The call to “help protect religious freedom” has rightly been shouted from the rooftops in recent years. But for a lot of churches, that call has the potential to be both a little intimidating and a bit confusing.
There’s more to protecting religious freedom than you might think.
It’s understandable that a church might think “protecting religious freedom” requires getting involved in legal cases like Jack Phillips’, Barronelle Stutzman’s, and Chief Cochran’s.
For most churches, trying to help litigate those cases is not feasible.
But protecting religious freedom means much more than legal representation and public advocacy. That’s good news – because there are some things a church can do.
Engaging That Makes a Difference
Every church has (or at least knows it should have) some set of documents that govern its operations. Those documents are commonly called a church’s “governing documents.”
Governing documents come in all shapes and sizes and govern many different aspects of the day-to-day running of a church. What most churches don’t realize, though, is that they can also play a critical role in protecting religious freedom.
It’s important to understand that when it comes to religious freedom, the law is largely on the side of churches.
Church Law 101
The United States Supreme Court has long made clear that the religion clauses of the First Amendment protect the right of religious organizations to control their internal affairs. Indeed, churches have the “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”
Recently, the Supreme Court affirmed the existence of a “ministerial exception” to discrimination in employment decisions. The Court held that it “ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone.”
And even more recently, the Supreme Court held that states may not exclude an applicant from an otherwise neutral and secular state aid program for which an applicant is otherwise qualified, solely because the applicant is a church.
This is all good news, but I’m reminded in writing this that – even with positive rulings –churches need legal assistance to clarify what the law says.
So if the law, for the most part, currently favors the freedom of churches to govern themselves, the question can rightly be asked: “Why does religious freedom need to be protected?”
A new perspective – that sexual autonomy trumps religious freedom – has already begun to impact churches. Just take a look at a couple recent cases Alliance Defending Freedom has litigated: Horizon Christian Fellowship and Ft. Des Moines Church of Christ.
Thankfully, these churches won their cases because, as churches, their sincerely held religious beliefs were clearly articulated and therefore entitled to long-established, recognized, and protected First Amendment freedom of religion principles.
Protecting the religious freedom of a church most often hinges on proving that the church is a bona-fide church, acting in ways that are consistent with its sincerely held religious beliefs as reflected in its governing documents.
It’s common knowledge that in order to prove something you need evidence. In the context of protecting religious freedom, a church’s evidence is its governing documents. That is why an audit of your church’s governing documents is vital to protecting religious freedom.
What Your Church Board Should Consider
This brings us back to the one thing your church board can do at its next meeting that will not only help your church, but will help protect religious freedom. I’d recommend that you prayerfully consider signing your church up for membership in the Alliance Defending Freedom Church Alliance.
Included in Church Alliance membership – among other benefits – is a thorough religious liberty audit. That audit and document review is conducted by one of our religious freedom lawyers. That way, your church’s governing documents can be put to the test, ensuring that your church is protected, from a religious freedom perspective, to the greatest extent possible.
It’s important to understand that by ensuring your church’s governing documents are sound from a religious freedom perspective, your church is not only protecting itself, but is also helping protect the religious freedom of churches across the country.
Take, for example, Fort Des Moines Church of Christ. That church proved to a federal district court that its activities were motivated by a religious purpose, leading the court to correctly conclude that churches are not places of public accommodations subject to government control. This case sets a precedent. Meaning, the church’s case helps protect religious freedom for churches throughout America, not just for one church in Iowa. After all, religious freedom needs reinforcement.
The law is largely on the side of churches, but frankly, churches must use it.
The Alliance Defending Freedom Church Alliance stands ready to do just that by helping to ensure your church is provided the greatest religious freedom protections and advice possible.
The one thing your church board can do at its next meeting to help protect religious freedom is join the Church Alliance. Once you are a member, you can take advantage of a religious freedom legal review of your church’s governing documents.