Archives For Religious Liberty

City tried to limit building use

An IBSA church has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Chicago, which is enforcing a zoning ordinance that won’t allow the church to purchase its building near the University of Illinois-Chicago campus.

“Agonizing” is how Nathan Carter, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, described the decision to either seek other meeting space or file the lawsuit. His congregation has met in its current location since 2011, and was set to close on the purchase of the building last summer, when city officials blocked the sale because they determined Immanuel had not established legal use.

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The main issue is parking; the Chicago Zoning Ordinance requires religious assemblies to have a certain number of parking spaces based on how many people they’re able to seat. Immanuel needs 19 spaces to comply with the ordinance, but like many organizations in their neighborhood, the church utilizes street parking. Immanuel and the law firm representing them, Mauck & Baker, are arguing that the ordinance violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by requiring stricter standards of religious assemblies than for other organizations.

The space at 1443 W. Roosevelt had been rented by another church previously. Churches are a permitted use in the zoning, and the City’s building department gave Immanuel an occupancy permit in 2011. City officials assured Carter the sale wouldn’t be blocked despite the church’s use of street parking. But the City returned a different verdict in July 2016, informing Carter “the church still needed to meet the city’s parking requirements and that the city must determine if a religious assembly use is something it wants to promote on a commercial corridor such as Roosevelt Road,” according to a press release from Mauck & Baker.

The church’s ensuing lawsuit was a “last resort,” said the pastor. “We’ve been courteous and kind throughout the process and not adversarial, seeking to bend over backwards to meet their demands. We have our alderman’s support.”

Plus, Carter continued, “We have many of the same goals for the neighborhood as the City does. We’ve communicated that if they don’t fight it, then we won’t seek damages or fees. [The suit is] framed in such a way that they can admit they are bound by the letter of a current zoning ordinance, but then point out how that zoning ordinance is federally illegal (because of RLUIPA) by requiring more parking spots for religious assembly than it does for non-religious assembly uses that courts have determined are comparable.”

Carter referred to a sign on the door of his local library, which clearly states the library has no parking and patrons are to park on the street. City ordinances also state “live theater venues” with fewer than 150 seats need no parking, nor do libraries or cultural exhibits within the first 4,000 feet. Mauck & Baker is arguing Immanuel meets both of these requirements: their building seats 146 people and has less than 4,000 square feet.

Carter said the church is praying they can settle the suit within the next month, but if the City decides to continue to fight the purchase, the process could be a lengthy one.

Still, he said, the church sensed the Lord leading in this direction, albeit a somewhat frightening one. “Since 2005 our church has had a vision for being a long-term, stable gospel presence in our specific area of the city—a cluster of neighborhoods that surround the University of Illinois at Chicago,” Carter said. After meeting in four rented locations over the years and doing an exhaustive search of their community for other spaces, the purchase of their current building seems like a strategic decision.

“If the Lord closes this door, we have no doubt that he will open up another one,” Carter said. “But at the moment this was the only one that was cracked open, and there are scary lights coming from behind it, but we sensed the Lord wanted us to knock.”

-Meredith Flynn

The BriefingSB 912 raises religious liberty concerns for Illinois clergy
A bill working its way through the Illinois Senate that proposes mandatory training for clergy to recognize signs of child abuse is causing concern among religious liberty advocates. An amendment added to SB 912 Abused Child-Reporter Training, which specifically targets clergy is the cause for concern.

Moore, ERLC trustees issue ‘Seeking Unity’ statement
An extended statement, “Seeking Unity in the Southern Baptist Convention,” has been issued by Russell Moore and the executive committee of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Moore, in a 1,691-word portion of the March 20 statement, clarified criticism he had leveled at Christians who supported Donald Trump for president in the November 2016 election.

Divide over Gorsuch on display
The Senate Judiciary Committee began the latest hearings in what has been an often stridently contentious process for the last three decades with a day of opening statements — first from the 20 members of the panel, then from the nominee. Sixty national and state pro-life organizations weighed in on Gorsuch, urging senators in a letter to confirm him. The pro-life leaders cited his “keen understanding and respect” for religious freedom.

Coming solar eclipse: Act of God?
On Monday, Aug. 21, in the middle of the day, the sky will go dark. The temperature will suddenly get several degrees colder. The total solar eclipse that will cross America— an event that last happened 99 years ago — will be an important moment for scientific observers and a massive nationwide spectator event. It will also, for many people of faith, be evidence of God’s majesty — and even, to a few, a harbinger of the coming end of the world.

Christians respond to “Benedict Option”
More than a dozen Christian thinkers recently shared their thoughts on Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” The Benedict Option is essentially responding to western cultural change by pulling away from the culture building up the local church, creating counter-cultural schools based on the classical tradition, rebuilding family life, thickening communal bonds, and developing survival strategies for doctors, teachers, and others on the front lines of persecution.

