Let every detail in your lives—words, actions,
whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus.
Colossians 3:17 (the Message)
US citizens justifiably rejoice in the existence of the First Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment protects the right of every individual to express his chosen religion, or the lack thereof, in his daily life. Ongoing power struggles between government and believers have tested the meaning of the simple words of that amendment, but the fact remains that in the US, people have more freedom to live according to their faith teachings than anywhere else on earth.
There are many countries that declare that they enforce the principle of “freedom of religion” and many even specify that they enforce “separation of church and state.” However, as is the case with most legal language, even though many countries use the same words to describe the way they deal with religion, each country has a unique twist to the meanings of the words. If the government is dominated by secular thinking, then the twist of these words will be different than if the government is dominated by a religion.
Uzbekistan is a good example. Uzbekistan was part of the former USSR, and after the dissolution of that nation, it retained the predominately secular viewpoint in culture and government which had been fostered in the Communist state. Uzbekistan proclaims that it protects “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state.” The Constitution of Uzbekistan says:
” Art. 18. All citizens of the Republic of Uzbekistan shall have equal rights and freedoms, and shall be equal before the law, without distinction by sex, race, nationality, language, religion, social origin, convictions, individual and social status.”
Everyone is equal before the law, a principle that we honor in the USA and portray by statues of Justice wearing a blindfold. That concept sounds wonderful. We would expect that article to assure that nobody in Uzbekistan would be harassed by the culture or the police for expressing and living according to his religious convictions. We would not expect a woman in Uzbekistan to be arrested as she stepped off a bus and be held in prison for days because she had a Bible and a Christian DVD in her purse, but it happened.
Uzbekistan’s Constitution also says:
“Art. 31. Freedom of conscience is guaranteed to all. Everyone shall have the right to profess or not to profess any religion. Any compulsory imposition of religion shall be impermissible.”
This sounds like an elaborate way to say the same thing our First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” An American contemplating a visit to Uzbekistan might read the Uzbek Constitution and believe he would feel right at home there. In fact, the Constitution of Uzbekistan adds another comforting element, the separation of church and state:
“Art. 61. Religious organizations and associations shall be separated from the state and equal before the law. The state shall not interfere with the activity of religious associations.”
An American who reads these words could easily be lulled into a sense of brotherhood between the USA and Uzbekistan with regard to religious liberty, but it would be a mistake to jump to that conclusion. As we are learning in the USA, the Constitution is one thing; law is another. In both the USA and Uzbekistan, the law can and does run roughshod over the Constitution. In both countries, legislators and administrators proceed with their own agendas unless and until a court with the power of Constitutional review changes things. It remains to be seen what the Supreme Court of the USA will do with an issue such as the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The consequences of Constitutional review, or the lack thereof, in Uzbekistan are quite evident, and they provide a cautionary tale for those of us who think words in constitutions and laws have definite meanings that are generally agreed to. The growing dominance of secular thinking in the US federal government demonstrates some interesting parallels with Uzbekistan’s government practices.
When the government of Uzbekistan considered what needed to be done to assure the religious liberty of the citizens, government minds choked on a question that would not occur to you or me: how is the government to know if a group of people have a religion or just some private club? Most of us believe we know what a religion is. It is something people almost intuitively know the answer to. There have been attempts like that of my college professor who declared his dog to be a god and his household to be a church so he could deduct the price of dog food as a contribution to a church, but that sort of blatant fraud does not pass the test of common sense or plain language. (It did not pass muster with the IRS, either.) Only government needs thousands of pages of laws and more thousands of pages of regulations and forms to work out that Hinduism is a religion and therefore is protected by the Constitution.
In Uzbekistan, the Constitution notwithstanding, two laws define the government’s attitude toward religion, and one agency, the Committee on Religious Affairs, administers government policy toward religion. If all religion is “separated from the state and equal before the law,” most readers would believe that people of faith have nothing to worry about. However, the laws include many requirements that must be satisfied in order for any group to be considered a legitimate religion, entitled to religious freedom. Any religious group that is unwilling or unable to comply with all the government regulatory requirements for a legitimate religion is illegal in the eyes of the government. What does that mean?
For starters, every church must be registered, and legal religious worship must take place inside that registered location. That requirement all by itself prohibits prayer meetings and Bible studies in homes. Of course, such activities in the US can take place in parks and on street corners, too, none of which will happen without unpleasant consequences in Uzbekistan. Registration requires completion of a form designed by the government, and errors as small as a grammatical mistake in the native Uzbek language can result in the rejection of the form. The information on the form is the way the government determines if the applicant meets the government definition of a religion protected by the Uzbekistan Constitution. In fact, the form may never even be acknowledged. The seemingly simple act of registration is not so simple. Some groups balk at registration because the form requires the names of at least one hundred members, and some forms have been rejected for misspelled names or because one member or another is accused of association with criminals. It is not a simple matter for the government of Uzbekistan to be sure when to protect the liberty of a religion and the seemingly simple Constitutional protection of religious liberty does not automatically extend to every religious organization.
The government of the USA is just as easily flummoxed as the government of Uzbekistan when it tries to define what is and what is not protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, the Department of Health and Human Services began to write the regulations and design the forms that would implement this monstrous law. Mindful of complaints that the law trampled on the religious convictions of some Christians by requiring an employer to fund contraception, abortion and sterilization (yes, the morning-after pill absolutely qualifies as abortion), Americans were told that the Department took that problem into consideration. In a nation where religious liberty has been a highly valued protection for citizens, Americans certainly expected a conscience exemption for employers who religious convictions conflicted with the use of medications and devices that produced contraception, abortion and sterilization. They never expected that the US government, like the government of Uzbekistan, would choke on the very idea of religion. The US government looked at the situation and, just like the government in Uzbekistan, created a definition of the entity that would qualify for exemption from the ACA employer mandate to provide contraception, abortion and sterilization. This definition embodies the definition any secularist would use for religion.
