LOS ANGELES (Christian Examiner) – When studio officials set a release date for "God's Not Dead 2" – which tells the story of a fictitious religious liberty case – they certainly did not know that the nation would be embroiled in a debate over real-life religious liberty bills.
The film's timing, it seems, couldn't be any better.
Just this week, Georgia's governor disappointed Christians by vowing to veto a religious liberty bill, while North Carolina's governor defended his state's new law that also touches on religious liberty. Both have made national headlines.
"God's Not Dead 2" spotlights a public school history teacher named Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), who is asked by a student about the similarities and differences in the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus. When she gives an honest answer, the parents of the student, represented by the ACLU, take the teacher to court.
Rated PG, the film opens Friday.
Erik Stanley, senior counsel with the religious liberty legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said the film reminded him of "the type and the number of cases that ADF deals with on a daily basis."
"I think of our client, Barronelle Stutzman, the Washington state florist and grandmother who simply did not want to be compelled to use her artistic abilities to be compelled to participate in a [same-sex] ceremony that violates her religious beliefs," Stanley told the Christian Examiner. "But now she stands to lose her business, her home – everything she's worked for her entire life.
"I think of Kelvin Cochran, the former Atlanta fire chief, who was fired simply because on his own time he wrote a book that expressed a Christian belief about sexuality – one that's been a Christian belief since the foundation of Christianity. Unfortunately, we're going to see more cases like that."
The veto threat by Georgia governor Nathan Deal was particularly disheartening, Stanley sad, because the bill would have applied only to churches and faith-based ministries, including religious schools. A host of big corporations, such as Disney, threatened not to work with the state if the bill was signed into law.
"The religious freedom bill that Gov. Deal has said he would veto is a very watered-down religious freedom bill," Stanley said. "All it does is it protects pastors and churches and religious ministries. It protects their ability to hire and fire according to their faith, and for pastors not to be compelled to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. The bill should be uncontroversial, but for Gov. Deal to veto it based upon nothing more than threats and bullying from big business, it highlights in pretty stark terms the battle that we're facing."
The new North Carolina law sets a statewide standard for discrimination laws, thus overturning an LGBT-backed Charlotte transgender law that had allowed men to use women's restrooms, and vice versa. The NBA has responded by threatening to move the 2017 All-Star Game, set for Charlotte.
"The North Carolina bill, all it does is say we're not going to have a patchwork of cities and counties who do their own thing when it comes to public accommodations law; we're going to standardize that as a state," Stanley said. "... What's happened in Georgia and North Carolina are very good examples of where we find ourselves today: a culture that is very hostile to religious exercise."
"God's Not Dead 2" spotlights the religious liberty issue without touching on the controversy over sexuality. Stanley said he hopes the movie gets people discussing the threat to religious freedom.
After screening the film, Stanley said he hopes it accomplishes two things:
"One, is to highlight the real fact that on a daily basis, religious freedom is under attack. One of the things the film does is that at the end, when the credits are rolling, it lists about 25 ADF cases, where people of faith have found themselves in the crosshairs, and ADF has stepped in to represent them," Stanley said. "That just scratches the surface. Certainly, the movie was dramatized, but I hope it highlights that these are very real attacks that do happen on a daily basis.
"But, secondly, I hope that people understand that when they do stand up for their faith, that we can and we do win."