Public Square

What Recent Events in Houston Mean for Religious Freedom

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Last week the city of Houston issued subpoenas demanding that five local pastors turn over their sermons to be scrutinized for “objectionable” material. The subpoenas came to light when attorneys for the group of pastors filed a motion to stop the request.

The pastors were apparently part of a petition drive against a “non-discrimination” ordinance passed by the city in June. As one news outlet reports:

The Houston Chronicle reported opponents of the ordinance launched a petition drive that generated more than 50,000 signatures – far more than the 17,269 needed to put a referendum on the ballot. However, the city threw out the petition in August over alleged irregularities.

It appears that after opponents of the ordinance filed their lawsuit last month, city attorneys responded by issuing subpoenas against the pastors.

While the pastors were not part of the lawsuit, they were part of a larger coalition of some 400 Houston-area churches, from Southern Baptist to non-denominational, that opposed the ordinance. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a nationally known law firm specializing in religious liberty cases, is representing the pastors. “The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions,” attorney Christina Holcomb said in a statement. “Political and social commentary is not a crime, it is protected by the First Amendment,” she added.

Annise Parker, mayor of Houston, announced on Friday that the city had revised and refiled the subpoenas. According to one local report, the focus is now on the pastors’ speeches, not their sermons.

Still, this is just the latest in the ever-increasing attacks on religious freedom in America.

Religious Freedom Vs. Religious Tolerance

This is not the vision the founders saw for this nation. They saw religious liberty as one of the bedrock principles of the United States.

Today our religious freedom is at risk of being replaced, at least in practice, by religious tolerance.

James Madison suggested the term ‘religious liberty’ to George Mason, chief architect of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, in 1776. In the first draft, Mason used the term ‘religious tolerance.’ ‘Religious tolerance’ was understood as permission given by the state to practice religion.

The problem with religious tolerance was that what the state gave, it could take back.

Madison argued that religious liberty was a natural and unalienable right. It was possessed equally by all citizens, and must be beyond the reach of civil magistrates.

This was a revolutionary idea designed to protect and promote a vital role for religion in public life.

The term ‘religious liberty’ was adopted by the other states over the next ten years. Eventually it was written into the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as one of the cornerstones of our Bill of Rights.

Removing Belief from the Public Square

Today some people want to move back to this idea of religious tolerance in order to force some worldviews out of the public square, based on their belief that their worldview is superior.

We have already heard versions of this argument. For fifty years Christians have been told that when we move into the public square, we have to leave the religious parts of our worldview behind.

This is all but impossible for Christians, because our worldview constitutes our identity. It is a set of faith-assumptions about reality. It provides a framework of ideas and beliefs through which we interpret and interact with the world.

Everyone, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists, lives and operates out of some narrative identity or worldview. Even the most secular pragmatists come to the table with deep commitments and narrative accounts of what it means to be human.

When anyone comes into the public square, it is impossible for them to leave their convictions about ultimate values behind. It is arrogant and absurd for the humanistic secularist to say that he can bring his worldview into the public square while no one else can.

Tim Keller states in his book The Reason for God:

Although many continue to call for the exclusion of religious views from the public square, increasing numbers of thinkers, both religious and secular, are admitting that such a call is itself religious.

Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is Gods.” Yet when the demands of the state are in conflict with what God has called us to do, then as Christians we must stand with God. Rendering unto God trumps everything else.

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