attack on due process rights—by someone charged with enforcing civil rights. The Trump administration’s Title IX Rule offered a much-needed correction and was hailed by many as a welcome improvement.

Lhamon’s record on school discipline is also troubling, as Max Eden explained recently on Washington Watch. Eden has sounded the alarm on the ramifications of her policies in his book Why Meadow Died and this op-ed on her nomination.

In 2018, Lhamon explained her work at the OCR on the podcast SwampED this way:

[OCR’s] jurisdictional obligation is to open for investigation any case that is within its jurisdiction and to hear families’ concerns about conditions in schools, to investigate whether those concerns rise to the level of a civil rights violation and if so, work with school districts and schools themselves and colleges and universities to try to secure changes to make sure that those kinds of violations don’t persist going forward. That means that there are literally millions of students in the arms of the office of civil rights. There are about 49 million public school students in the K-12 system and close to 20 million students in 7,000 colleges and universities around the country who are subject to the protection and the enforcement of the office for civil rights. 

Thankfully, whether or not the Senate will “subject” America’s students to Lhamon’s heavy hand at the OCR remains an open question. When her confirmation comes up for a vote in September, let us hope and pray they will not.

State Round-Up: Protecting Adoption Agencies and Foster/Adoptive Families

by Chantel Hoyt

July 20, 2021

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about key provisions that states have advanced in 2021 to defend the family and human dignity.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia was a win for Catholic Social Services (CSS). It allows them to continue serving the neediest children without compromising their religious beliefs. However, the decision was not the strong affirmation of religious liberty for which many were hoping. As noted in FRC’s blog on the opinion:

The Supreme Court did the bare minimum to protect CSS and other faith adherents. It was only because Philadelphia had other exceptions, but not religious ones, that the Court found the city in violation of the First Amendment.

In his concurrence, Justice Alito warned that “[t]his decision might as well be written on the dissolving paper sold in magic shops.” Whether a city with no exceptions for secular agencies can force a religious agency to violate its religious beliefs is yet to be decided by the Court. Therefore, more needs to be done to protect and affirm the religious liberty of faith-based agencies. Fortunately, several states are taking steps to do just that.

Thus far, 10 states have Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Acts (CWPIAs), legislation that protects adoption and foster care providers from government discrimination based on protected beliefs about the nature of marriage and family. “Government discrimination” can come in many forms. Strong CWPIAs list as many of these forms as possible, with some of the most common being:

  • Denying a license, permit, or other authorization, or the renewal thereof, or revoking/suspending such license, permit, or other authorization.
  • Denying a grant, contract, or participation in a government program.
  • Denying the agency’s application for funding or refusing to renew the agency’s funding.

Ideally, the beliefs protected will also be clearly defined (i.e. the religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is between one man and one woman), although this has been less common in the CWPIAs introduced thus far. Many of these bills also include a strengthening provision—a civil cause of action for agencies whose rights have been violated by the government. Some bills also specifically protect child welfare agencies from being subject to civil fines or damages for acting in accordance with their beliefs.

Since 2010, 49 CWPIAs have been introduced in 19 states. Ten states have enacted these bills in some form—Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The first was introduced and enacted in Virginia in 2012, and the most recent was enacted in Tennessee in 2020.

In 2021, four CWPIAs have been introduced in four states—Iowa (HF 170), Kentucky (HB 524), South Carolina (HB 3878), and Massachusetts (H. 1536).

Iowa HF 170 is unique in that it clearly defines the protected beliefs child welfare agencies may hold. Among these are the beliefs that “Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman” and that “The terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ refer to distinct and immutable biological sexes that are determinable by anatomy and genetics by the time of birth.”

Oklahoma resolutions HJR 1059 (2016) and HJR 1023 (2017) read similarly to Iowa’s bill, as they specifically protect child welfare agency’s “beliefs or the lawful expression of those beliefs, including sincerely held religious beliefs regarding marriage, family, or sexuality.” 

Most CWPIAs specifically protect the right of adoption and foster agencies (many of which have a religious mission) to decline certain placements if doing so would violate a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction. However, spelling out which beliefs warrant protection adds an extra layer of clarity for these agencies.

