Religious Liberty: Now You See It – Soon You Might Not

By Larry Page. Larry Page is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He is the Executive Director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council. For nearly a decade he served as vice president and staff attorney for the Arkansas Baptist Foundation. 

The scope of religious liberties in America is and has been shrinking; it’s a protracted process occurring incrementally, but happening nonetheless.  It’s taking place, because the courts, much of the entertainment and news media, a great deal of academia, other assorted secular progressives, and an ever-growing segment of the American people are yielding to the politically-correct dogma that passes for honest philosophical thought and dialogue.

The judiciary, and particularly the federal judiciary, has aided and abetted the trend toward the secularization of our nation.  It is one thing to amend the constitution and write new laws by means of orderly, proper, and constitutional methods.  It is quite another thing for judges to legislate from the bench as activist jurists instead of fulfilling the legitimate role of interpreters of the law.  We have been laboring for some time under the heavy hand of an activist judiciary.  This was foreseen.

This is a good place to reflect on something Thomas Jefferson said about the judiciary and where he feared it might go.  In a letter Jefferson wrote to William Jarvis in 1820, he opined the following:

To consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy . . . . The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. [Emphasis added]


As if to underscore the prescience Thomas Jefferson displayed in what he said in the letter to William Jarvis, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist observed in a 2000 decision that the Court “bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.” Critics might say that Rehnquist was a conservative jurist and had a myopic view of the place religion and matters of faith had in the American way of life, and the critics would be wrong.  It was and continues to be as Justice Rehnquist described honestly and objectively.

To highlight some ways in which religious freedoms are being constricted, consider five recent cases handled by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an association of Christian attorneys dedicated to defending and preserving religious liberty.  Hundreds of other situations could be cited if space here permitted.

1) A second grade student at a public school in New Jersey was told that she could not sing “Awesome God” in an after-school talent show.  2) A pastor of a church in Arizona was ordered to stop holding meetings or Bible studies in his private home.  3) Five Christian men were threatened with arrest for sharing their faith on a public sidewalk in Virginia.  4) A Christian student at a university in Missouri was threatened with having her degree withheld because she refused to write a letter to the state legislature expressing her support for homosexual adoption.  5) A pro-life nurse at a hospital in New York was forced to participate in a late term abortion, even though her workplace had agreed in writing to honor her religious convictions.

Before going any further, it should be said that nothing here is to suggest that our nation should function as an ecclesiocracy, or one in which an organized, institutional religion or denomination rules.  Many people mistakenly use the word “theocracy” (which means God rules) to convey their opposition to a society in which the church rules.  No one is contending that any particular faith system, religion, denomination, or sect be given authority or power to make law or set mandatory policy and standards.  But what is being asked is the continued right for individuals personally and corporately as churches to practice what the first amendment guarantees – the “free exercise” of religion.

While “freedom of religion” is one of our fundamental, bedrock principles, its value would be near nothing if we did not recognize and hold to the indispensable implied right of “freedom from religion.”  Every human is possessed of a free will – adherence to a particular faith belief or holding to none at all is a choice available to everyone.  Coercion to accept and practice religious doctrine of any kind has no place in a free society.

What most reasonable people want is a fair and honest assessment of the principles upon which this nation was founded, recognition of the values which served as a foundation for those principles, and fidelity to the duly constituted and codified laws resulting from an application of those values and principles.  No one is served by a cheap “end-around” of constitutional provisions and codified laws by judges deliberately misconstruing interpretations of those provisions or laws or by a president’s or governor’s illicit use of executive orders and actions – both of which are usurpations of the powers reserved to the legislative branch or to the people themselves.

No serious discussion of religious liberty in America can be had without referencing the principles ensconced in the very first amendment to our federal constitution.  In its relevant part, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:

Congress [that can now be read “Government” since the U.S. Supreme Court made the Bill of Rights applicable to states through the application of the 14th Amendment] shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”  [Emphasis added]  

It is important to note that the phrase, “Separation of Church and State” is nowhere to be found in the first amendment or anywhere else in the constitution.  That sort of extra-constitutional principle was first used in the 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Everson v. Board of Education, by Justice Hugo Black in his majority opinion.  Black was an Alabama Democrat and former member of the Ku Klux Klan; he was appointed to the court by President Franklin Roosevelt.  He actually appropriated the wording from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Danbury, Connecticut, Baptists in 1802, using the phrase to assure them that the newly formed federal government would not establish a specific denomination of Christianity and would protect religious freedoms.

