By / Sep 24

What is the relationship of Old Testament laws to the American government? How ought Christians respond to the decline of cultural influence? What are the ways that Christians exercise power within the public square? These are some of the questions that animate Christian Reconstructionists, a group that likely is less well known than broader denominational or theological identities such as Baptist, Catholic, evangelical, or Reformed. Crawford Gribben sheds light on this group in his book, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest. While the ERLC does not subscribe to the tenets of Christian Reconstructionism, it is important to understand this numerically small but influentially growing movement, as Gribben’s work shows. 

In Gribben’s recent study of the movement, particularly in the community centered around Moscow, Idaho, he found that these evangelical Christians were continually navigating the tension between resisting the wider culture around them because of its rejection of Christian values and hopefully expecting that there would be a cultural renewal and return to God’s laws and standards, though likely not in their lifetime. Though a numerically small group, these Reformed evangelicals have shown themselves to be adept at marshalling soft influence through avenues such as publishing, homeschooling curriculum, and the founding of a Christian liberal arts college. Gribben’s study is an excellent introduction to the lived realities of this movement, its history, and the ways that theological principles have practical outputs in the project of cultural renewal. 

Gribben, a professor of religious history at Queen’s University Belfast, was kind enough to answer a few questions related to the movement and his scholarship. 

Your book is a study of Christian Reconstructionists, a particular group of Reformed evangelicals rooted in the writing of R.J. Rushdoony, and more recently pastor Douglas Wilson. What are the distinctives of this movement? 

Christian Reconstruction is the name of the social theory that an Armenian-American Presbyterian minister, R.J. Rushdoony, began to develop in the late 1950s. As its descriptor suggests, it’s a social theory that argues that modern societies should be reorganized in terms of biblical law. While the movement is varied, its advocates tend to argue that the judicial laws in the Mosaic covenant, as a reflection of the “general equity” of the moral law, as the Westminster Confession puts it, should be adopted by modern states. This position is often described as “theonomy.” But Reconstructionists don’t just argue that these laws should be adopted by modern states — they also expect that these laws will be adopted by modern states. Their confidence that modern states will be reconstructed according to biblical law reflects their widespread commitment to “postmillennialism” — the expectation that the preaching of the gospel in this age will result in extraordinary revivals, to the extent that, before the return of Christ, the global population will in large part be regarded as Christian. 

These ideas — “theonomy” and “postmillennialism” — might seem strange, even outlandish, to modern evangelicals. But these claims, and others like them, were made by reformers and Puritans. In fact, many of the colonies that came to make up the states of New England were led by ministers and theologians who were committed to these views. What makes Christian Reconstruction so distinctive within the broader cultures of evangelicalism is that its arguments are being made in a religious landscape that has largely abandoned claims that were once normative within American Protestantism to embrace instead the principled pluralism of the American constitutional tradition.

The plan proposed by the community in the American Redoubt (Idaho, Montana, Wyomin, and the easter portions of Washington and Oregon) shares some similarity to that of others, such as Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. Is this just a wider dissatisfaction with American culture, or is there something unique going on with those who are moving to the Redoubt?

Yes, there are similarities between the kinds of people who are moving into the Redoubt and those who are attracted to Dreher’s Benedict Option. In fact, Dreher has explained that he had intended to include in his book a chapter on the Moscow, Idaho, church that is led by Doug Wilson, until some controversial decisions made by congregational leaders relating to the pastoral care of a sexual offender changed his mind. But there are also some important differences between the Reconstructionists and Benedict Option Christians. Most importantly, while both groups are withdrawing to a large extent from mainstream society, the Reconstructionists do so with much greater confidence they are building communities that will survive the crisis in American culture and that will emerge to create, entirely organically, the institutions that will hold together the new — and newly Christian — United States. I think it’s also important to note that the Benedict Option idea appeals to Catholic and Orthodox groups. Christian Reconstructionists tend to be emphatically protestant (though their protestant credentials have been questioned by some of their critics, especially in relation to the “federal vision” theology with which Wilson has in the past been associated).

In the book, you emphasize the role that the group’s theology plays, particularly their postmillennial eschatology. Why does this cause them to react differently than other evangelicals to a shifting culture? 

Well, as Wilson put it in one of our conversations, it’s so much easier to play when you know you’re on the winning team. While lots of larger evangelical communities are losing ground — at least in the sense of shrinking membership — the Moscow, Idaho, community is pushing forward with some very ambitious plans. They make no secret of their intention to make Moscow a Christian town — nor of their expectation that the world will be converted to Christ. I think this expectation provides this community with a very distinctive confidence. While other groups of evangelicals are scanning the headlines for the signs of the times, or are persuading each other not to “polish the brass on a sinking ship,” as some premillennial critics of social action put it, the Moscow Christians and their Reconstructionist fellow travelers are developing concrete plans to survive and resist what they perceive to be an extraordinary moral collapse. And they’ve been very successful. 

In Moscow, they have established a classical Christian school — one of the founding institutions of a network of similar schools, whose conference was addressed in 2019 by Senator Ben Sasse — as well as a high quality liberal arts college and music conservatory. Members of the congregations associated with this community run very successful businesses, including the publishing house that does most to promote the group’s ideas. Overall, they’ve created an ecosystem that publicizes their ideas, that encourages migration into the area, that supports new arrivals with employment opportunities, school and other educational ventures — and this kind of growth is, of course, positioning the community as the fulfilment of its own prophetic expectations. Success breeds success — and so it will be interesting to see how Wilson’s new Amazon talk-show, “Man Rampant,” contributes to this positive feedback loop. 

