Subject: An understanding of religious liberty in the context of our faith and the nation in which we live: the use of religious liberty in public policy resolution.
Purpose: To set forth the faith and historical bases of religious liberty:
To identify some of the implications of religious liberty for our society
To set forth our understanding and perspective on several current issues:
To provide a current resolution from the church on selected public policy issues where we have no recent statement or where a new resolution would indicate a present, urgent concern.
Related previous Annual Conference decisions:
1978 Statement on Violence and the Use of Firearms
1980 Statement on The Time So Urgent
1983 Church of the Brethren Housing Resolution
1983 Resolution on Providing Sanctuary for Latin American and Haitian Refugees
1988 Statement on Christian Education Goals (available in print form from BrethrenPress.com)
The fundamental first principle in Brethren doctrine. That is how historian--statesman Martin G. Brumbaugh characterized the principle of "no exercise of force in religion. Brumbaugh begins A History of The Brethren (1899) outlining the contribution of this belief to Brethren life;
If from such a description of the fundamental first principle it would seem that Brethren doctrine is bedded in opposition, it must be understood that, as with the Protestant Reformation, there were resounding affirmations that led to opposition.
The history of the Church of the Brethren has been one that has continually reaffirmed the religious liberty of "no exercise of force in religion," but has also experienced tension with the state in living its own convictions. In its origin, the church was born in an act of civil disobedience. The baptism of the eight at Schwarzenau in 1708 violated the law. Persecution followed. The sufferings of the early Brethren led them to migrate to the United States, drawn to the colony of William Penn by promise of religious freedom.
The freedom of conscience sought by the Brethren has often been tested, most often with relation to war. The recognition by government of conscientious objection to war has come through "the repeated efforts of the churches bringing their claims to bear upon the government." Rufus D. Bowman observed in 1944. "The church cannot depend upon the government of itself to provide an adequate recognition for those opposed to war. The church of necessity must shoulder the responsibility. Nowhere in the history of the Church of the Brethren has the government taken the initiative to provide adequate protection of conscience.
It is as part of our responsibility, our vigilance, that we set forth our understandings of religious liberty of no force in religion.
For Brethren, religious liberty emerges from the conviction that there is a higher authority than the state. "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). "...Transcendent power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7). That higher authority is God who must be obeyed when there is a contradiction between what the state demands and what the believer understands as the teaching of Jesus Christ and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The role of the state being properly understood, religious freedom is not granted by the state but is recognized (or not recognized) by the state. Our freedom comes as the gift of God. "For freedom Christ has set us free: stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).
We are instructed by scripture on religious liberty. Moses was directed by God to go to Pharaoh with the plea to "Let my people go that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness" (Exodus 5:1). The Exodus event is one for religious freedom in which Israel may be able to serve God on Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:12). The prophets spoke on behalf of God despite threats to their own lives: they were claiming and exercising religious liberty related to personal righteousness, domestic and foreign policy. Jesus rejected the temptation to political power at the price of spiritual capitulation (Luke 4:1-13). It was a sign that religious life must not be subservient to political interest. When disciples were ready "to bid fire come down from heaven and consume" those who did not receive Jesus. Jesus "rebuked" those who were intolerant (Luke 9:51-56). Neither political nor religious power was to be used to impose a religious response upon people. The New Testament community benefited from the religious liberty impulses of the honored Gamaliel, a teacher of the law and a Pharisee, While others would have killed the early disciples because they feared a threat to "true" religion. Gamaliel advised caution: "Let them alone: for if this plait or this undertaking is of men, it will fail: but if it is of God you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" (Acts 5:38,39). Gamaliel's formula would leave to history the judgment of whether the faith is true or not.
The scripture illustrates the need of the faith community for religious liberty; the exercise of the liberty in its own life and in relating to affairs of state; a respect for the religious liberty of others. It is a teaching of "no exercise of force in religion."
Much of the freedom that we believe essential for the practice of our faith has been recognized by the secular world. The first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, part of our Bill of Rights, declares "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…" Those general guideline have served well, though not flawlessly, to provide for a healthy pluralism of religious belief and affiliation. They are often the basis of our appeal when we seek specific recognition of the rights of conscience.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, enacted by the United Nations in 1948, carried in its preamble the anticipation of "the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief…" Article 18 of the Declaration states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
These basic rights become more explicit in the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. There while establishing the rights of parents to provide religious training for their children, it is declared that the following freedoms are basic to freedom of thought, conscience and religion:
On religious liberty, we record several elements of concern at this time.
FREEDOM OF CONVICTION
For faith to be authentic, faith must be freely chosen, neither coerced nor induced. The freedom must be to believe or disbelieve: conscience must be respected whether or not its wellspring is religious. The freedom extends to both a corporate body of believers and to the individual believer The State should not expect conformity in belief and practice by each adherent to a particular faith community.
