The ERLC’s religious liberty advocacy

A year of important victories  

December 21, 2022

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.

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