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Articles

Five new religious freedom protections on Religious Freedom Day

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January 17, 2020

On Thursday, the White House announced new executive actions and agency regulations to ensure federal policy upholds religious freedom and the foundational right for the free exercise of religion.

The actions across the Administration involved nine federal agencies proposing rules to deal with a range of important issues such as a student’s right to pray in school and the equal treatment of religious organizations in the federal grant making process. The date of this announcement was significant as January 16 is National Religious Freedom Day, the annual commemoration of the adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.

Here are five new protections for religious liberty among yesterday’s announcements: 

1. Religious student groups at public universities will be guaranteed equal access.

The Department of Education’s proposed regulations include a new provision that would protect religious groups on the campuses of public universities. In many cases, these groups, like Cru, InterVarsity, and Christian Legal Society, have faced pressure from school administrators to eliminate requirements that leadership share the core beliefs of the organization and in some cases have even been kicked off campus and 

These new regulations will ensure that religious student groups are afforded the same benefits and recognition by the university as other student groups. 

2. States will be required to comply with Trinity Lutheran v. Comer when administering federal grants.

Last year, the Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer held that states may not prevent faith-based organizations from receiving state funds generally available to the public, simply by virtue of the fact that the organization is faith-based. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “this Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that can be justified only by a state interest ‘of the highest order.’” The Administration, through an OMB memo, is extending this principle across all federal agencies, directing all federal agencies to ensure that states are not restricting access of faith-based organizations to public programs.

This new OMB memo is focused on state-level “Blaine Amendments,” which serve to prohibit government funding from going to faith-based organizations and schools. The history of the Blaine Amendments is complex but is rooted in anti-Catholic animus; the original amendments were designed to ensure that any government funding to parochial schools was cut off. 

Federal agencies will now be required to ensure that states administering federal grants allow all organizations, regardless of whether they are faith-based, equal access to federal programs and public goods.

3. Student prayer and religious expression in school is further protected.

The Department of Education released new guidance on religious expression by students in public schools and a new requirement that local school districts must certify in writing that they have “no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools.”

Practically, this new guidance clarifies what religious expression school districts may allow in schools. In some cases, school administrators, fearful of legal action, restrict religious activities more than is required by the U.S. Constitution. But the guidance will also provide students and parents with federal directives to point to that their religious expression is permitted under U.S. law in the case of a conflict.

By statute, the Department of Education must issue new guidance every two years, but updated guidance was last issued by the George W. Bush Administration in 2003. The updated guidance is similar in substance to the Bush-era guidance, but the White House’s new certification mechanism will provide new accountability for school districts and is an important policy development.

4. Nine federal agencies issued new rules eliminating regulations that unfairly applied only to faith-based organizations.

The Departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, Veterans Affairs, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) issued new proposals of rules regarding the interactivity of faith-based organizations with federal government programs. These federal entities contract with organizations, including faith-based organizations, to provide an array of services to communities and for other public needs.

As one example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) efforts this week both removed burdensome rules that compelled faith-based groups with a series of complicated procedures of unequal treatment and instituted new regulations to ensure equal treatment in USDA award selection.

These new regulations follow Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran precedent. The collective weight of this week’s new rules provide the needed clarity from the executive branch that the judicial branch affirmed with Trinity Lutheran: the federal government cannot treat an organization differently simply because it is religious.

5. Faith-based nonprofits serving their communities will no longer be required to discount their religious character.

Under rules issued by the previous Administration, faith-based nonprofits were required in some cases to post notices about their faith-based characteristics and refer individuals who may be offended by their faith to other nonprofits. The current Administration repealed these regulations to once again ensure faith-based nonprofits are able to continue serving their communities without caveats that cast aspersions, the same way as any other equally qualified organization.

Policy Staff

The policy staff works on behalf of the Southern Baptist interests in the ERLC's Washington, D.C., office, the Leland House. 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