The state should intervene in religious affairs only when there is a clear and present danger to the rights of others such as the withholding of medical treatment to a minor child, or when there is violation of law that threatens the life of the believer or others, such as ritual slaying or the beating of children.
SELF-GOVERNANCE OF THE CHURCH
The governing of the church must be by its own design and direction. The state should not control the church in its thought its worship, or its activity.
Generally, the church should observe the legal guidelines that are set for the larger society. In such matters as building codes, sanitary regulations, fair employment and minimum compensation the church should meet or exceed the standards expected of society. Because employment relates to realizing the purposes of the religious body, the church and other religious bodies should be free to establish religious requirements for employment.
In matters of dispute within the church, the church should establish its own means of resolving conflict, rather than appealing to the secular court.
EXEMPTION FROM TAXATION
There are maxims: "The power to tax is the power to control." "The power to tax is the power to destroy." Exemption from taxation is essential to the unfettered exercise of religious faith. The taxing of religious activities of properties involved in religious programs limits the expression of those activities or programs. It exacts a secular price for a religious act. On the other hand, it is legitimate for government to tax business income and property unrelated to religious programs.
Specific government services that are charged to all property owners may reasonably be charged also to religious bodies.
Tax deductions for individuals or corporations should be available to those making gifts to religious bodies. Such deduction is a recognition of the contribution of religious bodies to specific charitable work and to the general welfare of the nation.
PUBLIC RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION
The religious word needs to be spoken in the public place: the religious symbol needs to be shown in the public arena. It is our belief that our faith must extend into all of life, including public life. To prohibit religious expression in public life would be to inhibit the free exercise of religion. Beyond this, religion is an important element of our life as a society. To require our society to be devoid of all public symbols and expressions of religion would impoverish our society. We see the military chaplaincy, however as a violation of the institutional separation of church and state that we seek, and an intrusion by the state into religious practice. It is essential in such public expression that what is said and displayed is freely chosen neither forbidden nor established by the government. Thus, we affirm some of the practices of our nation in which there are prayers in civic ceremonies, chaplains serving the Congress, visible religious symbols in the marketplace. We believe it essential to avoid government sponsorship of a particular religious body and to assure sensitivity to those who are religious minorities.
As from the time of our beginning, we oppose government prescribed religious practice, such as prayer or so-called moments of silence in the public school, or the making of oaths with reference to Deity. On the other hand, we believe the curriculum of public schools should reflect the religious element of national life, that religion can be taught and religious songs can be sung not as liturgy or catechism, but as learning and expression
We have a concern that nationalism not be substituted for a religious perspective. The use of ceremonies involving the flag and the anthem of the nation involve practices that parallel religious observance. Pledges of allegiance are not unlike the recitation of creeds of belief. It is inappropriate to expect or require pupils or teachers to engage in such ritual.
COOPERATION WITH THE STATE
We believe it is possible for religious bodies and the state to work together cooperatively without the loss of religious liberty. Our experience in refugee resettlement and overseas relief affirm the value of such cooperation. The benefit to the larger human family can be immense when the cooperation is to achieve common purposes and does not involve the state in intruding on church affairs or giving financial support to a particular religious body.
Cooperation between the stale and religious bodies should not involve official recognition or confer other special status upon a particular religious body. We believe it inappropriate, for example, for our government to extend official diplomatic recognition to the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church.
FREEDOM OF WITNESS
Central to our faith is the proclamation of the gospel. It is essential that there he an opportunity to openly declare that gospel, and that people have an opportunity to respond, to choose or reject the religious teaching set forth.
Ours is a prophetic tradition, relating our faith to public policy. Religious liberty means the opportunity to make a public declaration regarding an issue under public debate without fear of reprisal. The freedom of witness means a vigorous voice in public in which religious convictions are given testimony. The public witness must in no way bean effort to exercise authority over the political process.
There have been repeated threats to our religious liberty by government surveillance, infiltration of religious groups, and warnings of loss of tax exemption. Such threats arise when religious groups express opposition and/or action against a government policy. Our church, as many other churches, has experienced such threats. For the health of both religious life and national life, religious liberty and the freedom for open declaration must be preserved. We recognize that it is in regular and forceful witness to our convictions that the freedom to make such witness is best preserved.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE CHURCH
That there be "no exercise of force in religion, " that there be true religious liberty, we believe that the Church of the Brethren should:
ADVOCACY ON PUBLIC POLICY ISSUES
As an expression of our religious liberty we do now declare our resolve on certain current public policy issues. Making such expression follows a well-established practice of our church.