There is a consistent theme of the tension between rhetoric and theology, most clearly in the renewed interest in the theology of the “lesser magistrate.” How does this work itself out for the congregants who are not actively looking to take up arms against the government, but do exist in a culture where that is possible and sensationalized (as with the fiction novels you mention)?

That’s an interesting question. Very few of the people we met while doing fieldwork for this book were interested in talking about taking up arms against the government – and none of those who did were attending Wilson’s church. I think a lot of the discussion about “resistance” is largely rhetorical. The old protestant doctrine of the “lesser magistrate” is certainly important in these circles. But the small number of Christian Reconstructionists who have turned toward violence — like Paul Jennings Hill — have been consistently denounced by thought leaders in the movement. All of the people we met within the Moscow congregation were living what might in other circumstances be regarded as fairly ordinary lives — working, shopping, going to church, and so on. The more militia-orientated people tended to prefer to keep themselves to themselves.

For many of the Reconstructionists, it is through cultural renewal, rather than political or violent action, that America can be saved. This is, as you note, one of the problems that Rushdoony had with the Religious Right in the 70s and 80s: they focused on political power rather than spiritual regeneration. How has the modern movement tried to focus on this goal of cultural renewal? What is their hope in the long term for America?

As I said before, members of the Christian Reconstruction movement work for and expect to contribute to the conversion of the United States. And that word “conversion” is key. The emphasis in their writing and speaking is not on coercing citizens into a Christian republic — despite the claims of their critics. Instead, Reconstructionists argue that as individuals are converted, they will influence their families for Christ; as families are converted, they will influence their neighborhoods for Christ; and so on. They expect a bottom-up transformation of American society, not any kind of transformation imposed from the top-down. That’s why these believers tend to avoid any participation in politics — even at a local level. While they might enjoy talking about the reconstruction of the legal system, or tax codes, they are often kept busy enough building Christian families, running businesses that reflect their Christian commitments, and going to church. In fact, you might say that in day-to-day life most of these believers are indistinguishable from their evangelical neighbors — except that, when they pray “thy kingdom come,” they expect to see it happen before the return of Christ, and they anticipate that their everyday lives will make a real contribution to that end.

Much of the book is built around the community in the American Redoubt, and particularly in Moscow, Idaho. Even the magazine, Credenda Agenda, as you note promulgated old ideas and new books, “but most of all it sold the community that was gathering around [Doug] Wilson’s ministry” (115). What is the role of the community for this movement, and how does that shape their activity?

The idea of community is really at the heart of this project, I think. From the 1990s, Credenda Agenda  — the magazine that did most to promote the group’s ideas — was never about one man. Instead, it brought together a range of writers who were capable of producing smart, satirical, and theologically sophisticated arguments. The letters page of each issue showed that readers found what they read attractive. They liked the idea of being part of that kind of community. And the institutions that this group established were designed to reinforce that community — a K-12 classical Christian school, then a liberal arts college, and so on — all taking their place in the positive feedback loop that I mentioned before. Online testimonies from some of the most recent migrants into the area still emphasize that this idea of community — maybe even ideal of community — is what drew them to Moscow. 

This group isn’t numerically large, and you even state that they don’t exist inside the religious mainstream. However, they are becoming increasingly influential. How so?

You’re right — the community isn’t especially large — in fact it’s tiny by comparison with many megachurches, even in Idaho. But this group projects its soft power very deliberately and very effectively. Wilson’s most recent venture — the Amazon talk-show called “Man Rampant” — seems to be surviving on that platform. Wilson has a nose for publicity. He co-authored a book with Christopher Hitchens and participated in a hymn sing in Moscow that resulted in arrests and attention on Twitter from President Trump. There is a real sense of crisis in American culture at the moment. This group’s influence is growing because they know how to articulate what might be at stake in that crisis, and how to present a response to that crisis that turns it into a single moment in the great sweep of victory by which the “kingdoms of the world become the kingdoms of our Lord and his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). And that’s why their influence is only likely to grow.

By / Feb 19

On Tuesday of this week, James Coates, the pastor of GraceLife Church outside the city of Edmonton, turned himself in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) after violating public health restrictions related to COVID-19. According to the RCMP, Coates was arrested and charged “with two counts of contravention of the Public Health Act (PHA) and charged for failing to comply with a condition of his undertaking, under the Criminal Code.”

The conflict dates back to December when Coates and GraceLife were fined for noncompliance with public health mandates. At that time, the church was reportedly issued an official warning and instructed to “ensure people in the church are wearing face coverings when in the building, ensure members of different households keep at least two metres apart, provide [Alberta Health Services] with information about the building’s capacity and to not exceed the limit of 15 percent of total capacity at any one time.”

In spite of the warning, Coates and GraceLife have continued to hold services in defiance of the orders, specifically exceeding the 15% capacity limit. As a result, the AHS ordered the church closed in January, but the church refused to comply with the order. According to the attorney representing Coates, the RCMP met with Coates after the service on February 7, charged him for violating the PHA, and presented him with a notice of the charges the RCMP might bring against him. The church held services again on February 14. Coates was subsequently asked to turn himself into authorities, which he did on Tuesday.

At a bail hearing on Wednesday morning, Coates was set to be released from custody on the condition that he would comply with the PHA’s COVID-19 restrictions going forward. However, Coates stated that he would not abide by the conditions of his release. As a result, his bail was denied and Coates remains in custody.

As explained below, the decision to jail Pastor Coates is wrong, and the ERLC calls for his immediate release. 

What are the COVID-19 restrictions in Canada?

Government restrictions in Canada vary from province to province and are phased based on the current severity of the pandemic. GraceLife Church is in the province of Alberta, which has a population just over 4 million. 

