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Will Secular Politics Sabotage Your Religious Freedom?

Posted on May 28, 2019
Will Secular Politics Sabotage Your Religious Freedom?

Not long ago—just 26 years ago, in fact—both major political parties in the United States agreed that freedom of religion was important. So much so that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed almost unanimously by both houses of the Congress of the United States, then signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

Fast forward to 2019 and a different picture emerges, signaling perhaps a deeper divide over the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

National Public Radio (NPR) addressed these questions recently in a report centered on the case of Darrell Patterson, a Florida man who lost a well-paying job with Walgreens over Sabbathkeeping.

Patterson, who was employed by the drugstore mega-chain for six years without incident over his not working on the Sabbath day, was suddenly terminated for refusing a summons to show up for work on a Saturday; the company that had accommodated his religious beliefs was apparently no longer willing to do so. (For more details on the Patterson case, read this earlier report.)

Advocates hope that the Supreme Court of the United States will hear Patterson’s case and rule more favorably on the right of Sabbathkeepers to freely exercise their faith while keeping their jobs. That decision has yet to be announced, however.


Religious Freedom Law at Stake

Interestingly, according to NPR, earlier cases involving what many Christians call the Bible Sabbath and other “minority” faith practices led to the passage of RFRA—and might lead to limitations on this statute.

In 1993, a freshman member of Congress, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York City, stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and said this after a Supreme Court ruling limiting the free exercise of religion: “Unless the Smith decision [is] overturned, the fundamental religious right of all Americans to keep the Sabbath, observe religious dietary laws, to worship as their consciences dictate, will remain threatened.”

Rep. Nadler was one of the sponsors of RFRA and is now chairman of the House Judiciary Committee—one of the key panels in Congress.

NPR reporter Tom Gjelten noted that the intervening years since RFRA’s 1993 passage have brought about a change on the part of Nadler and others in Congress. “As conservatives focused the religious freedom issue almost exclusively around issues of sexuality and marriage, Democrats turned away,” he reported. “They're backing an Equality Act, which would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. One provision specifically says the [RFRA] cannot apply in these discrimination cases. Jerrold Nadler, originally a RFRA co-sponsor, this year co-sponsored the Equality Act.”

The NPR story quoted Rep. Bobby Scott, Democrat of Virginia: “RFRA was originally enacted to serve as a safeguard for religious freedom but recently has been used as a sword to cut down the civil rights of too many individuals.”

While the issue of marriage and how it’s defined is a contentious one, the notion of limiting the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act should be of concern to people who are not involved in arguments over marriage. After all, if RFRA can be limited in one area by a subsequent statute, what’s to prevent a future Congress from restricting RFRA’s guarantees in other areas, including Sabbath accommodation where employers claim “hardship” when asked to comply?

Attorney Todd McFarland, an associate general counsel for the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s world headquarters, told NPR, “Democrats used to feel like they needed to be on the right side of religious liberty, and they don’t anymore. And when that is no longer a value, that’s a problem.”

At the same time, McFarland opposes conservative efforts to mandate Bible reading and prayer in schools, saying, “We are not trying to see the U.S. government impose any type of ideology. We have long believed that government and church need to stay in their separate spheres.”

Holly Holman, an attorney with the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, also says that both sides are at fault: “It is unfortunate that some on the right will use religious freedom in order to advance a particular partisan issue. I think it is problematic on the left to cede arguments about religious freedom to just say people just use that now to advance an anti-LGBT perspective.”

Sabbath in the Crosshairs
In other words, the Sabbath could very well get caught in the crosshairs of future religious liberty debates. If a majority in Congress, from either party, believe RFRA’s time has come and gone, the law’s scope could be limited even more, rendering its guarantees meaningless. (Even those who do not observe the seventh-day Sabbath might be concerned as RFRA has been used, successfully, to guarantee the rights of those who refuse to work on Sunday as well.)

Should that happen—absent a Supreme Court ruling favoring Sabbathkeeping—then this might also pave the way for a society that says Sunday is the preferred day of rest for workers, beliefs notwithstanding. Too far a stretch? Sunday campaigners in Europe have championed “family togetherness” on the first day of the week as a key element of their political activism.

What will happen in the future, both in the Patterson case and to the greater protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is yet to be determined. For those who are concerned with their own freedom and that of their neighbors, The Sabbath in Prophecy is a good place to begin a search for understanding on the topic. Also useful is The Sabbath and the Mark of the Beast.

Whatever happens, the message is clear: Keeping the Bible Sabbath will become a serious issue—a life-and-death matter even—in the final days of Earth’s history. You owe it to yourself to be as informed as possible, so that you and your family can prepare for what lies ahead.

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