Forced to Go Against Religious Belief—Does the Christian Break the Law?

The time is ripe to ask the question: Can a Christian break the law, and if so, when?

The time is ripe because an Administrative Law Judge and the Civil Rights Commission of Colorado decided that when Jack Phillips, the Christian owner of Masterpiece Cake Shop in Colorado, refused to make a wedding cake for a homosexual couple because it was against his religious belief about marriage being between a man and a woman, he discriminated and violated the couple’s civil rights.  Mr. Phillips says he did not discriminate, in fact, he told the male couple that they could buy any cakes they wanted, but he simply chose not to make wedding cakes for same sex wedding celebrations.

As a result, the court and the Commission has ordered him to bake cakes for homosexual unions and to attend “sensitivity training” or face jail time.  In other words, the court ordered Jack Phillips to go against his religious belief (remember when that was protected by the 1st Amendment) and instead abide by the state’s public accommodation law. (A few words about how they went against all the legal precedent set in this country, later.)

What is a Christian to do?

First, let’s make one assumption or maybe presumption, one rule to follow with regard to the questions being asked:  this article does not have the space to raise the question about whether baking cakes for homosexual couples is right or wrong, nor is it about the homosexual lifestyle, it is about Christian response when the government decides that a Christian cannot exercise his beliefs or when the government restricts his beliefs.  (The questions about homosexuality and its place in Christianity or lack of it are coming in a future article).  This is a much bigger question!  If you have a sincerely held religious belief and the government opposes you and that belief, ordering you to go against that belief or face prison or some other sort of punishment, what should be your (and by implication, the church) response?  That is the question!

Some further examples and hypotheticals.

In Denmark, a minister of any church MUST marry homosexual couples.  (Again, let’s not look at the rights of homosexuals, let’s say for the sake of this article you are opposed to marrying homosexual couples and the reason for your opposition is your religious belief.)  Failure to marry a homosexual couple is illegal and punishable.  What if that was the case in your country-what would you do?

In China, you cannot start a church outside of governmental approval and the government approves or disapproves of what you teach in that church—do you obey the government or break the law?

In many countries, it is illegal to proselytize—do you or should you disobey if that is the case in your country?

In China, the law opposes having more than two children.   It may be that there are forced abortions.  What do you do as a Christian?  Is this of such an outrage to cause a revolution?  Should Christians support revolution for religious freedom?

Have you considered that there is a law that prohibits serving alcohol to minors, yet many churches use wine in communion?  Should they stop or only serve to adults?

What about helping the undocumented foreigner who comes to the US to escape certain death at the hands of the drug cartel?  Does the Christian obey the words of Jesus to welcome the stranger or do you follow the law?  And if you feel that a Christian must obey the law in this instance, then were those Christians who helped slaves escape their owners when it was illegal to do so…wrong?

Where, when and how to we, as Christians draw the line as to what we will allow the government to do?  What do we say to the owner of Masterpiece Cake Shop?

Christian Ethics

Such are the complicated questions and situations of Christian ethics.  But they are more than questions to Mr. Phillips.  He is faced with answering the question or facing jail or some other such punishment.

Norman Geisler, (PhD Loyola University, Founder of Southern Evangelical Seminary) a leading authority on Christian Ethics and author of the leading Christian textbook by the same name devotes a chapter to Civil Disobedience and the Christian [1].  He finds the idea that the government is always right, what he coins radical patriotism, based upon the idea that God ordained government (Rom 3:1), expects obedience (1 Peter 3:5, 6) even to evil authorities (Rom. 13:1, 4) [2].    But he states that while God has ordained government, He has not ordained its evil (Isaiah 10:1, Obad, Jonah 1, and Neh 2)[3].  He cites the subversion of authority by the midwives that rescued Moses, the disobedience of Daniel salvation from the lion’s den, as well as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s deliverance and Peter’s disobedience to those in authority forbidding his preaching [4].  Additionally, Rahab’s subversion should not be ignored, when she deceived those in authority she was rewarded with rescue and becomes a piece of the line of Jesus.

Regarding civil disobedience, Thomas Jefferson said, “Christians have the right to disobey government when it promulgates laws or actions that are contrary to the word of God” [5].  In his book, The Christian Manifesto, Francis Schaeffer said, “Citizens have a moral obligation to resist unjust and tyrannical government [6].   But when is the time right, what are the circumstances that warrant calling government action contrary, unjust or tyrannical?

When is the time right?