Presently, Alberta is experiencing a decline in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. On Tuesday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, reported “263 new cases . . . with 365 people in [the] hospital, and 56 in intensive care.” However, the situation was much worse back in December “when the government put in lockdown rules as it dealt with close to 1,900 new cases a day and had more than 800 hospitalized.”

Under the most recent public health orders in Alberta, houses of worship are allowed to hold: 1) drive-in worship services without restrictions provided that attendees remain in their vehicles; and 2) indoor worship services provided that attendance does not exceed 15% of the facility’s capacity according to the fire code. For services taking place indoors, masks are also required as they are at most indoor public gatherings in Alberta. 

In late January, Grace Life was cited for multiple violations by the authorities. The official notice cites the following violations:

  • “More than 290 people attending the church service on Jan. 24, in excess of the 15 per cent total operational occupancy load as per the Alberta Fire Code.”
  • “Church attendees, staff/volunteers were observed unmasked in the church lobby and in the sanctuary.”
  • “It appeared that church attendees, staff/volunteers were not maintaining at least two meters physical distancing from other households.”

Should Pastor Coates be in jail?

No. The government clearly has a responsibility—and God-given authority—to protect public health and safety in light of the ongoing threats of COVID-19. But nearly a year into the pandemic, jailing pastors for holding worship services is an unacceptable breach of the church–state relationship and an alarming overreach of government authority.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, the ERLC has called for church leaders and government officials to view one another as partners and allies in the fight to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Further, we have urged governments to issue guidance, rather than mandates, to churches and houses of worship. This applies to Canada, as well.

Facts on the ground, as well as risks, vary substantially from community to community. In issuing guidelines, the government better equips pastors and faith leaders to make responsible and informed decisions on behalf of their own congregations. Conversely, mandates (often) bring about unnecessary restrictions and limit the ability of the faith community to practice their beliefs and respond effectively to urgent needs.

Jailing Pastor Coates only inflames tensions and creates hostility between people of faith and government officials. And it does so at a time when trust and cooperation between civil and religious leaders are desperately needed. The government has other enforcement tools that are more reasonable given the sensitive circumstances.

What should the government do in these circumstances?

Whenever possible, opening clear lines of communication is the best path forward. The overwhelming majority of religious leaders (whether in the United States or Canada) are not interested in a public or avoidable clash with government officials. 

In many cases, issues between houses of worship and state and local governments have been resolved simply through good faith efforts to communicate with each other. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen new and important partnerships forged between church leaders and local officials in various parts of the United States. These relationships have not only eased immediate tensions, but have laid the groundwork for future partnerships to better serve these communities. We have also witnessed (and taken part) in the resolution of a number of issues of this nature spanning from minor problems with city councils to larger concerns at the state level. In the majority of these cases, efforts to communicate the concerns of local pastors to elected officials have resulted in reasonable accommodations being made.

As mentioned, government officials have a clear interest and responsibility to safeguard public health. In some cases, the highly infectious nature of the coronavirus has required governments to place limitations on public gatherings, including religious gatherings. But such limitations must be carefully considered, in ways that respect the authority and independence of religious institutions as far as possible. And whatever means government may use to enforce these measures, it should be beyond dispute that jailing pastors for noncompliance is a bridge too far.

What should Christians do in these circumstances?

Religious leaders, especially Christian pastors, have a duty to take the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. The New Testament repeatedly underscores the significance of loving our neighbors well (Lk. 10:25-37) and considering the needs of others ahead of our own (Phil. 2:4). Similarly, Christians are also charged to be in submission to civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-14) and to be good citizens who strive to live peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim. 2:1-4). And in the midst of a global pandemic, the people of God should endeavor to serve and sacrifice for the sake of others.

But this submission and deference is not without limitations. As Peter said, before our duty to obey political authorities, Christians have a duty to obey God (Acts 5:29). While Christians should make every effort to obey and be at peace with civil authorities, our primary allegiance is owed to God alone. 

For at least several more months, governments at various levels will continue to balance public health concerns with various interests including religious freedom. The ERLC continues to urge churches to cooperate, where possible, with public health guidance to advance our common goal of bringing the pandemic to an end. But more importantly, the ERLC strongly condemns the RCMP’s decision to jail Pastor James Coates.

Where necessary, we encourage churches to embrace practices such as masking and distancing.  And we reject the idea that such requirements represent a significant affront to religious freedom. But there is no excuse for this inflammatory action by the RCMP. And it should be immediately remedied through his release.

By / Feb 16

I settled into a chair not far from the podium in the courtroom with my client’s case file in hand. The judge was preparing to enter any minute, and upon his entering, we would hear, “All rise!” I scanned the growing crowd, and it was immediately clear that the number of cases on the morning docket far exceeded the seating capacity in the courtroom. The crowd spilled outside the room, and people were beginning to line up in the hallway. Looking at their faces, I wondered how many were coming to court without an attorney because they did not have the means to hire one. How many had no idea what was going to happen next? Were they anxious? Scared?  

The questions were rhetorical because I had litigated cases in this type of court and volunteered at a local Christian legal aid ministry. The answers, I knew, were clear. A vast majority was unrepresented due to inability to pay for a lawyer. As the judge entered and took his seat, the court clerk began to call the names of the cases. So many people were standing outside that names had to be repeated into the hall. The Lord reminded me in those moments that the need is great. Each of these litigants mattered to God; therefore, they should matter to me.  

