The ERLC’s religious liberty advocacy

By / Dec 21

Religious liberty is a Baptist distinctive, despite recent controversies regarding its legitimacy. We believe religious liberty is essential for all people because true faith cannot be coerced, nor should it be outlawed. When freedom to live according to one’s deeply held beliefs is not recognized by the state, human flourishing is suppressed. As ambassadors of Christ, then, we should not seek not to coerce or strongarm consciences, or permit the state to do so, but to advocate for their freedom and, by God’s grace, make our appeal to those free consciences to be reconciled to their Lord. 

The ERLC will always prioritize the protection of religious liberty, as was strongly communicated in the 2022 Public Policy Agenda. This annual asset is an essential part of our advocacy efforts in our nation’s capital. This publicly available, 16-page document charts a path forward for our D.C. team each year, and this year’s response was far more than what we were expecting. In addition to hearing from policy makers and advocacy partners, multiple pastors and many fellow Southern Baptists reached out to affirm the ways we are engaging our nation’s elected leaders. Recounted below are some of the encouraging developments regarding religious liberty over the last year. 

Advocacy for the Uyghurs 

A significant legislative victory occurred for our team in December 2021. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was signed into law after some furious back-and-forth negotiating to rescue the package on Capitol Hill. This bill was the focus of a private, in-person meeting with the State Department on Nov. 30, 2021, in Washington, D.C., where we communicated the importance of this bill—and the need to continue confronting China—to the SBC after the passage of the 2021 resolution at the annual meeting.

The timing of the passage of the bill was consequential as the 2022 Winter Olympics were held in Beijing, China. While the eyes of the world always turn to the Olympics, these games were being watched even more closely due to China’s repeated human rights violations and the ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs. On Feb. 1, we hosted an online event titled, “Oppression and the Olympics,” which brought together multiple experts to talk about China’s heinous treatment of religious minorities. 

Supreme Court religious liberty rulings

In addition, the Supreme Court took up a number of a significant religious liberty cases this term, and in every case, provided rulings that affirmed and undergirded the important of religious liberty in our nation.

On March 24, in a 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Ramirez v. Collier that John Ramirez should be allowed to have his Southern Baptist pastor pray aloud and lay hands on him as he is executed. The ERLC filed an amicus brief prior to the ruling, asking the Supreme Court to protect Ramirez’s religious freedom rights. Our brief asserted that the state has failed to meet its burden, under Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, of demonstrating that refusing an inmate audible prayers and laying on of hands during his execution serves a compelling interest and does so by the least restrictive means. 

The Ramirez case was a significant win for religious liberty. This ruling helps protect the centuries-old practice of providing spiritual counsel and comfort to prisoners. As Brent Leatherwood said at the time of the ruling, “The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door.”

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled May 2 in Shurtleff v. Boston that the city of Boston violated the First Amendment rights of petitioners Harold Shurtleff and his organization, Camp Constitution, by refusing to allow the group to fly the Christian flag in front of City Hall. The ERLC had joined an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Camp Constitution. Our brief argued that the City of Boston violated the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause and wrongly discriminated against the speech of an organization. 

This case provided another victory in free speech jurisprudence, affirming the First Amendment rights of all organizations, including religious organizations, and clarifying the understanding of the Establishment Clause, with implications for religious speech at other limited public forums such as schools, city halls, and public libraries.

The ERLC believes our First Amendment rights travel together. A weakening of one is a weakening of all of the foundational rights contained in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has taken a robust view of these foundational rights, and we are grateful that the justices once again ruled in favor of freedom of speech in the public square. 

The 6-3 decision in Carson v. Makin, released by the court on June 21, ruled that Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement for otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause. The ERLC signed amicus briefs both at the petition for certiorari stage and when the case was before the Supreme Court on the merits. The brief the ERLC joined on the merits argues that Maine’s public education system does not merely exclude religious schools—it discriminates against them. 

This case is an important win for religious liberty. Carson v. Makin further enshrines the religious protections articulated in Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza, decisions that determined that states cannot exclude organizations and schools from receiving public benefits simply because they are religious. This decision also closed a loophole the First Circuit opened when upholding Maine’s exclusion of “sectarian” schools from its tuition assistance program. 

In an affirmation of religious expression, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Kennedy v. Bremerton on June 27 that “the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal.” The ERLC was involved with briefs at the petition for certiorari stage and before the Supreme Court on the merits.  

Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach in Washington state, lost his job after refusing to stop offering personal prayers at midfield after games. Occasionally, students would join him and also pray. In the wake of public controversy, Coach Kennedy was fired. The “District Court found that the ‘sole reason’ for the District’s decision to suspend Mr. Kennedy was its perceived ‘risk of constitutional liability’ under the Establishment Clause for his ‘religious conduct’ after three games.”

The case actually came before the Supreme Court once prior. In 2018, ERLC joined eight other groups in a brief that called for Supreme Court review and repudiation of the Ninth Circuit in the case, but the justices declined to grant the cert request at the time. The case returned to federal court and successfully worked its way back through the judicial system. 