Sources: Ilga.gov, Baptist Press (2), Washington Post, Breakpoint

The BriefingGraham urges ‘Beast’ boycott
Franklin Graham has called for a boycott of Disney over the company’s inclusion of a gay character in the upcoming Beauty and the Beast remake. “They’re trying to push the LGBT agenda into the hearts and minds of your children—watch out!” Graham wrote in a Facebook post.

Christian bakers appeal $135K fine
Christian bakers who lost their store and were fined $135,000 for declining to make a cake for a same-sex wedding brought their case before the Oregon Court of Appeals in an attempt to overturn the judgment. Aaron and Melissa Klein, owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Gresham, Oregon, said they simply want the freedom to live by the tenets of their faith.

High court vacates pro-transgender ruling
The U.S. Supreme Court set aside March 6 a ruling in favor of a transgender high school student and returned it to a lower court for reconsideration in light of the Trump administration’s recent withdrawal of a directive issued under President Obama. With the change in administration guidance, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will have to weigh its April 2016 decision that the school board of an eastern Virginia county violated federal law by refusing to permit a transgender high school student — who is a female biologically but identifies as a male — to use the boys’ restroom.

Muslim chaplain to head Army division
After a ceremony this summer, Lt. Col. Khallid Shabazz will become the first Muslim division-level chaplain in the history of the U.S. military. In January, he was offered the job of chaplain for an entire division, an honor for anyone in his field but a milestone in his case – a Muslim spiritual leader for more than 14,000 mostly Christian soldiers.

Americans warm to religious groups—except evangelicals
Fewer Americans say they know an evangelical Christian. Potentially as a result, evangelicals were the one religious group that didn’t experience an increase in warmth among Americans. Pew Research asked Americans to rate their feelings toward major faith groups on a “feeling thermometer,” ranked from zero to 100—the higher the ranking, the more positive the impression. Overall, Jews (67 degrees), Catholics (66 degrees), and mainline Protestants (65 degrees) were rated warmest.

Sources: Time, The Washington Times, Baptist Press, McClatchy DC, Facts and Trends

The old adage says there are three things you should never talk about in polite company—money, religion, and politics. We already break two of those three rules every Sunday in church. Are we ready to break the third—politics?

The Free Speech Fairness Act was introduced the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives Feb. 1. The bill doesn’t repeal the Johnson Amendment, which limits church involvement in politics, but offers what Alliance Defending Freedom calls a “relief valve”—“as you carry out the mission of your church, you would have the right to speak freely on all matters of life, including candidates and elections.” Most importantly it maintains the prohibition against churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations from donating money to candidates and political campaigns.

The Johnson Amendment became part of the U.S. tax code in 1954 when then Senator Lyndon Johnson successfully restricted tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates under penalty of losing their tax-exempt status.

President Donald Trump discussed eliminating the amendment numerous times throughout his campaign and most recently at the National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 2. “[Thomas] Jefferson asked, can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God,” Trump said. “Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that, remember.”

The question is, are churches ready for this? The pastor of the small church I grew up in was not shy about sharing his political views. He shared from the pulpit who he was voting for in the presidential election, and told congregants they could vote for whomever they wanted, just go vote. I remember as a middle-schooler being shocked, not so much by his action, but by the person he was voting for on election day. His candidate lost, there was no outcry in the church, and the IRS never came knocking on our church doors.

Not all pastors and congregants want to discuss politics within the church walls, but, if passed, the Free Speech Fairness Act would give those who want to the freedom to do so.

– LMS

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WELCOME TO MARS HILL – ERLC President Russell Moore joined a panel discussion on Face the Nation.

Russell Moore has the hardest job in the Southern Baptist Convention. He is required to speak on behalf of a people who take great pride in speaking for themselves, even (or especially) with the Almighty. It’s in our theology (priesthood of all believers). It’s in our polity (autonomy of the local congregation). It’s in our DNA (we’re preachers).

So when someone dares to speak for all of us, and says something we might disagree with, we bristle.

Some are bristling over Moore’s anti-Trump stance during the election. And, as the Wall Street Journal and NPR reported a month ago, some churches are considering withdrawing support for the Southern Baptist agency Moore heads, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore apologized for any ill will he caused, but has that settled the conflict?

Moore is two years into his presidency, succeeding Richard Land who served 25 years in the role. Land was brusque, but his views matched the vast majority of Southern Baptists’ on issues of religious liberty and sanctity of life, and we mostly agreed with him when he spoke for us.

