Words Have Meanings

Americans have a bad habit of assuming things. For example, they assume that the First Amendment protects religious liberty. They expect not to be taken to jail for praying on a street corner. They expect nobody will care if they give someone a Christian tract in a mall. Americans think it is quite normal to start meetings of a city council and the US Congress with prayer, because of the First Amendment. They even believe that the First Amendment protects conscientious objectors from fighting in combat. The claim of religious faith on daily life has been consistently been respected in the culture and protected by the law. The US has claimed from its inception to be a nation of laws, not men.

There is reason to be concerned today about the future of religious liberty. The First Amendment isn’t going anywhere, but religious liberty is at risk. Nobody is trying to arrest Christians for going to church. The attack is coming from a different corner. The attack is being launched by bringing up a discussion of the meaning of the word religion.

You may have heard children or college students engage in arguments about definitions. If so, you know that if one contender is determined not to be boxed into a definition, it cannot be done. There is always yet another twist to some word or phrase that allows the wily debater to slither away. The introductory arguments for a definition of the word religion make it clear that the meaning of the First Amendment could change dramatically if Christian lawyers are not as wise as the serpents on the other side of the argument.

Brian Murray has written a very important post at Public Discourse on the subject of what the Hosanna-Tabor case in the Supreme Court contributes to the body of law surrounding the First Amendment. He specifically mentions the issues that have arisen due to the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. According to his view, the cases surrounding the employer mandate have “reignited the debate about the definition of religion.” If you didn’t know that there is a discussion about that definition, consider yourself warned.

The legal profession has always been deeply engaged in discussions of definitions. The ability to make words mean what they must mean in order to prevail in court is the mark of a good lawyer. In the argument about religious liberty and the way the Affordable Care Act diminishes it, it truly is important to have a definition of the word religion, but Christian lawyers must be assertive in that discussion. Otherwise, religious liberty as Americans have known it will disappear.

It is clear to any attentive observer, and Murray confirms, that the present administration considers religion to be confined to “inward, private belief.” Murray further confirms that, for most Christians, religion is “just the opposite of the administration’s emphasis on private belief.” Most Christians believe that faith in Christ creates an imperative to live by the principles of faith and to share the faith with other people. The two views contrast sharply, and the two definitions imply very different interpretations of the term free exercise when applied to religion.

In today’s climate, with administration pressure to achieve some specific social objectives by using the force of law to compel politically desirable behaviors, it is dangerous for Christians to assume that it is enough to assert First Amendment protection for religious activity. While cultural pressure in opposition to sharing the good news may arise from time to time, Christians have not been pressured to refrain from sharing their faith or from making attempts to persuade non-believers to convert. If a definition of religion as a purely private matter were to prevail in the courts, the low-key cultural rejection of evangelism could become much stronger, as has happened in numerous countries where a secular definition holds sway.

The current administration’s definition has much more in common with the strictly secular definition of religion that prevails in the courts of Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan than with the definition held by the founding fathers of the USA. In those countries, the government requires churches to register their buildings and provide lists of members. Every month, pastors must report every meeting held and who attended. Pastors must provide advance notice of planned meetings.  Some churches prefer the risk of going underground and meeting in secret to the risk of giving the government all the information required of the registered churches. American citizens have never had to contemplate such choices, because Americans have never defined religion as something to be kept out of sight.

Have you ever heard anyone complain that Christians are too public with their faith? Do you know anyone who thinks that Christian employers have no right to refuse to offer coverage for medical services and pharmaceuticals that conflict with the teachings of their faith? Have you observed any Christian being accused of wrong-doing for refusing to participate in activities, such as wedding ceremonies for same-sex pairs? All these situations are set up by a definition of religion as nothing more than a privately-held philosophy. What can you do to influence continuing religious liberty in the USA?