Trashing Religious Freedom & Chasing Churchianity
If you know me, heard me speak, or read any of my stuff, you know I’m not a fear monger. I’m quite the opposite, as I write about in my book, God of Tomorrow. While I support our leaders’ actions to keep people safe, I’m also concerned about freedoms and governmental overreach. History has taught us that once individuals have been given extra power; they don't necessarily like surrendering the power.
That said, last Friday the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) published their ruling in the case, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak. The ruling bothers me, a lot. If you’re not familiar with the case, Calvary Chapel accused Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak of unfairly allowing casinos, breweries, bowling allies, gyms, and other organizations to operate at 50% capacity while confining indoor in-person religious gatherings to no more than 50 people at once.
Calvary Chapel’s attorneys described recent video footage from casinos: crowds of thousands gathered around tables, people moving from slot machine to slot machine, crowds moving back and forth, and more. Apparently, casinos were also allowed to run live circus shows/acts, indoor amusement parks, dinner shows, shared bathrooms, and more.
Nevada’s attorneys argued that indoor in-person religious gatherings are riskier than other gatherings and distinguished both commerce and protest crowds from religious gatherings. They also contended that unlimited numbers are able to gather outside for worship while no such exception was granted for zoos, movie theaters, and more (we all know how “lovely” Nevada summers are—even in the shade).
The SCOTUS ruling was 5-4 in favor of Governor Sisolak. Chief Justice John Roberts, who usually votes more conservatively (especially in cases involving religion), joined the 4 Justices who are considered more liberal. Some believe he did so because he saw this as a states right matter (especially during times of pandemic). It could be the concurring Justices aligned with US District Court Judge Richard Boulware II’s view of the case. Judge Boulware ruled against Calvary Chapel in part because he appeared to view this as a religious matter that the Court should not be involved in.
Justice Alito disagreed with strong and thought-provoking dissenting opinion that Vox called persuasive. He wrote,
The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance… this Court’s willingness to allow such discrimination is disappointing. We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility.
Now, you might be thinking, “Why do you care, Caleb? You don’t live in Nevada.”
You’re correct. I don’t reside in Nevada because they couldn’t handle the hot mess that is Caleb Kaltenbach. But I do care for two reasons. First, religious freedom does matter to me. It’s a gift from God. Whether intended or not, I think this SCOTUS ruling could have a bad outcome for religious freedom... and SCOTUS rulings impact the entire nation. My second reason is in the form of a question:
Have American Christians become too dependent on religious freedom?
Before you blast me, I’m not saying that religious freedom isn’t important. As a supporter of religious freedom, I believe it’s worth fighting for. Though I can’t discuss details, I’m currently helping some organizations fight for their religious freedom through my ministry, The Messy Grace Group. I’m suggesting that too many Western Christians fearfully cower at the thought of losing religious freedom. Isn’t that true?? American believers:
Have made “church hopping” a weekend sport.
Can’t handle the thought of not receiving a tax write-off for tithes.
Struggle to imagine “church” without buildings.
Dread the idea of weekend services without coffee and donuts.
Prioritize youth sports over their church’s youth group.
Love connecting with Netflix & Hulu more than digitally supporting their church.
Specialize in criticizing churches and Christians on social media.
In other words, we ‘Merica believers gravitate towards Churchianity instead of Christianity. Why? Churchianity focuses on us instead of Jesus. Either subconsciously or subtly, we forget that Christ’s name is in Christianity. We replace His name with “church” and have Churchianity. Like the old Burger King commercial, too many American Christians walk around with a “have it your way” attitude towards church and faith.
Who does all the stuff I listed above? People with an entitled sense of religious freedom… actually, let me rephrase that statement: people who have squandered opportunities afforded to them by religious freedom. We have to ask,
Are we using religious freedom for our gain or God's fame?
At one time or another, the answer is probably yes. More than likely, every Western Christian has been guilty of this—including both you and me! During different seasons of our life, we’ve been focused on ME more than HIM. God gets the most glory when those far from Him become followers of Him. But the freedom of religion is trashed when it serves those of us in God’s family more than anyone outside the family. We squander religious freedom by leveraging it for our preferences instead of God’s glory. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for you and I to just “live our lives” and not share His love with a dying world.