Our country is blessed to be governed by the rule of law, and thankfully, we have certain Constitutional rights we enjoy as American citizens. One of those is the right to an attorney to represent you if you have been charged with a crime and cannot afford to hire counsel. These lawyers are called public defenders, and their work is critical to our system of democratic government. However, the scene I described above involved a docket call of civil cases. These men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters had been sued by another party; they had not been charged with a crime. Their cases involved landlord and tenant disputes, breaches of contracts, evictions, and unpaid debts, to name a few. Except in very limited types of cases, no right to an attorney exists in a civil case. The scene described above repeats itself daily in courtrooms across the country, which means many of our neighbors have great needs that are going unmet. 

A Justice Gap Report, prepared by the Legal Services Corporation in 2017, found that in the past year, 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. In addition, 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the last year, including problems with health care, housing conditions, disability access, veterans’ benefits, and domestic violence.

We have been given an opportunity to demonstrate the gospel of Christ by helping others receive justice before the law.

The Legal Services Corporation funds legal aid societies and offices across the country, and these providers work hard, and do well, to meet the civil legal needs of those unable to afford an attorney; however, the need far exceeds the assistance available. Acknowledging and responding to this need should certainly not rest solely on the government. Christ-followers have a responsibility to respond in Jesus’ name. We have been given an opportunity to demonstrate the gospel of Christ by helping others receive justice before the law. 

Jesus met needs. He fed the hungry and gave sight to the blind. He opened the ears of the deaf and healed the sick. He freed the afflicted and comforted the hurting. He raised the dead. In Matthew 25:31–40, Jesus explained that his followers would be known by the love of their actions. He so identifies with the vulnerable that he said, And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (v. 40). 

How can you and your church get involved? 

First, recognize the need and pray for wisdom as to how the Lord would have you respond in your specific community. Is there a need for immigration law help? Are housing problems a concern? Are predatory lenders keeping those in your community in poverty? 

Second, you can discuss the need for gospel justice with your pastor and church leadership. Scripture is filled with God’s heart for the poor.  

Third, you can explore becoming a justice center where volunteer attorneys meet needs in Jesus’ name. Resources are available. There is a movement happening across the country where gospel justice centers are working to help in Jesus’ name. The needs are great. Will you help?    

By / Oct 7

By now, most of America knows the name Amy Coney Barrett. For many, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court became a familiar name during her confirmation hearing to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. At the time, as Barrett was sitting before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Diane Feinstein aggressively questioned her ability to serve as a judge on account of her religious faith. Summing up the intense exchange was Fienstein’s now infamous remark to Barrett, “The dogma lives loudly within you.” But often overlooked was Barrett’s response to the line of questioning: “If you’re asking whether I take my Catholic faith seriously, I do, though I would stress that my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear on the discharge of my duties as a judge.”

Despite the senator’s protestations, Barrett was confirmed to the 7th Circuit, where she continues to serve. And in the days since she was officially nominated by President Trump to serve as an associate justice on the Supreme Court following the death of the late Justice Ruth Bader Gisnburg, Barrett’s life, faith, record, and judicial philosophy have come under tremendous scrutiny. In fact, before she was even nominated—when there was only speculation that the president was considering Barrett—multiple media outlets published outlandish attacks upon Barrett, attempting to draw links between the judge’s faith community and the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Barrett’s beliefs, the most important thing about a judicial nominee is not his or her faith or religious background but the nominee’s judicial philosophy—a jurist’s understanding of and approach to the law. In fact, attempting to impose a religious test upon public officials or judicial nominees is strictly prohibited by Article VI of the Constitution. And concerning her own approach to impartiality as a judge, Barrett has said, “I think one of the great traditions in this country is that judges participate in the law, participate in the decision of cases, and rule even when they disagree with the outcome.”

As Russell Moore insists, these arguments over the Supreme Court nominee’s religious faith are an unnecessary distraction. And beyond these trivialities, there is much to commend Amy Coney Barrett as a potential Supreme Court justice. Below, I explore only a few of the features of her judicial philosophy as evidence of why I believe Judge Barrett would make an excellent addition to our nation’s highest court.

Summary of Barrett’s judicial philosophy

At the time of her nomination, the ERLC described Barrett’s judicial philosophy this way:

“Judge Barrett is a proponent of originalism, a manner of interpreting the Constitution that begins with the text and attempts to give that text the meaning it had when it was adopted; and textualism, a method of statutory interpretation that relies on the plain text of a statute to determine its meaning. Judge Barrett has previously voiced support for the judicial doctrine of stare decisis (or, following existing precedent) while maintaining that prior precedent is not sacrosanct.”

Twin methodologies

As seen in that summary, an important part of Barrett’s judicial philosophy is her commitment to the “twin interpretive methodologies” of textualism and originalism, an approach to interpretation that the judge shares with the late Justice Antonin Scalia for whom she clerked at the Supreme Court. The two terms essentially refer to the same methodology, with textualism corresponding to statutory interpretation and originalism applying to constitutional interpretation. 

According to Barrett, originalists “insist that judges must adhere to the original public meeting of the Constitution’s text.” Elsewhere she wrote, “For an originalist, the meaning of the text is fixed so long as it is discoverable.” For Barrett, a law means what the law was understood to mean when it was enacted. In this sense, Barrett’s originalism stands in contrast with the “living constitutionalism” of more progressive jurists. 

Similarly, Barrett has argued that textualists “emphasize that words mean what they say, not what a judge thinks that they ought to say.” A commitment to textualism, therefore, signals Barrett’s recognition of the fact that judges are not legislators. A key reason one can have confidence in her jurisprudence is her assertion that “Fidelity to the law means fidelity to the text as written.” 

Stare decisis

Alongside her commitment to textualism and originalism, another critical aspect of Barrett’s judicial philosophy is her view of stare decisis. Legal professionals, as well as those who followed recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, will remember that the doctrine of stare decisis refers to legal precedent. It is a judicial policy that means “to stand by the things decided.” And it signifies a commitment to following existing precedent in deciding cases before the court. Barrett has described the doctrine as “ a sensible rule” because, as she notes, “among other things, it protects the reliance interests of those who have structured their affairs in accordance with the Court’s existing cases.” 

