The “Liberty” Aspect of Religious Liberty

by Jim Winkler. James Winkler is the President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. As President and General Secretary, he speaks for the Council, works with staff, board members, Christian, and interfaith leaders and is responsible for providing leadership and management of daily affairs and operations. Prior to his work with the National Council of Churches, he served as General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.


I’ve always thought religious liberty is all about “believe and let believe.” Even though my faith is best, you have the right to be wrong.

I saw a guy on a bridge once who was about to jump. I yelled to him, ‘Don’t do it!”

He said, ‘Nobody loves me.”

I said, ‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, ‘Yes.”

I said, ‘Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, ‘A Christian.”

I said, ‘Me too! Protestant or Catholic?”

He said, ‘Protestant.”

I said, ‘Me too! What franchise?”

He said, ‘Baptist.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

He said, ‘Northern Baptist.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”

He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, ‘Die, you heretic!” And I pushed him over.

He was free to believe as he wished and I acted on my beliefs!

The National Council of Churches (NCC) issued a statement on Religious and Civil Liberties in the United States of America in 1955. The NCC said then that it

holds the first clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States to mean that church and state shall be separate and independent as institutions but to imply neither that the state is indifferent to religious interests nor that the church is indifferent to civil and political issues.

The National Council of Churches defends the rights and liberties of cultural, racial and religious minorities. The insecurity of one menaces the security of all. Christians must be especially sensitive to the oppression of minorities.

The exercise of both rights and liberties is subject to considerations of morality and to the maintenance of public order and of individual and collective security.

Religious and civil liberties are interdependent and therefore indivisible.

The Committee on Religious Liberty (CRL) was under the auspices of the NCC for many years. Prior to my service as president of the NCC, the Council went through a significant restructure and the CRL now resides with the Religious Freedom Center.

The NCC remains part of CRL as does the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Secular Coalition for America, the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church & State, the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the ACLU, the Church of Scientology, and a host of other groups. There are few committees with broader representation.

Their meeting earlier this year dealt with, for example, the Jim Thorpe case. (During the traditional burial after his death, his estranged wife interrupted the ceremony with sheriffs, etc., took his body away and sold it to a Pennsylvania village which renamed itself for Jim Thorpe. The Sac and Fox Nation and two of his sons filed a lawsuit to reclaim the body for the Nation under a federal law for repatriation of his body. The Third Circuit sidestepped the federal law saying that the application of the law would yield an “absurd” result. The U.S. Supreme Court denied cert.)

Among other things, the CRL also discussed Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk who claimed a religious conscience exemption from the requirement to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The CRL pays serious attention to legislation and legal cases related to religious liberty.

In other words, there is an infrastructure of organizations keeping an eye on threats to religious liberty in legislatures and the courts. These groups stay in touch with one another despite deep theological and ideological differences and, when necessary, work together to defend religious liberty.

Additionally, the US State Department has an Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. That ambassador happens to be my good friend, Rabbi David Saperstein. David is constantly traveling around the world working on religious freedom. The NCC has briefed the State Department on religious freedom issues in Burma/Myanmar, Cuba, North Korea, and elsewhere.

Some years ago the United States Congress created the US Commission on International Religious Freedom which is comprised of people appointed by the president, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and the minority leaders of both houses. USCIRF, as it is known, was recently reauthorized for four more years, although some of us unsuccessfully supported reforms that would have strengthened the bipartisan structure of the commission and encouraged better coordination between it and the State Depatment.

I’m not a specialist on religious liberty. I agree with Brent Walker, until recently the head of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, who says, “The separation principles is simply another way of saying government should not try to help or hurt religion, but it should leave religion alone…In short, government must be neutral towards religion.”

But our freedom to worship God or not does not permit employers to refuse to offer health care plans that deny birth control to employees because they feel offended. It does not permit storeowners to refuse to sell wedding cakes to gay couples because they don’t like LGBTQ people. It does not give farmers the right to sell unpasteurized milk because it somehow contravenes their faith. Things have been turned on their head. As Thomas Jefferson said,

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Not only are people, churches, businesses, and organizations claiming their own religious liberty is jeopardized if, for example, women have access to birth control, they are suggesting their religious liberty has been compromised if the government will not use taxpayer money belonging to all of us to fund their projects.

A Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri challenged a state decision denying a grant to its preschool which sought to replace the gravel on its playground with softer, safer material. The Missouri Attorney General says the state constitution expressly prevents tax dollars from being used to aid religious groups. The case went to the Supreme Court.

“They’re just kids,” says a church representative. But, if government tax money goes to help the church’s playground, why shouldn’t it be spent to fix the roof and otherwise generally help make the building safer?

“The issue is not whether the playground surface is inherently religious, but it’s whether the state government must fund an upgrade to a church playground despite a state constitutional ban on funding churches,” Hollman said.

BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment simply does not permit outright government funding or grants to churches and other houses of worship. “We do not look to government subsidies to build houses of worship; we should not fund capital improvements that way either,” Walker said.

Why not use government funds to support church work? Beats having to run the annual stewardship campaign. Perhaps the clergy can be government employees, too.

Your religious freedom is not limited because the government won’t fund your church playground. It’s limited when the government tries to stop the preacher from delivering a sermon in the church or in a public space designated as an open forum.

When President Bush announced his faith-based initiative, the point was made that religious institutions had been discriminated against in terms of receiving government grants. I’m not so sure that was accurate. Organizations like Church World Service and Catholic Relief Services receive millions of dollars of government money, but perhaps the focus was on local churches.

Quite a brouhaha erupted about what Bush was trying to do. I spoke in a number of United Methodist Church settings about it at the time and made the point that we needed to separate government money, tax funds, public money, that is, and church money. Public funds are for the benefit of everyone and we can’t, or shouldn’t, use tax money to push the agenda of our faith.

Now, if we want to apply for government money to run a homeless shelter or to build affordable housing or to run some kind of program then simply set up a separate corporation – but don’t mix church money and public funds. Otherwise, you may see on the nightly TV news footage of government agents walking out of your church carrying boxes of documents and your computers because they’re investigating whether you misused money that belongs to all of us—Mormons, Muslims, Methodists, and others. That money is different.

Our houses of worship have been built by their members for many years. Suddenly they require public money to keep going?

If an organization receives government money to help it run its hospitals or universities or relief agencies, then it has to abide by rules that apply to everyone. It can’t set the rules and it can’t whine about its liberty being infringed upon.

Bob Jones University used to ban black students. When it did accept them, the school banned interracial dating. As a result, it lost its tax-exempt status. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution arguing that the action violated churches’ constitutional right to operate without government interference, but Bob Jones lost, as well they should have.

When I was a boy, we Protestants used to oppose the use of taxpayer money to assist Catholic parochial schools. Our argument was that if you wish to have your own schools, that’s OK but you have to bear the expense. Tax money supports what the religious right now calls ‘government schools.’ We called them public schools.

Then came Brown v. the Bd. of Education and many a white Southerner withdrew their children from public or government schools in favor of newly created ‘Christian academies’, which were really just schools for white kids. Suddenly, these former anti-Catholics saw the virtue of seeking taxpayer money to support their private schools. And now they argue that if they don’t get public funding then it’s a form of religious persecution against them.

Plus, they want public money while they teach their version of the faith and reserve the right to fire teachers who get divorced, who are gay or support gay rights or who get pregnant outside marriage.

Where do we trace it all back to? A repudiation of civic commitment? Would American history have turned out differently if Protestants in the mid 19th century had not been virulently anti-Catholic? What if white Southerners had accepted the Supreme Court decision and peacefully merged white and black schools?

Meanwhile, some are arguing that the Johnson Amendment of 1954 is unconstitutional. That’s the law which provides churches and other nonprofit organizations with tax exempt status as long as they stay out of electoral politics. Mostly, it is the religious right that is making this argument. They want to retain their lucrative tax exempt status which they receive because they are viewed as providing a public good not seeking political power.

Battles over the Affordable Care Act, religious involvement in political campaigns, funding for church programs and charities, questions over zoning, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ issues, persecution due to religious identity, hate crimes, and numerous other issues promise to keep religious liberty in the forefront for many years to come.

There is no certainty our nation will continue to enjoy religious liberty without the commitment of all of us.