Is the age-old struggle to preserve religious freedom now at an end in this nuclear age? Is separation of church and state a closed matter? Do the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution absolutely assure our religious freedom in this modern age? Or did the Founding Fathers only create a climate whereby each succeeding American generation could take up the gauntlet and fight to preserve the 'great principle of freedom of religion?
Never at any time in history has the world been enveloped by freedom of religion. There has always been an ongoing struggle to first obtain and then preserve individual freedom of worship. Of course, threats to religious liberty have been many times greater in some periods of history than others. Now another time of great trial is upon us. In many ways the dangers and problems we now face are far greater and infinitely more complex than the perils which confronted our ancestors. But let us first summarize the historical struggle between church and state — between freedom of choice and dictated worship.
The Historical Antecedents
Religious liberty began in the Garden of Eden. God gave our first parents a clear choice — freedom to worship Him or outright spiritual slavery. You know the story, The Arch-deceiver persuaded Adam and Eve that black was white and evil was good. Their judgment was clouded by their own intellectual vanity. They chose slavery! Twenty-five hundred years later the nation of Israel found itself in both civil arid religious bondage. Freedom of worship was nonexistent in Egypt. We must assume the Israelites had ceased to observe their sacred Sabbath day. By the time they left Egypt they had no idea upon which day the Sabbath fell. Probably they were forced to gather bricks and straw seven days a week. Their slavery was total! Finally God sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh with a message: "Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness" (Ex. 5:1). Obviously religious festivals were held in disfavor anywhere in "civilized" Egypt. Afterwards Moses repeatedly pleaded with Pharaoh: "Let my people go, that they may serve their God." But the Egyptian Pharaoh was obstinate. Be stubbornly refused until the land of Egypt was drenched with the blood of his own people. In the interim he had suggested self-serving solutions: "Go, serve the Lord; your children also may go with you; only let your flocks and your herds remain behind" (Ex. 10:24, RSV). This kind of extortion is not without its parallels today. But Moses protested: "Our cattle also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind" (Ex. 10:26, RSV). He did not compromise one whit with this archextortioner. Finally the Israelites were delivered from Egyptian slavery. For a short time there was one nation on this earth enjoying total religious liberty. But their freedoms were short-lived. Very soon they were involved in a whole series of periodic slaveries. The book of Judges in the Old Testament depicts one foreign invasion after another, with each one being followed by brief deliverances brought about by various Judges. It is very unlikely that any of these invaders allowed much religious freedom. They were devoted to their gods. Shortly after Solomon's reign, Israel and Judah split into two entirely separate nations. And in a matter of a very few centuries one followed the other into captivity. The northern house of Israel never did return to Palestine. But a colony of the Jews was sent back to Jerusalem during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. For untold centuries the city of Jerusalem has been a symbol of religious liberty and freedom to more than one faith. Ironically, both the civil and religious leaders turned this symbol of liberty and freedom into one of bondage by the time of Christ. And do not blame the Romans for this strange turnabout of events. The Roman Empire allowed the Jewish vassal state a measure of both civil and religious freedom.
Jesus Christ Struggles for Religious Liberty
Jesus of Nazareth constantly argued against the abuses of the theological system of His day. Jesus charged: "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites [the religionists of the day]! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in" (Matt. 23:13). That was a serious indictment! The clergy was, in effect, prohibiting the true worship of God. Jesus' attempts to free men spiritually were soon met with stiff opposition. Persecution from religious leaders set in swiftly. Repeatedly the leading members of the Sanhedrin plotted against Jesus (see John 11:48-53). The apostles who followed Jesus suffered similar persecutions. Finally, by A.D. 135, both the adherents of Christianity and Judaism were driven out of Jerusalem. The Romans did crack down — and hard. First the armies of Titus in A.D. 70; then the crushing of the Bar-Cocheba rebellion in A.D. 135. Except for the "little flock" (Luke 12:32), the true Church forced virtually underground by persecution, men did not really follow Jesus Christ and Moses in the many centuries that ensued. Followers of Simon the Sorcerer, who became the Roman Catholic Church, professed to teach and practice the true religion, but their doctrines were perversions of the truth. Christianity was stained by the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Religious battles raged throughout Europe in the Dark Ages. The soil of the Old World was drenched with the blood of millions of martyrs. Tyndale lost his life for daring to translate the Scriptures into everyday English. Church leaders had feared spiritual anarchy if every man had his own Bible. The church-state scheme of things was not working out. In quest for religious liberty and freedom of worship, men and women began to leave the persecutions of the Old World for the challenges of the New. But their persecutors were not far behind. Pioneer thinking in Protestant areas which sought the supremacy of the individual conscience in religious matters was being overtaken by rigid Puritanism.
