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FIRST-PERSON: A bright spot in the battle for religious freedom — the Free Exercise Clause

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (BP) — It seems almost daily we’re reminded of the relentless attack on religious freedom. But we must keep in mind that there are small, but meaningful victories occurring along the way, as well. Recently, a positive trend has developed in case law under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. This positive trend recognizes and affirms important constitutionally protected freedoms for churches and para-church ministries, such as Christian schools or substance abuse programs.

A group of recent, seemingly disparate cases illustrate this encouraging theme in the law. In one case, a Christian school prevailed against a teacher’s discrimination claim after she was not rehired. In another, a student at a Michigan university was allowed to proceed with her claim against the university after being expelled from its counseling program because of her personal moral beliefs. Finally, a church in New York City was told it will be allowed to rent a school building for now to hold worship services on Sundays. The common theme is that all of these wins were based (in whole or part) on a vibrant understanding of free exercise of religion protections.

These significantly different factual scenarios — a religious school’s right to hire and fire employees, a student’s right to live out her faith at a public university, and a church’s right to rent a school building — show how broadly free exercise protections extend. Courts appear to be receptive to extending the protections recognized by the First Amendment in ways the framers of the Constitution took for granted. As those in the religious liberty community know, the Free Exercise Clause has taken a beating in recent years. But that trend seems to be reversing itself.

While space does not allow for a detailed analysis, we do want to point out a few common considerations that may position you, as a ministry leader, and your church to take advantage of this positive trend in the law. First, protections for religious exercise extend to churches and organizations that clearly explain and practice their religious beliefs. Courts will not always take for granted that an organization has a religious mission when it is not clearly and consistently expressed. Thus, churches that take proactive steps, such as updating their bylaws or statement of faith, gain an advantage under the Free Exercise Clause. The Alliance Defense Fund has resources that will help you understand how best to update your bylaws (http://oldsite.alliancedefensefund.org/userdocs/SevenChurchBylaws.pdf) and governing documents (http://speakupmovement.org/Church/LearnMore/Details/3767).

Second, churches and para-church ministries need to stand firm in their religious beliefs. No church should ever be afraid to confront unrighteousness in the community or to stand in accordance with its religious beliefs when hiring or firing staff or ministers, or in any other exercise of its faith. Churches should also have equal access to community benefits, such as the use of public facilities, and should not be afraid to press a Free Exercise claim when treated unfairly.

Third, churches and para-church ministries need to seek legal advice — and do so quickly — when faced with what appears to be religious discrimination or government intrusion into their religious beliefs or operational functions. Contact the Alliance Defense Fund if you think your church or ministry is being unfairly targeted based on your religious belief or mission.

It’s pleasing to report a ray of light up ahead that will aid the church in flourishing in America. When the church flourishes, society benefits immensely. But when the church is silenced, society suffers and declines correspondingly.
Joe Infranco is an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, online at TellAdf.org. This column first appeared at the blog of ADF’s Speak Up Church movement website, online at blog.speakupmovement.org/church/

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  • Joe Infranco