The Supreme Court found that Kennedy’s private prayers after football games were “private speech, not government speech,” and teachers and students need not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Leatherwood said, “As any Christian knows, our faith is deeply personal and rightly shapes every aspect of our lives. We live out our faith in any number of ways, both privately and publicly. Today’s case centered on the latter and the Supreme Court rightly determined that an individual employed by a school does not forfeit his or her constitutional right to free expression simply by entering ‘the schoolhouse gate’ or, as it were in this case, the field of play.”

This case is another victory in a long line of jurisprudence that further expands Americans’ robust rights of religious expression. Across our convention of churches, faithful Southern Baptists can be found working in the public education sector. As Christians, Scripture calls us to do “all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). This decision bolsters believers’ ability to do this in the public square without fear of repercussions.

As we look to a new year, the ERLC will to continue to advocate for the protection of our first freedom. Ultimately, our desire is that this freedom would lead to spiritual freedom in Christ. Jordan Wootten summed it up well: 

Religious liberty is essential because true faith cannot be coerced, nor should it be outlawed. Where soul freedom is not recognized by the state, the state is violating those made in the image of God and the freedom of its citizens. As ambassadors of Christ, then, we seek not to coerce or strongarm consciences, or permit the state to do so, but to advocate for their freedom and, by God’s grace, make our appeal to those free consciences to be reconciled to their Lord.

As we look to a new year, the ERLC will continue to advocate.

*This article is an excerpt from our 2022 Annual Report. Download and read the full report here.

How the ERLC is advocating for life and religious liberty in appropriations

By / Dec 6

As the U.S. Congress reconvenes after the election, it must work to either complete appropriations work or pass another continuing resolution (CR) by the end of December 16. Congress previously passed a short-term CR in September to fund the government through December 16. 

On July 20, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a six-bill minibus, which included Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development; Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration; Energy and Water Development; Financial Services and General Government; Interior, Environment; and Military Construction, Veterans Affairs. Though all bills have been passed out of committee, the House has not yet taken action on Commerce, Justice, and Science; Defense; Homeland Security; Labor, Health and Human Services, Education; Legislative Branch, or State, Foreign Operations.

The Senate has also released but not yet taken up its own version of these bills. If passed, these bills will have to be reconciled with the House versions. 

Southern Baptists affirm the full dignity of every human being and that every life is  worthy of protection, beginning with the unborn. We believe life begins at conception and that abortion denies precious human lives both personhood and protection. Scripture is clear that every person is made in the image of God and his knowledge of each of us even precedes the creative act of conception (Jer. 1:5; Psalm 139:13). At the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the messengers passed a resolution to “reaffirm the sacredness and full dignity and worthiness of respect and Christian love for every single human being, without any reservation.”  

The ERLC is committed to conscience protection policies because they uphold two of our most closely held convictions. First, we work to protect the consciences of our neighbors because we believe religious freedom is an inalienable human right, thankfully secured as the first freedom in the Bill of Rights. Second, protecting healthcare workers from the coercive power of the profit-seeking, on-demand abortion industry is a pro-life responsibility.

The ERLC opposes appropriations riders that deny religious freedom and conscience  protections to millions of Americans. Efforts to codify sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal law have explicitly included attempts to roll back religious freedom and conscience protections. Many of the riders discussed below do the same. As the ERLC has long maintained, a government that is able to pave over the conscience is one that has the unlimited ability to steamroll dissent on any issue.

The FY2023 appropriations bills are troubling because they removes several longstanding pro-life riders from the budget. Just as last year, the Hyde Amendment has not been included in the Labor-HHS appropriations bill. The Hyde Amendment prevents Medicaid from covering the cost of abortion. At the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, messengers unanimously approved a resolution condemning efforts to strip Hyde from any federal appropriations bills and called upon Congress to uphold all pro-life riders.

Additionally, the appropriations bills removed the Weldon Amendment for only the second time since 2005. The amendment protects the rights of conscience for healthcare professionals and institutions by preventing HHS from denying funding to recipients that refuse to provide, pay for or refer for abortion. The budget would also prohibit any president from reinstituting the Mexico City Policy, reestablished and expanded by President Donald Trump, as the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy.

Though excluded from the initially released bills last year, these pro-life and conscience protection riders were ultimately included in the final FY2022 appropriations package. It is our hope that the same will happen this year.

ERLC’s president, Brent Leatherwood, sent House and Senate leadership a letter urging them to defend protections against federal funds being used for abortion and to ensure that pro-life spending riders are approved in all spending legislation passed in the 117th Congress. He also urged Congress to remove harmful provisions that would exclude people of faith from serving the most vulnerable. 

Each year, the ERLC is actively engaged in the appropriations process, working alongside committee and leadership offices to ensure that important pro-life, religious liberty, and conscience protections are included. The ERLC will continue to advocate for these pro-life provisions and other legislative measures that reflect God’s gracious love for every human life. You can read the full list of our concerns as well as our letter to Senate leadership below.

A resource for Southern Baptists on religious liberty

By / Dec 6

Freedom to live according to one’s deeply held religious convictions is a tenant of Baptist faith. But why is that so? Below is a resource for Southern Baptists on religious liberty that explains how the Bible, Church history, and the Baptist Faith & Message informs this foundational position.

Government is ordained by God and exists to promote justice and order the civil sphere

Government is ordained by God for the promotion of civil order and justice in society. From the Noahic covenant, which served to set limits on how individuals interacted with one another after the Fall—requiring life for those who took a life—to Paul’s reminder to church at Rome about submission to government, government exists to punish evil doers and restrain injustice (Gen. 9:1-7; Rom. 13:1-7). 

