Christians Celebrate Advances in Religious Liberty Made in 2019

Russell Moore, ERLC president. BP file photo. Amber Dion

It was a good year for religious liberty in the United States, and the Supreme Court has the opportunity to advance such protection in 2020, say advocates for the country’s first freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

A string of victories for religious freedom delivered by judges and the Trump administration marked 2019, spokesmen for the organizations Becket and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) told Baptist Press.

“It’s been a very positive year on the whole, particularly in court and in terms of federal regulations,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel for Becket.

In cases involving the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion, “you see courts more willing to treat religion as a natural part of human culture rather than using the establishment clause to eradicate religious symbols or strike down tax exemptions for religious organizations,” Goodrich told BP in a phone interview.

“Then on the free-exercise [of religion] side, you see renewed protection for religious student groups and for potential, renewed protection for religious adoption agencies as well.”

Jonathan Scruggs, senior counsel for ADF, said, “[Y]ou could really see a change in momentum, particularly in the context of business owner cases, creative professionals.”

Courts came out “strongly in favor of people of faith entering into the market place and controlling what they say and preventing the government from really selecting particular religious viewpoints and forcing people to speak views against [their] beliefs,” Scruggs told BP in a phone interview. “So there was actually a fair amount of encouraging things that happened that really protected a lot of people to go and live out their faith in the public square.”

Meanwhile, 2020 offers hope for further gains.

“There are a very large number of significant religious freedom questions on the doorstep of the Supreme Court, and a major advance for religious freedom would be if the court took several of those cases and continued affirming robust protection for religious freedom for all,” Goodrich said.

For Southern Baptists, religious freedom is vital to their mission, said Russell Moore.

“My prayer is that we never take this issue for granted or forget why it matters as we take the Gospel to nation and neighbor,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

“Throughout history, Baptists have been known for carrying the Gospel all over the world and for defending full religious freedom for everyone,” he told BP in written comments. “Those two commitments are related. We press for religious liberty because we believe no law and no government can compel the conscience. And we contend for religious liberty for the sake of the free spread of the Gospel. There are many efforts underway both in courts and Congress, some giving cause for hope and others for concern.”

Among the 2019 court rulings counted by most religious freedom advocates as victories in establishment clause cases were:

— The Supreme Court decided 7-2 in a June decision a 40-foot cross on public land in Bladensburg, Md., that serves as a memorial to World War I soldiers is constitutional.

— A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled unanimously in March the long-standing ministerial housing allowance does not violate the establishment clause.

Regarding the free exercise of religion, court decisions regarded by religious liberty supporters as wins included:

— A panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled 2-1 in August that a federal judge wrongly dismissed the free-speech and free-exercise-of-religion claims of Minnesota filmmakers Carl and Angel Larsen, who refuse to create videos of same-sex weddings because they believe marriage is only between a man and a woman.

— The Arizona Supreme Court decided in September the city of Phoenix violated the freedom of speech and religion of artists Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, who own Brush & Nib Studio and decline to create custom invitations for gay weddings.

— The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled unanimously in October in favor of Hands On Originals and its owner, Blaine Adamson, who declined to print T-shirts for a gay pride festival.

— A federal judge decided in September the University of Iowa violated the speech, association and free-exercise-of-religion rights of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA by barring the campus ministry from requiring its leaders to be Christians.

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Source: Baptist Press