One important thing to note: Half of the bills introduced after 2010 have only protected agencies’ “written” beliefs contained in a policy or organizing document. Some bills even include a requirement that these beliefs be written and available to be viewed. This can exclude some agencies from protection if their sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions about marriage are not spelled out in a written policy or on the agency’s website. Therefore, CWPIAs are stronger when they don’t make this stipulation and instead protect all sincerely held religious beliefs to have protection. For example, South Carolina HB 3878 (2021) prohibits government discrimination against an agency for providing or declining to provide “any adoption or foster care service… based on or in a manner consistent with a sincerely-held religious belief or moral conviction.”

Contrary to what is often said by the media, CWPIAs do not stop same-sex couples from becoming adoptive or foster parents, nor do they limit the pool of potential foster and adoptive parents. The majority of child welfare agencies in the United States are willing to place children with same-sex couples. Most faith-based agencies, such as Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, will help these couples find other agencies willing to assist them.

Forcing welfare agencies to either violate their beliefs, close their doors, or serve in a more limited capacity is detrimental to the children these agencies serve. Allowing faith-based agencies to operate alongside non-faith-based ones ensures that more children in need will receive care, not fewer. Recognizing this fact, 10 states have already enacted CWPIAs into law. Given the number of lawsuits seeking to force foster and adoption agencies to act in ways contrary to their beliefs, other states would be wise to get ahead of the problem and follow suit.

The Unshakable Faith of a Baker From Colorado

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

July 9, 2021

I remember when Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was argued at the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2017. People hoping to witness the oral arguments had been camped outside the Court for days. That morning, crowds of people waited to hear how the justices would rule on Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who had declined to make a cake celebrating a same-sex wedding.

In May 2021, Phillips published his account of what happened in The Cost of My Faith: How a Decision in My Cake Shop Took Me to the Supreme Court. The book describes his split-second decision to not bake the cake, explains the ensuing years of legal challenges, and recounts the lessons he learned from the experience. His story is an encouraging testimony of God’s faithfulness to sustain His children throughout life’s difficulties.

As Legal Battles Mounted, Phillips’ Faith Only Grew

Phillips begins by recalling a life-changing conversation he had with two men, David and Charlie, who came into Masterpiece Cakeshop to ask him to create a custom wedding cake for their wedding. Phillips politely declined, stating that he could not create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding but that he would be happy to sell them anything else in his shop. The conversation was brief, and David and Charlie refused to give Phillips a chance to explain his rationale further.

Phillips recalls his desire to extend the conversation so he could explain that although he will gladly serve anyone, he cannot express every message “because of the content of the message that the imagery or words on the cake might convey” (3). Since opening Masterpiece Cakeshop in 1993, Phillips had adhered to this simple rule and had previously declined to make cakes featuring a variety of messages, such as obscene language, hateful rhetoric, and statements or images that “mocked or contradicted [his] faith” or celebrated events such as divorce or Halloween (61, 71).

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled against Phillips and held that compelling him to express messages he disagreed with did not violate his First Amendment rights. After the case worked its way through the lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court took the case. In June 2018, the Court sided with Phillips and held that the Commission’s actions violated Phillips’ right to freely exercise his religion. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the record showed the Commission’s “clear and impermissible hostility” toward Phillips’ sincerely-held religious beliefs, and he explained how the Commission treated Phillips differently than other bakers, who declined to create custom cakes that expressed messages opposing same-sex marriage.

Less than a month after this victory, Phillips faced another legal challenge. On the same day that the Supreme Court granted cert in Phillips’ case, one would-be customer, Autumn Scardina, had requested a cake that was pink on the inside and blue on the outside to celebrate a gender transition. Phillips declined to create the cake because of its intended message. In response to charges brought against him by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, Phillips and his attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against the Commission. In March 2019, the state’s attorneys offered to settle the case after evidence showing the Commission’s continuing hostility to Phillips’ religious beliefs surfaced. After this second victory, Phillips hoped to continue his business in peace.