Practically, this can mean everything from the building of roads and setting of safety standards as well as the just enforcement of laws and physical defense of citizens. As an institution of God, it is good for its own sake, not just as a result of the Fall and sin’s entrance into the world. Christians should desire the government to further justice and human flourishing as its proper end. 

God alone is Lord of the conscience. 

In the same passage where Jesus reminds his disciples to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, he also says that there are things which belong rightly to God, not Caesar (Matt. 22:15-22). This is a reminder that God alone is Lord of the conscience, and the government should not interfere with the sincere religious convictions of individuals. In the words of John Leland, Baptist preacher and religious liberty advocate, if the government won’t answer for a person before the judgment seat of Christ, it should not interfere with an individual’s religion in the present. 

Baptists have historically held that though the conscience is not infallible, recognizing that it can be malformed because of sin’s effects, it should be inviolable. When rightly normed by Scripture, individuals should live in accordance with conscience rather than do what they think to be sin (Rom. 14:1-12).  

Christians owe obedience to the state as a divine institution of God. 

As a divine institution of God, Christians are to give obedience to government when it exercises its power justly within its sphere of authority. The command to give obedience to government is not a blessing of all the uses of government’s power, but a submission to the authority established by God (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:14). Christians should resist commands from the government that call them to sin or reject the teachings of Christ. 

However, in other instances, Christians should willingly submit to the authority instituted by God, availing themselves of all the rights of citizens for protest and redress of grievances. They should do so while also praying for all authorities and leaders to further promote justice and justly govern society (1 Tim. 2:1-4).

The church and state should not be united

As the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 declares, “A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal…”

Baptists have consistently held that the church and state are to remain distinct from one another, not to promote a secular state, but rather to prevent the unjust use of power by the state inside the church. As early American Baptist Roger Williams described it, the hedge of protection exists to protect the garden of the church from the wilderness of the state. A state which can interfere with the church’s governance is one that will seek to corrupt and control the church based on cultural norms. 

As Baptists, we affirm that entrance into the church is not coterminous with entrance into the state, and reject any nationalized churches. Rather, Baptists have historically held that the church and state are distinct, even as they have called for Christians to seek the promotion of justice and virtue in the public square.

Religious liberty is the canary in the coal mine of societal health. A government which can attempt to control your devotion and worship is a government which seeks to control the most basic part of who you are. 

Religious liberty in Baptist history

This is why the Baptist Faith & Message (2000) states unequivocally that “A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal.” That is a truth that has been preserved and defended by Baptists for over 400 years, from Thomas Helwys in England to Roger Williams, John Leland, and Isaac Backus in early America, and modern examples such as George Truett. When persecuted, especially under the hand of state or establishment churches, they reminded the state of the limits of its authority. Their advocacy was not limited only to self-interest, but a recognition that all have the right to worship God (or not) in accordance with their conscience because only the individual will stand before God and give an account for their soul. 

Helwys, one of the earliest English Baptists, issued what is likely the first call for universal religious liberty in the English language when he said, “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” This call would cost him his life because in doing so he would denounce the power of the king to jail and punish heretics with the power of the sword. 

Today’s challenges from within to religious liberty

Today, there are some who would have Christians believe that our current cultural situation’s antipathy toward Christian morality and biblical truth is too dire for us to uphold such principles as religious liberty and its relation to the liberal democratic order with an emphasis on individual rights and basic freedoms. They assert that the environment of classical liberalism is toxic to faith and has led to an increasingly secular square and the rise of an individualism unmired from notions of the common good.

Instead, these critics call for a state project that will provide a moral framework supporting the church—though they are conspicuously quiet about which denomination should be preferred. As one author stated recently, the greater problem to be faced is the sexual revolution and gender confusion of our age, not the fear that one religious group will force another to conform.

The sexual revolution is deeply concerning, and Christians should oppose it and limitations on religious liberty at the same time. Baptists can do both without any problem or need to look to other traditions. A commitment to religious liberty is not just a practical outgrowth of Baptist persecution, but a result of Baptists’ commitment to reading and interpreting the scriptures. Those are the same scriptures that tell us that gender and sexuality is part of God’s good design.

Those who think that Baptists are incapable of meeting the challenges of the day without changing their tactics should remember that our weapons have always been spiritual, not simply temporal. 

Just as we oppose gender ideology that seeks to conform the body to a mistaken understanding of self, Christians should oppose any attempt to coerce the soul and force outward conformity. Those who call for such coercion are saying either that these heretics are misguided and in need of correction which the state can provide or that outward religious action is more important than true religious conviction. Thus, they would use the state to make hypocrites, choosing outward conformity over sincerity of belief.

A lesson from the Reformation 

Again, a perspective of church history can help us to understand that the ability to conform our outer worship to our inner understanding of what God requires has been a hard fought battle. In England, after the break from Rome, there were intense periods where the established church fought over whether certain outer liturgies were essential to the faith or adiaphora (things left to conscience and personal preference). At various points, certain forms of dress and use of particular prayer books were the established practice, and nonconformists were persecuted and stripped of their rights and titles and positions in the church. 

