Tag Archives: First Amendment to the United States Constitution

Christians are in Conflict in the Culture and the Courts

  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)

Paul wrote the words above to people who lived in the capital city of the Roman Empire. Like any capital city, it had a large population of people from countries with a broad diversity of religions and cultures. The local residents considered themselves to be an elite and exquisite culture. Like many contemporary intellectuals they thought that their tolerance of diversity made their culture superior. At the time Paul wrote, the conflict between emperor worship and Christian monotheism was not yet the hot button issue it would become by the end of the century. It was possible for a Christian to live peaceably with most Romans and other cultures as long as they kept quiet.

Then, as now, Christians could survive without being threatened as long as they stayed under the cultural and legal radar. Then, as now, there were Christians who tried to live this way. Don’t make waves. Don’t rock the boat. Keep your head down.

The problem with that attitude is that it constitutes actual disobedience to the last command Christ spoke as he ascended to heaven. The Message puts it this way:Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life. Matthew 28:19a

Every Christian who actually tries to obey this command immediately encounters another problem. When any Christian speaks of his commitment to any Christian teaching, somebody is sure to recognize and point out any failure of the evangelist to live up to the teachings he claims to believe. Paul wasn’t kidding when he said that we all fall short, and those we meet in our daily comings and goings know all about our shortcomings. It makes it hard for us to stand firm on any principle. This doesn’t mean we should stop having principles, but it does mean we should be ready to deal with our own failings.

Currently, a lawsuit in New Mexico is a prime example of the way this situation can develop.

In July it was reported that Hope Christian School in Albuquerque had rejected the application of a three-year-old for its preschool program, because the child lived in a household headed by two men who live in a homosexual union. The letter of rejection said, in part, “Same gender couples are inconsistent with scriptural lifestyle and biblical teachings,” and “Home life doesn’t reflect the school’s belief of what a biblical family lifestyle is.”

The school is perfectly within its right, according to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, to express the faith principles of the administration of the school. However, the school administrators applied that same amendment to their acceptance of a grant of about $60,000 from government at some level not identified in the article, and this money has muddied the waters of the argument. Peter Simonson of the ACLU weighed in saying, “We don’t think agencies that discriminate or use religion to discriminate should be receiving our federal or government funds.”  The school almost certainly felt entitled to apply for the funds the same way any other school did, and felt simultaneously protected by the First Amendment in the expression of religious principles within the administrative operations of the school. The school believes it is in the right. Other citizens feel that this acceptance of government money completely invalidates the school’s right to act in faithful testimony to Christian teachings. The right of the school to administer a grant from government in accord with the religious principles of the school administration creates contention that is hard to separate from the school’s fundamental right to accept or reject applications from prospective students.

First Amendment or not, New Mexico’s Human Rights Act forbids “any person in any public accommodation to make a distinction, directly or indirectly, in offering or refusing to offer its services … to any person because of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, spousal affiliation, or physical or mental handicap.”  A lawsuit filed by the two men who claim to be the legal parents of the rejected child asks for “equitable relief, including their son’s acceptance into the school, and compensatory and punitive damages”  on the foundation that the school is engaged in public accommodation according to the New Mexico law. If the school meets the legal definition, then it is prohibited by state law from engaging in the listed forms of discrimination. However, the school states that the rejection was not wanton discrimination, but rather thoughtful expression of religious principle. The defendants had not published a response as of the most recent news available at this writing, but it seems possible that the definitions used as the foundation of this state law could be restrained by the liberty protected by Constitutional law. It remains to be seen.

The comments that accompany the many articles discussing this case make it clear that the culture is quick to judge, and not necessarily on the basis of the laws. Comments indicate that in the eyes of the secular culture, the very acceptance of government money means that the school accepted government standards. Nothing in the history of such grants actually supports such an assumption, but the assumption is pervasive. Many, many commenters were outraged that the school had even applied for the grant, but once the school accepted the grant, the culture jumped to the conclusion that the government owned the school and that the school had forfeited all its rights to Christian principles. Faithful Christians operating services such as schools, hospitals and adoption agencies routinely expect to be able to apply for such grants to cover all sorts of expenses. They all expect to be protected by the First Amendment in the use of the money while working within their Christian standards. It seems likely that this grant will not actually figure in the proceedings of the lawsuit, but it also seems likely that this case and others like it will result in cultural pressure on lawmakers to change the way grants work. How lawmakers will respond to that pressure, given the protection of the First Amendment, is not predictable, but the comments indicate that this issue is unlikely to go away.

