Churches and other religious organizations have been recognized by the Supreme Court as being a benefit to their communities by fostering moral and mental development.1 The Founding Fathers understood the importance of religion in maintaining a moral populace, which is absolutely necessary for government by the people to work.2 It makes sense, then, that protection for religion is enshrined in the First Amendment, which declares in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”3 The italicized words – commonly known as the Free Exercise Clause – protect the religious beliefs and practices of churches and other ministries, as well as the people who make up these organizations.
The Free Exercise Clause offers varying protections, depending upon whether the government action at issue infringes upon beliefs or actions. The Supreme Court has made clear on several occasions that the freedom to believe and profess religious doctrine is absolute.4 And laws which discriminate on the basis of religion are presumptively invalid.5
Freedom to act on religious beliefs, however, is not unlimited. The Free Exercise Clause does not prevent the government from enacting regulations that incidentally interfere with religious practice, as long as such measures are both “neutral” toward religion and “generally applicable” to the community.6 The government generally cannot directly restrict religion or target it by enacting measures that specifically mention religious practices, that are motivated by anti-religious bias, or that affect religious practice alone.7 Moreover, even “neutral” and “generally applicable” rules will almost always be unconstitutional if they infringe upon religious liberty along with another First Amendment right, such as the freedom of speech and association.8 So, if a local government sought to enforce a disturbing-the-peace ordinance against a pastor on the grounds that his sermon at a church meeting in a public park was “offensive,” that government action would implicate both the free exercise of religion and the freedom of speech, and would likely be found unconstitutional. Indeed, the unity of free speech and the free exercise of religion severely limit the government’s ability to regulate religious practice at all.
A. Protecting the right of churches to object to and not be compelled to participate in, or approve of, morally repugnant behavior.
Our country was built upon the idea that religion is a necessary ingredient for a successful democracy. “In America, people understood that to be free themselves, their churches must be free.”9 This vital freedom for churches is protected by a legal doctrine called “church autonomy.” Church autonomy gives religious organizations independence from secular control and the power to decide for themselves matters of church government, as well as those of faith and doctrine.10
Church autonomy protects churches and other ministries from governmental interference in at least four areas. 1) Church doctrine: Courts recognize that the government has no authority to tell a religious organization what it does or does not believe.11 2) Church administration and the governing of its affairs: This includes matters concerning the interpretation of a religious organization’s foundational documents.12 The State has neither the ability nor the expertise to advise religious organizations on how to govern themselves. 3) Employment: The government cannot involve itself in the selection or retention of clergy, ministers, and in many instances, church employees.13 4) Membership: Religious organizations are free to decide matters regarding membership, including qualifications for admission, expected moral behavior, and discipline.14
Violation of the doctrine of church autonomy can take many forms. Those that occur most often involve employment decisions – such as a legal challenge to the firing of a pastor or chaplain at a religious university. Sometimes states also attempt to regulate how pastors and other religious leaders are trained and credentialed. And members sometimes sue churches that terminate their membership because of moral impropriety. All of these areas are protected by church autonomy, and the ministry’s decisions cannot be second-guessed by the government. Religious organizations can only fulfill their role of being the moral conscience of the nation if they maintain independence from the government in situations like these. Churches and other ministries have constitutional protection from interference with their internal affairs by the State.
B. Protecting churches that have had their services disrupted by protestors who have trespassed on, or blocked access to, their property.
Unfortunately, respect for churches and other religious organizations that was once taken for granted in our nation has been seriously eroded after decades of leftist activism.15 Those opposed to the moral standards for which many churches stand have become increasingly brazen in their efforts to intimidate and disrupt church services. For example, a radical anarchist group advocating homosexual behavior disrupted a church service in East Lansing, Michigan. It staged a two-pronged attack, with one group blocking traffic outside the church, while a second group planted within the sanctuary shouted anti-Christian slogans, threw trash, and pulled the fire alarm as they fled the building. All this happened simply because the church taught the orthodox biblical view that homosexual behavior is immoral.
Similar attacks are occurring all too frequently around the country. In most of these instances, there is no constitutional protection against such intimidation and terror tactics, because the wrongdoers are private individuals and groups. But there is a federal statute that protects churches from having their services disrupted and access to their property blocked.16 And most states also have criminal trespass laws that protect churches from these types of invasions.17
This targeting of churches and their members is a relatively new phenomenon, so there have been few cases litigated under the federal law. But there are legal avenues for churches to pursue to protect themselves from such disruptions, and churches should not hesitate to rely upon these laws to ensure that contentious issues are dealt with in a peaceable manner.
Do you know someone who would want to learn more about his or her constitutionally protected rights as a pastor?