Envisioning Religious Liberty
How American Orthodox faithful must work to combat current and future threats to religious freedom...
In homily on the Book of Ezekiel, St. Gregory the Great provides insights and comments on a passage in which the Lord says, Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel Ezekiel 33: 7. He explains "A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming. Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height, for all his life, to help them by his foresight."
Bishops, priests and deacons can presently be compared to the watchman spoken of, called to be vigilant heralds of the Word and overseers of the household of God. For some time now, we have viewed with intensified and growing alarm the gradual erosion of religious liberty in the United States. We call upon all believers, both clerical and lay people, to make a defense of religious liberty and embrace our responsibility as citizens to address threats to this precious freedom head on.
We consider several important questions: How do we as pastors, shepherds of souls and lay people, citizens both, bring into focus the teachings of our blessed Church on religious liberty? How can we make a realistic claim for the foundational principles of our nation which guarantee us governmental non-interference with the profession of our conscience? What should we be looking for and what do we see happening steadily about us? And, of course, most importantly, how shall we respond?
As communicants of the Body of Christ, we have always been taught by our Saviour to read the signs of the times, and as American citizens, we do so as if through binoculars equipped with two lenses. First is the lens of the Church's apparent teaching on human dignity and religious liberty; a dignity and. freedom inscribed on the human heart and revealed fully in Jesus Christ. Second is the lens of the heritage bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers: a bold Declaration of Independence that recognizes all people are "endowed by their Creator" with inherent human rights, and a Constitution and Bill of Rights that accord a certain primacy to our freedom to respond to our Creator without undue governmental interference. In other words, the integrity of our conscience cannot be violated nor can we be forced by any governmental institution to violate our beliefs or consider behavior acceptable which our God proscribes.
It takes much work to keep these binoculars in focus, to maintain a critical and accurate understanding of how the Founding Fathers' vision and Church teaching fit together. As historians know so well, the relationship between the Church and the American experiment came into focus only gradually and is always in need of careful refocusing. Nonetheless, both lenses, when allowed to function as intended, offer a remarkably clear vision of human dignity and freedom.
This vision includes an understanding that basic human freedoms are inherent to human dignity and that our freedoms are granted NOT by the state, but are given to us by our Creator God. As President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, the rights for which our forbears fought "come not from the generosity of the state, but rather from the hand of God." Likewise, the Church teaches that the ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings, but in man himself, and in God his Creator.
If religious liberty is granted us prior to the existence of the state and not a privilege granted by the government, then we rightfully look to our government to fulfill its duty to protect religious liberty, promote religious tolerance and accommodate the place of religion in American life. We do rightly expect our government to not so easily allow religious liberty to be compromised by other claims and interests.
Our vision is sharpened by the wisdom of George Washington, who saw the importance of morality and religious practice as "indispensable supports" for "political prosperity." Thus, we rightfully envision the Church as a participant in society, forming not only believers, but also citizens equipped to build a civilization of truth and enduring love and respect. We seek protection by law and acceptance of our religious and spiritual culture of intermediate institutions such the family, parish churches, our schools, which stand between the power of the government and the conscience of individuals, all the while contributing immensely to the common good.
The dual lenses of the teaching of the Church and the Founding Fathers' vision equip us to search both law and culture to see whether they respect religious freedom as an individual right that is inscribed by the Creator, regardless of current moral or political trends. The exercise of religion and spiritual life, of its very nature, consist before all else in those internal, voluntary, and free responses whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God, so that no one should be forced to act in a manner contrary to their conscience.
While recognizing religious freedom as an individual right, we see that it belongs also to churches and religious institutions comprised of citizens who are in fact believers. And as believers, we do not seek to create a theocratic society, but rather to be a leaven and light within our culture. Our government should extend to all faiths a robust understanding of religious freedom, one that envisions the importance of being able not only to worship freely and uncoerced, but also to bring into the public square truths and values that flow from faith and reason, expressed in works of education, health care, social services and all sorts of charitable response to the needs of the day.
In short, religious liberty pertains to the whole person - it is not simply the freedom to believe and worship, but to shape out our very lives around these beliefs and that worship, both as individuals and as a faith community;, and to share our lives, thus transformed, with the world. As watchmen, we need to see whether or not this fundamental liberty continues to live in the hearts of our fellow Orthodox citizens.
What is it that we actually see through the dual lenses of Orthodoxy and the principles of the Founding Fathers? We see a Church that, for all her challenges, serves the common good with extraordinary effectiveness and generosity.
In other Christian groups, we see churches who are the largest non-governmental sources of education, social, charitable and health care services, offered as an integral part of our common mission and as an expression of faith in the God who is love. In a time of economic hardships, the services of many churches and Chrstian communities are often crucial.
But it is becoming more and more difficult for faith-believing sources to deliver services in a manner that respects the very faith that inspires and impels the activities of its communicants.
Among the challenges is a pattern in culture and law that treats religious profession and spiritual life merely as a private matter between an individual and God. Instead of promoting tolerance for different religious views that contribute to the nation's communal morality, certain laws, court decisions and administrative regulations treat religion as a divisive and disruptive force better kept out of public life and recognition. Some invoke the so-called doctrine of separation of church and state to exclude the Church from public policy, thus ignoring the historically rich role of churches in ending slavery, securing civil rights and promoting just labor practices and integrity in general society.
Although religious belief is personal, it is not private, for there is no religious liberty if we are not free to publicly express our faith. Likewise, there is no freedom of speech if one is free to say what he or she believes only in private, but not publicly through the media, the arts, in libraries and educational institutions.