The established church often told this small group that these were matters which did not cause any damage to the soul. You can still preach the gospel, just do so in a miter (a headdress worn by bishops). You can still offer the sacraments, just make sure that you are using the liturgy from the official prayer book. But the nonconformists boldly refused, saying that they intended to carry the reformation to its fullest extent and that these actions were not just adiaphora. The response of the church was to jail, persecute, and in some instances execute these nonconformists. For the state church, the threat of heterodox belief and practice was reason enough to warrant persecution, and when they controlled the levers of state power they were all too keen to enact it.

As Baptists, we know how this story plays out. What begins with compulsion on non-believers ultimately ends up as compulsion on believers of a different tradition, with the circle growing ever smaller and smaller. But it is not out of practical self-interest that Baptists push against trends of illiberalism and state-sanctioned coercion. It is a recognition that we live not in the inaugurated reign of Christ, but rather in the time between Christ’s ascension and return, the already-not yet. In this time of contestation, we recognize that religious liberty (and the value of principled pluralism) are the framework in which we operate. The state cannot coerce belief, but the church can persuade individuals. 

Those, who would flee to the government for state support, such as theonomists who seek to enshrine Old Testament laws in American civil law, betray their own fear of the weakness of their positions. In the words of John Leland, another Baptist defender of religious liberty, “Truth disdains the aid of the law for its own defence … it is error, and error alone, that needs human support; and whenever men fly to the law or sword to protect their system of religion and force it upon others, it is evident that they have something in their system that will not bear the light, and stand upon the basis of truth.” 

A commitment to blessings and principles of religious liberty is a recognition that neither the state, or any state-sponsored church, will answer for our souls on Judgment Day. We will stand there alone, answering for our own actions. Thus, it is a recognition of the limits of government power to bring about the kingdom. We must not buy the lie that the canary is a lamentable, but necessary sacrifice in the fight against secularism. Because an environment too toxic for religious liberty is an environment that seeks to trade the power of God for the power of the state. And that is a bargain no Christian should make.

Resources

Baptist Faith & Message (2000): Article XVII. Religious Liberty

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.

Genesis 1:27; 2:7; Matthew 6:6-7,24; 16:26; 22:21; John 8:36; Acts 4:19-20; Romans 6:1-2; 13:1-7; Galatians 5:1,13; Philippians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; James 4:12; 1 Peter 2:12-17; 3:11-17; 4:12-19.

USCIRF releases 2022 annual report on international religious freedom

By / Apr 27

On April 25, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2022 annual report. As the report mentions, USCIRF was created as a result of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). USCIRF “is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory body, separate from the U.S. Department of State, that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.”

The recommendations in USCIRF’s report are based “on its statutory mandate and the standards in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international documents.” The report assesses religious freedom violations and progress during calendar year 2021 and makes independent recommendations for U.S. policy for both the Biden administration and for Congress.

Highlighted countries

The report’s primary focus is on two groups of countries. The first group includes those countries that USCIRF recommends the State Department should designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs). IRFA defines CPCs as countries where the government engages in or tolerates “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom, such as torture or prolonged detention without trial. The second group are countries that USCIRF recommends the State Department should place on its Special Watch List (SWL). The SWL is for countries where the government engages in or tolerates “severe” violations of religious freedom that are ongoing and egregious. In addition to these groups, the report also includes USCIRF’s recommendations of violent nonstate actors for designation by the State Department as “entities of particular concern” (EPCs). 

In this year’s report, USCIRF recommends 15 countries to the State Department for designation as CPCs. Ten countries were previously designated as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Five other countries are also recommended to be added: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam.

The report also recommends 12 countries be included on the SWL. Three countries — Cuba, Algeria, and Nicaragua — had previously been included on the list. The nine other countries recommended for inclusion are Azerbaijan, Central African Republic (CAR), Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

Finally, seven nonstate actors are recommended to be re-designated as EPCs: al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) (also referred to as ISIS-West Africa), and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).

The report specifically noted the serious regression of religious freedom in Afghanistan since the Taliban rose to power in August of last year. USCIRF Chair Nadine Maenza stated, 

“We are disheartened by the deterioration of freedom of religion or belief in some countries— especially Afghanistan under the Taliban’s de facto government since August. Religious minorities have faced harassment, detention, and even death due to their faith or beliefs, and years of progress toward more equitable access to education and representation of women and girls have disappeared.”

Praying for the persecuted 

The ERLC is grateful for the work of the USCIRF and encourages all Christians to support the work of this advisory body. We can also use this report, as we do resources from the Joshua Project and Operation World, as a prayer guide for the nations and for persecuted Christians around the globe. Here are four ways, recommended by Casey B. Hough, that Christians can use USCIRF’s annual report in daily prayer for the nations:

  1. We can pray for the endurance and faithfulness of Christians who live in the countries listed in the report.
  2. We can pray for those who have not yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ because of the difficulties that missionaries encounter with the government.
  3. We can pray with gratefulness to God for the religious freedom that he has granted us at this time in history.
  4. Finally, we can pray for God to use the efforts of USCIRF and other international organizations to quell the religious freedom violations that exist around the world so that the gospel might advance without hindrance (Col. 4:3).

