CULTURE WATCH: Religious Freedom (Part 4)

By Wendell Cantrell

(This is the last of four segments discussing our right to religious freedom. Parts 1,2, and 3 appeared in the December 2011, January, and February 2012 Common Ground.)

“Freedom of worship” seems to be the favored phraseology of the current administration when discussing religion of late. This rhetorical shift from “Freedom of Religion” is troubling to many. Chuck Colson is sounding the alarm, “The government—at the highest levels—may be attempting to redefine the very meaning of religious freedom. If what the Secretary of State said in a recent speech reflects a new direction in government policy, it seems the aim is clear: To kick faith out of the public square, to send Christians into the closet1.” In the First Amendment, our founders stated that government could not prohibit the “free exercise” of religion. In a previous issue, we looked at the challenges that come with “irresponsible exercise” of this freedom. This freedom goes far beyond just freedom of worship. It guarantees that we are not restricted to living out our faith in the privacy of our homes or church sanctuaries. It means we are free to exercise our religion and contend for faith in every area of life. George Weigel gave a profound definition: “Religious freedom includes the right to preach and evangelize, to make religiously informed moral arguments in the public square, and to conduct the affairs of one’s religious community without undue interference from the state. If religious freedom only involves the freedom to worship, there is ‘religious freedom’ in Saudi Arabia, where Bibles and evangelism are forbidden, but expatriate Filipino laborers can attend Mass in the U.S. embassy compound in Riyadh.”

Is there an effort in our own country to become more Saudi-like in our treatment of religious freedom? The rhetoric in major speeches of the last few months gives cause for concern. Admittedly, it could make government’s work easier. Freedom of worship implies something overseas dictators view as controllable, manageable – the right to gather, pray, sing. But should efforts of democratic leaders be in the same direction? There appears to be a growing effort at building bridges with European and Middle Eastern neighbors, but in doing so, we’re actually stepping away from this fundamental principle of religious freedom. The limiting of religious practice to the cathedral and the home also strips the public square of any religious presence. At risk are roadside memorial crosses built to commemorate fallen state troopers in Utah and the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance2.

I need to make you aware of a recent offense of our legal system against freedom of religion. The Christian Legal Society Chapter at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco have a statement of faith (for officers and voting members) that considers unrepentant homosexual conduct as a sin and insists that those who would rise to leadership in its ranks have to embrace that view. Hastings law school officials refused to give the group access to the special benefits that go with being an officially recognized student organization. The Society contended that this refusal was because of its religion and therefore unconstitutional. The case went to the 9th District and then recently to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to require Christian campus groups on public universities to accept gay students as members and leaders. This seems to be the first time in U.S. history where the Supreme Court has actually ruled that gender rights now trump religious rights. It looks like the judicial branch is telling us that our religious freedom can’t extend to Christian campus groups. The consequences of this could be profound. In the future, watch for cases of  “sexual orientation discrimination” as it relates to hiring practices of Christian non-profit groups.

This trend is far from inconsequential. Freedom of worship means the ability to have church services, which is crucial. However, as we have noted, it leaves out protection for Christian student groups, publications, and Christian compassionate ministries. Freedom of religion means that ministries designed to help prisoners change their lives or help the poor enter the workforce can teach what the Bible teaches. Under freedom of worship only, these ministries could become illegal, as they are in many parts of the world.  This is a development to watch warily and prayerfully3.

Questions or comments about this article may be directed to

(1) Two minute Warning. Chuck Colson June 30, 2010
(2) First Things. Why “Freedom of Religion” is not enough.  Ashley Samelson Feb 22, 2010
(3) World Magazine June 19, 2010