There are two rather important aspects of the first amendment’s religion clause that many people don’t understand – and the misunderstanding has serious consequences.  First, some read the free exercise of religion part of the first amendment and conclude that it is the government that conferred or granted that right to the people.  The correct position is that government has recognized the right and acknowledged its importance, not that the government created the right and granted it to the people.

No less a luminary than Thomas Jefferson, along with his fellow founders, made it crystal clear where the rights of man originated.  In our nation’s birth certificate – the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson penned – he said eloquently:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  [Emphasis added]

Jefferson knew what most people know or should know.  God, not the government, confers rights.

The second misunderstanding that skewers the meaning of the religion clause is for many not a misunderstanding at all; but rather it is a deliberate attempt to misconstrue the intentions of the founding fathers and those who followed them.  They attempt to make the case that those men were guilty of hyperbole, overstatement, and clumsy phrasing, culminating in a failure to articulate how they really intended the republic they were creating to be essentially a secular culture that valued diversity and held no antipathy against nor any affinity for matters of faith.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the polemics practiced today one can try to easily refute and counter another’s argument with the assertions that it is built on opinion without proof, feelings without fact, and conclusions with only flimsy and circumstantial evidence.  The last half of this piece will be used to thwart any attempts to marginalize Americans’ religious liberties with such vapid accusations.  I will do so by using hard and irrefutable facts.

The following is a sampling, a mere fraction of some of the utterances, propositions, and acts of the founders of this nation and those who followed in their footsteps.  After even a cursory view of these things, no clear-headed, honest-thinking person could have even the slightest doubt about where these patriots’ sentiments were when it came to the importance of religious liberty and how indispensable to the American way of life they considered it to be. The items listed are in no particular chronological order nor are they in any rank designating importance.

Now, let me begin.  The first order of business for Congress in 1789 was to appoint chaplains in both chambers.  Since those early days, both the Senate and the House of Representatives open their sessions with prayer.  Our coins are stamped with the phrase, “In God We Trust.”

Congress inserted the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.  On the very day in 1789 that the First Amendment was approved, Congress asked President Washington to proclaim a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.  In his proclamation designating a National Fast Day, Abraham Lincoln said that “Those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”

 Each session of the U.S. Supreme Court begins with the prayer “God save the United States and this honorable court.”  The Ten Commandments hang over the head of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The words “In God We Trust” are found in the House and Senate chambers.  On the walls of the Capitol dome can be found “The New Testament according to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  In the rotunda of the Capitol is the figure of the crucified Christ.  Presidents conclude their oaths of office with their left hand on an open Bible, with these words: “So help me God.”

The phrase “Annuit Coeptis” (“God has smiled on our undertaking”) is inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States.  Under the seal can be found the phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “This nation under God.”  Leviticus 25:10, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto the inhabitants thereof” is displayed on the band of the Liberty Bell.

On the walls of the Library of Congress are the words of Micah 6:8: “He hath showed thee, O Man, what is good; and what doth God require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”  Engraved on the metal cap on the top of the Washington Monument are the words:  “Praise be to God.”  Lining the walls of the stairwell of the Washington Monument are several Bible verses.

At the opposite end of the Lincoln memorial, words and phrases from Lincoln’s second inaugural address reference “God,” the “Bible,” “providence,” “the Almighty,” and “divine attributes.”  The Jefferson Memorial quotes Jefferson in the following way:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty.  Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” [Emphasis added]

What is shared above is but a little of the evidence that religious liberty had a very special place of prominence in our nation’s founding, that it was considered indispensable, and represents an undeniable conviction that it’s diminution cannot possible redound to our benefit.  Any open-minded, honest thinker – one who is without a tainted agenda – can come to no other conclusion when faced with the mountain of evidence that exists for this premise.

There can be no better way to close this than by repeating the words of the Father of our Country and our first president.  George Washington said:

 “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.  Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  [Emphasis added]

A Lutheran On Religious Liberty

By the Reverend Doctor Clint Schnekloth. Dr. Schnekloth is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and is currently pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, AR.  He is a graduate of  Luther College, Luther Seminary and has his Doctorate of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary.  He is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era

When developing a vocabulary of culture and society, difficulties arise. It is the words themselves that often present particular trouble. Conceptual words, what Raymond Williams calls keywords in his book of the same name, are notoriously elusive.  They have specialized meanings in particular areas of study. Their usage is variable in general discussions.