The ERLC is deeply committed to advocating for religious freedom around the world. Over the past several years, the ERLC has advocated extensively for Uyghurs and other persecuted minorities in China. In addition to country-specific advocacy, the ERLC has also worked on initiatives to fight against blasphemy laws, oppose the rise of anti-Semitism, and support the resettelement of persecuted refugees. We are dedicated to advocating for the vulnerable and oppressed around the world and to fighting for the rights of our persecuted brothers and sisters. 

Explainer: The Supreme Court upholds the religious liberty of Texas death row inmate

By / Mar 24

On March 24, in an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that John Ramirez should be allowed to have his Southern Baptist pastor pray aloud and lay hands on him as he is executed. The court found that Ramirez “is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the State’s compelling interests.” In this ruling, the court reversed and remanded the decision of the Fifth Circuit and provided direction for the lower courts to ensure that Ramirez’s religious liberty is protected in the final moments of his life.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justices Sotomayor and Kavanaugh wrote concurring opinions. Justice Thomas authored the sole dissenting opinion.

The decision is a significant affirmation for religious liberty and for Ramirez’s ability to have his Southern Baptist pastor in the execution chamber with him, audibly praying and laying hands on him. The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door.

What is this case about?

This case began in August 2021 when John Ramirez, a Texas inmate who was scheduled to be executed for murder, requested that Dana Moore, his Southern Baptist pastor, be allowed to minister to him while he is executed.  Moore serves the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, of which Ramirez is a member. Ramirez explained that he wanted his pastor “to be present at the time of his execution to pray with him and provide spiritual comfort and guidance in his final moments.” Moore, who has ministered to Ramirez since 2016, agrees that prayer accompanied by touch is “a significant part of our faith tradition as Baptists.”

Prison officials refused to grant Ramirez’s request because, at the time, Texas’s execution protocol barred all spiritual advisors from entering the chamber. Ramirez sued prison officials in response. On Sept. 8, just hours before Ramirez was to be executed for a murder in Corpus Christi, the Supreme Court granted a stay of the execution.

Ramirez asserted that the state’s refusal to allow his pastor to touch him and pray aloud violates both the Constitution and RLUIPA, the federal law that applies to those in prison and guarantees their religious rights will be respected. The question before the court was “whether the government has satisfied its burden under RLUIPA to demonstrate that its blanket prohibition on clergy in the execution chamber engaging in audible prayer or laying on hands is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.”

The Least Restrictive Means test “is a standard imposed by the courts when considering the validity of legislation that touches upon constitutional interests. If the government enacts a law that restricts a fundamental personal liberty, it must employ the least restrictive measures possible to achieve its goal.”

What is RLUIPA, and how does it apply to this case?

RLUIPA stands for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This federal law protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws. RLUIPA law also protects incarcerated individuals and states that “no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.”

Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), RLUIPA passed with strong bipartisan support, and RLUIPA affirms that incarcerated individuals ought to have religious protections while confined, and death row inmates ought to be permitted spiritual guidance, counsel, and comfort in their final moments.

How did the ERLC engage this case?

The ERLC was part of an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to protect the religious freedom of Ramirez and allow him to have his Southern Baptist pastor lay hands on and pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. Our brief asserted that the state has failed to meet its burden, under RLUIPA, of demonstrating that refusing an inmate’s request for audible prayer and laying on of hands during his execution serves a compelling interest and does so by the least restrictive means. We also asserted that there is little evidence that spiritual advisors present underlying security risks that would necessitate banning them from engaging in audible prayer or touching the prisoner.

Why does this case matter?

The right to have spiritual counsel and comfort is a centuries-old practice and must be respected and honored today. In Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion, he rightly states that “A tradition of such prayer continued throughout our Nation’s history.” He goes on to give several examples:

“When, for example, the Federal Government executed four members of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the prisoners were accompanied by clergy of various denominations. These “spiritual advisers” ministered to the condemned, and three spoke public prayers shortly before the prisoners were hanged. And in the aftermath of World War II, the United States Army even permitted Nazi war criminals facing execution to be accompanied by a chaplain, who “spoke” prayers on the gallows in the moments before death. The practice continues today. In 2020 and 2021, the Federal Bureau of Prisons allowed religious advisors to speak or pray audibly with inmates during at least six federal executions. What’s more, Texas itself appears to have long allowed prison chaplains to pray with inmates in the execution chamber, deciding to prohibit such prayer only in the last several years.”

Every person, of every faith, ought to have the opportunity to have a spiritual advisor with them in their final moments. As ERLC Acting President Brent Leatherwood stated,

“This is a significant affirmation of religious liberty. The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door. In the majority opinion, the court provided significant guidance about how this case should be handled moving forward. The state of Texas should accommodate Mr. Ramirez’s sincere requests based on his religious beliefs and allow Pastor Moore, his Southern Baptist pastor since 2016, to minister to Mr. Ramirez in his final solemn moments of life.”

Religious liberty is a foundational distinctive for the Southern Baptist Convention. As further developments in this case materialize, the ERLC will continue to advocate for religious freedom to be respected by the government.

ERLC calls Supreme Court ruling in Ramirez case ‘significant affirmation’ of religious liberty

By / Mar 24

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 24, 2022—The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling today in Ramirez v. Collier, calling it a “significant affirmation of religious liberty.”

