Church and State Moment: Freedom of worship reigns, freedom of religion dies

160831demastusADFby Greg Baker

Today was an historic day in Des Moines. A pastor and a church stood in U.S. District Court, defending our religious freedoms. These battles have already been fought by florists and bakers, but it appears the war has now come to the church walls, and we must be ready.

Fort Des Moines Church of Christ stood up in the U.S. Federal District Court House in Des Moines, challenging the State of Iowa and the City of Des Moines’ public accommodation laws in regards to gender identity. The laws suggest womens’ bathrooms, for example, cannot be denied to biological men who “identify” as female.

And while the state and city allow an exemption for “bona fide religious purpose[s],” Fort Des Moines Church of Christ argued the laws are too broad. Without a clear definition of when a church is “religious” enough to be exempted and when it is “public” enough to lose the exemption, the church argued its First Amendment rights were being violated [Click here to read the legal briefing of this case].

Several dozen pastors were in the courtroom today, along with The FAMiLY LEADER Foundation, to stand in support of Pastor Mike Demastus and Fort Des Moines Church of Christ as they were standing for the rights of all churches. They are heroes, and I encourage you to send them a thank you for taking this stand.

Unfortunately, several red flags emerged in court today. Though the judge clearly agreed that the pastor should be able to teach what the Scripture says and that religious activities should be protected, the judge also intoned that in activities open to the general public (such as when a church is a polling place), the state had a compelling interest to enforce the state’s sexual orientation and gender identity laws.

Fort Des Moines Church of Christ’s attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom pointed out to the judge that the state chooses polling locations and could simply not select places that do not meet these accommodations, rather than requiring churches to adopt them. The judge agreed. However, this will likely make many churches in the future disqualified to be polling locations unless they comply with the state’s civil rights code in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Our courts today still stand for freedom of worship, but they call religious freedom “discrimination.”

Even more alarming were the implications for when a church rents out its facilities to anyone who does not have a religious purpose or does not meet the teachings of the church. For example, if there is a flood and a church, as an outreach, allows an LGBTQ group to use their facilities, but does not condone their lifestyle, the church could fall under the state’s code for public accommodations and be forced to comply. Listening in this courtroom today, I fail to see how the court will protect these churches’ religious liberties.

The biggest red flag in the court, however, was not what the government may require about bathrooms. It was that America’s court system is openly disregarding religious freedom in favor of freedom of worship alone. “Freedom of worship” historically means you may practice what you believe within your church setting, but you cannot practice that faith in the public arena. “Freedom of religion” allows you to live out your faith in all aspects. Our courts today still stand for freedom of worship, but they call religious freedom “discrimination.”

Sexual orientation and gender identity, or SOGI, laws are largely responsible for the death of religious liberty in America. Under SOGI law, for a church to not have an accessible restroom for a transgender person is the same as not having a facility for someone of a different ethnicity. These laws have put Christians in a difficult place, when what the Bible calls a sinful behavior is now a civil right.

Many individuals and businesses have lost their religious liberty to SOGI laws, and the fight has now come to the churches. If the government can ignore the First Amendment in a church building, where would it possibly respect it?

Many individuals and businesses have lost their religious liberty, and the fight has now come to the churches.

That is why throughout the government’s oral arguments today, “freedom of religion” was never mentioned. Rather the state, the judge, and the city referred to everything the church does exempt from the state’s jurisdiction as “worship.” They said the church has the right to “worship” and that the law protected all “worship activities.” Everything else, however, fell under the “compelling interest of the state.” For both the judge, state’s attorney, and city’s attorney, this was not open for argument. It was just fact. In America’s courts today, sadly, the First Amendment only protects freedom of worship.

How did we get to this place? As our government gets more secular, it is losing its basis for defining what is and isn’t a human “right.” When Martin Luther King marched for civil rights, for example, he was marching for the basic human rights defined by Scripture. Today, however, courts are defining “rights” on a humanist worldview and is unable to distinguish “rights” from immoral behavior.

But our government’s confusion over freedom of worship and religious liberty is an expected symptom of a culture divorced from a biblical worldview. In our culture today – and that includes many in America’s churches – church is simply a place you go on Sunday to sing hymns and hear the Bible. It is nothing more than that. So as long as we protect that, the culture reasons, we have protected religious liberties, because we fail to see that the church is a gathering of people who gave everything to Jesus. Everything.

We will wait for the judge to issue her opinion in the coming weeks, and the case will likely be appealed to the U.S. 8th Circuit Court in St. Louis. But the shepherds of the church must equip themselves and their people. Religious liberty is in severe danger in this country. I have longed believed that, but today I have learned it is far worse than I had thought.

The shepherds of our churches must be on alert. Though the walls of their church are protected in regards to “religious activity,” their ability to go to the public square has just become very limited. The pastor may have some protections in the church walls, but their sheep have little to none. The sheep are in danger, and the government is slowly moving from the role servant to the role of a wolf. And a shepherd must, by his job description, be prepared to protect the sheep from wolves.