Religious Liberty — Precious and Increasingly Rare

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America

The United States Bill of Rights, the first Ten Amendments to our Constitution, begins with a statement of religious liberty. The statement says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
This is the first clause of the First Amendment. Its placement indicates that when the ten amendments were considered as a group, religious liberty was the concern of highest value, the first of the first. The amendment continues by specifying additional rights of the people, and among those rights, freedom of speech and right of assembly are directly related to religious liberty, because a person cannot be truly free to live and express his faith if he is prevented from speaking his faith, both in narrative and persuasive language, or if he is forbidden to gather with others who share his faith. The remainder of the First Amendment says:
or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The plain language of this amendment to the US Constitution gives American citizens freedom to choose a religion, or no religion, freedom to exercise their faith by practicing its teachings, freedom to gather in churches or homes or parks or on sidewalks or wherever they wish to gather in peace to worship, study, teach or discuss their faith, and freedom to speak the teachings, speak their advocacy, speak words to persuade others to believe, speak words of prayer or words of preaching in public or private settings.

In many countries, the government either commands or suppresses particular religions, and government enforces strict rules about both public and private gatherings and speech. Some governments regulate religious literature. Some governments forbid evangelism. Some governments set age limits on participation in religion. Some governments that gave citizens religious freedom in the past are passing new laws that control, restrict or even shut down religious language and activities.

For example, the parliament of Kazakhstan passed a new law regulating religion in 2011 entitled “The Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations.” It replaces a 1992 law entitled “The Law on Freedom of Religious Confession and Religious Associations”. It is not an accident that the word freedom is missing from the title of the new law. The old law actually specified certain freedoms and rights. The new law is about setting limits and controlling activity. The law was drafted by the government Agency of Religious Affairs.

If the US auto industry grew weary of trying to sell people electric cars when nobody wants them, the industry might draft a law that said that henceforth only electric cars would be permitted on federal highways and then lobby Congress to enact this law. If the Congress simply passed the law just the way the industry wrote it, that law would serve the purposes of the auto industry in the same way as when Kazakhstan’s parliament passed a law about religion written by the agency that wants to control religion in Kazakhstan.

The new laws require the re-registration of all religious communities. Kazakhstan’s laws deliberately mimic laws passed in Tajikistan, and call to mind laws in China that require the same thing. In Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and China, unregistered Christian churches come under attack. Christians in the US are accustomed to be able to hold prayer meetings and Sunday School class meetings, Bible studies and missionary projects in their homes whenever they like. In countries that require both the site of a meeting and the group holding the meeting to be registered and authorized by the government, such meetings become bureaucratic challenges. Christians who choose to meet without registering are subject to arrest and prison at the very least. Some are even tortured for their unregistered religious activity.

The religious materials Christians use are censored as well. Every religion must use materials approved by the government. If a congregation wants to build a new church, the new location and likely the design of the building will require government approval. Foreign visitors are closely restricted in their religious activity. A missionary from outside the country is not welcome to invite people to meetings or to start a new church; founders of religious communities in Kazakhstan must be Kazakh citizens.

Work among young people will definitely become more problematic, and one wonders what Christian parents will do about bringing up their children in the faith. The law in Tajikistan prohibits children under the age of 18 from participating in any religious activities except funerals. Parents who take or send their children to church, Sunday School, or even private prayer meetings face heavy fines and prison sentences of up to 8 years. Kazakhstan used this law as a model for their own. Christians know that the Bible lays on parents the responsibility to teach their children the faith. Parents in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan must be strong, wise and careful if they teach their children to know Christ. Would you read Bible stories to your children and pray with them at bedtime if you thought both you and your children could be arrested for doing so?

The ostensible motivation for such laws is always to prevent extremism. The obvious outcome is that the government can decide which religion, if any, will thrive in the country. Religious speech is shut down except for the favored speech. In the USA there is an unwritten speech restriction today that says that if a public figure is a person of color, then speech that criticizes any aspect of that person’s life is racist speech. This restriction is cultural, not legal, but it has the effect of suppressing important conversations about public figures. In Kazakhstan or Tajikistan, the actual laws restrict religious speech the same way. People who advocate religious ideas the government does not approve of will face arrest and imprisonment.

American citizens believe that they have the right to believe or not believe any religious persuasion of their choice. They believe that they can wear or display the symbols of their faith at will. They believe that they can read the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita in any translation that suits them, and they can talk about these books or any others with friends and neighbors in their homes or in their churches. This is what Americans believe to be their right because of the Constitution and the First Amendment. American citizens need to remember that nothing in the realm of time and space is necessarily true forever. After all, the 1992 laws in Kazakhstan used to be about religious freedom. The 2011 laws in Kazakhstan are not about freedom at all.

Pray for Christians in Kazakhstan. Pray for Christians in Tajikistan and China. Pray for them to hold fast to their testimony as Christ asks of us all in the book of Revelation:
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.  Revelation 2:10
Then pray for Christians in the USA, and pray that they will be strong defenders and advocates of religious freedom, acting and speaking against legal restrictions under the pretense of preventing extremism. Liberty is a fragile flower. Prevention of unwanted viewpoints and suppression of unwanted speech will kill the flower of liberty and leave only restriction and persecution of the faith.

Be sure to read the good news that Rimsha Masih is cleared of blasphemy in Pakistan https://livingontilt.wordpress.com/news-from-the-front-lines/charges-dropped-against-rimsha-masih/

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