Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides that government cannot intrude on a person’s religious liberty unless it can prove a compelling interest enforced in the least restrictive way. Following suit, a religious freedom bill proposed in Maine, LD 1340, attracted the support of Republican leaders in the state Senate before it was impaled by the golden spike of commerce, disappearing into the archives.
Indiana had been the latest of 22 states to enact a religious freedom law backed by evangelicals, despite Jesus’ heads-up that being persecuted would likely be the cost of Christian discipleship. At its core is a challenge to the U.S. wall of separation between church and state, where religious faith and practice stand apart from secular culture.
In a strange twist, religious freedom laws affirm the liberal doctrine of relativism. Placing the burden on government to defend laws purportedly discriminating against any action rooted in religious practice casts doubt on the part of evangelicals as to the exclusivity of the Christian faith and its teaching that objective truth ultimately will prevail.
My good friend Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, is quoted in an April 15 BDN article as insisting that the “prospect of discrimination is neither here nor there. Religious freedom is already being burdened by state law, and the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act would simply tell the courts how to determine whether that burden is acceptable.”
In his defense, his motive appears to be a noble one of reminding evangelicals of the incremental encroachment on the church of secular culture and values. He would likely agree that, while the Christian church stands apart from culture, it must strive through personal and corporate witness to be transformative of culture. The question becomes whether diverse religious practice, even among evangelicals, is the proper platform for transforming grace.
In Conley’s own words to me, “Why are we [believers] surprised by sin in the world?” Discernment might be the better course of action for the glory of the God we profess to serve.
Were religious conviction really at stake in Maine, a business proprietor would, it seems, be motivated to examine every customer for a wide range of beliefs. Rising in defense of only select beliefs threatens to move personal liberty onto the slippery slope of the triumph of religious dogma over doctrine.
Does the refusal on religious grounds to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple not demand that the purchasers of all wedding cakes be subjected to the same level of scrutiny over religious values such as divorce, remarriage and cohabitation? Can the proprietor of a public photography studio ethically refuse to film a same-sex wedding while failing to apply her various religious standards to all weddings?
Everyone has a right to be in business. Not everyone, however, has the right to open a business establishment to the general public. Taxpayers of all beliefs or none have built the infrastructure and the roads that lead to your business; the municipality has accepted the burden of cleaning the streets and sidewalks and providing security; utilities are under government regulation and control for your financial protection; sign ordinances limit assault on the public. By opening a business on Main Street, you personally have been vetted and granted a license to occupy the premises and are thereby subject to certain standards of behavior to promote the general welfare.
I would hope and pray that in the age-old standoff between church and state, the church would err on the side of morality as the product of righteousness rather than the reverse. We evangelicals have a long way to go to demonstrate God’s love to a watching world. That is not improved by backdoor codification of religious practices into law.
The Rev. Stan Moody is pastor of Columbia Street Baptist Church in Bangor and a former legislator. He is founder of the Maine Prison Chaplaincy Corps, and he has served as a chaplain at Maine State Prison in Warren.