Williams wrote an entire book on keywords because he found that with such words the problems of the meaning of the words are “inextricably bound up with the problems it was being used to discuss” (Introduction). In other words, the words themselves are elements of the problem we are seeking to solve when we discuss that which the words are intended to signify.

I have been given the task of writing an essay on the understanding of religious liberty from a Lutheran perspective. With “religious liberty,” our troubles are twofold, for we have two words tethered, both of them endlessly complicated. One of them made it (sort of) into William’s keyword lexicon, elucidated in neighboring entries on liberal and liberation in his lexicon.

If we take Williams as at least somewhat authoritative, we learn that although liberty in general means freedom, the more specific use of the term historically has been that of formal permission or privilege. We “take” liberties. Other than this sense, liberty also has the sense of rights granted under the auspices of some sovereign. Our liberties are protected.

Williams offers another entry on liberation and notes that although historically liberation was understood as emancipation, being set free from bondage, the more contemporary sense of liberation includes a more active sense of winning self-determination. Our religious liberties are ours; we own our own freedom.

I will circle back around to this term, liberty, in a bit, offering a comparison to the word more appropriate to Christian and Lutheran theology, that of freedom. But for a moment, let’s continue with the other keyword. Williams offers no concise definition of religion, so we are left to our own devices. And we all know that the word “religion” is one of the most hotly contested words on the planet. Not only is there a global contest as to what counts as the “right” religion, but religious studies as a discipline is almost humorously incapable of defining the very term they study. I say “almost” because the academic guild, having the task of defining religion in a “sortal” way to cover a set of activities, way-of-being-in-the-world, tests the range of definitions and finds them lacking, but then continuing the quest. A scholar’s quest for a definition of religion aspires to objectivity and neutrality, which is a wholly different approach than the confessional one.

We can chase the word religion down a lot of paths. Some claim it has to do with organized forms of worship. Some argue it is about a shared sense of meaning. Others about a higher power. Others a set of beliefs. The problem with almost every definition offered for “religion” is the reality that some religion of a specific group or individual conflicts with the definition. Some religions don’t organize for worship. Other religions deny that a search for meaning is integral to their faith. Many religions do not posit a higher power or may be actively anti-creedal, rejecting a body of beliefs as definitive of their religion.

This being the case, we may need to offer a more tautological definition of religion: a religion is what is claimed as a religion. If it’s your religion, that’s a religion. I offer this definition, recognizing that this hands the definition of religion over to the participant, whereas there are some legitimate arguments to be made for the definition of religion remaining in the hands also of analysts of religion, even if their definitions always fall short of completely articulating the phenomenon of religion as we experience it.

So we can offer a somewhat concise definition of religious liberty: Religious liberty is the hard-won freedom and privilege to practice religion as we understand it, or as the religious analysts observe and continually articulate it.

Of course, this itself is hotly contested. Not all advocates for religious freedom successfully extend privileges to all religions, and oftentimes the claims of one religion in its liberty stands in incommensurable conflict to the religious claims of others. These are the sites in our culture of particular heat and pain.  By and large, though, I would argue that a Lutheran understanding of religious liberty would, in its vocation to live with and through this world, share much in common with secular or standard understandings of the two terms, especially in our shared responsibility to protect religious liberty in as capacious a sense as possible. Which is to say, a working Lutheran definition of religious liberty would be to practice our faith in such a way that the religious liberties of others are safeguarded and even advanced as much as possible.

This brings us to the specifically Lutheran approach to the topic. Lutherans carry with them a rather famous essay of Martin Luther, “On Christian Liberty.” In this essay, Martin Luther offered a famous paradox:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.

This paradox benefits from a bit of unpacking. First of all, Luther is working in categories of freedom related to the things above as much as he is working in categories related to things from below. That is, towards God, because of the justification of the ungodly in Christ, Christians are completely free, no longer bound by their concern for salvation, and so subject to no one as regards their standing before God. If there is one mark of what it means to be Lutheran, it is likely this–we have been set free from having to earn, purchase, justify, or establish in any sense our standing before God. Christ has set us free from this. That is a form of religious liberty. This is the freedom Luther discovered reading the letters of Paul, particularly the letters to the Galatians and Romans.