Undoubtedly, much will be made of her view of stare decisis should Barrett sit again before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation. At the Supreme Court, challenges to abortion are measured by the precedents established in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. And with the current ideological makeup of the court, proponents of abortion will desire for Barrett to affirm a strong commitment to stare decisis in hopes of rebuffing any legal challenges to these precedents.

Barrett affirms the importance of stare decisis as means of maintaining doctrinal stability. She recognizes that the court’s legitimacy hinges in part on its consistency. But even so, she acknowledges that the doctrine is only one means of promoting such stability. While she does recognize that certain rulings are secure as “superprecedents” (e.g., Marbury v. Madison; Brown v. Board of Education), she denies that such rulings are secured on the grounds of stare decisis. And notably, in a law review article Barrett specifically mentions that the decision in Roe has not achieved superprecedent status.

Conclusion

It is unreasonable for any group to expect that a jurist would issue only rulings consistent with the views of those who supported his or her nomination. But many times in recent decades, religious conservatives have faced bitter disappointment not because of a judge’s commitment to upholding the law but because of the apparent disregard of numerous judges for their former approach to jurisprudence prior to obtaining a lifetime judicial appointment. And while there is no way to know for certain, the judicial philosophy of Judge Barrrett gives every reason for confidence in the trajectory of her future as a jurist and, potentially, as a Supreme Court Justice.

By / May 21

For Terri, a mother of five from Wisconsin, life as she knew it began to unravel after her son, Curtis*, broke his collarbone. The high schooler received prescription opioids after a skiing accident in the early 2000s. This was long before President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency and long before the public understood how dangerous and addictive opioids are. But it wasn’t long at all before Curtis was hooked.

One day at school, 17-year-old Curtis was found with pills in his pocket. The police came and arrested him. Before long, he was sentenced to six months in a correctional facility. 

Terri was devastated. As a mom, she says, “You're dying because you know your kid is sitting [in prison], and who knows what is going on in there. It's never the same, life is never the same. It's almost like somebody died, but they didn't. They're buried alive. That's all I can tell you. It's like they're buried alive.”  

A hidden epidemic

At first, Terri was shocked at the speed with which her son went from a typical high schooler to a prisoner. But over time, Terri would find Curtis’ story increasingly commonplace. She realized that Curtis and others like him were being swept up in a wave of overcriminalization that put people suffering with addiction behind bars. 

After a string of arrests for possession of controlled substances, Curtis is 33 and completing his most recent prison time, which stems for a sentence dating back to 2008, though Terri notes he has had no new charges or cases since then. In the last decade and a half, prison has proven to be an unhelpful response to his issues with opioid addiction.

Simple possession of a controlled substance doesn’t have to result in lengthy incarceration or a lifelong criminal record. In fact, cases like Curtis’ don’t even have the same result in every state. 

The complex problem of simple possession

The Drug Report: A Review of America’s Disparate Possession Penalties, prepared by criminal justice policy experts at Prison Fellowship®, reveals the broad discrepancies in penalties for possession of commonly abused drugs across different jurisdictions and explores the resulting public policy challenges. 

It’s a critical time to discuss these challenges, because as Terri knows all too well, each sentence affects not only people dealing with addictions, but their families, too.

While charges for drug possession remain in the criminal system, we believe (and research shows) that sentences should fit the crime, and there should be a reliance on accountability programs that are demonstrated to decrease drug use. This approach aims to break the cycle of recidivism (people returning to prison) by addressing circumstances like addiction and administering appropriate consequences.

We say this knowing that incarceration doesn’t achieve the goal of rehabilitation and reducing substance use. That’s why we support the use of alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts. Most Americans agree.

The need for alternatives

In September 2019, Prison Fellowship commissioned a Barna Group poll to find out what Christians think about incarceration and justice. We found that almost one in three Americans and practicing Christians agree strongly that judges should have the latitude to assign alternative forms of punishment when sentencing. 

Some jurisdictions have implemented alternative punishment models for possession crimes, such as opioid courts. These programs, along with traditional methods, should be studied in order to see what works best and how to improve outcomes for the participating individual and impacted community. 

Each human life is created in the image of God, with eternal value and the capacity for redemption. And the onus is on all those who make criminal justice policy decisions to evaluate methods of proportional accountability for possession crimes. They should be evaluating which methods offer the best outcomes for public safety, recovery from addiction, stronger families, and opportunities for personal and community restoration. 

Raise awareness

While Terri’s son Curtis is still in prison, she has turned her pain into passion. She serves as an Angel Tree® area coordinator to help other families impacted by incarceration. And as a Prison Fellowship Justice Ambassador, she works hard to raise awareness in her community and get lawmakers to change the way our nation handles drug abuse. She is determined to see something good come from the pain she and her family have experienced.

“The sentence seems never-ending,” she says, “but God is good. He will use this for His glory someday.”

Terri worked hard to raise her own awareness of drug laws and justice reform so she could inform others. If you want to increase your own understanding of drug possession laws, download The Drug Report. And read our Barna survey to learn more about Christians’ views on criminal justice. 

*A pseudonym for the protection of his privacy.

By / Oct 7

On Jan. 1, 2020, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) will take affect in the Golden State, but its reach will go much further than you might expect. Signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on June 28, 2018, the CCPA is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that will forever change how each of us use technology products and how U.S. companies use our consumer and business data. Regardless of your political views on privacy and data issues, this California law will likely become the de facto law of the land because most technology companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Apple are headquartered there. Thus, they must adhere to California law as they offer services to the rest of the nation as well as the larger international community.

