3 ways to respond to Massachusetts’ revolution on religious liberty

September 23, 2016

As a general rule, it is a bad idea for government to regulate religious activity. Neither the church, nor the state, are well equipped to meet the other’s objectives or obligations. And for this reason, society is better served when each entity operates with a healthy respect toward the other’s realm of authority. In fact, the encroachment of these boundaries almost always represents a serious threat to civil liberties—thus the Establishment Clause of the Constitution intentionally prohibits such incursions. But when the state is itself a willful actor in the progressive effort to effect social change, there is apparently little time for these concerns.

The state of Massachusetts has, for many years, been leading the charge of the progressive movement in terms of policy and legislation meant to both legalize and normalize various aspects of the sexual revolution. The recently published Gender Identity Guidance, an official document detailing enforcement of a new statewide anti-discrimination law, only furthers this trend. As published, the Guidance contains a multitude of troubling instructions, but of particular concern is the direct threat it poses to religious freedom in the state.

The anti-discrimination measures in the document are so restrictive that in certain cases they would not only require many religious institutions in the state to alter specific practices, but would interfere with the ability of these institutions to advocate particular theological beliefs. Clearly this is a monumental issue.

The Guidance does not threaten religious exercise head on, but instead insists that religious organizations such as local churches, would be subject to these restrictions when operating in a “secular” capacity. According to the document, “places of public accommodation may not discriminate against, or restrict a person from services because of that person’s gender identity.” And while local churches are apparently not considered “public accommodations” when hosting distinctly sacred or spiritual events, that protection falls away “if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public.” This is problematic for many reasons.

In the first place, the state lacks a compelling interest to determine which of a religious organization’s activities might be designated as secular. Indeed, many religious persons like myself would deny that such a dichotomy even exists. But moreover, the state is supposed to respect the right of religious institutions to exercise their autonomy—this is, after all, what the “free exercise” of religion means. Setting up a regulatory agency as de facto arbiters of religious practice is nonsensical and profoundly ignorant. To avoid such category errors, the agency would see churches coerce participants at every event into observing obligatory rituals in order to satisfy the state. Make no mistake, this would soon spell the death of religious freedom in Massachusetts.

And it gets worse. In those cases when religious institutions are considered public accommodations, they will bear responsibility for implementing the full slate of anti-discrimination measures. According to Massachusetts’s law, any person is free to use the bathroom or changing facility that is most consistent with his or her gender identity. This means that in these instances, “churches can be forced to let biological males who identify as transgender women use the women’s bathroom” despite their religious or personal objections. Additionally, the same circumstances would force religious institutions to embrace—and insist that even congregants adopt—new language regarding gender identity. According to Eugene Volokh, the Guidance is clear that “church leaders have to use the words that the law requires, even when they view them as false or even blasphemous, and have to suppress offensive speech by their congregants.” And in both these cases, whether restrooms or gender pronouns, holding fast to biblical convictions may require religious persons to suffer the full penalty of law.

These are outrageous demands. Not surprisingly, the document was published by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD)—“the state’s chief civil rights agency.” To expand protections for transgender persons and others with gender dysphoria, the state of Massachusetts has determined that the rights of these individuals supersede the rights of religious persons and institutions. But this is about more than civil liberties. As Al Mohler pointed out on The Briefing, “It is about the redefinition and indeed the denial of religious liberty in our time.”

The culture is growing increasingly hostile to traditional beliefs about gender and sexuality. This Guidance represents another attempt to silence the opponents of the sexual revolution. But as evangelicals, we aren’t advocating these views for the sake of argument. We stand for the truth about gender, marriage, and sexuality because we believe that the gospel is at stake. As we discuss these issues, we honestly believe that heaven and hell hang in the balance. And we open our mouths, despite the increasingly hostile cultural opposition, out of obedience to Jesus and love for our neighbors.

Indeed, we will not be silent about these issues, but we need more than outrage. We need more than private indignation. We need more than Tweetstorms or articles shared on Facebook.

Here are three things we desperately need:

  1. Prayer: Prayer for America is often called for and seldom accomplished. I would ask you to pray for our nation, pray for our leaders and pray for God’s mercy to allow the light of the gospel to do its work.
  2. Advocacy: Believe it or not, there are countless people working right now to protect religious freedom in America. Actively support the work of those seeking to preserve and expand these protections and consider how you might be involved in advancing this goal.
  3. Resolve: America is changing, and we do not know to what extent opposition to our beliefs may grow. But what we do know is that our allegiance and our conscience belongs to Christ before the government. The day may come when we must choose. Pray for the resolve to withstand any such trials.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24