So we are freed from justifying ourselves with God. We are realigned, new margins set, working our way down the page not free from any margins, but free for specific margins. We are justified for the neighbor, set at liberty, subjected to the neighbor and their need. The new direction of concern for the Christian set free from the law is the neighbor in love.

This bears repeating. We are set free, liberated, for our neighbor. In this sense, Christian liberty is not a license, or the liberty to do anything, but liberation, solidarity with the neighbor so free and deep as to completely pour the self out in neighbor love. This is why the greatest commandment, though a law, is itself a paradoxical law, because it looses by binding.

This is where the paradox lies.  We can’t have the one without the other, even if they appear at first blush paradoxically incompatible. Freedom can’t be true freedom without love. Love can’t be love unless it is free.

As a result, we can offer two robust theses regarding a specifically Lutheran understanding of religious liberty.

First, religious liberty in the Lutheran sense will agree with the Vatican Council in Dignitatis Humanae, that “a human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all [human beings] are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to [their] own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” So Lutherans, as ecumenically oriented Christians open to and encouraging of shared commitments concerning religious liberty, agree with the Roman Catholic communion that part of the recognition of human dignity includes protection from religious coercion.

Lutherans would take this commitment one step further. It is a step that is implied in much of Dignitatis Humanae, if not expressly conveyed. Lutherans have a habit, grounded in their Small Catechism, of articulating an interpretation of God’s commandments not simply in the negative, but also in the affirmative. For example, Luther’s explanation of the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” reads–We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in their body, but help and befriend them in every bodily need.

If we take this same interpretive stance as regards religious liberty, Lutherans might say, a human person should be not simply immune from coercion, but also encouraged and supported in their religious practice. Not only are we committed to protecting the free exercise of religion, we are also committed as Lutherans to ensuring that all humans can practice their religion in as lively and life-giving a manner as possible. This might take many forms in many places, but at the very least, beyond ensuring that Muslims can build mosques and nobody at the university has to pray to a God they don’t believe in, Lutherans are committed to providing the resources and space, the conversation and neighborliness, that can make the religious liberty of their neighbor, of any kind, as vitalized as possible.

Second, and somewhat like the first, the Lutheran will practice their own religious liberty in solidarity with the neighbor in their religious liberty. Lutherans have this tradition of interpretation sometimes called the bound conscience, which emphasizes our responsibility to recognize when the neighbor, the other, has to stand in a place where they can “do no other,” as Luther apocryphally stated. This is to say sometimes we discover a moment, a place, where our neighbor’s faith is particularly imperiled. I am mindful, for example, of the recent tensions between Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton College. Here, in this moment, a Lutheran who wishes to protect religious freedom will strive to understand and support the religious practices of these neighbors in faith.

In this particular example, Lutherans might say, “Well, Larycia Hawkins is practicing her faith, which includes her Advent discipline of embodied spirituality, the wearing of the hijab, and Wheaton College is practicing its religious freedom, the freedom to operate a Christian college with a specific statement of belief expected of all faculty.” Lutherans would likely also recognize, and be particularly sympathetic to, Professor Hawkins’s Advent discipline because it illustrates the kind of life-giving solidarity our peculiar understanding of religious freedom entails.

Where things would get complicated would be in the adjudication of the contesting claims for religious freedom between the college and Professor Hawkins. It would appear that one way or the other, somebody’s religious freedom is going to be curtailed. This is probably why Dignitatis Humanae includes that little final phrase in the quote above, “Within due limits.” There are due limits, in this life anyway, to the completely liberated practice of anyone’s or any group’s religion.

This is, specifically, the problematizing of the possible positivism I am working against by way of an articulation of the Lutheran paradox of Christian freedom. Personally, I do stand with and support Professor Hawkins and believe Wheaton College is constricting her religious liberty precisely because it has the white privilege and power to do so. The fact that she is a black woman speaking out for solidarity with Muslims puts her in the position in need of protection. Yet this needs to be problematized inasmuch as it is not always clear who gets to decide who is marginalized in a given situation. That being said, problematizing such positivism likely always carrying with it the inherent risk of benefitting whoever happens to hold the position of power, and thus indirectly curtailing rather than protecting religious liberty.

Take time, if you would, to read Professor Hawkins’s own case for herself  against Wheaton College.

