A new small-group study curriculum produced by the Southern Baptist Convention portrays religious liberty as under siege in the United States of America.
A joint project of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and LifeWay Christian Resources, the six-week study titled Religious Liberty: How the Gospel Shapes Our First Freedom challenges church members to ponder what life would be like if their freedom to practice their faith was taken away.
“There was a time not long ago when everybody in American life supported religious freedom, at least verbally,” ERLC leader Russell Moore said in a video introduction. “Now we live in a time where religious freedom is increasingly not only debated but often denied and attacked.”
Moore said American Christians don’t know what the future holds.
“It could be that there’s a day coming when even in American life churches are not free to worship in places that are rented in the public square,” he said. “We could be in a day where your children or grandchildren in the future may not able to advertise that they are deacons or elders or pastors in Christian churches for fear of losing their jobs.”
The study touches on current controversies such as Christian bakers and florists accused of discrimination for refusing to provide services for same-sex weddings because they believe homosexuality is a sin.
“All across the United States we see people right now who are being persecuted for following the teaching of their faith,” Alan Sears, founder of Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a lesson video. “We’re having people being told they can’t own a business or be in the public commerce stream. We’re having people told that they cannot hold public employment because of certain beliefs.”
Sears cited the example of Kelvin Cochran, the former fire chief of Atlanta fired in 2015 for allegedly violating city policy by writing a self-published book without getting the mayor’s permission. Cochran, a Southern Baptist, sued the city, claiming officials didn’t agree with portions of the book denouncing homosexuality as a form of “sexual perversion” akin to pederasty or bestiality.
The city claimed Cochran was suspended and ultimately fired because selling a book for profit violated a city ordinance barring department heads from seeking outside employment without written approval. Cochran then gave 22 copies of the book to city employees, raising questions on the city council about his ability to relate constructively to LGBT workers under his supervision.
“This gentleman was the most highly recognized and decorated fire person in the United States,” Sears said. “He held the office of fire administrator of the United States in the Department of Homeland Security. He was brought to Washington by President Obama’s administration. He returned to Atlanta at the request of the mayor, but when it became known that he was a Sunday school teacher who held traditional Christian beliefs that conflicted with the designs of certain politicians in the city of Atlanta, it cost him his job.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center labels Alliance Defending Freedom a hate group because of its opposition to LGBT rights.
Another lesson video discusses misunderstanding of religious liberty not only in secular society but among Christians who support only “religious liberty for me, for my church, for my people.”
“You see some Christians who are less inclined to want to extend the application of the principle of religious liberty to other minority groups, whether they be Muslims or Hindus or other groups,” said Trevin Wax, Bible and reference publisher for LifeWay Christian Resources. “So on the right sometimes as well you see this shrinking of religious liberty to where it really simply means special privilege for Christians.”
Recently the ERLC came under criticism for joining a legal brief defending the right of Muslims to build a mosque in New Jersey. Critics said they don’t question that Muslims have a right to worship, but it’s inappropriate to use Southern Baptist offerings to aid them in their efforts to promote a competing faith.
The ERLC’s 2017 legislative agenda includes support for First Amendment Defense Act, which would prohibit the federal government from taking “discriminatory action” against anyone who “believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”
Last month the Washington state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a Southern Baptist florist who refused to sell flowers to a gay couple for their wedding violated state laws barring discrimination in public accommodation based on sexual orientation.
“One of the major misconceptions in the debate over non-discrimination laws related to sexual orientation is the belief that Christians are trying to create a gay/straight apartheid or recreation of Jim Crow Southern segregation,” says a sample lesson posted online. “Such an interpretation is deeply misguided. The simple reality is that respecting religious liberty is a way for us to live together without crushing faith and conscience. Religious liberty helps us to live in peace.”
The Washington court said requiring the florist to provide gay couples the same services she would offer for an atheistic or Muslim wedding did not violate her right to freedom of religion or speech. Saying the case “is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches,” justices said laws requiring public accommodation serve society by “eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace.”
First filed in the House and Senate in 2015, the First Amendment Defense Act stalled after one hearing amid concern that President Obama would veto the bill. This time around the sponsors believe it will succeed due to a Republican-controlled House and the backing of President Trump.
Opponents say the bill would exploit religious freedom but use it as an excuse to discriminate.