A recent appeals court ruling holds promise for Christians concerned about how quickly many colleges and universities have accepted the new orthodoxy on gender identity and seem intent to punish everyone who disagrees. The case began in 2018 when Nicolas Meriwether was disciplined by Shawnee State University for refusing to use a student’s chosen gender pronouns. While a lower court had dismissed his case for lack of standing, the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that he can argue that his First Amendment rights were violated and that his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process had been ignored.
The 32-page opinion, written by Trump-appointed Judge Amul Thapar, makes the case that a professor’s speech in the classroom is protected by the first amendment and that a professor cannot be compelled to say that which goes against his conscience and religious beliefs. The opinion covers more than just the speech of professors in a classroom. The judge also argued that the government cannot prescribe what constitutes a correct opinion on difficult issues and has no power to compel citizens to state their agreement.
Judge Thapar argued that the first amendment protects both “the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.” He further stated that the government “may not compel affirmance of a belief with which the speaker disagrees.”
These statements by the judge carry significant implications for Christians who resist our culture’s new sexual orthodoxy. If other judges rely on his work in deciding future cases, it could signal that Christians have increasing freedom to speak biblical truth in the public square without the threat of government retribution. This would especially apply when Christians talk about controversial issues and take positions that run counter to narratives that the government wants to put on the broad public.
If you listen carefully to more liberal politicians talk about the First Amendment’s freedoms, you will hear them refer to the “freedom of worship.” This is their way of saying that what Christians believe is only protected as long as they keep it in the four walls of the church. However, that is not what the first amendment says. It states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Nowhere in the First Amendment is there language suggesting that freedom of religion is limited to the physical space where churches worship. Instead, the framers of the Bill of Rights envisioned a great debate in the public square, and they worded the First Amendment so that those who depart from majority positions would be protected as they express their religious beliefs.
While some prominent Christians have recently argued that the freedom of religion is not an important concept, Judge Thapar demonstrated how the First Amendment reigns in the government’s ability to force American citizens to betray their own conscience. He said, “Government officials violate the First Amendment whenever they try to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’”
Quoting from the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, he said they also run afoul of the First Amendment when they “force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
In other words, the government has no right to decide what is a correct opinion on matters of politics, religion or any other controversial issue and then force citizens to mouth their agreement with the government’s decision.
In our current cultural climate, every word out of the mouth of a Christian who takes the Bible seriously is going to be controversial. Even basic doctrines that are acknowledged by almost every Christian denomination draw sneers from critics. Our belief that God created the world, that human beings are made in the image of God, that every person has been affected by the pollution of sin, that God judges wickedness, that our only hope is found in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ, that each Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus is coming again are often mocked by the culture and in the halls of prestige and power. When you turn to controversial social issues where conservative evangelicals argue that the Bible has specific teachings about gender, marriage, sexuality, and abortion, the sneers turn into shouts.
Judge Thapar’s decision speaks to our freedom to express what we believe Scripture teaches about these issues free from government declarations about what we ought to believe. If what Judge Thapar says about the professor in the classroom is true, how much more would it be true about the average Christian living in the public square? “If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity. A university president could require a pacifist to declare that war is just, a civil rights icon to condemn the Freedom Riders, a believer to deny the existence of God, or a Soviet émigré to address his students as ‘comrade.’”
In one sense, Christians do not need freedom of religion. The Apostles preached the Gospel without freedom of religion or speech and saw thousands come to Christ. They also had jail cells waiting for them in every city, faced difficult persecution, and many died for their proclamation of the faith. They found hope in Christ through their persecutions and believed that they were sharing in the sufferings of their Savior. If the freedom of religion were to disappear from the American Constitution tomorrow, American Christians would have the same hope whatever difficulties may await us.
At the same time, we live in a nation of laws, many of which are aimed at restraining government power. As citizens of this nation, it is important that we hold our government accountable to respect its own laws. This is especially true in the area of speech and freedom of religion. The government is not God. It has neither the right nor the authority to compel agreement and speech from its citizens. The Constitution does not allow the government to only permit speech that it finds acceptable or, as Judge Thapar said, “wield its authority to categorically silence dissenting viewpoints.”
Christians can and should declare the Gospel to our friends and neighbors. We must also weigh in on difficult cultural discussions about controversial issues, appealing to the biblical witness about these issues. We should also expect pushback, which gives us the opportunity to persuade. And thanks to this ruling by the 6thCircuit of Appeals, we have greater freedom to make our case without government interference.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
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Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”