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Consider . . .

Last Sabbath, the Adventist Church celebrated Religious Liberty Day. The principle of religious liberty is at the core of our ethos as Seventh-day Adventists. You could say that it is a part of our denominational DNA. Our status as a minority faith, even in comparison to other Christians, further underscores our emphasis on this important element of the religious and spiritual experience. So the church celebrates religious liberty as a means of protection but also as an obligation to advocacy, for ourselves and other groups who are similarly situated. It seems, however, that our understanding of religious liberty is moving away from these tried-and-true principles. It behooves us to be reminded of what religious liberty should be—and what it is not.

Adventists who are interested in the issue of religious liberty are well familiar with the story of Adell Sherbert. Sherbert was a textile mill worker in South Carolina. Two years after her conversion to Adventism, the mill where she worked changed its operating hours and required all employees to work on Saturday. When she raised her religious objection, she was fired. After she was unable to find other work, she applied for unemployment compensation. The state denied her claim, finding that the mill fired her for insubordination, and so she was not eligible for state benefits. Her case made its way to the Supreme Court, where it ruled in her favor. The Court established what became known as the Sherbert Test, which posited that for the state to encumber a citizen’s free exercise of religion, it must be in service of a compelling state interest and narrowly tailored to accomplish that interest.[1] Through Sherbert, religious adherents received the strongest protection legally possible for their free exercise. The Sherbert Test was the encumbered rationale in free exercise cases for almost three decades.[2] This is religious liberty at its best—using the principles of religious freedom to protect yourself from the overreach of the state in a way that aids you but does not harm others.

Unfortunately, many Christians in the modern era now use the principles of religious liberty to protect their right to free exercise but show little to no concern for who else may be harmed by their free exercise. Moreover, little consideration is given to the idea that there even are other people who are affected by their free exercise and that those unconsidered people are losing their ability to exercise their faith as they see fit. When conservative evangelical Christians celebrate the Dobbs decision, we scarcely take into account the women who have spiritual beliefs about when human personhood begins that would allow them to terminate their pregnancies. When some Christians are overjoyed about the ability of a state employee to pray at the 50-yard line after a game, no one considers the children who feel compelled to pray against their beliefs because of the influence of their coach. When the church supports legislation that harms the LGBTQ community, little to no thought is given to the fact that those children of God are following their religious beliefs as well, and that we have made ourselves agents of their oppression. This is not the type of religious liberty that we should espouse. This is the type we should shun, standing with these groups to support their right to live their beliefs as freely as possible, even if we disagree about the beliefs themselves.

Notes & References:

[1] Legal scholars will recognize this as strict scrutiny.

[2] I should admit that I used the Sherbert v. Verner Wikipedia page to refresh my recollection. Also, the Court’s standard in free exercise cases changed in 1990 in the case Oregon v. Smith, which modified the standard to whether the law was a neutral law of general applicability.


Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at

Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found by clicking here.

Title image: US Supreme Court by Kurt Kaiser, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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