John ​​Ramirez, 37, sued Texas prison officials in August 2021 for refusing to permit Dana Moore, his pastor from Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, to minister to him during his execution. The Supreme Court provided relief by granting a stay of the execution on Sept. 8, 2021, the same night Ramirez was scheduled to receive the death penalty, while the Court reviewed the merits of Ramirez’s claims.

The ERLC filed an amicus brief that month asking the court to uphold the sincere religious liberty requests of Ramirez, and allow him to have his pastor lay hands on and audibly pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. The ERLC also published an explainer last year with more information about the case.

“This is a significant affirmation of religious liberty,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the ERLC. “The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door. In the majority opinion, the court provided significant guidance about how this case should be handled moving forward. The state of Texas should accommodate Mr. Ramirez’s sincere requests based on his religious beliefs and allow Pastor Moore, his Southern Baptist pastor since 2016, to minister to Mr. Ramirez in his final solemn moments of life.”

Ramirez based his request for the stay on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and the ERLC-endorsed brief argued the state failed a test established by that federal law. RLUIPA bars the government from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion not only by an inmate but by a person or institution in land-use cases. The government, however, can gain an exemption from the law if it can show it has a compelling interest and is using the “least restrictive means” to further that interest.

Religious liberty is a foundational distinctive for Baptists. As further developments in this case materialize, the ERLC will continue to advocate for religious freedom to be respected by the government.

Explainer: Survey shows Americans agree about religious freedom

By / Feb 7

The amount of disarray in American public life — from the ongoing waves of COVID-19 to our miserable political disunity — doesn’t exactly paint a picture of national consensus on much of anything. And, the last thing we might imagine Americans would ever agree on, especially at this cultural moment, is the place religion holds in our society. But that’s exactly what the results of a recent survey show: agreement on the topic of religious freedom.

For the last three years, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has partnered with the Association of Religious Data Archives and the research firm Heart + Mind Strategies to produce the annual Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment. At its core, the Religious Freedom Index aims to provide “a unique look into American public opinion on First Amendment freedoms” and to “help inform discussions about religion’s role in America’s shifting cultural dynamics.” In an era of rapid change, the index is the thermometer Becket uses to periodically take the country’s religious temperature — and this year’s reading may surprise you.

Index methodology

Taking place each year between mid-September and mid-October, the Religious Freedom Index consists of 21 standard questions (asked with the same phrasing every year) and a group of additional questions that change from year to year based on current events. Index data is gathered “in an online poll of a nationally representative sample of [one thousand] American adults conducted by independent research company, Heart + Mind Strategies.” 

Once the data is gathered, results are analyzed, categorized, and then calculated and scored using a scale from 0 to 100, “where 0 indicates complete opposition for the principle of religious freedom at issue and 100 indicates complete support for the same principle.” For more information on Index methodology, follow this link.

Three key findings

According to Becket’s analysis, “In 2021, Americans [bounced] back from an especially divisive year with newfound confidence in their support for a wide spectrum of religious freedom principles.” Within that “wide spectrum of religious freedom principles,” three key findings emerged: “Americans want a level playing field for faith-based organizations,” “Americans value religious voices in national conversations,” and “Americans [continue to] prioritize houses of worship, [even] in a pandemic.” 

  1. Americans want a level playing field for faith-based organizations

The COVID-19 pandemic has been horrible in many ways, there is no denying it. But, in some ways, it seems to have awakened us to the realization that communities of faith and religious organizations play an integral role in society, namely when catastrophes like a pandemic strike. So, in the midst of literal pandemonium, Americans agreed that faith-based organizations should be given a level playing field, even when it comes to government funding opportunities and partnerships. 

“In the past,” for example, “65 percent of respondents said that religious organizations helping their communities should be just as eligible to receive government funds as nonreligious organizations, but this year that level of support increased six points to 71 percent.” Regardless of the pros and cons of religious organizations receiving government funds, this is an indication that general support for religious organizations — and recognition of their importance — is not waning, but strengthening. 

By and large, Americans recognize and “appreciate the contributions of religion and people of faith,” which is a survey marker that increased by seven points since 2020. This growing support is something to note.

  1. Americans value religious voices in national conversations

There is no shortage of national conversations being had right now. To vaccinate or not, to send kids back to school in person or not, to recognize the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection attempt as an act of terror or not — all of these (and more) are controversial and consequential discussions, and the consensus among Americans, contrary to what we may assume, is that “people with religiously based opinions” should be included in them. 

The public square is sometimes assumed to be off-limits for those in religious communities. But, as the Index outlines, the majority of Americans (62%) “agree that people with religiously based opinions on controversial topics should be free to voice them in public,” which was true even among respondents to whom faith is not personally important (53%). 

Overwhelmingly (83% of respondents), Americans understand that the “freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others is . . . an essential part of religious freedom.” So, whether in the public square, at the workplace, or in our schools, Americans agree that religious voices deserve a seat at the table.

  1. Americans prioritize houses of worship in a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a lot of discussion around best practices and a lot of questions around what services and activities ought to be deemed essential. Often the church found itself in the crosshairs of these discussions.

But once again, Americans landed on the side of religious freedom, agreeing that houses of worship do provide essential services. Though the level of consensus is less remarkable here, respondents affirmed that many activities that take place at houses of worship, like funerals (62%) and worship (52%), are absolutely essential. 