What is the CCPA?

CCPA is a piece of legislation that was designed to give technology users enhanced privacy rights and consumer protections surrounding the use of personal data. CCPA will essentially allow you to see what personal data a company has collected on you, how it is being used, and allow you to delete that data or stop the company from selling it to third parties. The legislation was introduced on Jan. 3, 2018, in the California legislature by Rep. Ed Chau and State Sen. Robert Hertzberg. It was passed by both houses of the California legislature and signed into law on June 28, 2018, by Gov. Brown to amend Part 4 of Division 3 of the California Civil Code, which is a set of statutes that governs obligations of those who reside in California. Prior to the CCPA being signed into law, there was a strong effort among many California residents for some form of privacy regulation. The passage of the CCPA headed off a ballot initiative that would have gone before the voters during the midterm elections in November 2018, led by privacy advocate and real estate developer, Alastair Mactaggart.

The current law has come under intense scrutiny by privacy advocates and others. Privacy advocates argue that the bill does not go far enough in establishing personal data privacy rights for individuals and corporations as other laws such as the GDPR, while others argue that it will do irreparable damage to businesses and their ability to sell their services. Opponents argue that the sheer cost of implementation outweighs the potential benefits to consumers, who have already given consent for the capturing of data.

The CCPA has six major components. It gives users the ability to: 1) know what data has been collected on them; 2) know if this data has been sold and to whom; 3) say no to the sale of this data; 4) access this personal data; 5) request the deletion of this data; and 6) not be discriminated against for exercising these rights.

What does this mean?

The U.S. does not currently have any federal privacy regulations pertaining to the collection, use, and sale of personal data as broad as CCPA. While many federal statutes regulate the collection and consent of data on minors, the U.S. has historically sought to let the market decide these tools as opposed to the more regulatory frameworks found in the European Union and other countries. The EU enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on May 25, 2018, which has already affected many U.S. companies doing business in the EU. 

You likely have seen various aspects of the GDPR implemented as you browse the web and use technological services. In conjunction with the GDPR, many sites implemented detailed privacy policies, sought to reaffirm personal consent for the use of tracking data on the internet in terms of cookies, and publicized their privacy policies on their websites and through email correspondence. This all was to ensure that these companies and organizations complied with the GDPR rules even though they reside in the U.S. because of the global use of the internet and these services. Many companies expanded these privacy tools to the wider public as they complied with the GDPR, such as described in Microsoft president Brad Smith’s new book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age.

U.S. retailers are estimated to spend almost $100 million to provide these services to consumers because this level of data access requires rethinking and rebuilding their services and systems to comply with the law. The stakes for noncompliance are high, as consumers and the California attorney general can now bring lawsuits for data breaches and regulatory action including potential fines. After the first year of new regulations under the GDPR in the EU, the European Data Protection Board reported that €55,955,871 ($61,227,564.00 US) in fines were levied against companies for not complying with the GDPR, including a single fine of €50,000,000 against Google.

Since the CCPA was passed in the California legislature, there has been a concerted effort among many in the privacy and technology sectors pushing for a federal privacy law. Some advocate for a federal version of the CCPA giving all U.S. consumers the same level of protection and transparency, while others have pushed for a more neutral privacy regulation that is less taxing on companies while providing more limited consumer-level access to data. In September 2019, more than 50 CEOs have urged the U.S. Congress to pass a federal privacy law.

Why does this matter?

Each day countless pieces of data are collected about us from the online services we use. Every bit of data is captured by technology companies and used to strengthen their systems and products. The things we share have also become a powerful resource for companies to leverage as they provide predictive products to marketers and other companies. We often trade some level of privacy to have access to these tools and services because they provide immense benefits to our everyday lives.

This data can include personal information such as name, email, race, sex, gender identity, and various other data points which are used to market services and products. Essentially anything put online can be stored, analyzed, and sold by the companies whose products we use. But recently many have called into question the ethical bounds of marketing and even what data is being captured on our children and the effects on their privacy.

CCPA and other forms of future privacy legislation will affect how each of us use technology and even potentially alter our interaction with these companies, for good and bad. With the high costs of operating systems, some companies may choose not to offer certain services or tools to consumers. But it is also possible that privacy legislation will allow us to use technology with greater transparency and openness. Time will tell the exact impact CCPA will have on businesses and consumers, but we must be aware of the contours of it as it goes into effect on January 1, 2020.

By / Jun 27

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association that a 40-foot memorial cross located on public property in Bladensburg, Md., does not violate the Establishment Clause. The ERLC had filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioners alongside a diverse coalition of religious denominations representing more than 55 million Americans.

Here is what you should know about amicus briefs and how they are used by the courts.

What is an amicus brief?

An amicus brief is a learned treatise submitted by an amicus curiae (Latin for “friend of the court”), that is, someone who is not a party to a case who offers information that bears on the case but that has not been solicited by any of the parties to assist a court. The amicus brief is a way to introduce concerns ensuring that the possibly broad legal effects of a court decision will not depend solely on the parties directly involved in the case.

Which recent cases has ERLC filed amicus briefs?

Because Washington remains a deeply divided city along partisan lines, many critical issues are now debated in the courts. The ERLC directs its resources to cases deciding the sanctity of human life and the future legality of religious liberty. A central way for the ERLC to address the courts is through filing amicus briefs.

In 2018, in addition to the aforementioned Supreme Court case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commision, the ERLC also filed a brief in the landmark pro-life case National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Xavier Becerra, Attorney General of California.NIFLA had implications for free speech and the life-saving work of pregnancy resource centers in communities all around our country. Thankfully, the justices decided a convincing victory for religious liberty and the protection of pro-life work by ruling 5–4 in favor of NIFLA.

One of the cases ERLC engaged at the appellate level was Gaylor v. Mnuchin at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. At stake in this case is a tax-free housing allowance that allows pastors, rabbis, and other religious leaders to live in close proximity to their houses of worship. The 7th Circuit recently ruled 3–0 to uphold the constitutionality of the housing allowance.

Can amicus briefs be submitted to all courts (i.e., state, federal, Supreme Court)?

Amicus briefs are generally filed only in appellate cases heard by appeals courts, including intermediate courts of appeal, state supreme courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Who can submit an amicus brief?

The rules about who can file an amicus brief in state courts are determined by the individual states. In federal courts, Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure governs such briefs:

The United States or its officer or agency or a state may file an amicus brief without the consent of the parties or leave of court. Any other amicus curiae may file a brief only by leave of court or if the brief states that all parties have consented to its filing, but a court of appeals may prohibit the filing of or may strike an amicus brief that would result in a judge's disqualification.
 

In the Supreme Court, Rule 37 provides that “an amicus curiae brief which brings relevant matter to the Court’s attention that has not already been brought to its attention by the parties is of considerable help to the Court. An amicus brief which does not serve this purpose burdens the staff and facilities of the Court and its filing is not favored.” While any interested party can contribute or sign an amicus brief, only an attorney admitted to practice before the Supreme Court can only file the actual brief. After filing, the Court decides whether it will accept the brief.

How many amicus briefs are filed with the Supreme Court each year?

There are few cases without amicus filings and many cases have cumulative filings that total in the double digits, notes Adam Feldman. For the 2018-2019 term (October to February) the Court received 529 amicus briefs.

Many groups file multiple briefs per year. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Cato Institute, ACLU, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and American Bar Association are groups, as Feldman points out, that have each filed hundreds of briefs over their lifespans.

Do amicus briefs have any influence on Supreme Court rulings?

While it’s impossible to know how any particular amicus brief influences a justice or their decisions, one helpful proxy is the number of citations to such documents they include in their rulings. For example, in a 2014 law review article, law professor Allison Orr Larsen found 606 citations to amicus briefs in the 417 Supreme Court opinions decided from 2008 to 2013. Of those 606 citations, 124 of them—or roughly 20 percent—were citations to amicus briefs to support assertions of legislative fact.

Which case garnered the most amicus briefs?

Not surprisingly, the single case with the most amicus briefs is Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 same-sex marriage case. There were 147 briefs filed in that case. It is also the case with the most signatories on a single brief (207,551 signatories calling for nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage on The People’s Brief.)

Since then the case with the most amicus briefs was Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the 2018 case that determined whether a cakeshop owner’s reasons for declining to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding celebration violated the free exercise clause.

ERLC joined amicus briefs filed in both of those cases.

By / Mar 29

What just happened?

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration is strengthening the “Mexico City policy,” which prohibits U.S. foreign aid to groups that provide or promote abortion overseas, and will be strictly enforcing another statute aimed at preventing abortions abroad.

The policy is being modified so that the U.S. will no longer financially support groups around the world that help other organizations that support or promote abortion.

“We will refuse to provide assistance to foreign NGOs that give financial support to other foreign groups in the global abortion industry,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. “We will enforce a strict prohibition on backdoor funding schemes and end runs around our policy. American taxpayer dollars will not be used to underwrite abortions.”

Pompeo added that the "vast majority" of groups that partner with the U.S. have agreed to comply with the policy so far, and cast the latest decision as being rooted in compassion. "We're talking about human lives," he said.

Pompeo also said in compliance with the Siljander amendment, the U.S. would cut some assistance to the Organization of America States because at least two of its agencies are allegedly lobbying for abortion availability in the Western Hemisphere.

Commenting on the policy changes, ERLC President Russell Moore said,

“It is a national disgrace for a single penny of federal monies to be used in funding abortion. One important stopgap in this assault on the vulnerable has been the Mexico City Policy. I was pleased to see this policy reinstated by President Trump in 2017 and am thankful again to see Secretary Pompeo supplement the Mexico City Policy with additional restrictions at the State Department. What is most needed is legislation permanently ending the morally repugnant practice of federally-sponsored predation. Until we get there, though, every public official should do everything in his or her power to see that taxpayer dollars never subsidize the exploitation of the vulnerable. This is a major move in the right direction.”

What are the current restriction or legislative requirements related to foreign aid and abortion?

Since the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, Congress has enacted foreign assistance legislation placing restrictions or requirements on the federal funding of abortions and on family planning activities abroad. As the Congressional Research Service note, many of these provisions, often referred to by the name of the lawmakers that introduced them, have been included in foreign aid authorizations, appropriations, or both, and affect different types of foreign assistance.

There are currently 11 legislative restrictions relating to U.S. funding of abortion and requirements related to voluntary family planning programs abroad:

• The Helms Amendment (1973) prohibits the use of U.S. funds to perform abortions or to coerce individuals to practice abortions. Since 1980, the Helms amendment has also periodically been enacted in foreign operations appropriations measures.

• The Involuntary Sterilization Amendment (1978) is an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) specifying that U.S. foreign assistance may not fund (1) the performance of involuntary sterilizations, or (2) the coercion of involuntary sterilizations (or provide financial incentives to undergo sterilization). The provision is also repeated in annual foreign operations appropriations.

• The Peace Corps restriction (1978) states that none of the funds appropriated for the Peace Corps shall be used to pay for abortions. Under existing policy, the Peace Corps covers the cost of evacuation to a location where “medically adequate facilities” for obtaining an abortion are available and where abortions are legally permissible.