There are two views identified by Geisler , the anticompulsion position, which is disobedience of laws that compel us to do evil, and the antipromulgation position, disobedience when the government has established a law contrary to the Word of God [7].  For example, if a law commanded us to abort a child if we already had two, that would be compelling an evil act and should be disobeyed by either position. However, Francis Schaeffer went so far as to say that when the state refuses to allow the teaching of creation in the public schools, it would be time to protest and refuse to submit [8].  Obviously, how you draw the line of evil and oppression make a difference.  There is much more to these positions than there is space to consider here and many more scriptures to consult.  For more, I refer you to Geisler’s book or to a very simple summary here: http://www.apttoteach.org/Theology/Church/pdf/820_Civil_Disobedience.pdf

But how does that play out when considering the issues raised above?  If the law commands you to do evil, the Christian response is easy.  Should a Christian be commanded to abort a baby, the response is refusal (more below).  But what if the law says you cannot welcome the stranger (foreigner) sneaking across the border in order to avoid inscription into a drug cartel?  The manner in which you answer this complex question may indicate your answer to how you would have responded to the Christian unlawfully helping the slave escape.  

How is all of this helping Mr. Phillips?  What should his response be?

Mr. Phillips has been ordered, commanded to bake wedding cakes for homosexual couples or face consequences.  For Mr. Phillips this goes against his religious belief of what marriage is, how God defines it, and preserving the sanctity of it at the same time as serving God.  I want to point out that Mr. Phillips offered to sell this gay couple other goods, his only refusal was to support in any way the “marriage.” 

From what we have read above, Mr. Phillips has clear biblical authority to disobey an unjust law and to refuse to obey the judge’s order.  It is a command from government to do evil for Mr. Phillips.  But what are the steps to be taken?

Manners of civil disobedience

Geisler sums up the biblical manners of disobedience in this way.  You must choose to refuse to obey nonviolently and accept the consequences as did the Hebrew children and Daniel or flee, as Israel fled Egypt, and Obadiah and Elijah fled Jezebel [9].  Of course, in the midst of those things we should also peacefully and actively work to overcome oppression.

A Side Note About Revolution

While Geisler writes that there are no biblical basis for revolution [10], we should be reminded that the United States of America exists out of revolution.  That doesn’t justify it, it simply is a fact.  So where is the scripture that upholds it?  That is another article for another time.

For Jack Phillips

At this point it should be pointed out that I, and I hope my Christian brothers, are in support of Jack Phillips and those at Masterpiece Cake Shop should they disobey the judge’s orders.  In fact, I would encourage such courage and ask everyone reading this post to pray for our brother and realize, “but for the grace of God go I” [11].   In the name of Jesus, may God strengthen you, provide for you and give you courage and wisdom.

A Digression to the Judge, the Court, and the Civil Rights Commission of Colorado

As a lawyer trained at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville School of Law, and an experienced 15 year trial advocate I can say with confidence that any first year law student knows that federal law preempts state law.  This principle has been stated over and over again and as recently as 2008 in Altria Group v. Good, 555 U.S. 70 (2008).  Beyond that is when the Constitution grants a right such as the right to religious freedom in the 1st Amendment.  When such rights are subverted, the Constitution has the Supremecy clause (Article VI, clause 2) that states “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, un the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land and judges in every state shall be bound thereby…”  All judges are bound to follow the constitution and I am in a quandary as to how you have reached your decision.  I understand that you can only decide on the facts before you and so I must accept that you reached this decision without sufficient information.  That said, I am confident this will go the other way on appeal.

[1] Geisler, Norman Christian Ethics, Baker Book House, 1989.

[2] Ibid. at 239.

[3] Ibid. at 240.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. at 242.

[6] Ibid. quoting The Christian Manifesto, Westchester, IL Crossway 1981 at 101.

[7] Geisler, Christian Ethics at 243.

[8] Ibid. quoting The Christian Manifesto at 110.

[9] Ibid. at 247.

[10] Ibid.

[11] A statement believed to have been made by John Bradford in the 1500s.  Bradford was arrested and burned at the stake for crimes against Mary Tudor due to his protestant faith.

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One comment on “Forced to Go Against Religious Belief—Does the Christian Break the Law?
  1. We should follow Mar 12:17 – And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
    State laws may be unreasonable, but we have to obey them (such as paying taxes)
    However, if what we are told to do infringes the Word of God, then we have to obey God, not man. Our Queen will have a lot to answer for. She vowed to uphold God’s Word yet has signed all sorts of wrong things into legislation (homosexual,giving us oeer the Europe – foreign power etc.)
    The Christian baker did not refuse the homosexual – but he had to refuse to print support for Gay Marriage on the cake. Our once “Christian country now legislates against Christians and makes criminals of them. But this is nothing new and if we are to be faithful to our Lord then we must be prepared to suffer the consequences, not compromise our faith.

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