Over this last year, religious liberty has seemingly been under attack all over the country. From denying churches the opportunity to meet for Easter to police officers tracking the license plates of church attendees, concerns over a pandemic have sometimes superseded American’s most basic rights.
So, what can Christians do?
That’s the focus of Ken Starr’s latest book Religious Liberty in Crisis: Exercising Your Faith in an Age of Uncertainty. In it the distinguished lawyer, who has argued 36 cases in front of the Supreme Court, presents several examples of successful religious liberty cases that can give Christians a framework to know how to respond when their rights are being infringed.
Why did you write this book?
“I’ve long been concerned about the subject of religious liberty. It is forever under tension, under pressure, whether from national authorities or from state and local authorities. But the pandemic really brought home the reality that government, at all levels, is very powerful.
“When the government steps in and exercises power, we as citizens need to understand the basis of this first freedom that we have, our religious freedom. It’s not simply a freedom to worship, although even that came under scrutiny and question during the pandemic, but our freedom to exercise religion to live out in daily life.”
As Christians, should we be concerned that government overreach will become more prevalent in the future?
“In December, the Supreme Court began reflecting, I think more carefully, on the significance of the ability to assemble and worship as a freedom of the first order. But there will be other challenges as well and we’re seeing those at every turn, including coming from state and local governments, challenges to licensing requirements and challenging to the ability of individuals to live out their lives consistent with their religious faith.
“So, one of the principles that I set forth to identify and then explain in this book is freedom of conscience and freedom from coercion. These are foundational principles that are embedded in our constitutional order and that each of us should be prepared, when the challenges come, to be able to give a very reasoned explanation of why what the government is doing is wrong. And that may come in handy before the school board, before city council, or just chatting with a neighbor across the backyard fence.”
How do you want people to use this book? Do you want the book to inform people about how they can go about and reach out for legal aid in certain instances?
“That’s exactly right, to spot the problem and to know when Caesar exercises governmental authority in a way that infringes upon individual rights of freedom and congregational rights of freedom, that there is something that can be done.
“First you can engage in the public marketplace of ideas just in conversations in small groups to prepare one another, and to help each of us be sensitive to the idea that we have this great sacred legacy of religious freedom, and we must protect it.
“And then of course there are ways and means for us to act in a very practical way. The Apostle Paul sets the example in the book of Acts, by standing up for his rights as a Roman citizen, and litigating all the way to the highest court in the empire, namely Caesar himself.
“There are so many friends of freedom that I identify, and I hope all intelligent believers and well-informed believers will say, ‘This is something that I need.’ And to reach out to one of these magnificent groups, like Alliance Defending Freedom, First Liberty and other organizations that are dedicated to the vigorous defense of religious belief and practice.
“Overwhelmingly, the friends of freedom win in court, not necessarily in the lower courts, but ultimately in the Supreme Court of the United States which has given voice to these six great principles of religious liberty.”
In the book you talk about the importance of history and tradition, but history has seemingly been under attack these last few years. From pulling down statues to the “1619 Project,” how do you see this impacting the court system in the future?
“History and tradition are such powerful tools. For example, when legislative prayer came under assault, the Supreme Court rejected the challenge, not nine to nothing unfortunately, but the concept of legislative prayer has been vindicated. Why? Because of the history and traditions of the American people.”
Do you think the Judeo-Christian foundation that this country is built on is being slowly eroded?
“That’s why it’s all the more important for us to know our ultimate constitutional rights. Just as Jack Philips in suburban Denver stood his ground and said, ‘I cannot in good conscience design a cake to celebrate a nontraditional wedding. I, of course, will happily and cheerfully serve you, and you can have anything in the store. But I can’t design a cake for a celebration of an event that I cannot in good conscience, agree with and support.’
“The Supreme Court of the United States once again rallied to the defense of freedom of conscience by a seven to two margin in Jack’s case.
“The lower courts again sometimes get it wrong, and the current cultural environment was reflected in that instance by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which was very hostile to religious faith, and some of the commissioners said some very hurtful things about faith in general and Christianity.
“But the Supreme Court of the United States made it very clear that government officials cannot display hostility to religion. And if they do that, it violates the fundamental precepts of who we are as a free people, and the fundamental tenets of the First Amendment.”
There is a chapter on cancel culture in the book. How can Christians push back against it?
“Well, first of all, we need the courage of our convictions to stand up and to say, ‘No I have the right to speak in the marketplace of ideas.’ There are limited things that we can do with respect to powerful technology companies. That’s of course more of a policy issue because those are publicly held companies but it’s not the government. Our real recourse is against the government. When the government takes action that seeks to cancel our religious activity and worship as we saw in the pandemic.
“So a good example is in a case the Supreme Court just decided a few weeks ago, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski. And this was the young evangelical Christian who was seeking to share his faith on the campus of his public college in Georgia, and he was told, ‘You can’t do that because you’ve given offense to one of the passersby.’
“He immediately went to Alliance Defending Freedom and when the lawsuit was brought, the college very quickly changed its practice. There was cancel culture, arrested. The college changed on its own under the pressure of litigation.
“What this book will help us all do is spot those incursions and equip us to be able to speak into the culture, and maybe that’s a school board meeting. It might be the city council meeting. It may be for our college students or even for those at private institutions of higher learning.
“The point is there are avenues of redress that are available, and we need to inform ourselves of those rights and what can be done.
“I also want to say though that one of the purposes of this book is to transmit these fundamental principles of freedom for the rising generation. For grandparents to step in and to assist in the education of the grandchildren. For parents to have yet another tool for the education of their children. For teachers, especially at Christian schools and for parents of homeschoolers, to have another tool to help in the transmission function of America’s culture of freedom.
“Our freedoms have come under assault in so many different ways, including hostility to religious faith and practice, but also hostility to the very fundamental idea of the freedom of speech.”
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