Other comments show that the culture in general has a skewed impression of what Christian teaching is. Christians cannot try to be responsible for the cultural misconceptions, but it does make it difficult to speak of Christian convictions and Christian teachings when people who have never studied Christianity or the Bible assume that they really do know what Christians believe. This state of affairs makes it incumbent on every Christian to remember what Christ said about being called to account for ourselves. Jesus said, “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12) In other words, Christians need to be fervent in worship and prayer, nurturing the disciplines that draw them near to Christ and build the relationship with him. That relationship will bear fruit in the sort of cultural conflicts that are expressed in the comments surrounding the story of the Hope Christian School. The lawsuit is only about the school, but the comments reveal that this event is only one episode in an ongoing confrontation between the secular culture of the US and those who take Christian faith and life seriously.

Christians must be aware and attentive to news about cases like that of the Hope Christian School. It is a matter that calls for each Christian to draw near to Christ and to examine himself with the eyes of Christ. We need not fear the culture. Jesus said that the world would hate us, because it hated him first, and we can simply expect that. What we must fear is our own weakness and sinful nature that can rise up to destroy our testimony if we try to rely on our own wit and character in the fray. Each of us is always at risk of a confrontation similar to that of the school, and each of us is terribly at risk of having some Achilles heel in our lives that will make our enemies feel the way the enemies of Hope School feel when they see that the school received a government grant. We must do what Jesus taught us. We must stay close to him and trust that the Holy Spirit will teach us what to say and do. We can never be intellectually smart enough to defeat all the evil wiles of Satan, but we can trust the Holy Spirit to defeat Satan every time. The administrators of Hope Christian School need our prayers for their faithful submission to Christ in this time of trial, and while we are praying for them, we should pray for ourselves as well. The battle is fully engaged. If it is up to us, we must live peaceably, but it stops being up to us when we are asked to sell out our principles. We must stay close to the One who alone is able to defeat evil in time and eternity.

In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world! (John 16:33)

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How Does Persecution Begin?

The history of the USA is rich in stories of people who fled countries where their faith made them targets. In some cases they were in danger because their neighbors persecuted and scorned them while a complicit government cruised with hands off. In other places, the government persecuted them directly. Many of these refugees have suffered horrors American citizens can only barely imagine. American citizens welcome people fleeing persecution and give thanks that in this country, we have a Constitutional amendment that protects us from such things.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, which became part of the Constitution in 1791, reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; 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.

 

It sounds quite straightforward. Congress may not make any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion.

Common sense has resulted in an understanding that if somebody’s religion called for child sacrifice, the nation would respond with outrage and certainly would prohibit a religion from engaging in that practice. It is interesting to me that this is a common example used to show that as a nation, our understanding of religious freedom balks at burning a child on an altar, precisely because the practice of abortion, and the related practices of contraception and sterilization, have become the elements of a prohibition of the free exercise of religion in this country. The Affordable Healthcare Act, conversationally known as Obamacare, has introduced something into our system of law that raises a bright red flag for anyone who pays attention to the history and daily news of religious persecution around the world.

