Our neighbor George, who saw the award-winning play "The Andersonville Trial," recently commented on the words of Confederate Capt. Henry Wirz, who commanded the garrison at Andersonville. He was court-martialed because of the way he treated Union prisoners of war. His defense was that he "could not disobey orders — I could not disobey," which he said again and again. George said it reminded him of the words of Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage certificates to gay couples, saying she was operating under "God's authority." Her understanding of the authority of God came from her interpretation of Holy Scripture.
Speaking of bowing to a higher authority, I remember the biblical account of how the followers of Jesus were forbidden by the local authorities to teach in the name of Jesus. Their defense was: "We must obey God rather than men" (NRSV Acts 5.29).
In Davis' case, George added, she claimed that her religious freedom had been violated. She was opposed to same-sex marriage and therefore refused to issue marriage certificates. She put her personal religious beliefs above the law she took an oath to uphold. Is it possible that the stand of Davis was civil defiance, not civil disobedience, and certainly not a violation of her religious freedom? If she could not fulfill her elected duty she could always resign. But this does not negate her constitutional right to practice her religious belief. She is free to believe whatever she wishes, including opposition to same-sex marriage.
The followers of Jesus were practicing civil disobedience when they placed the authority of God over human authority. They felt that the order or law that forbade them to speak about Jesus was unjust and, in disobeying, they were willing to face the consequences.
Civil disobedience by defying laws that a person or group feels are unjust is part of the tradition of our nation. For example, riding on bus 2857 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks broke the local law by refusing to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus. Her disobedience became a key part of the early civil rights movement. Eventually this unjust law was changed.
The first article of the Bill of Rights states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…" What do the words "the free exercise" of religion mean? The issue of religious freedom in today's increasingly secular society has become a serious concern for committed religious people. It is very possibly becoming one of the more important religious issues of the day for some believers.
A definition of religious freedom is often tied to the freedom of personal belief and speech. It is associated with the right to have fellowship or assembly with those who share the same beliefs and, beyond that, the right to share the faith with others, even inviting them to become part of the same religious fellowship. For still others it means that it is not only freedom of religion but freedom from religion.
Throughout the world religious minorities have seen their religious freedoms increasingly denied. They have often been hounded and persecuted for their faith. Those who follow Jesus have been told in some areas to convert to another religious faith, pay a fine or die. Many have given their lives rather than deny the faith they and their families hold so dear. The number of Christians in the Middle East has increasingly been dropping because of harassment and persecution. On my first trip to Bethlehem there was a large community of Christ followers that we met, shared meals with and had fellowship. Today, many of them have left for safety reasons. Some believe that the only reason that some Christian shrines, such as the Church of the Holy Nativity, are allowed to exist is because of the tourist money that comes from tours and pilgrimages.
What does religious freedom mean to you? Was the county clerk in Kentucky right in claiming that her religious freedom had been denied? Does your interpretation of the Bible determine what stand you will take?
Let the dialogue continue. I only ask that you think on these things!
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The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis "Lou" Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.