With Religious Freedom Under Threat, Is There a Way Forward?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the North American Division on December 6, 2019 and is republished in full with permission below. The original article can be found on the NAD’s website here.

On Friday, December 6, 2019, the Fairness for All Act was launched in Washington, D.C., by Congressman Chris Stewart (Utah-R), with support from several religious groups and coalitions. Fairness for All (FFA) is centered on two core beliefs: no American should lose their home or job simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender; and no religious person should be forced to live, work, or serve their community in ways that violate their faith. Below is a commentary describing FFA's importance and why Adventists support this bill.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the idea of religious freedom was seen by almost everyone in society as a good thing, worthy of legal protection. But today this ideal — long revered as a foundational human right and a central value of the American Republic — has become tainted with controversy. In fact, within two decades, religious freedom has gone from being one of the most unifying ideas within America’s public discourse to one of its most polarizing. In opinion pieces nationwide, legal protections for religious freedom are now being called everything from “a sword for discriminating against others” to “outdated and unnecessary” in today’s pluralistic society. And for those who watch religious liberty trends or belong to a religious minority, this seismic shift in public attitudes is both unmistakable and worrying.

It doesn’t take long to locate the frontlines of this increasingly bitter culture war. It’s a dispute that is centered largely on the interplay between religious freedom protections and LGBT civil rights. Increasingly, people of faith who uphold a biblically based, traditional view of marriage and human relationships are cast as intolerant or bigoted.

But this issue is about more than just negative perceptions and labels. There are real and significant challenges ahead because, as the fabric of society shifts, so inevitably do its political and legal realms. It is this reality that raises a number of tremendous concerns for people of faith and for religious denominations that seek to operate churches, schools and other institutions while staying true to their purpose and mission.

A Lopsided Approach

For religious freedom advocates, these issues have recently taken on a new sense of urgency. In March 2019, with great fanfare and a large majority, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a piece of legislation called the Equality Act. For those who care about religious freedom, it was a wake-up call. Although it's unlikely the Equality Act will move forward in the Senate during this Congress, the significance of its passage in the House — and the overwhelming public support it generated — shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Why was this so significant? For the very first time, a piece of federal legislation was voted by the House substantially expanding civil protections for LGBT individuals, but without also including corresponding protections for religious organizations and people of faith. In fact, not only were these basic protections missing, the Equality Act went a step further and cut off appeals to other federal laws protecting religious freedom.

The Equality Act isn’t wrong in what it seeks to do — that is, to prevent harassment and discrimination toward those who face hostility in many areas of civic life today. But the Equality Act is wrong in what it fails to do — recognize and protect the foundational right of religious conscience and religious free exercise.

If federal legislation of this kind did become law, what would it mean for the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its many institutions in the United States? What would it mean for other faith groups and for individuals whose religious convictions compel them to reject current social norms about sexual orientation and gender identity?

There is no doubt that such legislation if passed would, by design, leave very little protection to those whose religious beliefs are out of step with current social attitudes. It would, for instance, impact the ability of religious institutions to make hiring decisions that take applicants’ religious beliefs into account. It could lead to the government or professional bodies withholding accreditation to religious schools and organizations. It could hamper the church in its ability to run community service programs or put its disaster response institutions at risk.

The mass of litigation that would inevitably arise in order to resolve these issues would be long, expensive, disruptive, and destructive.

A False Choice

Watch cable news or scroll through your social media feed and you might be forgiven for thinking the culture war around LGBT rights and religious freedom is a zero-sum conflict. These voices calling for a “winner-take-all” approach are both forceful and strident — and yet they are mistaken.

We don’t have to choose between religious freedom protection or equal civil rights protection for everyone in the public space. In fact, our beliefs and values as a church suggest these two broad goals are not at odds, but complementary.

Yes, our commitment to religious freedom means that we will continue to assert, unequivocally, our right to express our faith and to administer our churches and institutions according to our biblical values and beliefs — including our beliefs about human relationships. We will also continue to defend the rights of individual church members to honor their conscience as employees and business owners.