But times have changed. As evidenced by Moore, a new generation is rising to SBC leadership, and they focus on different issues than their predecessors did. Moore has spoken to the church’s handling of refugees and the theology of adoption and gender issues—and politics.

Several questions arise from the murmurings about the ERLC:

Is the ERLC really out of touch with mainstream Southern Baptist opinion? Or are we finding, especially in this election cycle, that the world is more complex and even once-monolithic Southern Baptists have varying opinions on some issues—especially political issues?

Is this a squall that will subside as Moore finds a more modulated approach to his “spokesman-ship”? Or is there really a storm brewing?

Will older leaders assume the statesman role, and let younger leaders lead? Or, is there truly a divide among Southern Baptists among generational, geographical, educational, economic, or political divides that will not be bridged.

Time will tell, we suppose. But in the meantime—

We need the ERLC, and it shouldn’t be muzzled. The ERLC should still represent Southern Baptists in the public discourse on religious liberty, the church, and sanctity of life. True, some ERLC staff posted political opinions on their personal blogs and Twitter feeds during the election cycle. Their views might have been too easily mistaken for Southern Baptists’ as a whole. Only Moore should address the SBC’s core issues in the blogosphere or Twitterverse.

Stop the habitual tweeting. The tweet may be the lingua franca, but the 140-character debate hasn’t served the ERLC well lately. At times in 2016, we wondered if the ERLC really needed to express opinions on so many topics. Those who speak for Southern Baptists should not be reactionary, but instead offer considered opinions and measured words.

Finally, we should acknowledge generational differences and allow the hand-off to proceed. This is no longer the Land era. Younger Baptists may have a different perspective on some things, but, so long as their views are biblical, we must let them speak to their times—and ours.

-Eric Reed

Read more about this story, “Baptists debate politics, religious liberty, missions funding”

State Baptist paper editors met for their annual meeting Feb. 14-16 in Ontario, Calif. and heard controversial issues addressed by Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines and International Mission Board President David Platt. As the meeting was taking place Prestonwood Baptist Church, pastored by former SBC President Jack Graham, announced its decision to escrow gifts previously forwarded to support the Cooperative Program while it discusses concerns about the direction of the Convention.

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Steve Gaines

Gaines on Trump, ERLC, IMB
In a question-and-answer session Gaines, pastor of the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church, told editors he voted for Trump as president because of his pro-life stance.

Referencing Trump’s campaign slogan, Gaines noted that the only way to really make America great again is by winning people to Jesus Christ and mentoring them and changing society through the people they influence.

Discussing the fallout following the issuance of Trump’s executive order on immigration, Gaines said, “At some point we need to understand that God is not an American and is not Republican or Democrat. Christians need to remember that we have dual citizenship, with our allegiance first to the Kingdom of God.

“It’s important to remember that to some degree we have more in common with a believer in a lost country than an unbeliever in our own country,” Gaines said.

“We certainly need to vet people coming into our nation to be sure we are safe from those who would do us harm. That’s why I have locks on my doors at night to keep my family safe.

Concerning controversy involving Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore’s political comments during the election, Gaines said he hopes there would be less divisive talk coming out of the ERLC.

“I hope the kind of talk we have been hearing is not the direction in which we are going. I hope Russell will remain in his position and that we have reconciliation with a lot of people,” he said.

Regarding the amicus brief involving a New Jersey mosque which has embroiled both the ERLC and the International Mission Board in controversy, Gaines said he believes IMB President David Platt would possibly think twice before the mission board enters such a case.

“You may not agree with his theology but he has no arrogance whatsoever in his heart. I really don’t think he would have signed the document [favoring government permission for the construction of the mosque] if he knew the ramifications.

Platt’s apology
“I apologize to Southern Baptists for how distracting and divisive this has been,” Platt said when he met later with Baptist state paper editors.

“I can say with full confidence that in the days ahead, IMB will have a process in place to keep us focused on our primary mission: partnering with churches to empower limitless missionary teams for evangelizing, discipling, planting and multiplying healthy churches, and training leaders among unreached peoples and places for the glory of God.”

The apologies occurred amid ongoing discussion of an amicus curiae — Latin for “friend of the court” — brief joined by the IMB supporting the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, N.J., (ISBR) in its religious discrimination lawsuit against a local planning board. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission also joined the brief.

In December, U.S. district Judge Michael Shipp ruled the Planning Board of Bernards Township, N.J., violated federal law when it required the ISBR to include more than twice as much parking in its site plan for a proposed mosque as it required for local Christian and Jewish houses of worship.

In his ruling, Shipp acknowledged the amicus brief, stating it “supports” the ISBR’s arguments that unlawful religious discrimination occurred.