We begin with an expression of thanksgiving to those holding high offices in the world that steps have been taken to create a more peaceful, less belligerent, international atmosphere. Specifically, we applaud the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the first United Slates treaty to actually reduce nuclear armaments, the opening of political dialogue with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and preliminary indications of a new approach to relations between the United States and Central America based in diplomacy.
We must focus new attention on children who are increasingly the victims of poverty and other violence. There are now some 13 million children living in conditions of poverty in the United States. As a nation, we must address the problems of infant mortality, child care, nutrition, health care, and homelessness. Family planning agencies have been recent victims of terror and cuts in government funding. We believe family planning services and other programs which enhance family life need and deserve greater public and government support.
We support new government measures to provide emergency food and shelter to the homeless and housing policies that will make available to each person affordable, decent housing.
We must move toward a disarmed society. It is urgent that immediate steps be taken toward greater control of gun ownership. We believe regulatory steps can and should be taken now on the type of weapons that can be manufactured and sold and the qualifications of persons for such ownership.
Our stewardship of creation requires that we address the need for clean air, for the elimination of toxic and hazardous waste disposal, for reversing the global warming (greenhouse effect) and the destruction of the ozone layer. We believe that quality air depends upon lifestyle choices by the citizenry and adequate legislation for standards to control air pollution, with strict enforcement. While all of us must learn new steps in consumption, recycling and waste disposal, we believe government has a major responsibility at this time to strengthen and enforce standards for toxic waste disposal particularly the waste from nuclear weapons and power plants. We support international and bilateral efforts to enforce standards that would control acid rain, stop the depletion of the ozone layer, and reverse the heating of the atmosphere.
We must turn our attention to those who are at the bottom of the wage scale. The minimum wage, after eight years of remaining frozen at $3.35 an hour needs to be adjusted upward.
We continue to call for refugee asylum-enacting legislation that would delay the deportation of Salvadoran and other refugees until it can be determined that it is safe for them to return home.
We ask for a lawful and democratic foreign policy process. We expect a full and public accounting by the President, the Administration, and the Congress on the unanswered and unprobed questions in the Iran/contra scandal. We believe both government officials and private citizens, involved in activities violating the Roland Amendment, prohibiting aid to the contras should be brought to justice.
We call for our government to enter into good faith negotiations with the Soviet Union to further reduce the numbers of nuclear warheads currently deployed. These negotiations should encompass all categories to weapons, including short range and strategic, and should take seriously the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. Toward this goal, we also call for a halt to all nuclear weapons testing, including a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a mutual moratorium on missile flight-testing. We endorse the effort to extend Nuclear Free Zones in the Pacific and elsewhere.
We ask that a review of our nation's foreign aid be made to determine the effectiveness and the morality of the present program. What are the results of security assistance being granted at twice the rate of development assistance? How much attention is given to the observance of human rights by the recipients of foreign aid? What is the most beneficial form of assistance to the people of the receiving nation? How can aid be extended with respect for the self-determination and dignity or those who receive?
We urge the Administration and the Congress to move toward a new policy for Central America and the Caribbean, one that negotiates with respect for the right of self-determination by the nations of the area, one that values the observance of human rights. We support an immediate end to the trade embargo imposed on Nicaragua and direct negotiations between that nation and the United States. We call for the normalizing of relations between Cuba and the United States. We support appropriate steps our government can take to encourage democratic rule in Haiti.
In the Middle East, we support an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and a conditioning of all U.S. foreign aid to Israel on the ending of the occupation. We believe an international conference involving Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, as well as other regional and global participants, could help to achieve a settlement of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
ANNUAL CONFERENCE ACTION
We, members of the Church of the Brethren, assembled in Annual Conference in Orlando Florida, July 4-8, 1989, offer the above for the guidance of our church and for advocacy as a part of our witness and the exercise of our religious freedom. We ask the officers of this Annual Conference to communicate to the Administration and the Congress the public policy positions set forth.
Action of the General Board, March 1989: The General Board VOTED that the paper be approved and transmitted to the 1989 Annual Conference through Standing Committee with the recommendation that the paper be adopted by Annual Conference.
Judy Mills Reimer Chair
Donald E. Miller. General Secretary
(Note: The General Board will plan to bring to Annual Conference whatever public policy revisions may be indicated at that time for inclusion in this resolution.)
Action of the 1989 Annual Conference: Harold Bomberger, a Standing Committee delegate from the Atlantic Northeast district, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that the 1989 Annual Conference adopt the RESOLUTION ON RELIGIOUS LIBERTY. The delegate body adopted the recommendation of Standing Committee and accepted the RESOLUTION ON RELIGIOUS LIBERTY including an amendment made by the General Board which has been incorporated into the preceding text.