By Bob Smietana
In what may seem unusual to those not following current religious liberty debates, talks of cake baking and Hobby Lobby dominated the annual public policy forum at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville.
The panel began with a discussion of LifeWay Research’s recent survey on religious liberty.
Moody Radio host Janet Parshall told the audience meeting that, according the survey, 7 out of 10 Protestant senior pastors say that religious liberty in the US is on the decline.
The research also found half of Americans hold a similar view. “That’s a lot of people,” said Parshall.
Parshall and other panelist at Tuesday’s forum had no shortage of topics for discussion.
They took on issues from Hobby Lobby’s legal battles over the HHS birth-control mandate to controversies over whether Christian bakers should sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples.
Some of their answers were surprising.
“My initial reaction was, ‘bake the cake,’” said Jay Sekulow, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice.
Sekulow said that he knows his view is controversial. But he said that courts would likely frown on Christian business that say their faith doesn’t allow them to serve gay couples.
He said that most judges now equate sexual orientation with race. That means they are unlikely to rule in favor religious liberty challenges to anti-discrimination laws.
That includes a recently proposed law in Arizona, which would grant exemptions from anti-discrimination laws to religious groups.
Sekulow thought that law would not hold up in court. He said that could set a precedent that could restrict religious liberty. “We need a precedent that we have a shot at winning,” he said.
If a state official tried to required pastors to marry same-sex couples, he said, that’s a different story. “That’s the case you want,” he said.
A March 2013 report from LifeWay Research found that 58 percent of Americans think same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue. Almost 2 in 3 (64 percent) think it’s inevitable that same-sex marriage will be legal nationwide.
Other findings from that study: nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) says pastors should be allowed to refuse to officiate same-sex weddings, while more than half (58 percent) say photographers should be allowed to turn down same-sex weddings.
More than 8 in ten (82 percent) say that employers should not be able to refuse employment to someone based on their sexual preference.
According to Religion News Service, a Feb. 2014 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that just over half (51 percent) of Americans say they oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons. That’s down from 62 percent in 2003.
White evangelical Protestants (78 percent) are most likely to oppose same-sex marriage on religion grounds, followed by Black Protestants (61 percent), Catholics (53 percent), and White Mainline Protestants (45 percent).
Pew Research found, in a 2013 report, that more than half of Americans (58 percent) said legalizing same-sex marriage goes against their religious beliefs.
“But about half of those who say that same-sex marriage goes against their beliefs also say that gay couples should have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, said Pew researchers Michael Lipka and David Masci, in a recent blog post.
Craig Parshall, vice-President & General Counsel, National Religious Broadcasters, also said that Christian business should treat gays and lesbians like any other customers.
Parshall did, however, argue that in some cases – such as a photographer who business involves artistic skills – Christian businesses might be able to ask for religious exemption.
But he too urged caution. Bad precedents could hurt churches. But refusing to serve gay customers could also hurt Christian evangelism, he said.
Parshall said he was watching other cases, such as Hobby Lobby’s challenge to the birth-control mandate. That case could affect many religious businesses, he said.
If Hobby Lobby loses, he said, then for-profit religious business have “no religious rights” he said.
He is also monitoring the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. That bill was passed in the Senate last fall but has not passed the House of Representatives.
Parshall worries that the bill does not have adequate exemptions for religious groups or faith-based businesses.
He also is worried about what he called censorship of some viewpoint on social media like Facebook or by companies like Apple, which has banned the work of some groups from the App Store.
Parshall said that he’s seen a growing number of references to “hate speech,” which he said is worrisome. “This hate speech issue is not going away,” he said.
Starnes, author a new book called God Less America, predicted that disputes over religious liberty are unlikely to go away. He called the disputes a sign that Christianity is under attack in the United States.
“I don’t believe it is a war on religious liberty,” he said. “I believe it is a war on evangelical Christianity.”
Cruz urged religious broadcasters and Christian ministers to become more politically active. “The gospel is not just John 3:16,” he said. “We have a responsibility to warn the wicked… silence is not an option.”
A poll released Tuesday from the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Councils (FRC), found support for pushing back against the government.
The poll of 1,000 Americans, taken Feb. 20 to 23, asked if “pastors and churches should challenge the Obama administration when religious liberty is threatened?” Just over 6 in 10 (61 percent) agreed with the statement, according to FRC.
“Americans are looking for pastors to defend religious liberty,” FRC president Tony Perkins said in a statement Tuesday “Religious liberty is our First Freedom and it serves as the foundation for all other freedoms. Communities change when pastors speak up. If pastors will speak to the issues from a redemptive heart, we can see this country turn around.”
Bob Smietana (@bobsmietana) is the senior writer and content editor of Facts & Trends.