That peace, however, was remarkably short-lived. In June 2019, Scardina, seeking over $100,000 in fines and damages, filed another lawsuit against Phillips in state court. On June 15, 2021, the court ruled against Phillips. The court found that Phillips’ refusal to bake the cake was based on Scardina’s transgender status, not on the cake’s intended message, and that forcing Phillips to bake the cake would not violate his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

Phillips concludes the book by describing the lessons he learned during the many years of legal challenges. He states that although some may have intended their attacks to destroy his faith, his faith is now stronger than ever. He expresses gratitude for having been given a platform to speak the truth. Phillips has also grown in humility and patience and has learned to be a better listener. He has gained a greater appreciation for the wise system of government instituted by the Founders. Most importantly, though, Phillips experienced God’s goodness:

[C]oming through oppressive days, enduring the death threats, the hate mail, the obscene phone calls and public demonstrations, seeing the tears of my wife and the worries of my children, hearing people call me a bigot and a Nazi, listening while elected officials openly mocked the deepest convictions of my soul—let me assure you, this is when God’s mercies abound. This is when He comforts us in the deep places of the soul that only He can reach. (188–89)

Peaceful, Unshakeable Faith in God’s Provision

Phillips’ compelling testimony is a must-read for any believer. First, Phillips’ account provides a thorough and accessible description of one of the most influential religious freedom cases of the past decade. He clearly describes the timeline of events and explains why the case was so momentous, not only for him but for all people of faith (98). Although the case concerned Colorado’s attempts to compel Phillips to speak messages that violated his conscience and to force him to choose between his religious beliefs and his business, the case has broader implications for the rights of all Americans “who share[] his biblical views on human sexuality and marriage” (194).

Second, Phillips’ story will encourage believers who may feel disheartened. Although losing 40 percent of his business, facing hateful emails and death threats, and having his reputation attacked by public officials could have caused Phillips to waver in his faith, his testimony overflows with a sense of peace and an unshakeable belief in God’s character and provision. As Phillips recalled while waiting for the Supreme Court’s verdict:

You might think the long wait was especially stressful—an exercise in impatient endurance, where we gritted our teeth to get through the endless days. But it wasn’t like that at all. I genuinely felt an immense peace after our arguments. I was content in knowing we’d done everything we could do. That we’d been as faithful as possible and the outcome really was always totally in God’s reliable hands. (143)

Phillips’ faith is a testament to the Holy Spirit’s power to encourage believers throughout life’s challenges.

Finally, Phillips’ account can inspire believers to stand firm in their faith. Although his experiences could have made him retreat from his faith, Phillips viewed them as an opportunity:

What’s the point of suddenly being on so many people’s radars if you can’t use those moments to share with them your deepest beliefs? That, for me, is the best news in the whole world: the love of Jesus Christ. (11)

Unfortunately, hostility toward Christianity and toward those who adhere to a biblical worldview is only increasing. Like Phillips, may we all have faith to stand firm and to be willing to serve as God’s instrument whatever the cost.

Kaitlyn Shepherd is Research Assistant for Legal and Policy Studies at Family Research Council.

State Round-Up: Protecting Access to Counseling

by Chantel Hoyt

July 8, 2021

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about key provisions that states have advanced in 2021 to defend the family and human dignity.

Most Americans would support passing laws that seek to protect minors from harm. However, the question of exactly how we should go about protecting minors and what we should be protecting them from is a bit more contentious.

This year, 21 states have introduced bills seeking to ban sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) or what its detractors call “conversion therapy.” In actuality, what these bills ban is patient-directed counseling and talk therapy. Specifically, they prohibit licensed mental health care professionals from counseling individuals to help them cope with unwanted same-sex attraction or gender identity issues. Although eight states have introduced legislation to protect patients’ right to access the therapy of their choice, more needs to be done to stop the spread of counseling bans in the United States and protect the freedoms of counselors and their patients.

Counseling bans have almost always applied only to minors and typically define SOCE or “conversion therapy” as “any practice or treatment by a mental health professional that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity…” Most often, they incur professional penalties for mental health care professionals who fail to comply. Some may contain exceptions for pastors or other religious clergy, but these exceptions do not extend to licensed professionals who are also pastors or people of faith. Some of these bills also prohibit expending public funds for “conversion therapy.”

