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Supreme Court of the United States

Religious Freedom Needs Courageous Support from Elected Officials

By Alan Sears posted on:
October 17, 2017

Two major legal actions last week illustrate with startling clarity not only what’s at stake in the current struggle for religious freedom in America, but how much courage is required to put forward even the most modest protections for that freedom.

The first came in Indiana, where Governor Mike Pence last week signed his state’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, modeled closely on the federal RFRA signed into law in 1993 and very similar to the RFRAs already enacted by 19 other states. (The federal RFRA was the basis for the win in Hobby Lobby / Conestoga at the U.S. Supreme Court last year.) Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys worked with our ally, the Indiana Family Institute, to help provide legal input to legislators drafting the Indiana bill.

Among other things, RFRA gives people of faith facing lawsuits that involve their rights of conscience and religious beliefs the option of presenting a legal defense based on their constitutionally protected religious freedom.

“Simply put, RFRA is a law that guarantees religious freedom gets a fair hearing,” says ADF Senior Counsel Joseph P. Infranco. “In non-lawyer terms, it compels the government to have a super-important reason for creating any law that infringes on religious freedom. And – if it does create such a law – that law has to take away no more freedom than absolutely necessary.”

Enacting RFRA took considerable courage, in a popular culture that is being stampeded by activists whose various agendas makes no room for anything remotely resembling the tolerance they demand from everyone else. In signing the bill, Governor Pence incurred the full fury of those activists and their shrill axis of media, celebrity, and political cronies, threatening all manner of economic and political punishment. He needs to hear more from people of faith who cherish liberty.

Undoubtedly, a comparable courage will be required of Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, who now has the authority to resolve another major dilemma impacting religious freedom: Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the latest appeal in that now-20-year-old case, which asserts the right of city churches to enjoy equal access to conduct worship services in public schools opened to all during off-hours and weekends. The city’s Department of Education has pushed to ban worship services from public schools, for fear of violating an outmoded and extreme version of the so-called “separation of church and state.” New York City is the only major school district in the nation that expressly discriminates against religious worship services in this way – and has defended that policy through two decades of litigation.

For now, it looks as though the mayor will resolve the matter in favor of religious liberty. Hours after the Supreme Court declined to hear the Bronx case, the Mayor issued a statement saying the churches could continue meeting in the schools, and that he would change the current policy to one that allows equal access for conducting religious worship services in the public schools.

“The Education Department’s argument that it must ban worship services to protect children from religion – as though it were a disease – falls apart on many levels, not the least of which is how willing the city has been to accept the free help churches willingly offer,” explained ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “We are hopeful that the mayor will allow these congregations to continue being a true benefit to the communities they love to serve.”

Throughout the two decades this case has worked its tangled way through the U.S. judicial system, churches meeting in public schools throughout the city have fed the poor and needy … assisted in rehabilitating drug addicts and gang members … provided for the disabled … and helped rebuild marriages and families. Church members have also volunteered to paint the interiors of inner-city schools; donated computers, musical instruments, and air conditioners; and provided effective after-school programs to help students with their studies.

Ironically, some churches and Jewish yeshivas that have their own buildings have provided meeting space for overcrowded public schools – at the city’s request. So the city’s concern over the cross-pollination of church and state is clearly of a very selective, one-sided kind.

“I believe Mayor de Blasio will continue to do the right thing and allow the churches to remain meeting in the public schools for their worship services,” says ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence, who has represented Bronx Household of Faith throughout its legal battle. “However, if a new mayor in the future chooses to evict the churches, it would harm people in need. It would   throw out the very groups that provide enormous and very needed help to their communities and even the schools themselves, as Mayor de Blasio rightly has acknowledged.”

“I stand by my belief that a faith organization playing by the same rules as any community non-profit deserves access,” the mayor said last year. “They play a very, very important role in terms of providing social services and other important community services, and I think they deserve that right.” So far, he is standing by those words – but he, too, could use some encouragement.

Soldiers tell us that, for leaders in time of war, “there is no substitute for personal courage.” Strategy, tactics, a worthy cause, a disciplined army – none of these really matter if those leading don’t have the courage to stand in harm’s way when the battle is joined. The steadily intensifying battle for the soul of our nation hinges in large measure on whether our leaders have the courage to defend religious freedom against those bent on removing it from American life.

This is a struggle with profound implications for you, your family, your church … and our future. Join me in praying for the courage of those in positions of authority (1 Timothy 2:1-4). And for our own courage, as well.

Alan Sears

Alan Sears


Alan Sears served as founder of Alliance Defending Freedom, building on his experience as longtime leader of the organization to strengthen alliances, forge new relationships, and develop ADF resources.

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