The following text was offered as verbal testimony on June 19th, 2018 to the Social Justice Issues Committee of the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In her testimony, item advocate Sylvia Thorson-Smith called on the GA to affirm that religious freedom does not include the right to discriminate against or limit the freedoms of other people on the basis of one’s religion.
I’m Sylvia Thorson-Smith, a ruling elder from de Cristo presbytery. I live in Tucson, Arizona and am a member of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church. I’m also a member of the General Assembly Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. We’ve submitted a resolution on Religious Freedom Without Discrimination, and I urge you to approve it.
The United States is at a crucial time in its history where the principle of religious freedom is being misused in distorted ways. A Presbyterian minister was involved in a case in 1707 that became a landmark ruling in favor of religious freedom in America. We do not want to depart from our commitment to religious freedom as a principle that guarantees people the right to practice their faith without interference by the government. But the precious principle of religious freedom is being twisted into a new strategy by some who want to deprive certain groups of people of their civil and human rights. Rather than promoting a free and tolerant diversity of religious belief and practice, some citizens are contending that religious freedom justifies exclusion and discrimination toward others.
Our resolution has many examples of the ways in which women and LGBTQ persons, most frequently, are experiencing the refusal of legal goods, services, basic needs, and health care for religious reasons. Non-discrimination laws in many states are being challenged by those who refuse to abide by them.
In 2012, the General Assembly approved a policy on the just access to reproductive health care. It affirmed the ability of women and men to make good moral decisions in matters of reproductive health, and affirmed the position of the 1992 report on “Problem Pregnancies and Abortion.” But an insidious use of religious freedom is being used to limit access to legal, reproductive health care. Our resolution has several examples. Alarming trends in the curtailment of women’s rights include a proposed “gag rule” that would forbid any provider from even saying that abortion is a health care option — and a law last month in Arkansas that bans noninvasive medication abortion that is safer than Tylenol and Viagra!
LGBTQ persons are also among the most targeted groups for religiously based discrimination. In 2016 the General Assembly directed our church entities to oppose legislation that discriminates on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bakery case has gotten a lot of attention, but this is about way more than cakes! This is about the denial of jobs, housing, adoption, basic goods and services that are routinely available to other Americans. Religious freedom is being used as the justification to deny basic human rights to this category of citizens.
Presbyterians must stand against these discriminatory efforts by some Christians — and they are overwhelmingly Christians. If allowed to expand, broad exemptions from the law could effectively authorize a parallel legal order permitting more and more discrimination.
Presbyterians have two commitments on this front: we claim the heritage of religious freedom in its nobler intent — to support the diversity of religious belief and practice within religious communities, free from government intervention — AND oppose all forms of discrimination that foster indignity, marginalization, harm, inadequate health care, and second-class citizenship to any individual or group of persons in this country.
In 1988 Presbyterians adopted a policy that “God Alone is Lord of the Conscience.” Historically, religious freedom has meant freedom from persecution and oppression. It has not meant the freedom to inflict harm on others by diminishing their humanity and making life more difficult. Item [11-15] gives Presbyterians an opportunity to affirm religious freedom in its best intent and to stand strongly against the trend to use religion as a sword instead of a shield.
I leave you with two comments that I’ve heard at this Assembly: One by a moderatorial candidate who said, “progress must be maintained, preserved, and pursued.” The PCUSA has made progress on the rights of women and LGBTQ persons. This resolution stands against those who would have us retreat on our principles of freedom and justice.
A second comment was made just last night by your moderator, who said, “the topics in this committee come before you because they arise out of human pain.” I ask you to see the pain, to hear the hurt and harm being inflicted by some in the name of religion. We can say to the culture that this is NOT what we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to do. I urge you to approve Item [11-15]. Thank you.
Sylvia Thorson-Smith is a member of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and co-author of Item [11-15], On Religious Freedom Without Discrimination.