Religious Liberty Means What the Government Says It Means

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


3 thoughts on “Religious Liberty Means What the Government Says It Means”

  1. I wanted to like this article for drawing attention to civil repression in Uzbekistan. But your comparisons of the circumstances of religious organizations in the US to those in Uzbekistan – this is largely empty rhetoric. In any case, the limits of your first amendment rights do not extend to the bodies of your female employees.

    Anyone who works should be able to have medical insurance, and anyone who has medical insurance should feel secure of a sound mind and body, or medical treatment in the event that something goes wrong. That’s why people buy medical insurance in the first place – it’s so we can be assured that life will go on in the event any medical emergency arises. A pregnancy may qualify as a medical emergency, and an unwanted pregnancy – especially one resulting from sex the woman may have felt pressured into, or worse, from rape – even more so.

    If a woman needs reproductive services to feel secure in her person, then that right extends to cover those reproductive services, whether they be contraception, Plan B, abortion or whatever.

    The trivial circumstances of a woman’s employment – if, for example, she gets her paycheck from an organization whose avocation is to try and shame women for exercising their right to control over their own bodies – is incidental and irrelevant. You may be unsurprised – since you will no doubt deem me to be a “secular” thinker – to know that I find your petulant insistence to the contrary to be parochial and backwards.

    But make no mistake, I agree with you that our first amendment freedoms, our access to education and literature of all stripes and origins, are absolutely crucial. I just don’t agree with you that extending useful medical services to our entire population in any way conflicts with those freedoms, and I think you have a heavy burden trying to prove that they do.

    I’m sure that there are women reading bibles on busses, in public schools, and in the waiting rooms of abortion clinics all the time, and (in my experience) there is no legitimate fear of arrest of intervention associated with this.


    1. And when I construe your rhetoric as “empty,” let me be clear: you are creating an equivalency where no real equivalency exists, in order to dupe your reader into believing that we should be afraid of one thing as if that thing had the properties of another (subtly or entirely different) thing.

      For instance, if you were to say that every time a person steps over the curb from a side-walk to a street, they were “falling,” you’d be correct in sense. Strictly speaking, walking is the practice of sustained falling, foot-step by foot-step, from place to place, so it is true that taking a step over a curb is “falling” in the strictest terms.

      But if you went on to say a person is acting recklessly or unsafely if he ever descends a stair-case or steps over a curb without first securing himself with a climbing-harness and forty feet of rope, or without wearing a parachute, or without a safety net at the base of that staircase – then you are just talking rot. And I believe that talking rot is largely what you’re doing here.

      Notwithstanding what you say about Uzbekistan, and your respect for first amendment rights, obviously. It is mostly your characterization of Obamacare as an attempt to “define religion” that I take issue with.


      1. I will reply to both of your comments in this single reply:

        Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough comments about this post. Your comments tell me that you read every word. I do not, however, concede.

        You say, “the limits of your first amendment rights do not extend to the bodies of your female employees.”
        I am not an employer. So I write this piece talking about employers, because that is the current issue, but my arguments would apply equally to private individuals compelled to buy insurance coverage that is an offense to their religious principles.
        With regard to the rights included in the First Amendment, those rights take precedence over any rights a government might choose to grant. First Amendment rights are granted by God. They are granted to every human being, and all humans owe it to all other humans to stand firm to protect those rights from usurpation by individuals or government.
        Further, the right to health insurance has been created by government at the behest of political activism simply to protect individuals from the costs of healthcare. Interestingly, the exponential rise in healthcare costs occurred as a direct consequence of the entry of the federal government into the healthcare picture with Medicare and Medicaid. The need for healthcare coupled with costs that kept increasing layered on top of a perception by Americans that they need more and more healthcare has created the idea that if people need healthcare they have a right to obtain it at no cost. Whether that is or isn’t a right the government should have invented, it is not a universal human right, granted by God to every human being. First Amendment rights do meet that standard. Where there is a conflict, First Amendment rights take priority.
        That said, the assertion of First Amendment rights does not in any way interfere with the “bodies of female employees.” To exempt an employer from participating in the provision of specific health insurance coverage for female employees does not deprive the women of that coverage. If the government believes that this coverage is part of the right it has granted, then the government needs to find some other way to get that right paid for, a method that does not trample the right of the employer not to participate in behavior which is an offense to his religious principles.
        It is important to recognize that, until recently, no human beings historically believed that it was a universal human right to receive free healthcare. Most societies have considered it a normal humanitarian obligation to act to protect lives, but no society till recently ever tried to assure that everyone received healthcare at no cost to themselves. Every society that has tried it has found it to be an unbearable financial and regulatory burden, and in every nation that has such a system today, the system is overloaded, understaffed, and already trying to enforce standards that determine who deserves care.

