Some years ago, evangelical Christians watched closely as Hobby Lobby successfully prevented the government from violating the Green family’s conscience on abortion. Many of us also stood with the Little Sisters of the Poor when they fought similar government pressure to force nuns to pay for contraception.
Sometimes, though, when the case involves a religion we might not know about in a place we’ve never been, we might be tempted to assume the dispute is someone else’s problem. But in the context of religious liberty cases—even obscure ones—another faith group’s pain point will eventually become ours.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving with loved ones this week and as our nation observes Native American Heritage Day, some of us are thinking about Oak Flat, Arizona—a government-controlled forestland the Apache people consider sacred. The group Apache Stronghold is currently in a legal battle with the federal government, after the nation’s leaders tried to go back on their word to protect Oak Flat and turn it over to a foreign-owned copper mine.
This case will not be talked about around the coffeepot at church and probably won’t trend on Christian Twitter, but it will have major implications for religious freedom.
Here are the details of the case: In late October, the Apache people asked a federal court of appeals to block the land transfer, force the government to honor their agreement to protect Oak Flat, and ensure the forestland remains a sacred dwelling for generations to come. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will issue its verdict on the land within the next several weeks.
At the heart of the battle is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Passed with overwhelming and bipartisan support in 1993, RFRA is the law that protected Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters, and countless others seeking to live out their deepest-held religious beliefs. In the Apache case, the Biden administration is arguing that RFRA does not apply to what it views as internal government operations. That interpretation would have negative implications for all of us, in ways that would apply broadly and rapidly.
Right now, for example, multiple Christian schools are facing lawsuits about whether the government can force them to employ teachers who reject the schools’ theological beliefs on human sexuality.
Those are high-profile cases, but there are countless others, including many that involve small congregations dealing with government intrusion on their beliefs and practices. Every religious group—not just the Apache people—would feel the effects of a gutted RFRA. The negative implications for churches and other houses of worship would have been unthinkable just a few years ago—losses of freedoms the RFRA was meant to ensure in the first place.
RFRA cases are connected. A case about a minority religion’s right to eagle feathers in worship may in theory be the precedent for the courts stopping the government from forbidding an evangelical ministry’s work with the urban poor. The local Christian school and Apache Stronghold may seem widely divergent—and they are, theologically—but these cases stand or fall together when it comes to applying the law in a way that respects our First Amendment freedoms.
The primary reason to support religious freedom for all people is because it’s the right thing to do. If we believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then we want a public square in which we can speak openly to people’s minds and hearts and consciences. That gospel cannot be issued like a driver’s license, and it shouldn’t be regulated like a marijuana dispensary. If Jesus had wanted us to coerce people into pretending to be Christians, he would have given Peter back his sword instead of giving us the Great Commission.
But we also need to realize that apathy toward religious freedom for those with whom we disagree is self-defeating. Once Caesar—any Caesar—is empowered to disregard the deepest-held religious convictions of one people, you can be sure that another person in power will turn the same procedures against others.
Oak Flat is a historic site considered sacred to the Apache and essential to their worship. If the government can destroy it, make no mistake that some future government will feel free to use the same measures against your church building if there’s copper to be mined underneath. The problem, then, is not just about them but also us.
Russell Moore directs Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project and is a board member at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (BFRL). Luke Goodrich is senior counsel at BFRL and the author of Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America.
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