God has ordained the two coexisting institutions of church and state as distinct from the other with each occupying its own center of authority under a sovereign God (Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13–17; Mark 12:13–17; Ephesians 4:15–16, 5:23–32). We affirm the principles of religious freedom and liberty of conscience, which are both historically and logically at the foundation of the American experiment. They are properly called the First Freedoms and are vested in the First Amendment, as well as in our state constitutions and in both federal and state legislation and established jurisprudence.
The First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion, speech, press, association and petition provide the political space in which we can carry out the differing responsibilities of disciple and citizen. Because human beings are responsible to God, these guarantees are crucial to the exercise of their God-given rights. As God allows the wheat and weeds to grow together until the harvest, and as God sends the rain on the just and on the unjust, so those who obey and those who disobey God coexist in society and share in its blessings (Matthew 5:45, 13:24–30). This “gospel pluralism” is foundational to religious freedom for people of all faiths and none.
Religious freedom encompasses far more than freedom to worship. The distinction between church and state does not require people to put aside their beliefs when entering the public square or to otherwise suspend the open practice of their religion. People should have equal access to public forums, regardless of the religious content or viewpoint of their speech. Likewise, judicial standards should protect religious belief, expression and observance, whether or not compelled by or central to one’s religion.
The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is directed at government and is a restraint on its delegated powers alone. Thus, for example, the clause does not shield individuals from exposure to the religious views of nongovernmental speakers. Religious exemptions from regulatory or tax burdens borne by others do not violate the Establishment Clause, for government does not establish religion by leaving it alone.
When government assists nongovernmental organizations selected without regard to religion (e.g., as part of an educational, social service or healthcare program), the aid does not establish religion nor do religious organizations receiving aid become “state actors” with constitutional duties. Government officials and courts should respect church autonomy in matters relating to doctrine, polity, church discipline, clergy and staff employment practices, and other matters within the province of the church and other religious organizations (Acts 18:12–17). As one feature of this autonomy, it is proper when civil authorities refuse to decide the validity, importance or meaning of religious propositions or questions.
Governments must uphold the religious freedom and human rights of all Americans. If governments consider extending new rights to people in contexts such as employment, housing and retail commerce, it is vital that strong provisions be included to safeguard the freedom of religious organizations and individuals to follow their conscience and beliefs. This should also include religious educational institutions, which play an important role in society. Students and graduates should not be threatened with loss of financial support or professional credentials because they choose to attend schools that observe religiously based beliefs and codes of conduct. Recognized religious student groups on secular campuses must be free to choose leaders with compatible religious commitments.
Religion is not just an individual matter, but also encompasses rich communal traditions of ultimate beliefs and practices. We resist the definition of religion becoming thinned out to a personalized spirituality or flattened out to comprise anything that passes for a serious conviction or sincere concern. Freedom of religion is not limited to freedom to assemble as groups for worship in a building specified for worship but also includes freedom to hold and express religious views that may not be widely accepted in our culture.
Evangelical concern for religious freedom does not stop at our nation’s borders. Religious persecution is closely linked with the violation of other human rights, and often leads to civil unrest and violent conflict. American diplomats are mandated by law to place a high priority on the promotion of religious freedom, which is in the mutual interest of every nation. This task is made easier when we maintain exemplary treatment for religious freedom here at home. As evangelicals we are particularly concerned for fellow believers facing persecution in other countries, while also advocating for the protection of all people regardless of their faith.