This legislation requires every employer in the US to provide health insurance coverage for services the law classifies as “preventive” health services. The required services include contraception, abortion and sterilization at no cost to the employee. That is, the employee may not be required to pay the premium, and the employee may not be required to pay deductibles or copays for these services. For the employee, these services must be free. Further, the regulations built on this legislation allow a conscience exemption only for worship institutions whose religious theology prohibits engaging in or providing such services. Institutions such as hospitals, universities, counseling centers, and so forth are not exempted, regardless of the religious convictions of the employers. On February 10, 2012, President Obama announced what he called an “accommodation” in response to complaints by Catholic employers, a response that simply shifted the cost of providing such so-called “preventive” health services to the insurance company itself. Yet when the final rule was published on February 15, it appeared to be an unmodified publication of the initial rule. The Catholic Bishops and numerous other individuals and groups protested to no avail that this ruling was a breach of First Amendment protections.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this particular confrontational issue, it represents only the tip of the iceberg. Every Christian, and every person who lives by the principle that obedience to God trumps obedience to the State, must be concerned by this development. It is hard to imagine any prior administration daring to trample First Amendment rights this way. Catholic teaching for two thousand years has forbidden engaging in contraception, abortion or sterilization, and the government had to know this when the original rule was published. Yet the rule was published, the argument was argued, and in the end, unless some future court ruling changes things, the rule stands. The forcefulness of the government’s rejection of the issue of religious expression is startling, given our history. It may lie in the equally startling semantic corollary to this conversation. The advocates for this rule speak of pregnancy as a disease that must be prevented. Such a view of pregnancy is shocking by itself, but that view is required in order for the mind to accept the notion that contraception, abortion and sterilization are preventive health services, necessary, even essential to women’s health. In fact, the language being used has ramped up the concern about women’s health to such a level that many speakers talk about a universal human right to free contraception, abortion and sterilization.

The concise version of the story of the Affordable Healthcare Act and its mandate on employers to provide all women’s preventive health services at no cost to the employee is this: the State has a legitimate interest in assuring that women do not get pregnant by accident, and if an unplanned pregnancy should occur, it must be easy and cost-free to end that pregnancy. Notice how none of the verbiage uses the word “baby” or the word “child.” Yet the State is motivating women to practice contraception, abortion and sterilization without regard to the scientific truth that these procedures do, in fact, involve sacrificing a child on the altar of somebody’s convenience. In fact, the pressure exerted and the scorn poured out upon people of faith who object to this rule as a violation of their right to live their faith convictions makes it quite clear that the State’s convenience is at least as much at issue here as the convenience of women who don’t want babies.

The antagonists in this conflict are 1) the State (the United States of America personified by the President of the United States of America and the Congress of the United States of America), and 2) people who hold religious convictions prohibiting them from practicing or supporting the practices of contraception, abortion and sterilization. The State has by its actions asserted that to assert that God’s law has a higher claim to obedience than the law of the United States of America is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.

It is not farfetched to say that the State wants to be a god for whom citizens sacrifice children.

Historically, when the State requires any citizen to disobey God in order to obey the State, it signals the beginning of real persecution. The path from this moment of truth to some more gruesome evidence of persecution may be fairly lengthy, or it may be so short that we get there tomorrow. In many countries, the path for the State is smooth and unfettered, because many countries have no legal protection in place for Christians. In the US, there should at least be a fairly massive outcry against imprisoning or torturing Christians, but many more subtle and devious methods of persecution exist, and many are already in place in our culture.

This post is about an explosive and obvious moment when our country stood on a precipice and actually appeared to fall over the cliff. Perhaps rescue from this particular assault will appear from somewhere. Perhaps not. Christians cannot count on a drift away from the precipice. When someone with power exerts that power and subdues a powerful opponent, the high is like the first injection of heroin. The memory of that moment always calls out for repetition.

 Christians must be faithful in word and deed. We must speak out and stand up for the right to free expression of our faith. In the USA we have that privilege today. We must not let it dissolve before our eyes in a semantic cesspool.

What is Truth?

Русский: "Что есть истина?". Христос...
Pilate asks Christ, "What is truth?" Image via Wikipedia

I  have heard this question more than once in my life, but every time I hear it I think of Pontius Pilate asking Jesus this question. This scene is quite instructive. It puts the emphasis right where it belongs, and it demonstrates the problem we all face every day. What is truth? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on what the meaning of ‘truth’ is.