In the case of such contested claims, a Lutheran understanding of religious liberty will err on the side of the liberty most in need of protecting. That is, solidarity will be with the marginalized, the vulnerable, the one most at risk in the structures of power that are at play. This is implicit in the paradox itself, the emphasis on taking the form of the servant for the neighbor in need. Lutherans seeking religious freedom for the neighbor will not join the group enforcing systems that obstruct religious liberty, even if those groups perceive their enforcement as itself an act of religious liberty. Lutherans will stand in solidarity with the weakest and most vulnerable. They will be servants with the servants, slaves with the slaves. Returning to Williams and his definition of liberty, it is much more than simple emancipation – it is winning self-determination.

The peculiar form of Lutheran religious liberty is a sense that no self-determination need be won on the God side of the equation, so, having already had the self-determination won for us through the suffering love of Christ, the Lutheran (and all Christians who share this perspective) is now free to join the fight for self-determination for those most in need of it. This is precisely what love looks like, in community, as it pertains to religious freedom.

Soul Freedom: A Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty

By Don Byrd.  Don Byrd is a lecturer at Nashville’s Belmont University and an attorney. He presents this article from the perspective of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He writes the popular Blog from the Capital for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, available at

The tradition of Baptist advocacy for church-state separation and religious liberty is rooted in the foundational Baptist view of the relationship between God and the individual. As James Dunn, the former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, once wrote, “No pastor or priest, no doctrine or disciple, no book or belief, no church or creed comes between the individual and God.”[1] Instead, each one of us is responsible before God; and with that responsibility, each of us is free.

“Soul freedom” sparked the Baptist resistance to an established state religion in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it continues to inspire the response of true Baptists to religious freedom challenges in America today. Although faith is nurtured by church and family, we all come to God single-file, personally and individually, or not really, Dunn also said.

A pair of contemporary religious liberty issues arising out of Arkansas help demonstrates this connection.

First, in January of 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Holt v. Hobbs. Gregory Holt is a Muslim prisoner in the Arkansas Department of Corrections, who claimed a religious objection to prison policies forbidding him from growing a beard as required by his faith.

Arkansas officials argued that the beard ban was necessary for reasons of safety and security, while Holt maintained the state failed to demonstrate how a ½-inch beard posed a legitimate threat.

Second, in April 2015, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law a bill authorizing the display of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state Capitol. The state will not pay for the monument, but it will, according to the law, arrange for its design and placement.

Opponents to such a display argue it amounts to an improper government endorsement of religion. State officials, however, believe the Decalogue, as a historically significant text, is rightfully placed among other monuments at the Capitol.

These two scenarios represent both contemporary church-state questions and centuries-old religious liberty dilemmas. How should we resolve a conflict between government regulation and an individual’s free exercise of religion? Should the state acknowledge the popular religious themes and ideals of its people?

Understanding the Baptist perspective on religious liberty and these fundamental questions requires a quick dive into Baptist history.

Baptists trace our North American heritage back to Roger Williams, an English preacher and all-around gadfly who brought his message of “soul freedom” to Colonial America in 1631, where he would demand separatism from the established church.

Williams believed authentic Christian faith to be impossible within a church tethered to the state. He advocated instead for a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”[2] That separation is necessary, he urged, for a person to truly express their God-given liberty of conscience.

According to Williams’ theology, the faithful must not be mediated by a government or even a church authority, but must be free to commune directly with God. The influence of the state is an act of interference that corrupts the favored church and cripples the disfavored.

The idea of “soul freedom,” as one might expect, did not sit well with the Puritan theocrats governing the Massachusetts Bay colony, which was Roger Williams’ new home. Ultimately exiled for his “dangerous opinions,”[3] Williams and a small band of devotees traveled to then-uncolonized Rhode Island and established the town of Providence to put his radical ideas into action.

Conceived as a “livlie experiment”[4] in religious freedom, Williams’ settlement was by most accounts the first government in history committed to completely separating citizenship from faith. Providence became a shelter for minority faiths, voices of dissent, and those “distressed of conscience.”[5] It was there, in 1638, that he founded North America’s first Baptist church. The First Baptist Church in America remains today a vibrant congregation, describing itself as “still a haven for the oppressed.”[6]

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, hundreds of Baptist churches sprouted across America. While most colonies supported in some fashion an established state religion, Baptists championed separation as the only government stance that would allow voluntary faith to flourish. So long as the state picks sides in matters of faith, Baptists warned, the claim to God-given, individual soul freedom is undermined.