One surprising takeaway

The opening sentence of the report’s Executive Summary says the following: “After a uniquely divisive year, Americans rebuil[t] consensus around support for religious freedom pushing the Index score to a new high.” Interestingly, despite all the divisive and combative language making constant headlines, Americans agree now more than anytime in the last three years that religious freedom is essential. 

What does it all mean?

There are a number of conclusions we could arrive at based on what we find in this most recent Religious Freedom Index. Certainly, there’s more to analyze than the few takeaways mentioned here, but the consistent note being struck in these findings is one of optimism. 

While the index is not a commentary on the state of religion itself — the religious makeup in America is different than it’s ever been, after all — it does give insight into the importance the American people place on the free exercise of religion that’s enshrined in our country’s founding documents. As the 2021 Religious Freedom Index clearly shows, this first freedom continues to maintain strong and confident support among the body politic.

For Christians, this means that we should gladly and confidently exercise our religious freedom. Of course, the practice of the Christian faith doesn’t depend on a government’s recognition of our God-given freedom to follow him. But when a government, like ours, declares in its foundational documents that we may lawfully exercise our religion with no fear of retribution, we ought to do just that. So, wherever God has placed us — in the public square, in the academy, in the political arena, in the neighborhood where we live —may we freely live out the faith that he has planted in us. 

Explainer: Religious liberty case for Texas inmate heard at the Supreme Court

By / Nov 9

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments for a case titled Ramirez v. Collier. This is an important case for the religious liberty of death-row inmates and their ability to receive spiritual counsel in their last moments on earth.

What is this case about?

On Sept. 8, just hours before John Ramirez was to be executed for a murder in Corpus Christi, the Supreme Court granted a stay of the execution. Ramirez sued Texas prison officials in August for refusing to permit Dana Moore, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, to minister to him while he is executed. Ramirez requested that Moore be allowed to physically touch him and audibly pray in the execution chamber. The lower courts rejected his request to postpone his execution, but the Supreme Court justices granted a stay of execution and fast-tracked his appeal.  

Ramirez asserts that the state’s refusal to allow his pastor to touch him and pray aloud violates both the Constitution and RLUIPA, the federal law that applies to those in prison and guarantees their religious rights will be respected. The question before the court is “whether the government has satisfied its burden under RLUIPA to demonstrate that its blanket prohibition on clergy in the execution chamber engaging in audible prayer or laying on hands is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.” 

Brent Leatherwood, ERLC’s acting president, stated that “the high court should overrule Texas’ ban and allow this important and solemn moment of ministry to proceed. Religious freedom doesn’t end as you approach the moment of death, and we have joined a brief saying as much. The state has yet to make a compelling argument for why Pastor Moore, an SBC pastor, cannot minister to Mr. Ramirez in these final moments.”

What is RLUIPA, and how does it apply to this case?

RLUIPA stands for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This federal law protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws. RLUIPA law also protects incarcerated individuals and states that “no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.”

Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), RLUIPA passed with strong bipartisan support. Incarcerated individuals ought to have religious protections while confined, and death-row inmates ought to be permitted spiritual guidance, counsel, and comfort in their final moments.

Why does this case matter? 

The right to have spiritual counsel and comfort is a centuries-old practice and must be respected and honored today. According to Becket Law, “Since before the colonial era, it was common for ministers to accompany the condemned to the gallows, where they would pray with, minister to, and touch those who are about to die. General George Washington honored such requests by deserters executed during the Revolution, and the United States also honored such requests by Nazi war criminals after the Nuremberg Trials.” Every person ought to have the opportunity to have a spiritual advisory with them in their final moments. 

This is not the first time an incarcerated individual has been denied access to a spiritual advisor. Becket stated,

“. . . in 2019 the State of Alabama denied a Muslim prisoner the presence and prayer of an imam before his execution. When the State of Texas attempted to do the same thing to a Buddhist prisoner just a few weeks later, the Supreme Court stepped in, ruling in Murphy v. Collier that Texas had to permit the prisoner’s Buddhist spiritual advisor to accompany him to the death chamber. Since then, the Supreme Court has similarly protected Christian prisoners in both Texas and Alabama. Despite these clear rulings and centuries of history, including its own traditional practices, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) recently imposed two rules – one preventing clergy from praying aloud and one preventing clergy from touching the inmate – contrary to centuries of tradition.”

How has the ERLC been involved?

The ERLC filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to protect the religious freedom of Ramirez, and allow him to have a Southern Baptist pastor lay hands on and pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. Our brief asserts that the state has failed to meet its burden, under RLUIPA, of demonstrating that refusing an inmate audible prayers and laying on off hands during his execution serves a compelling interest and does so by the least restrictive means. We also assert that there is little evidence that spiritual advisors present underlying security risks that would necessitate banning them from engaging in audible prayer or touching the prisoner

The ERLC is grateful that the Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments in this case and is hopeful that the court will rightly protect Ramirez’s ability to have a pastor present in his final moments. 

The ERLC engages our culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square to protect religious liberty and promote human flourishing. One of the ways we do this is by advocating for these things before the Supreme Court. While we’ve worked diligently and pray earnestly that the court will make decisions that uphold life, religious liberty, and the freedom of conscience, we ultimately place our trust in God to fulfill his plans and use the work of the ERLC along the way. 

