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The line between civil and religious rights

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Surrounded by Rowan County Sheriff's deputies, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, center, with her son Nathan Davis standing by her side, makes a statement to the media at the front door of the Rowan County Judicial Center in Morehead, Kentucky, Monday, September 14, 2015 (Credit: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Kim Davis’s story has elicited strong opinions from people on both sides of the political spectrum. She was a talking point in the latest Republican debate, and her story continues to polarize as people are seemingly forced to choose whether or not her religious rights are more important than her duties as a government employee. Linda Greenhouse reflects on that choice in her latest opinion piece for the New York Times. In “Drawing the Line Between Civil and Religious Rights,” Greenhouse asks “For all the reasons to object to a public policy…should claims based on religion receive more respect than the others? If the answer is yes, is it yes without limits?”

Religious liberty is one of the foundational tenets of the United States. The first colonists left England in the hopes of finding a place where they could practice their beliefs without government interference. And while those early settlers were more concerned with their religious freedom than that of others who believed differently, it was still a principle that eventually developed into our First Amendment right to live free from Congress passing any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That all sounds great in theory, but what happens when protecting the religious rights of some means denying the civil rights of others? Should one take precedence over the other? Davis’s case isn’t the first to raise this question. Greenhouse points out that, in 1998, a federal appeals court in Chicago denied a police officer’s request to be exempt from standing guard at an abortion clinic on his beat even though he claimed a religious objection to doing so. Judge Richard A. Posner wrote of the decision that while the officer was “entitled to his view,” he was “not entitled to demand that his police duties be altered to conform to his view.” Posner went on to reference how a firefighter could not refuse to put out the flames if a competing religious sect’s house of worship was on fire simply because he opposed their views.

Essentially, it would seem that the court’s opinion was that an individual has religious rights until exercising those rights causes him or her to violate the rights of others. Perhaps it is at this point that the principle of accommodation becomes a necessary part of the solution. Accommodation refers to the idea that, in so far as it is possible, changes can be made to work with both parties to come to a resolution that protects both parties’ rights. In the situation with Kim Davis, same sex couples in her county can now have their marriage licenses signed by her deputies. For the police officer in Chicago, perhaps a solution would have been switching beats with another cop who did not mind guarding an abortion clinic.

But, while that principle can often provide a practical solution to specific problems, it does not really address the larger issue. If forced to choose between religious and civil rights, in which way should the government lean? Ultimately, I’m not sure (now aren’t you glad you’ve read this far?). However, I do think there are some things we can, and perhaps should, do as Christians to make it easier on our government.

For starters, instead of going on the defensive at the first sign that our religious freedoms might be infringed upon, perhaps instead we should heed Paul’s advice and remember what he told the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 8-10, and really most of the book, Paul calls his fellow believers to give up their rights and what they feel entitled to in order to help those around them come to better know the Lord. He concludes by saying “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 19:23-24). And while Paul was primarily speaking about conflict within the Body of Christ, the principle applies to our current discussion as well.

Now, to be clear, Paul isn’t giving us an excuse to sin, as he always draws the line where accommodating the needs or desires of others would lead us to go against God. However, the practice of thinking about others before ourselves can be helpful in knowing how to respond in situations where our religious liberties seem to conflict with the civil rights of others. Perhaps the biggest reason that’s true is that, often times, our perception that such a threat exists is simply wrong. Disagreement does not have to end in conflict, but if we hear someone’s request and immediately think of how it impacts us, then we are less likely to seek a solution that can accommodate both parties without hurting our witness.

Unfortunately, such accommodation will not always be possible and, when faced with the choice, God calls us to be ready to pay the necessary price to follow his word. If that means going to jail, it means going to jail. If it means some degree of social ostracization, then we must be ready to accept that outcome. However, the manner in which we go about such civil disobedience is just as important to God as the act itself. Moreover, that outcome should always be a last resort for believers, something we endure only when it has become clear that a choice between obeying God and obeying man must be made.

Fortunately, Kim Davis’s situation was resolved in such a manner that accommodations to her beliefs were made. And while the social and political outlook for Christians in this country is not necessarily encouraging, anger, resentment, and a defensive posture towards the slightest hint that our religious freedoms might be questioned is not the way God calls us to respond. While we may not be able to control how the larger culture reacts to us, we can always control how we react to them. God’s word clearly calls us to demonstrate love and patience, even if we must disagree in the end.

Being accountable to God rather than man is more than a reason to stand against civil authority when pushed to that point; it also reminds us that when civil disobedience is necessary, it must still be carried out with the same kind of love, patience, and grace that our Lord and Savior demonstrated on his way to the cross. So the next time you are in a situation where you feel that your religious freedoms are being threatened, try responding with a posture that echoes Jesus’s statement from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” If you can honestly and genuinely do that, chances are the rest of your response will be pleasing to God as well.