That fundamentally Baptist perspective on religious liberty explains why Virginia Baptist preacher John Leland pressed James Madison so fiercely to secure a Bill of Rights that included a guarantee of religious freedom. It also explains why the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association, oppressed under the state’s established Congregational church, wrote to President Thomas Jefferson to encourage his continued support for rights of conscience.  (Jefferson famously replied in 1802 with a letter expressing his hope that the “wall of separation between church and state” built by the First Amendment’s religion clauses would be an idea that “might germinate and become rooted in . . . political tenets.”[7])

The central lessons regarding government neutrality toward religion passed down from America’s early Baptist churches are still relevant today and cherished by true Baptists.

First, the state must not promote a religious creed, tradition, or viewpoint. This principle is enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ”

Treating any faith as privileged or even advancing religion in general is a misuse of the public trust. On that point, early Baptists like Isaac Backus, fighting for disestablishment in Massachusetts in the late 18th century, vigorously opposed taxation to benefit the established church. But they opposed just as strongly the corrupting influence of government activity that might promote their own religious views. As John Leland proclaimed, “ . . . the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecution ever did.”[8]

Second, the government must not interfere with religious exercise. This principle is written into the First Amendment by barring Congress (and more broadly the government) from “ . . . prohibiting the free exercise . . .” of religion. As soul freedom and soul competency before God are guiding tenets of Baptist theology, individuals must be allowed to express their faith according to the dictates of their conscience –

that is to say, freely, but always responsibly. Churches must likewise be granted autonomy to structure their worship, mission, and administration as they see fit.

For Baptists, however, the concern about state interference extended to all faiths. Experienced with religious persecution and marginalization as a small minority sect, early Baptists knew that if religious liberty of anyone is denied, the liberty of everyone is threatened.

Thus, both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause work together to protect religious liberty. They address concerns that formed the foundation of Baptist churches. Continuing the Baptist tradition, then, means demanding that both religion clauses remain robust. True religious liberty, unhinged from government support or interference, promotes social harmony across religious divides and allows religion to flourish. Or, as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty likes to say, “the separation of church and state is good for both.”

How does that Baptist tradition translate to the contentious church-state disputes of today?

For one, it means acknowledging the diverse religious perspectives that make up our country by insisting on religious liberty for all, recalling that Baptists know the sting of persecution all too well. Baptist heritage calls on us to advocate for the religious exercise of a Muslim mosque with a fervor equal to a Baptist church that is denied a building permit without sufficient basis. Likewise, the standards governing workplace religious discrimination law should be the same for employees who observe the Sabbath on Saturday as they are for those who worship on Sunday.

The Baptist Joint Committee (BJC) has advocated this historic Baptist view of church-state separation for 80 years in Washington, D.C. The BJC, which serves 15 Baptist bodies, was instrumental in creating key federal laws that protect all Americans’ free exercise rights, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was the statute applied in the Holt case. Both laws stand for the proposition that the government may not pose a substantial burden to a person’s religious exercise unless the burden is necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest.

In the case of Gregory Holt, the Muslim inmate in Arkansas who sought to grow a beard, Baptists were rightly on his side. In a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, the BJC argued the state must make more than just a cursory effort to justify its policies when a person’s religious exercise is burdened. The Court agreed, ruling unanimously that the state Department of Corrections violated Holt’s religious liberty rights under RLUIPA by refusing to allow him a ½-inch beard in accordance with his faith.

Through the BJC, Baptists continue to advocate strong free exercise principles for all Americans, not just fellow Baptists.

With respect to Establishment Clause disputes, including challenges to government-sponsored Ten Commandment monuments, the traditional Baptist view demands no less fidelity to the principle that the state should refrain from promoting religion.  That is true both for the sake of those who have different religious views and for the sake of the promoted religion itself. The government would do better by all of us to stay out of the business of posting religious displays on property owned by all of us, whether it is a Ten Commandments monument at the state Capitol, a Nativity scene at the county courthouse, or a large memorial cross in a public park.