The media’s portrayal of “conversion therapy” often evokes images of electroshock or other pain-inducing methods. However, there is no evidence that a single practitioner of SOCE is using these methods today. Counseling bans rarely, if ever, mention such methods but instead use expansive language that sweeps up mere talk therapy. (Indeed, the SOCE ban in Washington state was held up for years because Democrats there refused to agree to language outlawing these specific practices.)

Virtually every counseling ban today applies to both sexual orientation and gender identity. A counseling ban that includes gender identity is especially harmful, as it mandates that mental health care professionals use a “gender-affirming” model of care with their clients. This makes it unlawful for a therapist or psychiatrist to do anything other than affirm a minor’s gender identity, even if said identity does not align with the minor’s biological sex, and even if that’s the kind of counseling the patient wants.

These bills are harmful for three reasons:

  1. They place content and viewpoint-based restrictions on constitutionally protected speech,
  2. They undermine the autonomy of individuals and their parents to choose the therapy that is right for them, and
  3. They harm minors who are struggling with these issues by making the counseling they need unavailable.

Since 2011, 265 counseling ban bills have been introduced in 43 states. Twenty-four of these bills have been enacted in 18 states.

Currently, 20 states plus the District of Columbia have counseling bans in place. Counseling bans have been prevented from taking effect in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida due to court injunctions. Based on U.S. census data on the populations of these 20 states, it is estimated that about 41 percent of minors living in the United States today live in a state with a counseling ban in place.

From 2011 to 2019, the number of counseling bans introduced each year rose steadily, peaking in 2019 at 57. This number dropped to 28 in 2020 but has since risen again in 2021 (43 in 21 states). Fortunately, none have been enacted yet. Thirteen of the bills introduced this year applied not only to minors, but also to adults. Two bills introduced in North Carolina extended counseling bans to adults with disabilities, while Minnesota and Alaska introduced bills that applied to minors and “vulnerable adults.” Bills introduced in Kentucky and Texas apply the ban to individuals of all ages. This is somewhat of a recent development, as in years past, few of these bills applied to adults.

Six bills this year also prohibit advertising for “conversion therapy” (again, this is really talk therapy) or related goods and services. Florida’s bills even impose a criminal penalty (a felony of the third degree) for violating such prohibitions. Such dangerous penalties have become more prevalent in the past two or three years. This raises questions about what constitutes an “advertisement” and how this could affect churches and other faith-based institutions. If anything, counseling bans have gotten even more expansive this year, with more bills applying to more individuals and imposing new penalties.

Apart from simply opposing counseling bans and stopping them in their tracks, some states have taken a more proactive approach by introducing legislation to protect counseling. These bills vary widely in terms of specifics, but many include two key provisions:

  1. Prohibit the state from restricting the rights of mental health professionals to counsel patients with same-sex attraction or gender identity issues, as well as the right of patients or their parents to choose such counseling.
  2. Provide that individuals may give or receive counsel in accordance with their religious beliefs or moral convictions.

In addition to these two provisions, some bills may create a civil cause of action for practitioners or patients who feel that their freedom of speech was unjustly violated.

About half of the 21 Counseling Protection Acts introduced since 2015 take the general form described above. However, the following states have taken a different approach:

  • Massachusetts introduced a bill in 2021 that would amend a section of law banning SOGI “change efforts,” adding a section specifying that SOGI change efforts do not include practices that “utilize discussion alone.”
  • Wisconsin introduced two bills in 2021 that would prohibit state regulatory boards from promulgating rules that establish that employing or promoting a treatment that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is unprofessional conduct.
  • North Dakota (2021), South Dakota (2020), and Kansas (2019) each introduced bills that would preempt the state government from endorsing or enforcing certain policies, including policies banning “conversion therapy,” on the novel theory that to do so would be to establish a state religion. (None of these bills has passed, so this reinterpretation of the Establishment Clause has not been tested.)
  • Virginia introduced two bills (one in 2019, one in 2020) that would have given state regulatory boards the right to ban electroshock therapy or “similar non-speech therapy” but specifically prohibited such entities from violating an individual’s “fundamental right” to engage in the talk therapy of their choice, including counsel to assist in “reducing or eliminating unwanted attractions or concerns about gender identity.”
  • Tennessee introduced two bills in 2016, both of which would have protected licensed counselors and therapists from being required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief, provided that the counselor or therapist coordinates a referral to another professional willing to provide such counseling.
  • Oklahoma introduced a bill in 2015 that would have prohibited the government from restricting SOCE but specified that this protection would not extend to “aversion therapy” (electroshock, electroconvulsive therapy, vomit-induction therapy, etc.).

