Legal and Religious Liberty Implications of the Supreme Court Decision on Same-sex Marriage (Part II of V)

by Matthew Steven Bracey

Part I of this five-part series adapted from Matthew Bracey’s Convention presentation at the Theological Trends seminar can be accessed here

In part I, we introduced some of the legal and religious liberty implications facing Christians today. In particular we considered how we’ve gotten to the state in which we find ourselves, both social and legal developments. In this post, we’ll consider what we do in response, and we’ll begin looking at religious liberty.

Where Do We Go From Here?

This conversation about how society to treat LGBT peoples is occurring everywhere. It takes place in all three branches of both federal and state governments. It shows up in laws and policies.

We find it at our workplaces, around the water cooler, and in our churches. We hear it from airlines, businesses, and sports teams.[1] We see it in movies and television shows, and we read about it in newspapers and books—for adults and children alike. We even learn about it in public schools, all the way down to kindergarten and preschool.

We must face this issue squarely and equip our churches and congregants in biblical discipleship. We need to see how the civic and religious principles that our civilization is built on—the ones we’re getting ready to discuss—are being threatened. As we’ll see, many of them are informed specifically by Christian teaching.

 We need to reeducate ourselves in them so that we begin to think about we can stop this. How do we do this? We can begin by informing ourselves about the topics discussed in this presentation.

This could take place by talking with others or by listening to a podcast. We can read books with a small group or teach through them to a class in church. (Several examples are listed at the end of this chapter.)

We can learn how to work them into our points of illustration and application as we teach and preach God’s Word. However, this requires us to know how the Bible’s teaching shapes these legal principles and what they are.

Together we can build a church culture that knows about these principles, takes them seriously, and can see how they fit within a Christian worldview.

Religious Liberty

As Christian leaders, we should work to reclaim a confidence in God-given, Constitution-affirmed religious liberty. We should know how to defend it when it’s threatened—and it is. This means we should know what the Bible, the Baptist tradition, and American heritage say about religious liberty.

Defining Religious Liberty Theologically

Religious liberty says the inherent dignity of all people. This means that everyone has a God-given right to practice his or her religion without fear or coercion. It finds its basis in the nature of God, the image of God in humankind, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

God created man in His image (Genesis 1:26–27). And He created them with a religious conscience and the power of choice (Joshua 24:15; 1 Corinthians 10:27–30; 1 Timothy 1:5). This quality within men and women reflects something about God’s very nature.

This was made evident in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the very image of God (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). Jesus didn’t coerce or force His teaching on people. He taught, asked questions, and respected people’s choice of conscience. Free choice. Free will.

Paul instructed that we walk “by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).

As a result, we should defend the right to religious liberty of both Christians and non-Christians alike. This is what the Bible teaches. And it’s what Baptists have taught.

Thomas Helwys founded the first Baptist church on English soil in the early 1600s. America’s first Free Will Baptists were some of Helwys’s direct spiritual descendants who had migrated to the American colonies in the late 1600s

Well, Helwys said that rulers and states don’t have authority over the consciences of their subjects or citizens:

Men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king will not answer for it. Neither may the king be judged between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it does[n’t] [concern] earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by scriptures.[2]

We hear this same point from Christians today. Eric Metaxas writes, “For good or for ill, the Christian faith is the one faith, more than any other, that encourages intellectual and religious freedom. True Christians throughout history have [always protected] the religious liberty, not just of Christians, but of non-Christians too.”[3]

Or Russell Moore says, “The gospel goes forward not through manipulation or coercion, but through the open and persuasive proclamation of the gospel as a conscience to a conscience (2 Cor. 4:2).”[4]

This means that governments shouldn’t coerce religious belief against someone’s conscience.

It also means (as we’ll note below) that governments shouldn’t require something of us that would cause us to violate our religious beliefs. Whether in the home, the workplace, or the marketplace.

In either case, the government has offended religious liberty.

Defining Religious Liberty Legally

America’s founders also talked about religious liberty. For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”[5] Among these is religious liberty. Or what he called religious freedom. Which he described as the “natural rights of mankind.”[6]

He said, “Almighty God ha[s] created the mind free.” No one should “suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and . . . maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion.” [7]

(Mmm. Increasingly are we more or less free to exercise what the Bible teaches without suffering for it?)

Jefferson also said that our religious beliefs should not “affect [our] civil capacities,” positively or negatively.[8] This means the government shouldn’t reward or punish us for how we let Christianity inform our family lives and business practices and so forth.

(Mmm. Can you think of anyone whose businesses or livelihood is being affected negatively because of their Christian beliefs? I listed many examples in the introduction of part I.)

And of course we have the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[9] Now, sometimes people get confused about what the Establishment Clause is supposed to mean.

It doesn’t mean that your religion can’t have any bearing on the law or society or culture. All it means is the institutional separation of church and state. This just means that America shouldn’t have an official state church, like the Church of England or the Russian Orthodox Church.

But the institutional separation of church and state doesn’t mean the separation of morals from the public square or religion from public life. That’s what the Free Exercise Clause is all about.

Russell Moore explains that the separation of church and state “does[n’t] mean the division of religious people from citizenship. Citizens come to decision-making, and culture-makers come to culture-making, with their consciences formed somewhere and by something.”[10]

Throughout American history, citizens have allowed their religious convictions to inform their views of law and policy. And so can we! “There’s “no conflict between loving God and loving one’s country, between one’s faith and one’s public service.”[11] By all means, let your religious opinions inform how you think about life and the law and so forth.

Still, some ask where exercising religious liberty ends and imposing one’s religious viewpoints begins. That’s a good question, but it misunderstands religious liberty. As well as the nature of law and policymaking.

Religious liberty gives people the freedom to hold and exercise their religious beliefs in society. It’s not the imposition of one person’s views on another.

Besides, all laws and policies reflect some value of one sort or another. The question remains as to whether that something is a good or bad thing, and whether it honors religious liberty for all.

So religious liberty is about more than the freedom of belief in the privacy of your home. It allows those beliefs to follow you in your public life. It’s “the right to live out the teachings of your faith in every single aspect of your life.”[12]

And yet, despite the Biblical and constitutional importance that religious liberty has had, and that it should have for us, it’s being threatened.

In part III, we’ll pick up with the topic of religious liberty, considering how it’s being threatened and what we can do about it.


[1] For example, the following companies are just some of those that praised the Obergefell ruling: American Airlines, AT&T, Cheerios, Coca-Cola, Delta, Jell-O, Kellogg’s, Macy’s, Mastercard, Netflix, Old Navy and Gap, Pepsi, Sears, Starbucks, Target, Tide, Visa, Whole Foods, and YouTube.

[2] Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity; in The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys, ed. Joe Early, Jr. (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009), 209.

[3] Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, “Defending Religious Liberty: An Interview with Eric Metaxas”;; accessed October 21, 2015; Internet.

[4] Russell D. Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 145.

[5] Declaration of Independence (U.S. 1776); transcript.html; accessed January 23, 2016; Internet.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, “Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom,” January 16, 1786; http://www.; accessed October 21, 2015; Internet.

[8] Ibid.

[9] U.S. Const., amend. 1.

[10] Moore, 142.

[11] Paul Scalia, “Transcript: Rev. Paul Scalia’s Eulogy for His Father, Justice Antonin Scalia,” USA Today, February 20, 2016; transcript-rev-paul-scalias-eulogy-his-father-justice-antonin-scalia/80667122/; accessed April 5, 2016; Internet.

[12] Marco Rubio, CPAC2016, National Harbor, MD, March 2–5, 2016.


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