Truth. We think that when we hear something that accords with the facts as we know them, we have heard the truth. When I ask my child if he took a cookie out of my cookie jar, knowing that a cookie is missing, and knowing that nobody is in the house except me and my child, I think the child is not telling truth if he says he did not take the cookie. I know the facts, and I know he is the only person who could have taken the cookie. I feel that I know the truth, and he did not speak the truth. To know truth in that setting seems very easy. It is not so easy in other situations. If I want to live my Christian faith in a culture that is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to Christian teaching, I will discover that there is no such thing as ‘the simple truth.’

Bill Clinton’s answer about the meaning of ‘is’ actually does illustrate an important factor in truth-telling. Words have meanings. For any word in the language, there is at least one dictionary definition. There is a cloud of connotation, interpretations and relationships that color my understanding of the word when I see or hear it. Most of us know to look in dictionaries and thesauruses for enlightenment on this sort of understanding of a word. Yet even these perspectives do not provide the whole story on words. Words that come to be used in daily speech because of their common use in some current political issue take on meanings that can only be described as political. The same thing is true with religious beliefs and practices. Christians who use the word ‘prayer’ almost certainly mean something different than a Buddhist might mean when using the same word. Because of all the usages and relationships a word may have, it is quite difficult at times to know if someone is telling the truth. We might well ask “What is truth?”

This problem is well-developed and clearly exemplified in the current political conversation about what our political leadership calls ‘contraception.’ The set of all political speech about ‘contraception’ has intersected with the set of all political speech about ‘the free exercise’ clause in the First Amendment and with the set of all political speech about ‘religion.’

The conversation is about the ‘truth’ about contraception, the ‘truth’ about free exercise of religion, and ‘the truth’ religion itself.

I will start by saying that I would never have taken any contraceptive medications if I had known that they did not prevent conception from occurring. Is that not the natural assumption when you hear the word ‘contraception?’ Yet the medications that are labeled ‘contraceptives’ actually do not prevent conception. Despite the fact that the drugs are designed to prevent ovulation, they actually do not reliably achieve that goal. Studies have found that the medications sold to prevent ovulation, and thereby to prevent pregnancy, successfully prevent ovulation between 40% and 70% of the time. If ovulation is not prevented, sexual intercourse can result in the fertilization of an egg. The moment of fertilization, the moment of conception, is the moment a baby first exists. If an egg is fertilized, a living human being is created. Medications that do not prevent fertilization may still prevent implantation, but if a living human being exists, then a failure to implant becomes an abortion. Contraceptive medications and devices cannot be relied upon to prevent conception. This is the first lie – the first challenge in our search for truth. The word ‘contraceptive’ was chosen as the label for the medications in order to lead people to conclude that these medicines prevent conception – ‘contra’ means ‘against’ and ‘ception’ means ‘conception.’ Women have been taking these medications for more than fifty years, and it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of them, like me, assumed that when they took those medicines they would not conceive a baby. The truth is that contraceptives do not prevent conception.

The first lie has led to a second one. After pharmaceutical companies recognized that conception could still occur despite the fact that a woman faithfully took the medicine as prescribed, they were made aware that some women were quite sensitive to the life-threatening situation that existed if conception had taken place but the resulting embryo could not implant due to the second effect of the medications – the thinning of the uterine wall. The drugs in the ‘contraceptive’ medications caused the uterine wall not to thicken and become ready for the implantation of an embryo. Embryos which came into being due to the failure of the drug to prevent ovulation might very well be aborted due to the success of the drug in preventing implantation. Using this situation as an opportunity, the drug companies redefined the word, ‘conception.’ They defined ‘conception’ as what occurs when an embryo successfully implants in the uterine wall. The embryos that fail to implant have not, by that definition, been conceived. Contraceptives, by this definition, do prevent conception, and the companies can safely continue to use the label ‘contraceptive.’ This statement, too, is a misstatement, due to the fact that some embryos do, in fact, implant despite the use of contraceptives. Contraceptive drugs do not reliably prevent conception, the formation of an embryo, and they do not reliably prevent pregnancy, either, the implantation of an embryo in the uterine wall.