Since 2015, at least 20 Counseling Protection Acts have been introduced in at least 12 different states. 2021 has been the biggest year for these types of bills, with a total of eight being introduced. So far, only one Counseling Protection Act has been enacted in Tennessee in 2016. This bill protected counselors and therapists from being required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief, provided that the counselor or therapist coordinates a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist willing to provide the counseling or therapy. This bill also provided that a refusal to provide the counseling/therapy described will not be the basis for a civil cause of action, criminal prosecution, or any other action by the state to penalize or withhold benefits.

This year, some states have recognized the importance of standing against counseling bans. But more still needs to be done. Twenty states currently have counseling bans in place for minors, meaning children and teens in those states cannot legally access therapy to address unwanted same-sex attraction or gender identity issues, even if they want to. Some states are trying to take this right away from consenting adults as well. More states need to step up and protect access to such counseling.

This Year, It Is More Important Than Ever to Celebrate Our Independence

by Damon Sidur

July 6, 2021

Independence Day has been celebrated in our nation for nearly 250 years, but this year’s celebration should feel different from years past. While many are hopeful about a post-pandemic future, we should think about how many of us saw our liberties seriously challenged by the government over the past year.

Like in Nevada, where the U.S. Supreme Court denied Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley’s request to strike down the state’s unconstitutional 50-person cap on church services in July 2020. Nevada enforced this cap on houses of worship even as it allowed casinos and other types of businesses to operate at 50 percent capacity. Justice Gorsuch said in his dissent of the Nevada ruling, “The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesar’s Palace over Calvary Chapel.”

Thankfully, the courts have more recently begun siding with churches that were unfairly singled out by state and local mandates. In November 2020, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the state of New York could not unfairly target and restrict church gatherings. While these positive court rulings should inspire hope for the future of religious liberty in America, the jurisprudence and the actions taken by government authorities throughout this past year should still be on our minds as we celebrate America’s independence.

We should consider how much of our freedom we are willing to give away in exchange for the government’s promise of protection. Benjamin Franklin’s answer to that question was: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This pandemic provided an opening for state and local governments to challenge our freedoms—most significantly our freedom of worship and assembly—in unprecedented ways. In California, churches were asked to submit to stringent restrictions that stated, “Places of worship must, therefore, discontinue singing and chanting activities and limit indoor attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower.” Although the government does have a role during these times, as the Supreme Court stated in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Andrew Cuomo, “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”

Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in 1998, “It is neither desirable nor is it remotely likely that civil liberty will occupy as favored a position in wartime as it does in peacetime…the laws will thus not be silent in time of war, but they will speak with a somewhat different voice.” However, the entire point of natural rights is that they are universal and objective. Violating them does not become any more justifiable in times of crisis.

When the pandemic began, Americans were initially encouraged to quarantine for two weeks to slow the spread. Most churches and businesses voluntarily closed their doors and accepted what they believed would be a temporary shutdown. Instead, even once houses of worship could safely reopen with COVID precautions in place, churches spent much of last year appealing to courts for relief from unequal treatment and unconstitutional restrictions on worship. Thankfully, the courts eventually sided with churches and agreed that First Amendment protections cannot be violated in the name of public health and safety, nor can churches be treated more severely than secular businesses.

Independence Day should be more than a day off from work to set off fireworks and eat apple pie. This year, in particular, should be a day of reflection for all of us as we acknowledge and give thanks for the blessing of living in the greatest and freest country in the world. If we want it to stay that way, we must take a stand in the face of fear and protect the rights granted to us by God, fought for in 1776, enshrined in our Bill of Rights, and through our history, finally fulfilled for all Americans.