We also note with seriousness that the reach of the Establishment Clause of the first Amendment - "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" is being expanded so as to continually narrow the protections offered by the Free Establishment Clause - "of prohibiting the free exercise thereof" thus turning the First Amendment on its head!
The Establishment Clause was meant to protect the Free Exercise Clause, not the other way around. By common understanding up until the last few years, this was its interpretation and its imperative. Recently,- however, the result has been that both individual citizens with strong religious and spiritual convictions and religious institutions are less broadly accommodated and even marginalized, and at times obstructed, on the grounds that any minimal accommodation somehow constitutes the "establishment" of particular religious groups in our land.
Because of the huge number of institutions that serve the general public, the Roman Church has been singled out, but the time is coming if this current thinking pervades the political mentality, Orthodoxy and its values will also be publicly attacked. The government insists the Church of Jesus Christ provide its employees with abortions and contraception.
We must make no mistake: even our old women witness the reality that what occurs around us, what we see happening in the lives of others, will ultimately move into our own personal lives as well. Aggressive secularism is also a system of belief; it is a religion of itself. In failing to accommodate people of faith in religious institutions, both law and culture are establishing an un-religion, a non-religion as the official religion of the land and granting to it rights and privileges and protections that our Founding Fathers envisioned for citizens who are believers and their churches. In addition, the barriers preventing government from interfering in the internal life of religious groups have consistently been lowered over time.
All this aids the erosion of religious liberty by the imposition of court-mandated "rights" that have no textual basis in the Constitution, such as those that pertain to abortion and same-sex marriage. Refusal to endorse the taking of innocent human life or to redefine marriage is now portrayed as discriminatory. As a result, the freedom of religious entities to provide services according to their own beliefs, to defend publicly their teachings, to give witness to the revelation Almighty God has placed in our stewardship care, and even to choose and manage their own personnel is coming under increased attack. It seems the truth of Christ, the values of his Church must be done away with so that secularism may prevail. And so many of our politicians are cooperating in advancing this unholy war on traditional Christian morality.
This and more have led to dramatic and immediate threats to religious liberty across our land. Consider and Alabama law and court ruling that criminalized the "good Samaritan" service that religious entities provide to the undocumented; a county clerk in New York State who faces legal action because she refuses to take part in same-sex marriages; the 2009 attempt of members of the Judiciary Committee in Connecticut to reorganize parishes in a manner utter opposed by traditional and historic canonical Church requirements and law; and the sad reality that many charitable groups had to withdraw from adoption and foster care services because of their fidelity to the Church's teaching on marriage.
Some federal agencies, absent legislation and judicial oversight, also threaten religious freedom. The Department of Health and Human Services issued regulations that would mandate coverage of sterilization and contraception, including abortifacients in all private health care plans. Our institutions of high learning, our college and seminaries would be bound by this nonsense. The religious exemption is far too narrow, requiring Orthodox employers to hire mainly Orthodox believers, serve mainly Orthodox believers and exist mainly to inculcate religious values in order to qualify.
Though, perhaps with an overwhelming opposition to the present circumstances, there might be a real possibility for broader exemption, it remains to be seen where it will protect all religious organizations or the conscience rights of individuals and insurers. The broader and all-encompassing war for secularism has begun on the federal government level.
Contrary to conscience protections that arc already a matter of law, various religious groups are being confronted with new conditions for renewal of cooperative services as provision for offering a full-range of so-called reproductive services, a condition it is hoped may soon be dropped.
The United States Department of Justice has created additional problems. It has attacked the Defense of Marriage Act as motivated by "bias and prejudice," akin to racism, thereby implying that churches that teach marriage is only between a man and a woman are guilty of bigotry. This same department has also argued before the Supreme Court for the virtual elimination of the First Amendment's "ministerial exception" which protects the freedom of religious denominations to choose or appoint their own ministers without state interference. Therefore, it would not be the timehonored tradition of the diocesan bishop, but a government executive who would name not only our pastors and shepherds, but even our bishops! An easy way to silence a religious source from expressing truth!
To respond to these and other myriad threats on the horizon, Orthodox believers must begin by offering intercessory prayer for the protection of the Body of Christ entrusted to our care. We must defend and promote religious liberty. We must encourage and insist our bishops, all our leaders recognize as first duty and instinct to teach and so, among other things, to put into practice the rich treasure of our precious faith.
Every bishop, priest and deacon must recognize the critical role they must exercise in leading our faithful in prayer and in instructing and inspiring them so they will cherish their God-given freedoms and work to shape a society marked by respect for the transcendent dignity and freedom of each human being.
And as watchmen, we must continue to flag threats to religious liberty and to speak out against them, to, engage public officials, whether elected or appointed, not in partisan fashion, but in a manner entirely consistent with the deepest values of our democracy. This we cannot do alone. We need to include our closest co-workers, our priests, our believing laity, who are on the front tines of parish life and who enjoy the respect and esteem of parishioners. Our voices must be heard in the vital struggle that stands before us. We must call upon all to come to defense of the nation and the Church, to put our gifts and expertise on tine in defense of religious Iiberty and we must join with other denominations as well. Together we will do our best to awaken in ourselves, in fellow believers and in the culture at large a new appreciation for religious liberty and renewed determination to defend it.
We, in our time and place, must become watchmen for the Body of Christ, for the new Israel of which we are communicants!