Where will they stand? Congress and religious freedom

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By Chuck Colson
Opinion — CHRISTIAN EXAMINER

Many political pundits see this year's mid-term elections as a defining moment. How will the next Congress deal with contentious issues like stem-cell research, judges, immigration reform, Iraq? But it's a pivotal election for another reason as well. What will our leaders in Washington do about the erosion of religious liberty in this country?

American Christians need to wake up to the growing threats to religious freedom. The evidence is everywhere.

Just last year, for example, the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire barred resident assistants (known as RAs) from leading Bible studies in dorm rooms—even though the Bible studies were private activities, not some mandatory dorm-sponsored event. Yet the administration said, "Some residents might not feel that these RAs are approachable because of their strong faith." The mandate was blatantly unconstitutional, and laughably ironic. The year before the administration had commended another RA for hosting the Vagina Monologues as a residence-hall event. Nobody questioned that a play with vulgar themes, strong anti-male bias, and an unmasked pro-lesbian agenda might make RAs unapproachable.

In the end, the administration backed down, but not without illustrating a jarring double-standard when it comes to evangelical Christians.

Earlier this year, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative®, called IFI, the faith-based prison program in Iowa launched by Prison Fellowship, was sued by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. A federal judge in Iowa ruled that IFI was an unconstitutional violation of the establishment clause.

Now let's see, what are we talking about here? Inmates volunteer for the program; they can leave at any time; they can be of any or no faith; and they are not required to convert to graduate from the program. On top of that, the religious element of IFI is privately funded, and the program itself is proven to reduce re-incarceration rates to 8 percent. Whose rights are being violated?

But to make matters worse, the judge drew on supposed "expert testimony" that caricatured evangelical Christianity as a narrow-minded, coercive cult by nature. The judge ruled that it is virtually impossible for a Christian group to perform any public service without proselytizing. His ruling, if upheld, jeopardizes the rights of thousands of Christian groups who offer social services.

Even more jarring is the judge's unprecedented decision to require IFI to repay $1.5 million that the Iowa Department of Corrections paid for secular services rendered by IFI. The state of Iowa does not even want the money back. Yet this decision, if upheld on appeal, signals to all faith-based groups that they are vulnerable not just to litigation, but also to the threat of having to repay the government for services rendered in good faith. The results could be catastrophic, not only for religious organizations from soup kitchens to hospitals to schools, but also to the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on their services.

Look, the bottom line is this: Christians cannot afford to be silent about issues of religious freedom this election season. We must let candidates know that religious freedom is an issue that is vitally important to us. If we don't speak up now, we may find out that we will not be able to speak out in the future.

Copyright© 2006 Prison Fellowship Ministries
Reprinted with permission
BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries