Photo Credit: Baptist Joint Committee

This past week, I was gifted with the opportunity to attend the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty’s Fellows program in Williamsburg, Virginia. For four days, I joined with some of the greatest minds and strongest young leaders I have ever met. We were a group of faith & civic leaders, academics, and activists – brought together to support the cause of religious liberty by learning from and about the Baptist Joint Committee. We are from different parts of the country, different denominations, even different faith traditions – but we came into a space to learn how we could partner with and support the BJC as it advocates for religious freedom for all in our great nation.

Learning about religious liberty from the experts at the BJC provided us a chance to not only dive into the history of America’s religious freedom, but to explore what those historical roots mean for cases involving religious liberty today. We were taught about our constitutional religious protections, and we were given case law to help explain how these protections work in real-life situations.

Speaking with the BJC’s Associate General Counsel Jennifer Hawks as well as the BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler, we learned the complexities and importance of how religious liberty shapes our founding and our laws today. Fun facts:

Did you know?

Our U.S. Constitution started with only one religious reference? In Article VI, the Constitution states that no religious tests shall be required for the holding of public office.

When the Bill of Rights was ratified 1791, the First Amendment in this list of ten added further protections beyond religious test reference, which included:

Congress shall make no law

respecting an establishment of religion,

or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

Did you know?

Religion is the only right in the constitution that is protected in two ways.

The law that Congress shall avoid establishing any religion over another, alongside the protection of individuals and faith groups to freely exercise their faith function like a floor and a ceiling to religious liberty – if you take either to the extreme, the other cannot exist. Thus, the cause of religious liberty is always a balancing act between the two (and thus the cases involving religious liberty are never as simple as the media stories tend to make them).

Did you know?

States often have their own religious protection clauses in their own constitutions:

  • Often, these provisions mirror the U.S. Bill of Rights, but increasingly, some states are favoring religious freedom over free exercise, creating litigious court cases in recent years.
  • But whatever the state’s provisions, a case called Everson in 1947 established that states must follow federal amendments, so all Americans and the states they live in must abide by the U.S. Constitution’s religious liberty clauses.

Did you know?

Baptist distinctives led early Baptists in the colonies to press for religious liberty long before it was widely accepted.

  • Baptists in the late 1700s as the nation was being founded were dissenters, meaning they believed differently than the established Church of England (Anglican Church). Because they were persecuted for their own beliefs (like adult believer’s baptism and the right of every individual to read and interpret Scripture), these early Baptists fought to secure not only their own religious freedom, but freedom for all to choose how and what to believe. That means, they fought for Roman Catholics to believe as they wished, Muslims and Jews to believe as they wished, and a wide host of other dissenting Protestant groups to believe as they wished.
  • Baptists have a history from the early 1600s until the present time of championing religious liberty for all, and the Baptist Joint Committee continues this important tradition. Want to know more about Baptist heritage and religious liberty? Click here.
  • The BJC is supported by Baptists of all stripes in the United States. As the old saying goes, in a room of 10 Baptists, you’ll have 11 opinions, but thankfully many different Baptists of differing opinions agree that protection of religious freedom is both important and worthy of our support.

Did you know?

Some of the most important religious liberty cases of the last few decades were influenced by the work of Baptists on Capitol Hill.

From writing amicus briefs for the Supreme Court or lower courts, to advocating publicly for the dual causes of avoiding establishment of religion and protecting the free exercise of religion, the Baptist Joint Committee lives out its heritage as a Baptist institution, but is more than willing to partner with those of other faith traditions who are also working toward the goal of religious freedom for all.

Did you know?

One current issue the BJC is addressing is the protection of the “Johnson Amendment.” This amendment to the U.S. tax code was introduced by then-senate minority leader Lyndon B. Johnson in 1954, and it was passed by Republican controlled House and Senate. This language was signed into the tax law by President Eisenhower (Republican), so although it has the nickname of “amendment,” this has been in the U.S. tax code as law for over half a century. In 1986, the Republican President and Senate and a Democratic House strengthened the wording by adding the words “in opposition to.”

It reads as follows (emphases noted by BJC):

26 U.S. Code § 501(c)(3)

Corporation…organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable,…or educational purposes,…

  • no part of the net earning of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.
  • no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation…and
  • which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) and political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for political office.

Since 2008, some religious leaders have targeted this tax law as some kind of partisan rule targeting churches for being politically active; however, the law does not prohibit churches from speaking about political issues. It only asks churches and leaders to avoid becoming too politically partisan to keep their nonprofit 501(c)(3) status. It is also interesting to note that only one church has lost its 501(c)(3) status for taking out a full page New York Times ad against a particular political campaign. On the whole, if the IRS investigates partisan politics by churches, the churches refrain from their endorsement of candidates, and the law works as intended.

In 2017, the targets on the “Johnson Amendment” have increased dramatically. The president has called for the abolishment of the wording and has vowed to “utterly destroy” the amendment. Some Congressional committees have debated potential bills to repeal the amendment, but none has yet to make it out of the committee to the floor. The BJC continually lobbies against the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, reminding Congresspersons that this IRS provision (largely bipartisan and non-controversial for many years) protects churches from undue government influence and protects the freedom of all persons to worship in spaces not governed by the state, but governed by higher powers.

Keeping the “Johnson Amendment” will not, as its detractors suggest, keep churches from being politically relevant. Our faith has much to say to the issues of our day. As a Baptist minister and Christian ethicist, I believe this wholeheartedly. That said, I firmly believe that protecting the church from the undue influence of our partisan politics keeps us outside of and above the kingdom of this world, focused instead on what Christ is doing in the Kingdom of God, inaugurated with Christ’s life, death and resurrection – and continuing until he comes again.

You can see prior cases the BJC participated in, along with ongoing news about current religious liberty issues on the BJC’s website on their litigation and legislation pages.

Did you know?

You can support BJC’s good work!

Are you a person of faith? Sign the BJC’s Faith-Voices letter in support of keeping houses of worship nonpartisan. You do not need to be a minister or even a Baptist or Christian – just note how you serve as a person of faith in our faith community. By signing this, we are reminding Congress that churches can be political, but should not be partisan.

Buy a Religious Freedom for ALL t-shirt today! These great new advertisements for the BJC’s work are both functional and comfy. I highly recommend! Order before Labor Day!

Give monthly to the work of the BJC here and watch videos from those who already give and learn why they do.

While I still have much to learn, I am ever grateful for the opportunity to learn how integral religious freedom is to the church’s ability to share a free and open Gospel with the world and to help shape a democratic society into a more loving and inclusive environment in which to live out Christ’s call on our lives to be disciples. I am excited to be an ongoing ambassador for the BJC and its work, and I look forward to sharing what I have learned with our church and our community in the months and years to come.