Platt added, “I am grieved how the amicus brief in the recent mosque case has been so divisive and distracting. And my purpose in bringing it up here is not to debate religious liberty, but to simply say that I really do want IMB to be focused on [its] mission statement.”

Tennessee pastor Dean Haun resigned as an IMB trustee in November because he said joining the brief did not comport with IMB’s mission and could be viewed as an improper alliance with followers of a religion that denies the Gospel.

Gaines on CP, state conventions, revival
Concerning the Cooperative Program, Gaines said there is no biblical imperative for churches to tithe 10% of their receipts to CP, regardless of how good the SBC missions support program is. Churches today have a number of their own ministries for reaching their communities for Christ.

While Bellevue Baptist doesn’t give 10% through CP, Gaines his wife Donna are motivated to give a tithe because of the good work they see going on in their community as well as around the world.

Gaines urged, “State conventions need to be proactive and reach out, embrace them [young pastors and leaders], cultivate them. You know, it’s far easier to talk about someone than it is to talk to them. When you talk to them you get on their level, you empathize with them. And that’s what it’s going to take.”

Looking to the future of the nation, Gaines spoke about his desire to see revival once again sweep America. “The last time it occurred was the Jesus Movement of the early to mid-1970s. That’s when we as a denomination reported the largest number of baptisms in our history. Many missionaries and pastors and church staff members came out of that movement and changed America. It can happen again, and that is my prayer.”

Prestonwood escrows CP
Prestonwood Baptist Church’s decision to escrow gifts previously forwarded to support Southern Baptist cooperative missions and ministries was announced Feb. 16.

Mike Buster, executive pastor for the Plano, Texas, church, provided a statement to the Baptist Message explaining that the action had been taken because of “various significant positions taken by the leadership of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission that do not reflect the beliefs and values of many in the Southern Baptist Convention” and that it is a temporary move.

The decision impacts $1 million the 41,000-member congregation would otherwise contribute through the Cooperative Program.

But Graham subsequently explained to the Baptist Message that his congregation’s concerns are broader than just one personality.

Instead, he described an “uneasiness” among church leaders about the “disconnect between some of our denominational leaders and our churches.”

“I’m not angry at the SBC, and neither are our people,” Graham said, “and I’m not working to start a movement to fire anyone.

“This is a difficult decision for me, personally,” he added. “I love Southern Baptists, and still want to be a cooperating partner as we have been for many years.

“We’re just concerned about the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention, and feel the need to make some changes in the way we give.”

Moore told Baptist Press in a statement, “I love and respect Jack Graham and Prestonwood Baptist Church. This is a faithful church with gifted leaders and a long history of vibrant ministry working and witnessing for Christ.”

– Reporting by Baptist Press, Georgia Christian Index, and Louisiana Baptist Message

No help for florist, baker, photo-maker
Reports are circulating about a leaked draft of an executive order designed to expand protections for individuals, organizations, and corporations’ religious convictions—including traditional beliefs on gender, sexuality, and marriage. According to experts, the four-page draft, titled “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom,” would strengthen religious exemptions under federal laws and programs, but it wouldn’t have the reach to quell debates over Christian-owned businesses refusing to serve same-sex weddings.

Congress proposes Johnson Amendment overhaul
Members of Congress have introduced legislation to enable churches and other non-profit organizations to endorse candidates or otherwise participate in political campaigns without fear of penalties from the Internal Revenue Service. The Free Speech Fairness Act would free pastors, churches and other tax-exempt entities to intervene on behalf of or against candidates in an election campaign. The measure would still prohibit financial donations from such organizations to candidates or campaigns, a bill sponsor said.

Falwell to head Trump ed task force
Evangelical Christian leader Jerry Falwell Jr. will head an education reform task force under President Donald Trump and is keen to cut university regulations, including rules on dealing with campus sexual assault, the school he heads said. The Liberty University president believes on-campus sexual assault investigations are best left to police and prosecutors.

Scouting and gender politics
The Boy Scouts of America announced it would allow girls who identify as boys to participate in its boys-only programs. In the past three years, the group has allowed both homosexual adults and young men to join as Scouts and leaders. The Scouts required parents to show birth certificates to verify their child’s gender. Now, the Scouts will accept whatever gender parents list on the application forms.

Pig embryos with human cells ‘problematic’
Biologists at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., announced they generated stem cells from human skin, then injected them into a pig embryo and allowed the embryo to grow four weeks in a sow’s uterus. After four weeks, human cells “were distributed randomly across the chimera,” The Washington Post reported. Joy Riley, a physician and executive director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics and Culture, told Baptist Press the pig embryos with human calls are “morally problematic.”

 Sources: Christianity Today, Baptist Press, Religion News, World Magazine, Baptist Press