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Capitol Hill panel discusses religious liberty ruling

WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in a religious freedom case is not about government funding of the church’s mission, but it will have far-reaching results, a Capitol Hill audience was told Thursday night (June 29).

Panelists in a conversation co-sponsored by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) explained the impact of a June 26 opinion by the high court and how Christians should respond to the debate over church-state relations.

The discussion — the latest in a series typically hosted by the ERLC — focused on the justices’ decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a 7-2 opinion in which the justices ruled Missouri violated the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment by barring a church from participating in a government-run, playground-resurfacing program. The state had rejected the application of the Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center from participation in the program — which provided safer playground surfaces — solely because of its affiliation with the church.

ERLC President Russell Moore said the case may leave some with the mistaken impression it does not apply to them or Christians want “the government financing the mission of the church.”

This is not just about recycled tire scraps but “a more fundamental question about what does it mean for religious people to be active and involved in the public square, not to be discriminated against,” Moore told those gathered at the Rayburn House of Representatives Office Building.

“I’m a Baptist, a real Baptist, an old-time, Roger Williams sort of Baptist,” he said. “There is nothing that I despise more than a state-established religion. At best, it ends up being a lifeless, dead bureaucracy. At worst, it ends up being a persecutor. So I would be the first one screaming if the United States government came in and wanted to start funding churches or any other house of worship.

“This case isn’t about whether the government is going to intrude itself and its money into the mission of the church,” Moore said. “What it’s about is whether the government is going to come in and say, ‘This is for all of you in the community, but if you are a religious person or group or organization, on the basis of that you cannot even come and have this conversation and be in this place.”

ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman said the court’s ruling “really will have some broad reaches. It will be broad enough to cover scenarios across the board.”

The high court demonstrated the day after the Trinity Lutheran opinion its potential impact on school voucher and other school choice programs, he said. The justices returned a school voucher case to a lower court to be reconsidered in light of their decision in the school playground case.

Missouri and nearly 40 other states have what are known as Blaine amendments, provisions in their constitutions that restrict direct or indirect funding to churches and other religious organizations.

The justices ruled “those provisions can no longer be used to exclude religious organizations from any type of government benefit,” said Cortman, who argued on behalf of Trinity Lutheran before the Supreme Court.

“What’s great about this case is it will cut the legs out from those states using those type of amendments to say, ‘You’re otherwise qualified for this program, whatever that happens to be, but solely because of your religious status and who you are you can’t participate,'” he told the audience.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., and Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, provided advice on how to seek to influence others in religious liberty debates.

Hartzler said she learned as a teacher the need to be gentle and not quarrelsome, based on II Timothy 2, regarding debates over a teachers union.

Smith told the audience he wants to remind pastors and other Christians that though these legal cases are important, “our mission as a church and our status as a church still doesn’t change.”

“We’re still strangers and foreigners passing through a barren land,” he said. “And so I try to anchor them in that type of stability so that we are aggressively seeking to enjoy the full liberty that is laid out in our Constitution, but at the same time our stability as followers of Christ — thus our peace, our joy, our contentment — is not altered by every single, individual court decision.”

Smith also said, “I always encourage Christians to avoid stomp-down fights, because it’s hard to have a stomp-down fight with someone and then say, ‘Oh yeah, would you like to come to my church on Sunday?’ We never want to jeopardize our ability to share Christian witness.”

On the same day as the release of the Trinity Lutheran opinion, the court granted review of a Colorado court’s ruling that a baker must decorate a cake for a same-sex wedding despite his conscientious objection.

It is a “tremendously important case” among many right-of-conscience cases, Cortman said.

The case “will determine not only whether people of faith are able to live out their faith but based on what principle,” he said, adding the principle “will apply across the board.”

“[T]hese cases carry so much weight, not only for the freedom of people to live out their faith, but it will extend further to anyone who doesn’t want to be forced to promote any event against their beliefs or against their free-speech rights,” Cortman told those in attendance.

Moore said of the case’s significance, “[A] government that can force creative, artistic endeavor can do anything, literally can do anything. If you can force people not just to communicate but to endorse and celebrate things that are against their deepest convictions, that doesn’t have a stopping point.”

In closing, Moore said Christians’ commitment to the Gospel should come before their commitment to religious freedom.

“I think the No. 1 thing that we have to do in order to ensure religious liberty is to raise up a generation of people who actually know what they believe and who not only have the clarity about what they believe but the courage to hold to that, even if they have to hold to that alone or it seems to be alone,” he said.

Previous Capitol Conversations events sponsored by the ERLC have included discussions of the media, same-sex marriage and religious liberty, Planned Parenthood and the sanctity of human life, the Supreme Court and abortion, and the Syrian refugee crisis.