You can read the details of this information at http://www.prolife.com/BIRTHCNT.html where the research is documented with resource listings where you can dig as deep as you like into the research.

All this verbiage is clearly a way of masking, if not completely hiding, truth. At what moment do the sperm and egg change from being zygotes to an embryo? They change at the moment that a fertilized egg contains the DNA that codes for a complete human being. As soon as this happens, the fertilized egg is an embryo, the first cell of a complete human being. I have been involved in discussions in which some participants questioned if a fertilized egg were even alive. Some questioned if the embryo were even alive when it failed to implant. I defer to the scientist called The Father of Modern Genetics, Jerome Lejeune, who said, “Each of us has a very precise starting moment which is the time at which the whole necessary and sufficient genetic information is gathered inside one cell, the fertilized egg, and this is the moment of fertilization.” From that moment forward, a human being is growing, a process which continues until that human dies. If that human is unable to implant in the uterine wall of the mother that human will die. The death is not the end of “it.” The death is the death of him or her. The embryo has gender, among all the many other traits of a human being.

Contraceptives do, in fact, produce abortions when they prevent the implantation of an embryo, conceived because they failed to prevent conception, the process implicit in the label of the drugs – contraceptive.

None of this matters if a person chooses to believe that an embryo is not a human being, or that a fetus is not a human being, or that a newborn baby is not a human being. There is no way to deny that an embryo is living, because only living cells grow and divide. However, in order to get past that truth, the argument has now devolved into an argument about when the living cells become human. Unlike Dr. Lejeune, who considered the fertilized egg a human being, people who find babies inconvenient have devised any number of new definitions that diminish the humanity of a baby sufficiently to fool people into a willingness to kill them. Last week I saw the first suggestion that people ought to be allowed to kill newborns they don’t like. I am shocked by this suggestion, but not surprised. If the embryo is not human, and if the implanted fetus is not human, when exactly does that ‘product of conception’ (another semantic word game) become human? What is the truth?

All my concern with definitions and truth is rooted in exactly the same issue which has led the Catholic Bishops refuse to comply with the President’s edict. They contend that the conception of a baby is an act of God’s will that human beings must not tamper with. They believe God has the right and the authority to decide who lives and dies. They believe that human beings should not try to usurp God’s will by interfering with the creation and birth of human beings. Whether you agree with them or not, the point is that this conviction about the will of God and the right of a human being to live is a conviction rooted in their faith. It isn’t a personal principle; it is a religious conviction. Just as Jews believe they must mourn their sins on the Day of Atonement, Catholics believe they must not interfere with God’s work of creation in the act of human procreation. Catholics believe that the only godly method of birth control is abstinence. They do not support contraception, and they would not support it if it did prevent conception. They reject contraception, abortion and sterilization, considering them to be sins against God. For the federal government to compel them to pay for and distribute and provide and counsel contraception, abortion and sterilization is to attempt to compel them to deny their faith and commit sin against God. If any Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim or Baha’i ignores this problem because this conviction is not holy to him or her, be careful. What will you do when they come for you?

The second set of speech in this search for truth is the set of speech related to the concept generally labeled ‘freedom of religion.’ The First Amendment to the Constitution states that Congress may not “make a law … prohibiting the free exercise of [religion].” In 2010 Congress passed a law more than 2000 pages long, and it is reasonable to assume that nobody who voted for it envisioned it as a law that might breach the protections of the First Amendment. However, the law gives extraordinary powers to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who ruled that an exemption from certain requirements of the law would be available only to worship entities, the entities we all call ‘churches.’ Only churches could opt out of the requirement to pay the premium for coverage of services designated as preventive services that included contraceptive medications, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs such as the medication commonly called ‘the morning after pill.’ The Secretary acknowledged that there might be churches whose ethical teachings prohibited them from even encouraging the use of such services, but the Secretary drew the line at houses of worship. She dismissed the idea that schools, hospitals and charitable services founded and operated by the churches had any right to the exemption. Churches one and all found such institutions as an outgrowth of their obedience to God to love and serve their neighbors. They consider the institutions acts of ministry. This ruling raised a huge outcry, and the President subsequently announced an accommodation that would force insurance companies to pay the costs being rejected by the institutions, but that accommodation was also rejected. In the end, the original ruling was published in the Federal register, and that is where things stand today.