Damon Sidur is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.

The Supreme Court Protects Religious Liberty—Barely

by Katherine Beck Johnson

June 17, 2021

Catholic Social Services’ (CSS) 9-0 victory before the Supreme Court today in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, while unanimous, can’t be allowed to overshadow serious differences among the justices on how to approach religious liberty.

This case involved CSS’s ability to operate in accordance with their Catholic faith. The City of Philadelphia had pressured CSS to either give up the Church’s teaching on marriage and family or give up their ministry of finding children loving homes. CSS refused to go against its strongly-held religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. After years of litigation, the Supreme Court today held that Philadelphia violated the First Amendment by allowing secular but not religious exceptions to their fostering contracts, like the one held by CSS.

To be clear, this decision was a win. For now, CSS will be able to operate in accordance with its religious beliefs and continue placing children in most need. The organization will not be forced to shut its doors because it refuses to compromise its faith.

Unfortunately, the win was narrow, coming up short of a huge victory. The Supreme Court did the bare minimum to protect CSS and other faith adherents. It was only because Philadelphia had other exceptions, but not religious ones, that the Court found the city in violation of the First Amendment. As Justice Alito noted in his concurrence, the secular exceptions were essentially boilerplate language in the city’s contract that they did not enforce and will be very easy for them to delete—effectively leaving CSS with no protection. As Justice Alito said, “[t]his decision might as well be written on the dissolving paper sold in magic shops.”

The Court should have overturned Employment Division v. Smith, which held that a law is constitutional as long as it is generally applicable and does not target religion. Smith was wrong when it was decided, and it is wrong today. Justice Gorsuch was correct when he said, “[o]ne way or another, the majority seems determined to declare there is no “need” or “reason” to revisit Smith today. But tell that to CSS. Its litigation has already lasted years—and today’s (ir)resolution promises more of the same.”

The ever-growing demands from the Left and their radical gender ideology being imposed on more and more of America make it increasingly impossible for a person to live out their Christian faith while operating in the foster care and adoption space (or many other aspects of society). Evidently, the City of Philadelphia would rather children languish in the system without loving homes than allow CSS to operate in accordance with its faith. Catholics in Philadelphia and throughout our country deserve better than that—and are afforded more than that in our Constitution.

Although today’s opinion allows CSS to continue operating without compromising its faith, that likely won’t be the case for long. Soon, the Court will have to answer if a city can force a religious agency to violate its beliefs if no secular exceptions were provided. The answer is no, and that should have been the answer today. Justices Roberts, Barrett, Kavanaugh, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan refused to answer this.

Today, Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch were the only members of the nation’s highest court who demonstrated awareness of the pressing need to revisit Smith and rightly protect religious adherents. Let us hope more justices join them in the future.

6 Times the Supreme Court Has Ruled Against California Church Restrictions

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

April 29, 2021

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a case challenging restrictions California imposed on houses of worship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Monday’s order marks the sixth time that the Supreme Court has ruled against unfair restrictions that treated California churches more strictly than secular businesses.

For months, California churches faced particularly complicated and onerous restrictions that limited church attendance and inhibited religious exercise. In multiple cases, churches and pastors faced fines or the threat of imprisonment for holding indoor worship services. However, following Justice Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court in October 2020, California churches have started to experience relief. As of April 23, 2021, California’s guidance for houses of worship states that “location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended. Additionally, the restrictions on indoor singing and chanting are recommended only.”

The Supreme Court’s willingness to defend religious liberty is a welcome development. Because of the Court’s guidance on this issue, more and more states are relaxing their worship restrictions. As of April 26, 2021, 41 states impose no restrictions on in-person indoor worship. Only nine states and the District of Columbia still impose a percentage-based limit on indoor worship. D.C. is the last remaining jurisdiction that imposes both a percentage limit and a numerical cap on the number of people who can congregate for indoor worship services. However, these restrictions were enjoined by court order in March 2021, and the D.C. government has announced it will remove the numerical cap beginning May 1, 2021.