Yet at the same time, should we not also affirm the right of every person to be treated with dignity and to have legal protection in secular employment, housing, credit and many other areas of life, regardless of whether we agree with their choices or beliefs? Adventists know that every human being is created in the image of God and deserves to be treated with compassion, dignity, and respect. This, too, lies at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Fairness for All

Over the past few years, Seventh-day Adventist advocates, from both the General Conference and North American Division, have worked with other groups to draft a unique piece of federal legislation. The Fairness for All Act, which was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives on December 6, is a proposed law that rejects the bitter, polarized approach that has long dominated public discussion about these issues.

Fairness for All lays out strong protections for religious groups and individuals of faith. Religious organizations would continue to be able to hold internal policies and make hiring decisions that reflect their beliefs. Further, they would not be punished by the government — through loss of tax-exempt status, or accreditation for instance — for their beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity. Nor could they be found to be engaging in discriminatory actions simply because of these beliefs.

In the general secular workforce, the religious beliefs of employees would be respected by employers unless these create “significant difficulty or expense” for the employer. For Adventists and other people of faith, this would also offer more robust protection for Sabbath accommodation than currently exists at the federal level.

At the same time, the legislation extends much-needed civil rights protections to LGBT individuals and acknowledges that they should never be subject to discrimination or harassment in secular employment, housing, or many other commonly protected areas—protections currently lacking in 29 states.

Fairness for All says, in essence, that there is a clear and principled way forward through this difficult cultural and legal landscape.

What Fairness for All doesn’t do, however, is to signal a change in thinking on the part of the Church regarding issues of sexual orientation or gender identity. Indeed, if there was an intent to do so, there would be no need to seek to preserve the legal right to act on those beliefs and administer our schools and institutions accordingly.

The Adventist Church’s beliefs on human sexuality are unequivocal and are clearly expressed in various statements and guidelines touching on marriage, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

In all these statements there is a common thread of compassion and love; an affirmation that “all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are loved by God” and that Adventists will never “condone singling out any group for scorn and derision, let alone abuse.”

It is this dual message—of upholding both religious freedom and human dignity — that is at the heart of the Fairness for All legislation.

Moving Forward

For many, this is not an easy topic. The public discourse around these issues is awash with pain-induced and fear-filled rhetoric. Amidst the anger and bitterness, though, we pray that Seventh-day Adventists will speak boldly with a voice of reason and kindness. A voice that echoes the loving and gentle compassion of our Savior. A voice that speaks for both the central place of religious freedom in our society and the inherent worth and dignity of every child of God.

What Is Fairness for All?

Fairness For All protects both religious institutions and people of faith from being forced to violate their conscience in the areas of sexual orientation and gender identity. While the bill itself runs nearly 70 pages, its major religious liberty protections can be distilled as follows:

• Protects Religious Education

• Accreditation cannot be denied to schools because they uphold biblical standards.

• Can maintain housing policies based on religious principles.

• Cannot be penalized by federal or state governments for teaching according to their religious mission.

• Protects Religious Employers — Institutions Can Maintain Employment Standards

• Religious employers, including schools, can continue to require their employees to uphold and adhere to the institution’s religious views and practices.

• Protects Religious Employees — Passes the Work Place Religious Freedom Act

• People of faith who need accommodations in the workplace (such as Sabbath off) get the same legal protections as people who are disabled. Currently the law allows employers to discriminate if it requires more than a minimal cost to accommodate.

• Protects employees in the workplace who express views on marriage and other religious topics.

• Protects Houses of Worship and Other Religious Spaces

• Houses of worship and other religiously-owned spaces cannot be required to rent or share their facilities for uses that violate their beliefs.

• Protects Small Businesses Owned by People of Faith

• Allows owners of small businesses (less than 15 employees) to continue earning a living without being forced to provide services that violate their religious beliefs.

• Protects Healthcare Institutions

• Healthcare providers will not be required to provide and/or perform medical procedures that violate their beliefs. However, they will still be required to treat all patients, as they currently do, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

• Does not change any of the current protections surrounding abortion for religious healthcare providers.