The US government’s definition of a religious employer:
(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose;
(2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets;
(3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets;
(4) is a non-profit organization
With regard to point 4, the government has stated in court documents that “for-profit secular employers generally do not engage in any exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment.” In plain language, the government has determined that personal religious convictions do not apply in the operation of a business for profit. This comes as a shock to Christians who have spent a lifetime expressing their religious convictions in the way they operate their businesses.
The government of Uzbekistan has its definition of religion, and it uses its definition to create a process by which will suppress the religious freedom of some people and allow the religious freedom of others. In the same manner, the US government has created a definition of religion that feeds a process by which it will suppress the religious freedom of some people and allow the religious freedom of others. Everything depends on what definition of the word “religion” the government uses.
In Uzbekistan, the problem grows bigger under the legal requirement that the government must authorize every religious publication. This law is a partial response to the problem of freedom of religious expression. How can the government know what written expressions constitute legitimate religious expression unless it verifies first that the material is produced by a legally identified religion and second that the words are in compliance with the definition of the religion in question as identified on its registration form. Religions are free to print and distribute legally approved documents, but it is no mean trick to obtain that approval. The government retains for itself the power to declare what is and is not approved reading for followers of any religion. Religions, legal or not, may not import documents, such as Bibles, tracts or theology books. Those documents will not have the approval of the Committee on Religious Affairs, and is government authorities discover them in anyone’s possession, that individual will be arrested. To date, the US government has not gone down this path. That is something to be thankful for.
A major hurdle for any religion in Uzbekistan is the prohibition on proselytizing. In fact, the hurdle is raised another notch by a law prohibiting religious instruction of a minor without parental consent, even in a registered church using authorized literature. The government and the culture cooperate in suppressing freedom to speak about religion in ordinary conversation or to make any attempt to persuade anyone to change his chosen religion. Christians are called by Christ to make disciples of all nations, but it is actually dangerous to try to make a disciple of anyone in Uzbekistan. In the US, prohibitions on prayer in schools and on the display of the Ten Commandments have arisen due to the same kind of thinking that shapes Uzbekistan’s version of freedom of religion. Court documents show that a fear of even the hint of a “proselytizing” outcome is enough to drive a judge to squelch all sorts of religious activities, the First Amendment notwithstanding.
The training of church leaders in Uzbekistan is also inhibited by government. No religion can have a “central office” if it does not have registered churches in 8 of the 13 districts of Uzbekistan, and only a religion with a “central office” can have a school of any kind to train leaders such as pastors. In the US, the government has expressed no interest in controlling the training of religious leaders. However, in China, a country with which the US has increasingly close ties in the financial realm, the expression of religious freedom is heavily shaped by religious leaders educated in schools where the government controls the curriculum and the faculty. Could it happen in the US? Who knows?
In Uzbekistan, the simple statements that religion is no part of government and that all religions are equal before the law have given birth to a bureaucratic nightmare which threatens the religious liberty of Uzbek citizens the way the Affordable Care Act threatens the religious liberty of American citizens.
The parallel is uncanny. In order to protect religion in Uzbek, the government had to define what that means. In order to protect religion in the USA, after more than two hundred years of religious liberty, the government felt that it needed to define what religion is in order not to protect anything that does not meet the definition. Just as Uzbek citizens find it challenging to understand how their government decides what a religion is, US citizens are puzzling over the same question.
Recently a pastor in Uzbekistan was arrested and charged with possessing and distributing unauthorized documents. He was tried, convicted, and fined 100 times the average monthly wage in Uzbekistan. Before 2005, the fine was only 10 times the average monthly wage, but in 2005, the government increased the fine dramatically. It is a very costly offense to possess unauthorized religious documents. The pastor has appealed this conviction, but the prospects of reversal are very slim. Courts in Uzbekistan take a dim view of someone possessing documents that the Committee on Religious Affairs has not approved. It isn’t clear if these documents are unapproved because the words were not approved, or if the documents were printed in an unauthorized location. It is hard to sort out all the laws and regulations that may apply to this situation. Citizens in the US should read this story attentively as they follow the path of court cases that dispute the US government’s definition of “religion” and the implications of that definition for all citizens. It is not a big leap from government definition of religion to government definition of religious documents.
Read more news about religious persecution in Uzbekistan at Living on Tilt the newspaper
Citizens in the United States read our Constitution and its amendments, and they believe that the plain sense of the language protects their religious liberty. Citizens of Uzbekistan might believe the same thing if they read their Constitution. Developments in Uzbekistan should at the least make us aware that without citizen vigilance, the plain language of the US Constitution could easily be reinterpreted by law and policy to mean something very different from our understanding of the words. In both countries it can safely be said that all citizens lose liberty if one citizen loses liberty.
Every Christian knows that we are called by Christ to be “little Christs” in the world around us. Most of us sang about being sunbeams when we were children – “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam at home, at school, at play.” It seemed easier to do that when all of us sang that song together as children than it seems now when powerful public figures say that no rational person would pretend that anything religious happens in a for-profit enterprise. Yet Jesus still calls us to be light in a dark world – at home, at work, at play. We are expressing our faith when we shine our light. If we let our government suppress the light in one place, the government can then feel free to suppress it anywhere else. If we let the government put out somebody else’s light today, we will have nobody to help when the government comes for our light tomorrow. Pray. Speak. Shine. In the name of Christ.
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16