What follows is a timeline of the six times the U.S. Supreme Court has issued opinions or orders upholding the rights of churches against California’s COVID-19 restrictions.

1. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom

On February 5, 2021, the Supreme Court enjoined California’s total ban on indoor worship in Tier 1 counties (i.e., those where the risk of COVID-19 transmission was said to be widespread). The Court’s decision allowed churches in these counties to reopen at 25 percent capacity but left the state’s ban on indoor singing and chanting in place. In a separate statement, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, noted that “California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses.”

2. Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom

On the same day, the Supreme Court partially granted an injunction that prevented California from enforcing its total ban on indoor worship services against Harvest Rock Church while the case was being resolved in the lower courts. The decision allowed Harvest Rock and other churches in Tier 1 counties to reopen at 25 percent capacity, but it kept California’s ban on indoor singing and chanting in place. Although they joined the majority’s order, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch stated that they would have granted the injunction against the capacity limits and the ban on singing and chanting as well.

3. Gish v. Newsom

On February 8, 2021, the Supreme Court vacated a California district court’s dismissal of a case that challenged various state and local orders banning indoor worship services. The Supreme Court directed the lower court to reconsider the case in light of its recent South Bay decision.

4. Gateway City Church v. Newsom

On February 26, 2021, the Supreme Court granted an injunction that prevented enforcement of California’s restrictions against Gateway City Church. Noting that the “outcome [was] clearly dictated by [its] decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom,” the Court admonished the lower court, saying its “failure to grant relief was erroneous.”

5. Tandon v. Newsom

On April 9, 2021, the Supreme Court granted another injunction against California’s restrictions. This time, the Court addressed California’s requirement that at-home religious gatherings could not contain more than three separate households. In its opinion, the Court emphasized that “government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable … whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.” The Court added that some secular activities being treated worse than religious ones is not a defense. It also stressed that the government bears the burden of showing “that measures less restrictive of the First Amendment activity could not address its interest in reducing the spread of COVID.” Because California “treat[ed] some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise” and the lower court did not find that religious activities posed more of a threat than the secular activities, the Court found that the “[a]pplicants [were] likely to succeed on the merits of their free exercise claim” and that an injunction was warranted.                                                                           

6. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom

On April 26, 2021, the Supreme Court returned to South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s case. The Court vacated the judgment of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of its decision in Tandon v. Newsom.

It is unfortunate to have seen so much discrimination against religious gatherings over the past year. For a full list of such instances, see here. May we continue to work and pray toward the protection of our freedom to gather as believers and live out our faith during this time.

Texas Takes a Stand for Religious Belief

by Katherine Beck Johnson

April 28, 2021

Liberal states have been attempting to demand total adherence to their ideology for a while now. The Left is no longer interested in co-existing, but rather in demanding every person adheres to their views on sexuality and marriage. The latest target? Texas. But California should know better than to mess with Texas. The Lone Star State is fighting back.

This case arose from the following string of events: California banned state-funded or state-sponsored travel to Texas. Why? Because Texas respects the religious beliefs of those who believe marriage is between a man and a woman and that a mother and father is best for children. Texas acknowledges the religious freedom of faith-based child welfare providers within its own border. California is so bothered by Texas allowing its own citizens to freely live out their faith that they have decided that nobody can travel there if their travel is being sponsored by the state. It’s unclear if California would allow any state-funded travel to China, where an actual genocide is occurring. Yet, California is taking a hard stance again Christians living out their faith in Texas.

Texas went straight to the Supreme Court to file a complaint against California’s unconstitutional action. Texas was not alone, as 19 other states joined an amicus in support of Texas standing up to the demands of the woke. While the Supreme Court denied what is known as a “bill of complaint” earlier this week, Texas did not fully lose the case. The Court’s denial simply means that Texas needs to go through the lower courts first, as the Supreme Court did not have the proper jurisdiction at the moment—a point with which Justices Alito and Thomas disagreed. No justice commented on the merits of the case, but Alito and Thomas would have accepted the case without it working its way through lower courts.

For now, Texas lives to fight on another day, and we can expect to see this case and the issue it deals with arise again in the future.

Archives