FIRST-PERSON: The "shire" of religious freedom under siege
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (BP) -- Many fans of J.R.R. Tolkien are eagerly awaiting the release of the motion picture retelling of The Hobbit later this year. If you aren't a Middle Earth aficionado, you may not be aware that this new movie will be a dramatization of what was actually Tolkien's first installment in the fantasy story about a shy little people called Hobbits who dare to venture out of the Shire (their protected home in the West) to save the world. The Shire bears a striking (and entertaining) resemblance to the ideal conditions the church has experienced in the United States for hundreds of years.
In this epic tale of good versus evil, the Shire is an idyllic, prosperous country that largely keeps to itself and has not suffered the many travails and wars the rest of the world has endured for years at the hand of the Dark Lord. But unbeknownst to its blissfully unaware inhabitants, the Shire's peaceful way of life is the object of increasing hostility by the outside world.
Our Founding Fathers astutely built into our constitution broad protection for religious freedom -- much like the hedge that protected the Shire for so many years in Tolkien's tale. Christians and other people of faith have largely avoided the religious persecution that has run rampant in many other parts of the world like India, parts of Africa, and throughout much of the Middle East. Every day, people in these places lose their lives simply because of what they believe.
Thankfully, the Christians in the U.S. are not even close to experiencing that kind of persecution. But restrictions on religious freedom are increasing with alarming frequency. For instance, churches often are left with no place to build a place of worship because of discriminatory zoning codes. The Alliance Defense Fund currently represents six churches that have been denied access to residential neighborhoods because they may cause too much traffic, because they may obstruct the bucolic scenery in rural countrysides, or because they (supposedly) don't contribute to the business synergy of downtown commercial areas. Where else can they go?
Churches have long been welcome in schools, community centers and other public places that rent out facilities to community groups. But lately these governmental venues refuse to give equal access to churches, and some even prevent all worship in their buildings in an effort to keep churches out.
Churches have even been directly attacked by those who disagree with biblical teaching. In 2008, an anarchist, radical homosexual group disrupted the Sunday morning services of Mt. Hope Church in Lansing, Mich., blocking entrances and generally terrorizing the parishioners. The district attorney, state attorney general, and U.S. Department of Justice all refused to do anything about it. ADF attorneys stepped in and obtained a nationwide injunction against the radical group because government officials looked the other way.
Many communities are even attempting to tax churches in places like Kansas City, Nashville, and Lake Havasu City, Ariz. Generally speaking, churches are often treated as badly or worse than the sexually oriented businesses.
So why is it that churches and other religious organizations increasingly find themselves unwelcome in communities where they used to be revered? First and foremost, many have forgotten the benefits churches bring to our neighborhoods. The U.S. Supreme Court observed in the 1970 Walz v. Tax Commission case that religious organizations are widely recognized as fostering "moral or mental improvement" in communities. More recently, Judge John T. Noonan of the Ninth Circuit wrote in an ADF-litigated case in 2009 that "Churches have played an important -- no, an essential -- part in the democratic life of the United States. On two of the greatest issues ever to confront our country, churches led the way and churchmen conducted crusades [the abolition of slavery and the 1960s civil rights movement]."
Baylor University has conducted studies on the benefits churches provide to communities and found that children who attend church in low-income neighborhoods have a better chance of staying in school and succeeding academically. The research also indicates churches and religious groups offer to their local communities a vast array of services that can't be obtained elsewhere, such as after-school programs, refugee resettlement, homeless shelters and food banks.
The second reason for the recent marginalization of churches in our communities is found in the adage a partner in my first firm out of law school used to quote: "The answer is money, now what's the question?" The fact that churches are non-profit leads many to forget the vital moral and charitable value churches bring to their communities. A city official in one ADF case in Upper Arlington, Ohio, is so dead set against a Christian school using a vacant building for classes that he would rather have the property unused for 10 years.
Finally, churches are increasingly restricted because some of them have failed to be the moral compass and source for charity they need to be. Many churches simply refuse to engage with the community at large like they historically did on issues such as slavery and civil rights. Part of this hesitance can be attributed to the Johnson Amendment. This law was enacted in 1954 and prohibits non-profits -- including churches -- from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. Because the law is so vague and enforcement by the IRS so inconsistent, many pastors simply avoid any issue that may even remotely be considered political. And the law is widely used by anti-religious special interest groups to intimidate pastors from giving a biblical worldview on political leaders and issues.
The ADF Church Project is working to combat these threats to religious freedom by educating churches and government officials on religious rights and the benefits churches provide our communities. If the government insists on violating a church's freedom, we litigate aggressively to protect their right to positively impact their communities. And we also speak with church leaders on a regular basis in an effort to motivate them to fulfill their responsibilities by speaking out on moral issues and providing services to the community.
The purpose of this effort is to keep the doors open for the church to spread the Gospel, because it's the only medicine that can cure what's ailing the world. ADF is not the church, but we are doing our very best to help the church be all that Christ intends it to be.
Our role is exemplified by one of the last scenes in The Return of the King, the final book in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. The hero, Frodo Baggins, is given the awesome responsibility of destroying a ring of power that threatens the world. His good friend Sam Gamgee is tasked with helping Frodo, but Sam is not the one who can actually carry the dreaded ring and fulfill the impossible mission. Nevertheless, Sam says, "I can't carry it for you. But I can carry you." And he proceeds to carry Frodo in his arms on the final stretch of his journey.
Only the church has the power to fulfill the Great Commission and change the hearts and minds of people. We at ADF are doing everything in our power to protect its freedom to do just that.
Kevin Theriot is senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund (www.telladf.org) and spoke, with ADF President Alan Sears, at the 2012 annual meeting of the Association of State Baptist Papers in Scottsdale, Ariz. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).