Our First Freedom: What You Need To Know About Religious Liberty

By John Litzler

Religious liberty is a bedrock American freedom, but a number of legal issues related to this freedom are being sorted out in the courts and news media today.

In some ways, the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States raised more questions than it provided answers. In its opinion the Court concluded that “same-sex couples may exercise the right to marry” and also said “the First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faith.” What happens when these two liberties appear at odds with one another?

One example of this conflict between freedoms occurred in both California and Colorado. In each place, a same-sex couple, exercising their right to marry, sought to hire a baker to create a cake for the couple’s wedding and in each case the baker declined asserting that the baker’s religious beliefs prevented the baker from making a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage.

In California, the court sided with the baker, ruling that compelling her to bake the wedding cake violated her freedom of speech. In Colorado, the court sided with the same-sex couple, ruling that refusing to bake the wedding cake violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws. The Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Colorado case last December, and it’s anticipated that they will release an opinion this June. This is the first case in Supreme Court history to address sexual orientation discrimination on the bases of free speech and freedom of religion.

But there are three other areas where religious freedoms are being analyzed, as well. First, lawsuit brought by Freedom From Religion Foundation in Wisconsin challenges the constitutionality of the ministerial housing allowance, an IRS tax break for church ministers. Second, politicians are seeking to repeal the Johnson Amendment, an IRS provision that prohibits churches from participating in partisan political activity. And, third, FEMA recently revised its disaster relief grant program to allow houses of worship to apply for federal aid.

Questions surrounding America’s protection of religious freedom are growing. What’s the status of freedom of religion in 2018 and how did we get here? How does the history of Baptist involvement in creating the first amendment provide us the lens we look through as we seek to answer these questions?  We’ll discuss these religious liberty issues facing our country at the Micah 6:8 conference, March 23-24, at Sugar Land Baptist Church.

Related articles: Johnson Amendment protects churches from political manipulation / What the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling means for Texas churches / Texas Baptists respond to Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage