I am grateful for freedom of religion, enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Two noteworthy news items this week afford a window through which to appreciate this freedom.
First, by a 5-4 vote the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that Hobby Lobby and other closely held private corporations could opt out of the Affordable Care Act for principled religious reasons. Hobby Lobby had petitioned the court to be exempt from law because they believed that providing certain types of contraceptive coverage forced them to participate in abortion.
I am not a constitutional lawyer, but can’t help but wonder if this ruling doesn’t open the door wide for others to opt out of other laws for similar cause. Will companies now be able to discriminate according to race and gender if it expresses their deeply held, sincere religious belief? I am not trying to be alarmist; just asking the question.
I hasten to add that I cherish the right to express one’s religious faith freely. Even though I would have preferred the decision to go the other direction, freedom of conscience and religious faith is compelling and inspiring and few, if any other nations in the world enjoy this freedom. We must never take this guarantee for granted.
By way of contrast, the court in France this week upheld a law banning women from wearing burkqas and niqabs in public. These items of clothing are worn by many Muslim women in obedience to their understanding of Islamic faith, but the French government is determined that all religious observance must be private. Even though this garb has also caused controversy in the United States, most Americans accept the right and privilege of the individual to practice his or her religion in public within wide limits.
Second, on Tuesday a new gun law took effect in Georgia. One provision of the law gives congregations the right to declare that legally registered rifles and pistols are permitted in church. But note: it remains illegal in Georgia for people to carry guns into church unless the congregation specifically makes a declaration permitting firearms on the property. I don’t know whether the law requires a governing body (Board of Deacons, Vestry, Elders, etc.) to give this permission or whether the pastor/rabbi, etc., can make the determination alone.
The Roman Catholic Church in Georgia has made it clear that guns are banned in all Catholic churches. The Episcopal Church in Georgia has done the same thing. Churches with no hierarchical structure will presumably decide their course of action on a church by church basis. Again I emphasize: your religious institution remains a gun-free zone unless it specifically votes/decides to allow guns.
As long as the Bill of Rights (first 10 amendments to the Constitution) has been ratified, we’ve argued over their meaning. This week, in our nation and in Georgia, we’ve seen new chapters written for what it means to be a person of faith (and a gun owner). In your prayers this week, thank God for the freedom of religion and conscience. Happy Fourth!
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.