As BJC General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman once wrote,

Government-sponsored religious monuments are always constitutionally suspect and theologically questionable. Any rule that puts the government in the position of making religious decisions threatens the freedom of religion. Those who share the BJC perspective on religious liberty will continue to promote the Ten Commandments (and other scriptural mandates) in a way that the Bible encourages: by writing them on our hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah instructed.[9]

Unfortunately, the Establishment Clause has been weakened in recent years, jeopardizing the religious liberty of all of us. Government funding for faith-based religious schools (through vouchers) has been upheld as constitutional, as have government-led invocations opening official local government meetings.  The U.S. Supreme Court has also made it more difficult in some circumstances for taxpayers to challenge government funding of religion at all. From a traditional Baptist perspective, these are unwelcome holes in the wall of separation between church and state that has framed Baptist thought since Roger Williams.

Even worse, many religious liberty advocates, including some Baptists, have come to discount the value of a strong Establishment Clause and the “wall of separation” metaphor, which they claim has been used to marginalize religion by “pushing faith out of the public square.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Religion is as vibrant and robust as ever in America. What Baptists have urged since the 1630s remains true today: keeping government out of the religion business only enhances our freedom.

As for the Arkansas law authorizing a Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol grounds, recent events surrounding a similar statute in Oklahoma might be instructive. The Legislature passed and the governor signed the bill into law in 2009, despite opposition from the BJC expressing the view stated earlier, that while we cherish Scripture, it does not belong on a state Capitol monument. Six years later, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the display violates the state’s constitution and ordered it removed.

Depending on the details surrounding such a display, courts may or may not find it lawful. Either way, Baptists should oppose government-sponsored or government-hosted religious monuments as a bad idea. It waters down and undermines the religious nature of the display, and it marginalizes those who follow a different faith or choose to follow none at all.

Since the founding of the first Baptist church in America nearly 400 years ago, Baptist heritage has emphasized the separation between church and state. Government neutrality in matters of faith – neither promoting nor interfering with religion – is the only way to assure authentic expression of our God-given soul freedom. Roger Williams’ “livlie experiment” works, if only we will strive to maintain it.


[2] Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 207.

[3] LaFantasie, Glenn W., ed. The Correspondence of Roger Williams, University Press of New England, 1988, Vol. 1, pp.12-23.

[4] Evan Haefeli, “How Special Was Rhode Island? The Global Context of the 1663 Charter,” in The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams, Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda, eds. (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) 37-52.

[5] Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience, 207.


[7] Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptist Association, January 1, 1802.

[8] Edwin S. Gaustad, Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 107.

[9] Report From the Capital 60/7 (July/August 2005): 10.


Buddhism and Religious Liberty

By Anna Cox.  Anna Cox, a retired psychotherapist, co-founded the Ecumenical Buddhist Society in Little Rock, Arkansas and founded Compassion Works for All, a prison Dharma organization.

Buddhism is inherently a program of self-liberation in which the liberty of each individual is honored as an essential part of the process of consciousness evolution.

Here is a quotation from Siddhãrtha Gautama (Shakyamuni Buddha) who offered the foundational teachings of what later became the tradition of Buddhism:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

Do not believe in traditions simply because they have been handed down for many generations.

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Buddhism is less a religion and more a path of experiential unfoldings. Buddhism asks that one listen to teachings, enter into community with other supportive and like-minded participants, and then to primarily practice meditation and contemplation until one experiences what becomes known to one in their spiritual heart. Teachings offer wisdom understandings of reality and how to gain compassion. Their main focus is on the methods of meditation, compassion, and explorations of subtle consciousness evolution. The practitioner is then asked to spend thousands of hours in meditation practices. Teachers who have done these experiential journeys themselves and who have accomplishment in awakening consciousness, tutor and guide students as they follow these same pathways into self-awareness. As each begins their path, it is known that the practitioner will have their own unique experiences while traveling through similar consciousness territories. They will be growing in their way to wisdom awareness and compassionate transformation.

Liberty is at the very heart of this unique unfolding.  There is not even the concept of a path other than what unfolds since each individual must be honored and supported on a path that is theirs alone. Liberty is emphasized in the students having the inner permission and courage to listen to their unfolding path for their ultimate awakening into true Buddhahood.

Religious Liberty from a Reform Judaism Perspective

by Rabbi Eugene H. Levy. Rabbi Levy retired in 2011 from long service to Temple B’nai Israel in West Little Rock, but has definitely not retired from social justice activism. He is a co-founder of the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance.

