Christian Leaders Step Up to Address Recent Attacks on Religious Liberty

Archbishop Charles Chaput, Archbishop William Lori, Robert George, Albert Mohler Jr. and Russell Moore signed ‘Now Is the Time to Talk About Religious Liberty,’ which was published on Good Friday.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia (photo: 2014 CNA/Javier de la Flor)

TRENTON, N.J. — Catholic and Southern Baptist leaders have called for a recommitment to religious freedom, deploring the “acrimony and lies” surrounding efforts to protect religious freedom in Indiana and across the United States.

“America was founded on the idea that religious liberty matters because religious belief matters in a uniquely life-giving and powerful way. We need to take that birthright seriously, or we become a people alien to our own founding principles,” they said in an April 3 statement.

“Religious liberty is precisely what allows a pluralistic society to live together in peace.”

They called on Americans “to remember the moral roots of their constitutional system and to engage in a sensible national conversation about religious liberty.”

Now Is the Time to Talk About Religious Liberty” was published at The Witherspoon Institute. Its signers include Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore. They were joined by Robert George, a Princeton law professor who has headed the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

They noted that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in the creation of man as male and female and in the “unique covenant” of marriage as a heterosexual union.

They criticized claims that this central belief “amounts to a form of bigotry.”

“Such arguments only increase public confusion on a vitally important issue. When basic moral convictions and historic religious wisdom rooted in experience are deemed ‘discrimination,’ our ability to achieve civic harmony, or even to reason clearly, is impossible.”

They said even those who are not religious have a stake in seeing that religious freedom and freedom of conscience are protected in law.

The Catholic and Baptist leaders said they were “especially troubled” by the opposition to religious-liberty legal efforts in Indiana and elsewhere.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on March 26 signed legislation declaring that state and local governments may not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion, unless they demonstrate a compelling governmental interest and use the least restrictive means to further that interest.

The Indiana law made explicit its application to businesses, which is in agreement with several federal appellate-court rulings. The Indiana law would also strengthen a legal defense against civil penalties.

The religious-freedom law was in large part modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which passed Congress almost unanimously and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The legislation is intended to restore religious protections that had been eliminated by Supreme Court decisions.

The initial Indiana law did not mention sexual orientation, but it became the subject of intense media controversy after opponents depicted it as “anti-gay.” CEOs, celebrities, major sports events and leaders of some city and state governments threatened boycotts or otherwise voiced criticism that it would allow discrimination.

While some supporters of the religious-freedom laws have hoped that they will protect individuals and businesses with religious and moral objections to “gay marriage,” there have been no successful cases in which the religious-freedom provisions have trumped anti-discrimination laws.

Following media and political pressure, Pence on April 2 signed an amendment saying the law does not allow the refusal of services, facilities, public accommodations, goods, employment or housing on the basis of “race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or U.S. military service.”

The change drew criticism from Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Kristen Waggoner, who said the change “unjustly deprives citizens their day in court, denies freedom a fair hearing and rigs the system in advance.”

“It gives the government a new weapon against individual citizens who are merely exercising freedoms that Americans were guaranteed from the founding of this country. Surrendering to deception and economic blackmail never results in good policy.”

Waggoner said the initial law was “a good law” that allowed courts to weigh the government’s and people’s interests and “directs judges to count the cost carefully when freedom is at stake.”

The controversy in Indiana has had consequences in other states. The Arkansas Legislature had passed a similarly broad religious-freedom protections bill, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he would not sign it. On April 3, Hutchinson signed a narrower version of the bill.

Religious-freedom laws are also an issue in Congress, after the District of Columbia City Council passed legislation outlawing “discriminatory practice” on the provision of facilities, services or programs based on “sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”

Congress and President Barack Obama must agree to reject the district legislation by April 17. If the legislation is not rejected, without further legal action, religious schools would be forced to recognize groups that conflict with their stated mission and allow them to use their facilities.

Religious-freedom laws have drawn wealthy opposition. Since 2013, the Ford Foundation and Arcus Foundation have spent more than $3 million in grants to back groups opposing religious exemptions. Grantees include Columbia Law School’s Public Rights / Private Conscience Project, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, homosexual-rights activist groups and media-messaging projects.

Rebecca Shah (l) and Ambassador Sam Brownback

Ambassador Sam Brownback and Rebecca Shah (Season 4 — Ep. 5)

Our guests on this episode of Religious Freedom Matters are Sam Brownback, a former U.S. senator and Kansas governor who served as the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom from 2018 to 2021, and Rebecca Shah, principal investigator for the Religion and Economic Empowerment Project (REEP) and a senior fellow at the Archbridge Institute.