The Seventh-day Adventist Church has long promoted the idea of religious liberty. In promotion of these values, the Adventist church publishes Liberty Magazine. While I am often concerned about the direction that the church has taken on some religious liberty issues, I have found that Liberty takes a very balanced approach to these important issues in our church. This past week I was surprised by an article published in the most recent issue of Liberty. Dr. Nicholas Miller wrote an article entitled, “A Secular Threat to Religious Freedom.” In the interest of full disclosure, it is important for me to say that I know Dr. Miller personally. He was my professor for the church state seminar that is offered at the seminary at Andrews University. The article began as I would have expected based on what I understand of Dr. Miller’s position on church-state issues. He began by comparing and equating the secularism of the French Revolution to the movement of secularism present in the U.S. today that has led to the acceptance of homosexuals and gay marriage. Dr. Miller considers it to be a threat to the basic, natural, moral order of society and that Christians should defend and promote traditional marriage in America. To that end, Dr. Miller has also helped to edit a book stemming from a conference on gay marriage in 2009, Homosexuality, Marriage, and the Church – Biblical, Counseling, and Religious Liberty Issues. The book examines the question of gay marriage from a theological and political perspective, and also includes sections on how to address issues of homosexuality in the Adventist church and testimonials (I assume) from people who once identified as gay but do so no longer.
But then the article took a turn that quite frankly I did not expect. Dr. Miller expressed misgivings about a recent Supreme Court case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC. (You can find an article summarizing the decision here.) While he believes that the case was rightly decided, he is concerned because the rights of the individual were subjugated to the rights of a religious institution. He closes the article by saying,
The individual’s standing before God is of highest import; this standing must be respected by both the state and the church, and our system of rights is first and foremost meant to defend individual, personal rights . . . We must beware of political candidates, or any other civic or religious leaders, who insist that the threat to religious freedom comes only, or even primarily, from an antireligious secularism. Religious people and forces have shown themselves well capable of doing just as effective a job at trampling on the religious rights of the individual.
I do not disagree with Dr. Miller on this point. In fact, I made the same point for the Liberty Magazine Roundtable at the time the case was about to be decided. What surprises me about this turn is that Dr. Miller does not address or explain what seems to be an apparent contradiction with the first half of the piece. If Dr. Miller is concerned with individual and personal rights, then why is he critical of the extension of those rights to homosexuals? I’m not exactly sure, but I think it might have something to do with the fact that they’re gay. If that is the case, I don’t believe that answer makes sense.
The problem here seems to be an essential difference between the teacher at the center of Hosanna Tabor case and homosexuals who want the right to marry in civil society. The difference seems to be that we know that the teacher is a parishioner. In fact, she has been deemed a minister by the church. Therefore, when her rights are violated, they are the religious rights of an employee of a church. But Dr. Miller would not want to extend these rights to those who do not share some basic traditional notion of faith, or in areas that seem to affect whatever he wants to define as the natural order of society. Here are some questions that strike to the heart of the contradiction. What happens when the right of gay marriage is a religious right as well? Why does it even matter to deem the right of gay marriage “religious” at all? How do we define the natural moral order of society? How do we adjudicate rights for those who do not agree with Dr. Miller’s definition? My depiction of the argument may not be accurate, (in fact I am sure Dr. Miller would say that it is not) but I do not think we can escape this essential problem—Dr. Miller is advocating that religious institutions should be careful not to trample on the rights of an individual parishioner, but he is willing to have churches and religiously-affiliated institutions trample on the rights of those who do not agree with his theology (or more likely, his notion of what is a part of the basic natural moral order of society). Gay marriage is a civil benefit that some people are fighting to have extended to those who love people of the same sex. Dr. Miller himself admits that churches will probably not be forced to solemnize gay marriages. If he is right, then all he is fighting for is for his conception of marriage to be enforced on everyone, even those who disagree. To do this would be to become exactly what he warns us of—a religious person doing an effective job of trampling the religious rights of the individual.
—Jason Hines is an attorney and doctoral student in Church-State Studies at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Harvard Law School, he blogs about religious liberty, local Adventist church life, Eagles football, and other topics at Hine Sight where this was originally posted.