First Freedom Hangs in the Balance

Religious liberty issues and trends to watch in 2017

As the political climate in America shifts, 2017 presents new and ongoing religious liberty battles.

But there are also new opportunities because of a new White House administration, according to Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty—a legal firm focused on religious freedom.

He expects issues regarding religious liberty in the military to be at the forefront—such as the case of Monifa Sterling, a Marine who was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged in 2014 for refusing to remove Bible verses from her desk. She filed a petition on Dec. 23, 2016, for the Supreme Court to review her case.

“This case is unprecedented,” Shackelford said. “This will be a unique opportunity in the fight to preserve our religious freedoms. And I anticipate that as commander-in-chief over our military, President Trump will work in favor of these freedoms.”

Kristen Waggoner, who leads U.S. Advocacy at Alliance Defending Freedom, explained that the religious liberty battles Americans will see in the near future fall into different areas of the marketplace and public life, but they all boil down to the same issue: freedom of conscience.

“There is a continued ideological cleansing by the left to ensure individuals in the healthcare industry, religious organizations, small business owners—and even pastors—have to leave their values at home when they enter the marketplace and the public square,” said Waggoner.

There are well-known court cases still pending, such as Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers and Melissa Klein and Aaron Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, both of which involve business owners who declined to service same-sex weddings due to her Christian belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.

The First Amendment Defense Act, which is expected to be reintroduced in 2017, would protect any person or entity that holds a belief in Biblical marriage from legal action by the federal government—people like Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers.

The landmark cases of Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby—both coerced by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate to provide abortion-inducing drugs through their employee healthcare plans—brought attention to matters of conscience in the marketplace.

Waggoner believes the Trump administration will deal swiftly with the HHS mandate in favor of religious liberty, and that the anticipated Planned Parenthood Defund Bill and the resolution of HHS mandate-related cases mean “Americans will have even more robust protections against having to participate in and pay for the taking of human life.”

Another group of people in the crosshairs, Waggoner said, are healthcare providers: “We’re seeing a trend where the basic right of conscience is being violated. Medical professionals who place a high value on human life are being asked to participate in the destruction of lives, whether it’s through physician-assisted suicide or abortion,” she said, citing a suit filed in federal court against officials in Vermont on behalf of physicians who wish to abide by the traditional Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, which includes not referring patients for lethal drugs.”

The Conscience Protection Act, which provides protections for healthcare providers who decline to participate in abortion due to a sincerely held belief that life begins at conception, is expected to play a role in preserving religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

More battles regarding student privacy, like Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., are expected to be prominent this year. Gloucester involves a 17-year-old biological female who identifies as a male and seeks access to the boys’ restroom at her public school.

“There’s a huge question mark hanging over Christians and the future of public schooling,” said Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

In 2016 the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Evangelicals proposed the Fairness for All strategy—an attempt at a compromise between religious leaders and LGBT advocates to secure legal protections for both.

But some key evangelical leaders see holes in the strategy that would bring a disadvantage to institutions with Biblically conservative beliefs. In December, leaders from nearly 90 religious institutions signed a statement rejecting efforts to protect sexual orientation and gender identity.

“It hands over too much to LGBT groups,” said Walker. “They get too much in exchange for what we get.”

Walker said Christians should pay attention to non-legislative religious liberty issues, and that religious liberty is too often stamped a political matter.

“Not only can we not have a Christian society without religious liberty, but we can’t even have a free society without it,” he said. “Religious liberty is no longer an issue of bipartisan consensus. The fact that it has been made a hyper-political issue is very troubling. It means we’re losing baseline consensus around our freedoms.”

And that’s why, he said, churches should be teaching on religious liberty from the pulpits.

“American society is figuring out how to live with very polarized viewpoints on sexuality and gender. There is a cloud that still hangs over us in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges (the Supreme Court case that gave same-sex couples the right to legally marry),” he explained. “Churches no longer have the option to sit on the sidelines and learn from the lessons of others. They need to be proactive.”

Walker cited a recent conversation he had with a Southern Baptist pastor in Alabama who had a transgender woman coming to his church and asking to use the women’s restroom.

“This now means the issue is everywhere,” he said. “My concern is that most Christians aren’t activists—they’re just nice people. They think religious liberty will never be their issue. But it will be.”

Waggoner agrees: “When your neighbor is forced to forgo their convictions to stay in the marketplace, the attack will come to you as well. We are all in this together.”