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.