A Resolution on Religious Freedom Without Discrimination

Adopted by the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

June 23, 2018 | St. Louis, Missouri

 Current challenges

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (1993) was initially intended to protect minority religions, especially Native American religious practice. The Presbyterian Church (USA) initially supported RFRA, consistent with our respect for its original intent: to allow persons and religious groups to practice their faith without constraint of the government. With the passage of twenty-one state RFRAs and expansive interpretation by the courts, however, “religious freedom” has become a weapon aimed at excluding, marginalizing, and discriminating against vulnerable populations. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, before the United States Supreme Court, brings an intensified threat of harm as the plaintiff seeks to justify discrimination by cloaking it in constitutionally protected “religious freedom.” If this baker’s religious freedom argument prevails, any business which claimed that its product or service involved religious creativity or expression could attempt to deny service to gay people based on a claim of religious freedom. This “religious freedom” case relies on the First Amendment’s protection for freedom of speech. The baker contends that his cakes are works of art and expressions of speech; therefore, he argues that he has the right to refuse to sell them to anyone whom he deems to be outside of his moral boundaries.

Numerous other claims of “religious freedom” have sprung up in the courts, most frequently involving women’s reproductive rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. Two examples where religious reasons are given for the denial of legal services are:

  • In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an employer can deny birth control coverage for religious reasons (Burrell v. Hobby Lobby), even though no-copay birth control is guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and business entities, whatever their governance or ownership, should not impose particular faith claims on their employees.
  • In a 2016 Texas ruling, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor held that doctors could refuse to treat transgender persons as well as women who had previously had abortions. He accepted the argument of self-described Christian medical associations and insurance companies that treating these patients constituted “material cooperation with evil.” This judgment implies that the government cannot require doctors and insurance companies to treat or cover anything they believe to be “evil,” in exception to generally understood professional standards and public licensing obligations.

Christian Theological Bases

The fundamental principle of universal human dignity rests on the biblical foundation that humankind is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). From this imago Dei, we conclude that no form of discrimination is defensible on religious grounds. When Presbyterians confess our faith in A Brief Statement of Faith (Book of Confessions), we affirm our calling to “hear the voices of people long silenced and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace” (lines 70–71). Additionally, The Confession of Belhar, added to the Book of Confessions by the 222nd General Assembly (2016), calls us to resist all behavior that is dehumanizing. There can be no religious freedom without equal respect for the dignity of all persons, a dignity that is denied when services are denied. When claims of “religious freedom” become public efforts to exclude and discriminate, we are called to speak up for justice and stand with the oppressed.

Presbyterians have historically valued religious liberty and continue to support the freedom to act according to one’s religious beliefs. However, in cases involving the refusal of goods and services, false claims of “religious freedom” cause direct harm to those who are denied access. Legislating such claims as cases of protected religious freedom would undermine years of progress in state and federal civil rights and anti-discrimination law. The key distinction lies in whose choice is being limited or protected. Personally choosing not to have an abortion or use birth control, for example, is religious freedom. Making that choice for someone else, on the basis of one’s own religious principles, is religious oppression—as is done when an insurance company denies health care coverage for birth control or a doctor refuses to prescribe contraceptives. Using one’s own idea of “religious freedom” to limit the lawful choices of others through your own economic leverage creates a dense pattern of religiously sanctioned discrimination. In this way, some religious groups believe they can have politically what they failed to accomplish through persuasion in the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s.

The 200th General Assembly (1988) approved the social witness policy, “God Alone Is Lord of the Conscience” (https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/1-god-alone-is-lord-1988.pdf). The first principle espoused in the study is that “each worshipping community has the right to govern itself and order its life and activity free of government intervention” (p. 12). The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects the ability of church members to live out their faith, in the community’s life as well as privately. Since 1988, there has been much debate about what the “exercise of religion entails,” such as whether it could include refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding or refusing to provide emergency contraception based on an opposition to abortion. These examples are mentioned, not because they push the limits of the Free Exercise Clause, but because they have become the recent test cases that seek to change the legal understanding of religious freedom in the United States.

Historically, religious freedom has meant protection from oppression, rather than economically imposing one’s religious convictions on others. People committed to nonviolence claim “conscientious objection” to fighting in wars on the basis of religious beliefs; however, these individual stands involve the refusal to harm others and are in no way the same as refusal to provide services to others.

The 211th General Assembly (1999) approved the study, “Building Community Among Strangers,” which stressed the tension between building community across religious lines while maintaining the commitment to our own faith beliefs. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/4-building-community-among-strangers-1999.pdf  This tension asks Presbyterians to remain committed to their own faith beliefs while recognizing the complicated nature of living in community with those who do not share the same faith. Being a good neighbor means being a good listener, particularly with those who do not agree with us. It also requires us to ensure that our neighbors can practice their own faith without fear of reprisal or interference from government or those who wish to harm them.

Source: Presbyterian Church (USA) PC-Biz