Explainer: Petition filed with U.S. Supreme Court in 303 Creative v. Elenis case

By / Oct 27

Since 2016, Lorie Smith, founder of the web design firm 303 Creative, has been in the process of challenging a Colorado law which violates her First Amendment rights. It is the same law that was used to target Jack Phillips and which led to the landmark Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case.

Like Phillips, and like Barronelle Stutzman of the Arlene’s Flowers Inc. v. Washington case, Lorie Smith is a creative professional who serves anyone through her business. But, as Maureen Collins of Alliance Defending Freedom has said, “While she [Smith] will create web designs for anyone, she doesn’t create all messages. She can’t use her design skills and creativity to express messages that violate her deeply held religious convictions.” And therein lies the conflict. Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act is a law “that would force her to create messages with which she disagree[s],” a flagrant violation of Smith’s Constitutional rights. 

What is this case about?

At its core, this case is concerned with the constitutional rights of people of religious faith and the assurance that those who own and operate private businesses can do so according to their deeply held beliefs, without the threat of government coercion.

More specifically, 303 Creative v. Elenis is a case intended to challenge a Colorado state law “that forces her [Lorie Smith] to use her artistic talents to promote same-sex ceremonies” and that “forbids her and her studio from publicly expressing . . . her belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and why she can’t use her artistic talents to promote a same-sex marriage” (emphasis added). 

How did the case begin?

ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit in September 2016 that challenged the Colorado law in federal court. Recognizing the threat that portions of Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act posed to the exercise of Smith’s Constitutional rights, ADF filed a lawsuit on Smith’s behalf that’s commonly referred to as a “pre-enforcement challenge, which allows citizens to challenge a law that threatens their rights before the government enforces it against them.” 

Smith’s assessment was right — her ability to freely exercise her constitutional rights were at stake. Unfortunately, her 2016 challenge to Colorado law was unsuccessful. After nearly three years, said Collins, “a judge issued a final ruling allowing Colorado officials to force Lorie to design and publish websites promoting messages that conflict with her religious beliefs.”

What happened next?

In October 2019, Smith “appealed to the Tenth Circuit, asking it to reverse the lower court’s decision.” In November 2020, her case was heard by the 10th Circuit, which ultimately ruled against Smith, saying, in effect, “that Colorado can force Lorie to express messages and celebrate events that violate her faith.” 

It was a disappointing ruling for people of religious faith across this country. 

Where do things stand now?

On Sept. 24, 2021, ADF filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to hear Smith’s case. Citing the 10th Circuit court’s admission that the Colorado law “does compel speech based on viewpoint” and “create a double standard,” and its direct conflict “with the 8th and 11th Circuits, as well as the Arizona Supreme Court, which have all ruled that the government may not force artists to speak in violation of their beliefs,” ADF and Smith are “asking the Supreme Court to sort this out.” 

On Feb. 22, the Supreme Court agreed to hear 303 Creative v. Elenis. Commenting on this case, Neal Hardin of Alliance Defending Freedom, said, “The government shouldn’t be allowed to weaponize a law to force artists like Lorie to create and communicate messages that violate their beliefs. Free speech is for everyone, not just those who agree with the government.”

The ERLC is grateful that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case. It has far-reaching free-speech and religious liberty implications in and beyond the state of Colorado, where the case originated. Pray that the Supreme Court will overturn this “unprecedented” and “staggering” ruling by the 10th Circuit, and by doing so, that it will reaffirm the constitutional rights of religious persons that are enshrined in our country’s founding documents. 

ERLC to present religious liberty award to Pastor Griffin Gulledge at special ceremony in Madison

By / Oct 21

Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 21, 2021—The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Acting President Brent Leatherwood will present an ERLC Religious Liberty Award to Griffin Gulledge, pastor of Madison Baptist Church in Madison, Ga., during a special ceremony on Oct. 24. 

Gulledge was nominated for his significant work in drafting the SBC resolution entitled, “Resolution 8: On The Uyghur Genocide,” which the messengers to the Annual Meeting unanimously passed this June. With the resounding affirmation of the resolution, the SBC became the first denomination to condemn the Chinese Communist Party for the genocide of the Uyghur people.

“On behalf of the ERLC, I am honored to present Griffin Gulledge with the 2021 John Leland Religious Liberty Award for his exemplary service in helping raise awareness of the atrocities happening to the Uyghur people in China,” said Leatherwood. “Gulledge is a faithful pastor who has advocated for religious liberty across the globe and we proudly stand alongside him in upholding the dignity of every human life as fellow image bearers of Christ.”

The ceremony will be held on Sunday, Oct. 24 at 6:00 p.m. EST at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in Madison, where Leatherwood will present Gulledge with the award amongst members of his church and community. Dr. Jimmy Patterson, ERLC trustee and minister of biblical and theological research at First Baptist Church Newnan in Newnan, Ga., will also attend on behalf of the ERLC trustees and provide remarks about the heart of Southern Baptists for human dignity at the ceremony.

Each year at the ERLC’s board of trustees meeting, the trustees select a candidate to receive the John Leland Religious Liberty Award. This year, the ERLC awarded two individuals with this award: Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and Griffin Gulledge.