Early American Battles for Religious Freedoms
The Founding Fathers clearly perceived that the religiopolitical scheme of joint sovereignty had not protected human rights nor freedom of conscience in the nations of Europe. Church and state had mixed like oil and water. Some other system simply had to be found. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are both on display in the Library of Congress. Let us now begin to understand how these and other important documents came to be formulated. But we are not unaware of the fact that you cannot have religious freedom without political freedom. The two hang together. The Founding Fathers of this nation came to our shores to escape the clutches of state-sponsored religions that used the power of the state to persecute those of different religious beliefs. The Founding Fathers knew that religion had to be separated from political authority. No person, they firmly believed, should be interfered with by the state in his right to believe or not to believe, or to affiliate or not to affiliate with a church. But do not think that these abuses, injustices and outrages were confined solely to England and the continent of Europe. Many in the thirteen colonies were adamantly opposed to this "new order of things" taking shape in the minds of thinking men throughout New England and the other American colonies. Indeed, a heavy "loyalist" element was present right up to 1776 and even beyond. Soon the very religious intolerance which our forefathers fled from Europe to escape was plaguing the American colonies. For instance, a law emerged on the statute books of Virginia in 1610 requiring Sunday attendance at church under penalty of death for persistent violation. Fines were assessed against those who rejected the doctrine of infant baptism. Other laws were enacted in Virginia forbidding travel on Sunday. These colonial statutes not only reflect state interference in man's private religious affairs, but also astounding ignorance of the actual biblical requirements. But let's not pick on Virginia alone. In 1647 Massachusetts enacted a law banning Catholic priests from within its boundaries. First offenders were to be imprisoned or exiled; and, believe it or not, second offenders risked the death penalty. Quakers faced the same fate in Massachusetts. Other American colonies also had their religious laws. And do not think that these laws conveniently disappeared from state statute books when the Constitution of the United States was finally ratified. Notice this vital statement in the American State Papers on Freedom of Religion: "When the Union was formed and a constitutional government was ordained on the basis of total separation of church and state, there were certain religious jealousies and prejudices which prevailed in various sections of the country and which could not be overcome without jeopardizing the ratification of the Constitution and the setup of the Federal government. "As a consequence, the various States were permitted to retain upon their statute books religious laws which were diametrically opposed to the fundamental principles of religious liberty and human rights as set forth in the Federal Constitution. These un-American laws and religious tests have remained upon some State statute books to plague American citizens and courts until this present time" (p. 12). Can you now begin to realize what our Founding Fathers were up against?
Jefferson and Madison
It is axiomatic that all Americans owe the Founding Fathers a great debt for our vast religious freedoms. Each one contributed to these liberties something a little different from the other. However, the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, was a real champion of religious freedom. In addition to writing the bill for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson was a philosophical "father figure" to the Bill of Rights. His ardor for religious liberty was an unquenchable fire. He pressed hard for both freedom of worship and freedom from the oppressions of a state church. As one writer put it, speaking of Jefferson's Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom: "... the preamble hurls fire and brimstone upon the hypocrisy and tyranny long associated in Jefferson's 'mind with the alliance of church and state, and the unusual final clause contains a Jeffersonian warning to the legislature that any act hereafter framed repealing or narrowing its operation 'will be an infringement of natural right.'" The heart, root and core of his bill for religious freedom in Virginia is found in section two: "We, the General Assembly of Virginia, do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burdened in his body or goods, or shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." Jefferson's Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom was the philosophical progenitor of the religious portions of the later Bill of Rights. Religion was not only to be tolerated, but a man's personal religious beliefs and practices were to be protected by law. In his sunset years, Jefferson indicated that his battles for religious freedom were perhaps the bitterest of his life. We owe a great deal to this man and to his presidential successor, James Madison. The two worked closely together. For instance, it was Madison who pushed Jefferson's bill through the Virginia state legislature. Madison, our fourth President, excelled in biblical courses as a graduate student at Princeton, especially in Hebrew language studies. He continued his theological studies throughout his life. Yet, in the field of religion, James Madison was first and foremost an advocate of freedom of worship. In helping draft the state constitution of Virginia, Madison wrote the first rough manuscript of the article on religious freedom. We quote it here: "... That religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence: and therefore, that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate, unless under colour of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or safety of Society. And that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other" (The Journal of the Virginia Convention, 1776). Madison had made an historical study of the ecclesiastical problem. He found that state establishment had inevitably led to moral decadence in religious ranks. Yet Christianity had bloomed in the New Testament years and during the Reformation when there was opposition to state establishment of religion.