• Protects Social Service/Humanitarian Agencies

• Agencies such as ADRA and Adventist Community Services will be protected from losing funding because they maintain religiously based hiring standards. Would continue to serve all in need regardless of religious faith or practice.

• Protects the Church’s Tax-Exempt Status

• IRS could not revoke the tax-exempt status for churches, schools and other religious organizations because of their religious beliefs and practices.

This article was written by Bettina Krause, Melissa Reid, and Dan Weber, and originally appeared on the North American Division website.

Image: The Fairness for All Act is launched in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6, 2019. Photo by Dan Weber, courtesy of the NAD.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10069

I’m disappointed that the NAD article does not also summarize protections the bill offers to the LGBTQ community. How do we know it really is “fairness for all” when they don’t report on the specific guarantees proposed for LGBTQ persons? How do we know it’s just not a prettied-up version of an RFRA? As written, this article shows more care for religious rights than it does for real human persons, and that–I’m afraid–is at the root of this whole issue. Basically, it says, “You in the ‘secular’ world may not discriminate, but we in the ‘religious’ world (who claim to love all people unconditionally) can and will.” I say, please spare me your religion, and just bake that darn cake. What sort of wacky religious beliefs will be used to deny services to Adventists or Muslims or Jews? And how far is it from granting small business owners the right to refuse service to granting that same right to large corporations? Sorry, but this is the sort of legislation that will come back to bite Adventists in the behind.

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The law gives specifics on protections for LGBQ people in areas, for example, employment, housing and others. You can retrieve a copy of the bill in a link embedded in the article. Click on “Fairness for All” that is under the Fairness for All subsection. It’s a 70 page document, but worth the read. It is not a reshaping of RFRA, which is another statue that addresses other things, that has been greatly miss-used (abused?) in this clash between protected rights. RFRA was NOT designed to give religion a win hands down in all claims of religious free exercise violations. It is simply designed to give opportunity to have the claims of the litigant and the compelling interest of the government weighed out in light of a least restrictive means for government to achieve its compelling interest, and at the same time permit free exercise rights.

I think the real challenge in all of this is addressing a mindset that is expressed on both sides in the notion of zero tolerance, or zero sum outcomes. I win, you lose. As the article shares, it’s false choice.

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This exactly. We already have situations in which the Supreme Court has given corporations the right to exclusions from law because of their religious beliefs. See the Hobby Lobby decision. How are small businesses different? Why can large corporations get exclusion from the law based on its “religious beliefs” but small businesses can’t? What this would do is create a lip service to the idea that people cannot be fired for being LGBTQ, until and unless the business owners “deeply held religious beliefs” say they can. Or the landlords “deeply held religious beliefs” say the can deny housing to LGBTQ folks.

This is clearly the Christian world trying to take tax payer money, some of which comes from LGBTQ people. While at the same time discriminating against the very same people. Either stop taking federal funding or abide by the law. Those are the choices.

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For some years, Adventist colleges and universities have been quite frightened that the Federal government will eventually bar their students from accessing Federal loans and grants if the schools do not treat LGBT students - single and married - equally in enrollment and housing. So if the Feds took that step, which way do you think the Adventist schools would go? Would they forgo access by their students to Federal financing? Or would they treat LGBT students equally?

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Ed, I have been told that the issue of using Federal monies at SDA schools is a huge fear at the GC level. You have outlined the issues in your last two sentences. But, there is another one…if a LGBTQ+ person should apply for a job and then sue for discrimination.

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This law is another subterfuge to make it seem that there is a religious reason to discriminate against someone for how they were born. It is alarming because it is another example of refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Yet that same couple can go to the store and buy everything else for their reception and no one says a word. I wish someone could give me a good answer as to how making a cake for a gay couple was against anyone’s religious beliefs.

We’ve got to stop trying to find ways of keeping people out of the church and it’s institutions and look at ways to bring them in. The only way you can do that is by loving people like Jesus did. We are loosing our young people by the truckloads, it is because of our hypocrisy. Don’t think thy don’t see how sick we are.

Sure you can find a few versus to “prove” your right to discriminate against this community. But these verses were written by people who also said you can’t cut your sideburns, you can’t ware close with two different kinds of threads…and these same authors, both Moses, and Paul believed the world was flat.

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"We are loosing our young people by the truckloads, it is because of our hypocrisy. Don’t think thy don’t see how sick we are."

Younger people tend to have clearer vision because they generally aren’t caught up “hypocrisy”…they have to learn to do that.

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This is an interesting thing to watch going forward. My 5th and 6th grade teacher in SDA school, Mr. Earl Allen, said any number of times over the space of time he was my teacher, “Government money ALWAYS comes with government strings attached.” This was always said in connection with one of his little hobby horses about our institutions accepting government grants and other types of government funds.

I hope this happens if for no other reason than to shake the pharisaical sanctity of a whole bunch of people’s platforms.

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Lindy, the baker’s refusal was because of HIS religious belief, not your idea of YOUR religious belief or anyone else’s religious belief.

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But not really a valid argument. There are those whose religious belief encompasses the practice of human sacrifice. Doesn’t mean society will or should put up with it. My ability to deny another person the services of arranging flowers for them when I’ve entered the public sector as a florist, should of necessity be limited specifically because I’ve entered the public square and because they are guaranteed unalienable rights by our constitution. My religion, and I dare say Christ’s religion would be to arrange the flowers. Society rightfully steps in when human sacrifice or discrimination against others is involved. So does God’s law of love as typified in 1 Cor 13.

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Everyone now knows where the GC’s Achilles Heel lies…the House of Cards could go tumbling down.

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“…if a LGBTQ+ should apply for a job…”

As an aside: As a former church school teacher and as one who has been around Adventism for a long time, I can assure you that having gay teachers within the Adventist system is quite common. Not open or not openly sexually active, but gay, nonetheless. One’s gaydar does not have to be highly developed or sensitive to recognize this. Gay and heterosexual teachers have worked and contributed together happily for many years.

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They have…I have known some myself. LGB teacher’s contributions are as valuable as any others. Such a pity and shame that they have to keep part of themselves hidden- unlike heterosexuals.

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Leroy,
A religious belief that baking a cake for someone who does anything contradictory to my belief is ridiculous and hurtful. There are thousands of people who walk into that same bakery that violate many religious beliefs, yet the baker serves them. This is totally hypocritical and you can’t gloss over it by stating that it is a moral issue. Hurting that gay couple is also a moral issue and denying them is just a hurtful as calling them an abomination.

I would hate to stand in the judgment and try and tell God that I refused to bake a cake because I felt the recipients of the cake were doing something immoral. If I did that I am 100% sure I would be surrounded by goats.

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I’m not especially well informed on the myriad issues involved, but it sounds to me like FFA is an improvement on the current situation with some reasonable balance.

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This FFA almost seems to have a null affect. It is as if they clarify what the supreme court would decide anyway but this is in advance so as to stop the litigation’s. It is kind of like, leave us alone and we will leave you alone. Not sure if anyone else comprehends the article like this.
I know a number of commenters disagree with me but this is what I have, as well as many others, concluded in my own mind a few years ago. It is because of the forced intrusion the LGBTQBPR believers have made in our society that has resulted in built up walls. The walls are a stance of protection for God’s children against the behaviors the group represent. Walls to keep the family closer to a state of purity, albeit that there are plenty of other challenges too.

Your “buzz words” jump out at me. “Purity” is what the Pharisees used to hang Jesus on the cross. They wanted Him dead because he associated with tax collectors, Samaritans, lepers and a host of other deplorable, the very ones you want to disassociate from. The LGBT community doesn’t want to “intrude”, they just want to be allowed to live outside of a closet. And, I can tell you for certain, they do not want to “intrude” into our churches. They can smell hypocrisy a mile away.

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Pharisees used “purity” to hang Jesus…Really now! Never have heard that one before today.
If the LGBTQBPR community doesn’t want to intrude then why are they?

Except that the gay teachers were and are always at a disadvantage and at risk. Forcing dedicated church members to hide who they are, sometimes even deny who they are, at the risk of losing their income, is basically evil.

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