        You said, “if a woman needs reproductive services to feel secure in her person, then that right extends to cover those reproductive services.”
        This language is the language of a law guaranteeing a service. It is not a statement of a universal human right that trumps the human rights granted to all humans by God.
        a) I am not sure what “reproductive services” are or why such services have any impact on a woman’s ability to “feel secure in her person.” I do know that contraception is the opposite of reproduction, so the nomenclature is confusing.
        b) A perceived “need” is not the same thing as “right.” A “right” is not a guarantee that someone else pays the cost.

        You talk about “access to education” as a “first amendment freedom.” Education is actually not a universal human right. It is a parental responsibility. It is best handled close to home–by local school boards. If states and local boards want to work together, they can do so without Constitutional prohibition. Howeverm the Constitution does not anywhere give the federal government the right to involve itself in education. That is an argument for another time and place, but it is important to be clear that the First Amendment has no reference to any right to education.

        You say that “extending useful medical services” is not a violation of first amendment freedoms. You are correct that the extension of useful services does not violate the first amendment, until someone with the religious conviction that contraception or abortion is a religious sin is required to participate in that service. Underwriting anything is participating in it. During the last presidential campaign season we were all treated to endless analyses of the donations given by candidates and the people associated with them; all that analysis was predicated on the notion that the people implicitly participated in the action which they supported by donations. That is exactly the same claim employers make when they reject the proposition that they should underwrite medical services which are offensive to their religious principles.

        You comment that people in the USA read Bibles wherever they like with no governmental interference. This is almost true. There have been some complaints in the past few years about Bibles and prayers that cropped up in places like high school commencement exercises and valedictory speeches. But you are pretty much correct. This practice, however, is only a tiny fraction of the meaning of religious liberty. The term “free expression of religion” covers all the ways people express their faith. It certainly includes worship in a sanctuary, but it also includes things like freedom to pray over the food at lunch in a school cafeteria or freedom to hold a Bible study on a park bench, or even the freedom to reject certain behaviors that are sin according to personal principles, even though an oppressive government tried to impose a rule requiring those behaviors or the underwriting of those behaviors.

        You say, “It is mostly your characterization of Obamacare as an attempt to “define religion” that I take issue with.” I do not characterize the Affordable Care Act as an attempt to “define religion.” I accuse the administration of attempting to define religion in the regulations that implement the Affordable Care Act. The attempt was made as a response to the general outrage that the government would try to require employers to pay for services that conflict with their religious principles, thereby requiring them to participate in behaviors that are repugnant to their faith. There are many places where you can find this definition, and one of them is in the Federal Register,Vol. 76 No. 149/Wednesday August 3, 2011/Rules and Regulations 46623. The easiest way is to go the Federal Register online and search for “religious employer.”
        The definition of a religious employer for the purposes of the exemption says two important things about religion: 1, that religioun is confined to the act and location of worship, and 2, that the federal administration that wrote this rule does not believe that individuals have a right to live by the principles of their faith in work and life. These issues are the reason I see the administration’s position as an attempt to define religion. If it works here, then it can be applied elsewhere. That is what governments do. That is what the government of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and many other nations are already doing. These governments want all forms and expressions of religion bottled up inside worship buildings, but that is not what religion is about, and it certainly is not what Christianity is about.


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