The First Amendment
But the capstone of President Madison's contribution to religious freedom has to be the inclusion of the First Amendment into the Constitution. It reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Previous to its inclusion, the fear that the Constitution had not provided sufficient guarantees for religious liberty was enunciated by a whole host of early American patriots. Writing from Paris on December 20, 178 7, Thomas Jefferson expressed his concern to James Madison: "I will now add what I do not like. First, the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion..." (Papers of James Madison, Vol. VIII, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress). As he had done before, Madison was instrumental in giving Jefferson's views (which he shared) the force of law. But the struggle did not end with the inclusion of the Bill of Rights into the Constitution. Old ideas die hard. Enormous pressures were put on Congress and government officials to formulate this or that religious law. Petitions and protests came from every sector of the country. It would not be easy for the fledgling nation to maintain religious liberty. Very soon various of the state legislatures began to pass religious legislation. Liberty would now have to be found at the bar. The courts would have to defend our constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. Courts do not change constitutions, but they do interpret them in order to apply the principle to specific disputes involving human rights and privileges. In general, the higher courts of the land, usually manned by judges of keen intellect, judicial minds and long experience in dealing with human rights, have upheld the federal principles of religious liberty in rendering their decisions.
Although the state governments have tended to lag behind the national government in their legal expressions of support for constitutional religious freedom, due credit must be given to those which have guaranteed freedom of worship in their constitutions. Ironically, sometimes a state legislature may even pass laws in contravention to its own constitution. California is a case in point. We quote article I, section 4 of California's constitution: "The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be guaranteed in this State; and no person shall be rendered incompetent to be a witness or juror on account of his opinions on matters of religious belief; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State." Yet section 9505 of the state Corporations Code states: "A non-profit corporation which holds property subject to any public or charitable trust is subject at all times to examination by the Attorney General, on behalf of the State, to ascertain the condition of its affairs and to what extent, if at all, it may fail to comply with trusts which it has assumed or may depart from the general purposes for which it is formed. In case of any such failure or departure the Attorney General shall institute, in the name of the State, the proceedings necessary to correct the noncompliance or departure." Based entirely on a misinterpretation of section 9505, the Worldwide Church of God was placed in receivership by the Los Angeles Superior Court on January 3, 1979, after the California attorney general's office and six ex-church members accused church officers of misuse of funds. And although the receivership has since been lifted, the damages sustained by the church are incalculable, including an estimated $15 million shortfall in cash that otherwise would have been received in the current calendar year. The drastic decision to impose a documentary receivership on the church was finally reached when a California judge was told that the church was selling its Big Sandy campus for $10 million when it was allegedly worth $30 million. The church has since shown that the appraised value of the property was only about $6 million. The lawsuit itself was filed in a rather surreptitious manner. The complaint against the church called for, among other things, the removal of the existing directors of the church. When the receiver did show up on church premises, along with security forces and representatives of the attorney general's office, he had failed to give the church any prior notice of his attempt to seize its operations. For many years the Worldwide Church of God has enjoyed a tax-exempt status as a nonprofit religious institution. Because of its tax status and section 9505 of the state Corporations Code, California contends that it can now intervene in church business affairs and still not be in contravention of the traditional principle of separation of church and state. Section 9505 of the California Corporations Code is obviously unconstitutional to the extent that it applies to churches organized as nonprofit corporations. It plainly violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and, ironically, article 1, section 4 of the California constitution, itself. It interferes with the free exercise of religion. It constitutes an establishment of religion to the extent that it provides authority for the executive and judicial branches of state government to obtain a receiver or otherwise inspect, control or seize assets and supervise or review policies of religious organizations and their leaders. It deprives churches of the equal protection of the law, in that it purports to affect the rights and privileges of religious organizations set up as nonprofit corporations and does not similarly affect the rights and privileges of ecclesiastical organizations that are not nonprofit. If section 9505 is not wholly unconstitutional on its face, it has been unconstitutionally applied by the executive and judicial branches of the state of California.
Religious Liberty Imperiled
There are numerous other examples in this situation of the unconstitutional use of state power to afflict religious institutions and freedom of worship in direct contravention of the traditional American principle of separation of church and state. But suffice it to say here that the Worldwide Church of God in particular has sustained enormous damages to its entire scope of operations at the hands of the state of California. The assets of religious bodies cannot be allowed to become the public property of any state. If the course that the state of California has embarked upon is not stopped in its tracks, religious liberty and freedom of worship are decidedly on the wane in this great country. I cannot improve on the words of Dr. J. Gordon Melton of The Institute for the Study of American Religion. He wrote: "I call upon all committed to preserving the integrity of our religious institutions and the freedom to propagate our beliefs, set our own priorities, and participate in the American religious scene, to join forces at this hour. Raise the hue and cry. Let all know that we will not stand by and allow our freedoms to be subverted."