Will Religious Freedom Be Upheld?

July 28, 2016

Christians in America today face growing challenges to their first amendment rights to religious freedom. A troubling example is found in the recent refusal of the Supreme Court to hear the religious liberty claim of the Storman family from Olympia, WA. The Storman family, owners of Ralph’s Thriftway, a small, family-run grocery store and pharmacy have objected to dispensing contraceptives like Plan B that inhibit the uterine implantation of a fertilized egg.

Based on their belief that human life begins at conception, they deem the use of such contraceptives as tantamount to abortion and have declined to stock them in their pharmacy. Instead, they have made it their practice to refer customers to other drug stores (of which there are over 30 within a five-mile area) where they can readily obtain them. According to the regulations passed into law in 2007 by the Washington State Pharmacy Board, the Stormans’ principled stand is insufficient grounds for refusal. The regulations mandate that no pharmacist may “refuse to deliver a drug or device to a patient because its owner objects to delivery on religious, moral, or other personal grounds.” Their long legal battle appears to have ended with the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling that the State Pharmacy Board’s regulations should be upheld. The ultimate decision by the Supreme Court not to hear the case allows the 2007 regulations to stand and, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Alito, it is “an ominous sign” for the future of religious freedom in America.

In his critical dissent to the decision, Alito wrote, “There are strong reasons to doubt whether the regulations were adopted for–or that they actually serve–any legitimate purpose. And there is much evidence that the impetus for adoption of the regulations was hostility to pharmacists whose religious beliefs regarding abortion and contraception are out of step with the prevailing opinion in the State.” In essence, the Stormans have been faced with the decision: sell contraceptives that violate their religious convictions about the definition and sanctity of human life or get out of the pharmacy business.

This case is indicative of a growing trend of judicial decisions on local, state, and national levels that point to the uncertainty of religious freedom in America in the future. In light of this disturbing trend, I humbly offer first, a note of perspective, and second, a call to gracious but firm Christian political engagement in defense of our religious freedom.

For the note of perspective, I must share a piece of my biography. During much of my teenage years, I lived in post-Soviet Russia. While we were in country, a 1997 law (much like the one passed into law by Vladimir Putin last month) put into place regulations that no new church or religious organization could legally function unless it had been registered for at least 15 years. Effectively, this law rendered invalid any new churches or religious organizations that had been formed since before the Soviet era (1920s) since any freedom of worship had only been returned in Russia in 1990. The law was pushed through at the impetus of the Russian Orthodox church which sought to safeguard its privileged position as the new “state religion” of Russia. Since Soviet days, Russia has shifted from a political state with no religious freedom to a state where limited religious freedom is granted to specific and highly regulated groups.

In Russia, the laws of the land severely limit the freedom of its people to worship and exercise their religious convictions. Christians in Russia are closer in social location to those living in the first-century under the governmental authority of a political state (Rome) disinclined to protect their freedom to worship. Politically, they are left with limited recourse. Most honor the governing authorities placed, ultimately by God, above them and prayerfully trust his sovereign hand over the results of their efforts to live and act in ways pleasing to Christ (Rom. 13:1-17; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).

While we live according to the same biblical principles in our submission to government authority, Christian Americans live in a different social and political location. As Richard Mouw argues, “In modern democracies, the power of national leaders is derived from the populace, which is the primary locus of God-given authority. Built into the very process is the possibility of review, debate, reexamination, election, and defeat. Given such a framework, for Christians simply to acquiesce in a present policy is to fail to respect the governing authorities.” We as American Christians actually honor our nation’s leaders when we take up the active defense of religious freedom not only for ourselves, but ultimately for “the peace and prosperity of our city” (Jer. 29:7).

Cases like the Stormans’ indicate that our legislative and judiciary system is divided on the issue of religious freedom. Will religious freedom in America will be upheld for future generations? In a very tangible way, progressivism is calling for these laws to be redefined in service of a new “state religion.” Unlike Russia, the laws of our land currently favor religious freedom, but like Russia (and ultimately all nations), the enforcement and interpretation of those laws vary. The ultimate consensus has not yet been achieved.

In light of this reality, we must engage in the defense of religious liberty in the public square or be resigned to the consequences of our passivity. We must consider carefully the current danger to our religious freedom and utilize the political means available to us to voice our dissent. At present, religious freedom for all is upheld as a constitutional right. But if we do not act, we may soon find ourselves in a state where the doors of religious freedom are closed to anyone who does not acquiesce to the beliefs of the prevailing elite.

Andrew Koetsier

Andrew, a former pastor, is part of the team that administrates the Intersect Project at SEBTS. He is also a Teaching Fellow at the seminary and in the dissertation phase of a Ph.D. concentrating on Biblical Theology. He, his wife Katie and their three kids live in Wake Forest, NC … Read More

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