Religious Liberty

 

A Theological Framework

Scriptural tradition is the Christian's window to observe the will of God in history. The teachings of Scripture make it clear that it is God's will that all persons claim the status which accrues to their having been created in God's own holy image.

Free will — the ability to decide and choose — is a gift of God to us in creation. This provides us the opportunity to make a meaningful choice in favor of God's Covenant. It also allows the possibility that some will choose to remain enslaved to sin.

Liberty, in the view of Scripture, is release from the bondage of sin, the ultimate enslavement. As Christians, therefore, we support civil liberty as the interim means of a just society to provide the context of freedom for individuals to serve the will of God in their lives.

Religious Liberty is the first of several civil liberties guaranteed to citizens of the United States by their Constitution. It is the bedrock upon which is built all other rights which we enjoy. The freedom to express religious conviction in worship and in outreach ministry is a fundamental freedom which must be jealously guarded lest freedom itself become a historical footnote.

History of Religious Intolerance and Persecution

Those who fled from England and other European countries came to these shores to build communities in which they would be free to exercise their religious insights. The "established church" had become clearly oppressive. The plight of the religious faithful was made more abject by reason of state support and endorsement of a particular faith and denomination. Citizens were compelled, through their taxes, to support religious views which they did not share. Those who sought to be responsive to the action of the Holy Spirit as they perceived that action were subject to various negative sanctions, including outright persecution.

Unfortunately, the early settlements on these shores merely exchanged one established church for another. The same forms of intolerance for different interpretations of the same Scripture — not to mention intolerance for different religions — developed with different victors and victims. It had become clear that religious intolerance had the potential to become a source of destructive division for any community. The experience in our own time in other nations demonstrates the dangers of intolerance and oppression which arise from a marriage of Church and State.

First Amendment

In order to assure that the new Republic create a framework in which all persons would live their freedom in civil harmony, the Bill of Rights articulated many civil rights. The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The two parts of the "religion clause" place restrictions on the action of government: The State shall not "establish" a state religion, nor shall the State prohibit the "free exercise" of any religion.

Thomas Jefferson later characterized the religion clause as having erected "a wall of separation" between Church and State. Notwithstanding the fact and the necessity of a workable relationship between Church and State, this unfortunate metaphor still tends to color people's perception of the intersection of our civil and our religious life.

Relationship of Church to State

The role of the Church (by which term we mean to include the manifestation of each faith group in society) is inexorably linked to the work of God in Creation. Persons assemble themselves in faith communities to achieve a better understanding and to manifest a faithful expression of their profound commitment to the Divine Covenant. The ecclesiastical expressions of these communities are to be accorded standing in society as the legitimate expression of the concerns of the faithful toward a just society.

The Church has the affirmative responsibility to proclaim its Gospel with faithfulness and vigor. It has both the duty and the right to speak out on matters of justice and righteousness which have been addressed since the time of the Prophets. Therefore, the Church is not constrained in the least from entering the public arena to debate issues of public policy from the perspective of moral and ethical values. The Church should recognize, however, that it may not be in the best interests of a diverse society to legislate certain elements of personal morality.

Relationship of Church to Church

Churches and church members have the responsibility to resolve internal disputes about religious and ecclesiastical matters without involving the civil authorities if at all possible. A civil verdict in a religious matter is inherently divisive and intrudes into the sanctity of the Church itself and violates the right of the Church to govern itself in accord with its own laws and polity.

Churches operating within the American framework of liberty must also be sensitive to the civil rights of other churches, be they old or new. If new religious movements of Christian or other origin do not also enjoy religious freedom, we all risk the loss of that freedom. Doctrinal or ecclesiastical disputes, therefore, should not be cause for any Church to seek State intervention on behalf of one religious community against another.

Relationship of State to Church

The role of the State is to provide for the general welfare of all the people. It has a legitimate concern and an affirmative mandate to guarantee that each person would be secure in his person and property and to harmonize the exercise of liberty in such a way that justice is accomplished. This is no mean task. It involves the State in regulating the interaction of its citizens in such a way that competing claims be resolved with equity so that all may live in peace.

The State does not have a role, under its Constitution, to enter into any union with a particular Church by which the doctrine or teaching of any Church may be favored by official sanction at the expense of other religious interpretations. Neither does the State have a role in defining or certifying a religion, as that inevitability gives rise to a government power to exclude certain religions from the society. Indeed, a Church could not be a credible witness to the truth of the Gospel if it were to assume the role of apologist for the secular government.

The State is enjoined, as well, from enacting or enforcing laws which place a burden upon any religious community unless there is absolutely no less restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling State purpose. To the contrary, the State ought to take every opportunity to accommodate and permit citizens to exercise freely their religious faith.

 

 


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Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Disciples, Lutheran, Methodist, Moravian, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed, and
Independent Churches

 

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