Looking back over the last two years of religious liberty challenges and triumphs has brought sobering thoughts about the work the Adventist Church does in this field. As Seventh-day Adventists we should all take time to reflect on the reality of where we are in history today.
In my early years of religious liberty work, I learned the importance of keeping the scales balanced when it comes to both the separation of church and state and the free exercise of religious liberty. One reason we as Seventh-day Adventists have valued religious freedom is because we recognize how quickly it can become unbalanced. To put it plainly, our right to religious liberty is not an absolute. The Constitution does not guarantee that, no matter what our religious beliefs may be, they will be allowed. Additionally, religious liberty does not operate in a vacuum. All these issues have been brought into focus during the pandemic.
A perfect example of the limits to religious liberty can be found in what happened last year with church closings in several states and cities. We experienced a changing attitude by the courts as the pandemic rolled through month after month, and judicial review garnered different decisions — even within the same courts — as time went by. The question remains: Can your church be closed down by the government? The answer still is not a definitive “No,” even though multiple churches won hard fought lawsuits, and some state legislatures have even passed laws in this last term prohibiting church closures.
More was on the horizon. Transitioning from church closings to mandated vaccinations has meant the religious liberty department has been handed a double workload. While attention of late has been focused on the federal mandates, in truth, the first mandates issued came from employers themselves, especially medical facilities and universities — not the government.
Many have asked whether companies have the right to make employees get vaccinated. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that employers have the responsibility to keep the workplace and employees in the workplace safe. So, how do we balance our personal freedom and/or religious freedoms when juxtaposed against a workplace requirement? We continue to encourage members to seek the help of the religious liberty department when faced with these challenges.
Mandated vaccinations are nothing new. If you are a parent who has ever enrolled your child in public school or Church school, you had to present proof of vaccination to the school before your child could be accepted in the system. Yes, this mandate includes Seventh-day Adventist school systems.
Pandemic issues such as these are creating challenges for religious liberty. Clearly, partisan fighting has now become one of the biggest threats to religious liberty in the last 30 years. Partisan bickering and discord have changed the landscape of religious liberty in America today. But, it has also changed the landscape in many of our churches. We have gone from a group of believers who felt you should not become engaged in secular politics within the church, to a people who gift wrap our political stance so it looks nice when we bring it to Sabbath School.
The delicate balance of religious liberty I mentioned earlier is both intricate and necessary to American life. True religious liberty means that everyone may have a different understanding of religious beliefs, but, in a diverse society, one belief does not take precedence over others. In the religious liberty department at the Southern Union, we believe that Americans can hold opposing beliefs, and society should not fall because of the differences. Yet, another truth about religious liberty in America is that churches actually have the right to discriminate against differing religious beliefs. Both these examples give proof to how difficult it is to keep religious liberty in balance.
One of the ways we keep that balance is to defend the rights of those who believe differently from us. It is why the union conference religious liberty departments across the North American Division have assisted church members who claimed personal religious belief in asking for a religious accommodation against the mandated vaccinations. The Adventist Church does not teach a need to refuse the vaccine, but the religious liberty department believes you have the right to hold a personal religious belief separate from an official Church stance. And, if your belief can be vetted as true, you should be accommodated in the workplace — unless doing so creates an undue hardship, just as in Sabbath work accommodation. Defending differing religious beliefs is one of the best ways to defend religious liberty for all. But, when society starts to believe that there should be only one common belief to defend, there will be trouble ahead.
Another threat also looms. The landscape is changing in how — and from whom — we defend the Establishment Clause, the portion of the First Amendment that gives birth to an understanding that church and state will be separate. As Christians feel they are losing ground in what they have always considered “Christian America,” the driving force for many politicians going forward will be to cater to those who believe America should be a Christian nation. Many Adventists also feel this diminishing of Christianity within our nation, but are concerned as we hear statements such as Michael Flynn made in a November 2021 speech: “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion.” This rhetoric has become common and so dangerous to religious freedom. Adventists know, in light of our understanding of prophecy, that the more times people hear an idea such as this, the more likely they are to believe it and demand it. This is sobering.
As Christians we are commissioned to spread the Gospel to the world. We are to go and make believers of others. But, Jesus’ command to us in Matthew 28:19 is merely to teach others, not to compel others to believe … and certainly to never leave this task to the government.
The Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department urges you to stay aware. Remove all issues, left or right, from their political context, and evaluate them in the light of Bible prophecy. As the landscape changes, we continue to stand fast to the true principals of religious liberty — separate from political creed. Call us when you need help or clarifications with religious accommodations in the workplace. And, continue to love your neighbors into the true religious freedom of Jesus’ arms.
is the director of public affairs and religious liberty at the Southern Union.
Southern Union | January 2022