What is the truth about the definition of the phrase ‘free exercise of [religion]?’ (I bracket the word ‘religion’ because the amendment itself has the term ‘thereof’ which refers backward to the word ‘religion in a prior phrase.) What exactly constitutes ‘free exercise’ for purposes of applying the First Amendment protections? It is a question which would never have come up in a culture where the dominant life patterns of the people were permeated with Christian teaching. People just assumed that if a school or a hospital was started by a church, everything the church taught was embodied in that institution. In fact, if the institution did allow anything contrary to church teaching, people were shocked, even dismayed. It seemed as if some very fundamental truth had been violated. Yet today, the President has invented a separation between churches and the ministries of churches. He says the reason is that the institutions serve many people who are not ‘coreligionists’ of the churches, and that many employees of the institutions are also not ‘coreligionists’ of the churches. Because the population employed and served by the institutions is not confined to ‘coreligionists’ the President has declared that exemption of the institution from certain requirements of the healthcare law by reason of conscience does not apply. Many, many citizens think this declaration is nonsense, but our culture that is no longer dominated by Christian teaching includes many very vocal citizens who think this decision is very good.

What is the truth? Is an institution founded and operated by a church an extension of the church or a completely separate entity from the parent church whose ethical standards may not be imposed on the institution?

Which leads to the third set – political language about religion. The usage of the term ‘religion’ is much murkier than you might think at first glance. Several years ago I read an article about bookstores in which I learned that, at the time, the most popular subject in the store, after ‘self-help’ category was ‘Buddhism.’ The reason? Customers said they liked to read about Buddhism because it wasn’t a religion; it was a way of life. Christians rebut that image, saying that for them, the way they live is the substance of their religion, but many non-Christian citizens do not see it that way. It is a subject for some other post to explore why people feel this way, but the fact is that they do. In the political discussion under way, many people, including the President, believe that Christianity is what happens in churches while what happens in hospitals and schools is something else, no different from the humanist concept of charity. It will take a Supreme Court case to sort out the issue, maybe more than one, but the fact is that it is not the simple truth we might think it is. What is truth? How is a Christian to respond to this issue while remaining true to his faith?

What I see is that living our faith openly has become a minefield. If religion is what happens in churches and if religion may not legally be expressed in public, then we have serious challenges ahead of us. I don’t think we have quite reached that place. Yet I find the whole confrontation between the President and the Catholic bishops very disturbing. I think this situation, along with the language around contraception, abortion and sterilization will require all of us to pray and think and be alert.

The followers of Christ in the first and second centuries would think we are timid cowards. They knew real persecution. They were imprisoned and tortured and thrown into battle with animals and gladiators. Their property was confiscated. They had to meet in secret and dared not even speak the name of Christ in the hearing of a non-believer. Not all the threats were legal. As in any culture, the legal climate set the stage for private vendettas against Christians. The current legal battle over the freedom of the church institutions to express the same religious principles as the parent churches creates a climate that some individuals view as a green light to disparage and belittle Christianity and Christians in general. I will write more in future posts about the way we live in such a climate. For now, I simply repeat my opening question: what is truth? Jesus said that when we knew the truth about him, that truth would set us free. The current political ‘truths’ are the sort of lies we need to be free from, but do not imagine that our freedom is a license to abandon our wits. Jesus also said that we need to be as wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves. We may have thought for two hundred years that our country was a place where Christian faith expression would never be threatened. We are discovering that it is possible to twist the language, to pervert ‘truth,’ in such a way that the government and the culture can attempt to suppress free faith expression under the guise that our First Amendment freedom means something it never used to mean. We must love everyone who is twisting the language and perverting the truth. We must wisely act in defense of our freedoms as long as it is possible to do so. We must pray for God’s will to be done, and we must pray to be ready for whatever comes.

What is truth? We are about to find out.