The past few years I have become very leery of the titles that our Arkansas State Legislature often attaches to bills up for consideration and vote. Very often these titles are misleading and obfuscate the motivations and ramifications of the very bills themselves. For example, the term “non-discrimination” almost always implies that there is some discrimination implicit or explicit, and the terms “freedom” and “liberty” often are red flags that someone’s liberty and freedom are about to be in peril.

With this hypothesis, nothing has been more evident, at least to me, than the uses and misuses of the term “religious liberty.” I hope to lay this out for you and then to follow up with what I think Reform Judaism has to say about this topic.

When confronted with a person or a bill that focuses its message on the terms “religious freedoms” or “religious liberty,” we need to quickly move to that person’s or to that bill’s motivation for using those terms. Is it literally for one’s own religious liberty and freedom, or is it for the religious freedom to discriminate against another’s freedom?

Let me try to clarify. I, for one, look at “religious liberty” as the freedom of a person or group to have and to hold their own specific and meaningful religious beliefs, speech, and actions – and the right to act on them or even change them at will.

In the United States, for the most part, individuals and groups are free to engage in religious activities – and are also free not to—without the coercion of government or other religious groups. In this country, we are not punished for our thoughts or belief, nor for our actions so long as they comport with the law.

However, there seems to be a rapidly emerging and growing new meaning of the terms “religious liberty and freedom,” and that is to use that term as a cover for the freedom to discriminate against others for just about any conceivable reason. We have the much over-used example of the shop owner using religious freedom to say that his religion would not allow him to sell flowers or a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Under the guise of religious liberty, certain states have enacted laws that either overtly or more subtly allow one group of people to apply their religious beliefs to deny service to, hate, oppress or otherwise discriminate against the human rights of others.

Such seems to be the case with RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Its original reason for being was quite different that the most recent spate of states trying to use that very bill title to cover for ways to continue to discriminate specifically against the rights of the LGBT community.

In February and March 2016, a number of states rushed to pass these bills which, instead of protecting the rights of a minority religion and native American practice as was the intent of RFRA in 1993, are a way of preserving discrimination under the guise of promoting religious liberty.

Just as the so-called “Moral Majority” of the 1980’s hijacked the words “moral,” “family,” “flag,” and “life,” and added the word pro- to them and then defined these terms so that the “pro” fit their philosophy, so it seems to me that many fundamentalist-oriented legislators, both state-based and nationally, have now hijacked the term “religious liberty” to justify discrimination.

While we are often quick to quote the great Jewish sage Hillel as well as Jesus in what is often referred to as The Golden Rule, it seems to me that these religious liberty laws are designed to do just the opposite: they justify treating others as we would not wish to be treated ourselves.

For the past 43 years, since my rabbinic ordination in 1972, I have been a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which is the organization of America’s Reform Rabbis. We have been known to take courageous and leading positions in the arena of social reform and social justice. We went on record in support of the LGBT community as early as 1977 and have since broadened our support to include full equality.

In taking stands such as these and in supporting these stands with resolutions, Reform Rabbis and Reform Judaism have also vigorously supported and defended American religious liberty. The CCAR proudly supported the first RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) when it passed in the early 1990’s. We felt at that time that the search for religious liberty by a legitimately discriminated-against minority was real, and we were active in our support of their rights.

Recently, however, it was a much different story. The CCAR recognized in 2015 that when the Indiana and Arkansas Legislatures were in the process of adopting their state equivalents of RFRA, legislators were motivated by an animus against the LGBT community. That is, the rabbis in the Reform Movement of Judaism recognized that the term “religious liberty” was being misused to justify discrimination against the LGBT community and their families. It was plain and simple bigotry in the name of religion.

From the Central Conference of American Rabbis Statement on Misusing Religious Freedom to Justify Discrimination: “Recalling that religion was misused to justify American slavery—and later, Jim Crow—the CCAR insists that religion must not again be used as a state-sanctioned excuse for discrimination, against LGBT people or any person.”

Because Jews in America were at one time—and in some places even more recently—discriminated against in the public square even in this land of liberty for all, we have tended to stand in solidarity with those who face religious-justified discrimination in the public square today.

I was happy to be among Reform rabbis in Arkansas and Indiana who recently joined with so many other clergy in vigorously opposing state legislative efforts to enshrine bigotry under the guise of “religious liberty.