March 30, 2017
No one would say learning to identify and help victims of domestic violence is a bad thing. Indeed, it sounds almost universally helpful. So, what's the big deal about a legislative proposal in Illinois requiring pastors to be trained in this area?
The substance is not the problem. As a general matter, pastors should gain knowledge and skills which help them to do their job better. That may reasonably include the ability to identify victims of domestic violence.
The problem here though, as our friends at the Illinois Family Institute point out, is a principle assumed by this proposal -- the principle that the State can require pastors to do something simply because it is the State, and it has force to back up its demands. This idea runs anathema to a long history of religious freedom in the American tradition, which protects our ability to freely worship God and give to him what is owed in that relationship without the interference of the State. Moreover, our law recognizes and protects this relationship.
As the Supreme Court, unanimously and recently affirmed only several years ago in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the First Amendment protects the ability of religious organizations (including churches) to freely hire and fire those responsible for administering religious doctrine completely free of any interference by the State. In addition, under what is known as the church autonomy doctrine, the First Amendment bars the State from intruding into and deciding intra-religious disputes. For example, the government can t weigh in on whether it thinks the Catholic Church got a question of doctrine on marriage correct, or whether the Southern Baptist Convention included the right language in a statement on race relations.
Moreover, even state efforts to bring churches under public accommodation laws -- where they might be more vulnerable -- have been rejected. The states of Iowa and Massachusetts recently published administrative guidance regarding the application of their state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity, and the guidance claimed the laws cover churches in some instances. Yet when several churches pushed back with legal action, the states amended their guidance by striking the provisions binding churches.
As Illinois shows us, however, the struggle over this issue is not going away. We must be ever vigilant against attempts by the State to assume -- and assert -- authority over our churches and our relationship with God.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.