• The Biden Amendment (1981) states that U.S. funds may not be used for biomedical research related to abortion or involuntary sterilization. This amendment has also been included in foreign operations appropriations acts.

• The Siljander Amendment (1981) prohibits U.S. funds from being used to lobby for or against abortion. This amendment has also been included in foreign operations appropriations acts.

• The DeConcini Amendment (1985) specifies that the U.S will only fund family planning projects that offer a range of family planning methods and services, either directly or through referral. The provision has been included in annual foreign operations appropriations legislation since 1985.

• The Additional Provision on Involuntary Sterilization and Abortion (1985) requires that no funds made available under the FAA may be obligated for any given country or organization if the President certifies that the use of such funds violates the aforementioned Helms, Biden, or involuntary sterilization amendments.

• The Kemp-Kasten Amendment (1985) prohibits funding for any organization or program that, as determined by the President, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization. The provision has been included in annual foreign operations appropriations legislation since 1985. The Trump Administration has used this amendment to withhold funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

• The Livingston Amendment (1986) prohibits the U.S. from discriminating against organizations based on their religious or conscientious commitment to offer only “natural” family planning when awarding related grants. The provision is also repeated in annual foreign operations appropriations.

• The Leahy Amendment (1994) clarifies language in the Helms amendment, which states, “None of the funds made available … may be used to pay for the performance of abortions as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions” (emphasis added). The provision is repeated in annual foreign operations appropriations.

• The Tiahrt Amendment (1998) places requirements on voluntary family planning projects receiving assistance from USAID. Most recently, the Tiahrt amendment was included in the FY2018 State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Act.

What is the Mexico City Policy?

The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 prohibits nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive federal funds from using those funds "to pay for the performance of abortions as a method of family planning, or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions." In August 1984, President Ronald Reagan expanded this policy by executive order. At the United Nations International Conference on Population being held in Mexico City, the Reagan administration unveiled a policy statement that said:

U.S. support for family planning programs is based on respect for human life, enhancement of human dignity, and strengthening of the family. Attempts to use abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive measures in family planning must be shunned, whether exercised against families within a society or against nations within the family of man.

The statement directed the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to expand the limitation under the Foreign Assistance Act to prohibit a wide range of activities, including providing advice, counseling, or information regarding abortion, or lobbying a foreign government to legalize or make abortion available.

Because it was released at the U.N. event, the directive has become known as the "Mexico City Policy," though the official name is “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance.”  (The policy is sometimes referred to by its critics as the “global gag rule” since it prohibits government funded NGOs from promoting abortion.)

When has the Mexico City Policy been in effect?

President Reagan first implemented the policy in August 1984, and it continued under President George H.W. Bush. When President Clinton took office in 1993, he rescinded the policy on January 22, the 21st anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

President George W. Bush reinstated the policy on January 22, 2001 and President Obama rescinded it again on January 23, 2009. The Trump Administration reinstated and expanded the policy to include all global health assistance.

Why is the Mexico City Policy needed?

When the policy is not in place (as under President’s Clinton and Obama), NGOs are allowed to promote abortion as a method of “family planning.” Since federal funds are “fungible,” this allows NGOS that promote and perform abortions to use taxpayer money to pay for salaries and other marketing costs to promote abortion, freeing their own funds to be used to perform abortions. As long as the abortions are not directly being paid for by federal funds, then the abortion-promoting agency is not in violation of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.

When the policy is in place, though, the abortion providers are not only hindered in their promotion efforts, they are less likely to be able to operate in foreign countries. For example, when President Reagan first implemented the policy International Planned Parenthood Federation no longer qualified and immediately lost more than 20 percent of its total funding.

By / Feb 5

In the final days of the 115th Congress, a significant and bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill was signed into law at the White House. The First Step Act, which sought both prison and sentencing reforms, enjoyed overwhelming votes in the Senate and House this past December. Yet the bill’s journey to passage was as unlikely as the coalition of conservatives and liberals who supported it.

Heather Rice-Minus of Prison Fellowship was one of the dedicated advocates whose work ensured that this bill became a law. Heather worked at the center of many of the instrumental negotiations on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Heather joined Steven and Jeff at the Leland House to recount the story of what Van Jones called “a Christmas miracle” for criminal justice reform.

Guest Biography

Heather Rice-Minus serves as vice president of government affairs at Prison Fellowship, the nation's largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. She is a powerful, knowledgeable voice articulating the case for restorative criminal justice solutions. She is also the co-author of Outrageous Justice, a Bible study curriculum and book. A native of Virginia, Rice-Minus resides in Washington, D.C., with her husband and daughter.

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By / Nov 28

I recently sat down with Kamal Fahmi, founder of Set My People Free, an international NGO focused on the abolition of apostasy and blasphemy laws around the world.

Generally speaking, apostasy laws prevent conversion from one religion to another. Apostasy laws have been in force in some places, in one form or another, for thousands of years. Today, all apostasy laws in force with one exception are focused on preventing conversion from Islam to another religion or to atheism. With the exception of India, all countries with apostasy laws are majority Muslim; apostasy carries the death penalty in eight countries.

Blasphemy laws limit or criminalize speech deemed by the authorities to defame or be contemptuous to God or the divine. The punishment for blasphemy varies dramatically from country to country, from fines to the death penalty. Although the existence of blasphemy laws is much more widespread around the world, active prosecutions today are concentrated in member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

In the interview below, Kamal shares stories of how the enforcement of apostasy laws has taken lives, devastated families and caused the persecution of thousands of our dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s pray for the endurance of these saints.