In the USA, we are accustomed to the freedom to choose and practice any religion. Or no religion. There is a certain amount of friction over the boundaries between some religion and no religion. There is friction. In February, 2012, the friction boiled over into a hot dispute about the boundaries between religious practices and government. Americans believe that our right to exercise our religion is inherent in our constitution, but sometimes disputes with government hinge on dark semantics.
In the USSR, a country founded on Marxist principles, religion was severely repressed. Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the people,” and the government of the USSR viewed religion with scorn. When the USSR collapsed and its government was dissolved, many people thought that religions would automatically flower in the nations which formerly comprised that vast union. It hasn’t happened everywhere. It hasn’t happened in Belarus.
Article 16 of the constitution of Belarus says that the country has no state religion. However, the country does require that religions be registered. A law passed in 2002 makes unregistered religious activity a criminal offense. The secret police of Belarus monitor all religious activity. The law prohibits meetings of unregistered religious groups, and restricts any religious activity directed toward children. If the federal government of the USA suddenly announced that private citizens who wanted to hold prayer meetings or Bible studies in their living rooms were required to fill out a long form and receive a registration number from Washington in order to be legal, Americans would be outraged. Americans would be equally outraged if police raided a group of people meeting in a storefront or someone’s basement on Sunday because they could not afford to buy a church building. In Belarus, pastors are fined more than they earn in a month if the police find them conducting services in unregistered locations or if a policemen discovers that they are reading the Bible and praying with people on sidewalks in their home towns.
If the USA were like Belarus, this scene would be credible:
Sandra, at the cash register at Safeway, pays her bill and receives her receipt. She glances at the cashier’s name tag and says, “The peace of Christ be with you Darlene.”
Darlene: “Thank you so much. I need to ask you something.”
Sandra: “What is it?”
Darlene: “Would you pray for my granddaughter Jenny? She is only eight years old and she has pneumonia. Her mother is worried.”
Sandra: “Of course. I pray God will bless Jenny with healing. May he comfort Jenny’s mother and give the doctor wisdom to care for Jenny.”
In the line behind Sandra, a man shoves two people aside and strides up to Sandra. He shows a police badge.
Policeman: “Step out of the line and come with me.”
Policeman: “You know it is against the law to pray outside of a registered church building. I have to take you in and book you for unregistered religious activity.”
The policeman cuffs Sandra and leads her away.
Would you want this sort of law in the USA?
In countries where religions must be registered, their activities and influence are severely constrained. In the USA people can choose a religion, change their religion or decide to have no religion, and to date, people think it is no business of the government. Recent developments have some people asking if something changed.
Various religions in this country provide a range of social services whose quality far exceeds that of any programs operated by any level of government. They have provided those services following policies guided by their freely-chosen religious principles. However, recent news stories report that the federal government has intruded on the religious principles of numerous Christian agencies and institutions, demanding that social services be provided under policies consistent with federal social policies, regardless of Christian teachings to the contrary. Christian adoption agencies have been ordered to place children with same-sex couples in direct conflict with Christian teaching that homosexuality is sin. Christian pharmacists have been ordered to provide counseling for morning-after abortifacients and to fill prescriptions for morning-after abortifacients even if the phatmacists hold the view that it is a sin to provide and use such medications, even if they are willing to graciously refer patients to providers for whom there is no religious conflict with the service. Christian hospitals and universities have been ordered to provide contraception, abortion and sterilization as covered services in healthcare benefits for their employees, even though the institutions are founded and operated by people who belong to a religion that teaches that such “services” are sin. How is arresting people for conducting unregistered religious activity different from fining people for refusing to conduct activities in direct opposition to their religious principles?
Around the world, Christians are praying for their fellow Christians in Belarus to be free to choose and exercise their faith. Maybe we should also be praying for some power in the USA to resurrect the First Amendment and protect the free exercise of Christian faith in the USA, too.