Why shouldn’t God take religious freedom away from America? What have we done with it? Do you think for one second that Christians in North Korea, China, some places in the Middle East, and some regions of countries like India and Indonesia are church hopping? Are they worried about that precious tax write-off or not getting their donut? Would they sacrifice the influence of a student ministry for youth baseball? How much would they value a church student ministry partnering with them to teach their kids about Jesus? Do they have time to criticize one church’s lack of reverence for John Calvin or John Wesley?
So, what should we do? The solution isn’t recreating the “Christian Coalition” or stuff like that. While we have religious freedom, let’s use it to love people well so we can share Jesus. Here are some thoughts on how we can do so...
Understand That Religious Freedom Hasn’t Vanished
While I’m disappointed in the SCOTUS ruling, if you look at their rulings from 2011-2020, the Court has overwhelmingly supported religious freedom:
7-2: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru
7-2: Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania
5-4: Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue
7-2: The American Legion v. American Humanist Association
7-2, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission
5-4: National Institute of Family Life Advocates v. Becerra
7-2, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer
9-0, Holt v. Hobbs
9-0: Reed v. Town of Gilbert
5-4, Burrell v. Hobby Lobby
5-4: Town of Greece v. Galloway
9-0: Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC
6-2: Sossamon v. Texas
Per Curiam: Sause v. Bauer
Vacated Washington's Supreme Court's ruling regarding Arlene’s Flowers
The Court has protected ministerial exemptions (even extending it to religious school teachers), protected non-profit institutions from having to provide contraceptives, allowed tax payer funds to support religious schools, protected for-profit business owners' religious convictions, supported prayers before legislative sessions, overruled state & city discriminatory policies, vacated discriminatory rulings by state supreme & lower courts, and more (the above list doesn't include the religious freedom cases that SCOTUS sent back to the lower courts).
Much to the chagrin of some, spirituality supposedly plays a role in our government. After all, “In God We Trust” is still printed on our currency. Thus, religious freedom is still very much alive. It matters and we need to fight for it (again, namely because it helps us to share Jesus). However, we still have a SCOTUS that is prioritizing religious freedom. If you disagree, I think you would agree that SCOTUS is prioritizing religious freedom more than most other (or any other) country. Let’s be thankful and press onward.
Refuse to Demonize Anyone
Despite everything I’ve written, I know that good people run and work in casinos. My intent isn’t to cast them in a bad light—rather to highlight the governmental system that allowed this to happen. I also don’t believe that Governor Sisolak is attempting to discriminate with the evil plans of an over-the-top James Bond villain. At the end of the day, I don’t know what it’s like to sit in his chair and much less, to sit in his chair during a national pandemic.
We need to reject any spiritual hyper-vigilant tendency to believe in ridiculous conspiracy theories or assume that "they really are out to get us!" (whoever the ever illusive they are)
The government isn't telling anyone to stop believing in Jesus.
The early church grew in numbers without buildings.
Christians met in homes every day of the week.
Christians have always gathered for worship in different ways.
Churches have made special considerations during various seasons.
Even today, churches can still gather.
As Jesus followers, let’s refuse to demonize anyone Jesus died and rose for—that’s a misappropriation of His blood.
Expect Unfairness & Respond In Love
Before we start this section, please say the following phrase out loud a few times, and then return to reading. Okay... ya ready?
Unfairness isn’t persecution.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's continue... Justice Kavanaugh wrote that the First Amendment doesn’t require houses of worship to be treated better than other organizations, but it “requires that religious organizations be treated equally to the favored or exempt secular organizations, unless the State can sufficiently justify the differentiation.”
One might somewhat resonate with Nevada’s "commerce is distinguished from indoor in-person religious gatherings"argument, but even the mere appearance of giving protests preferential treatment over religious gatherings is troubling. Whether intended or not, Nevada is giving preferential treatment to casinos and other organizations.
Drawing a distinction between last Friday’s SCOTUS decision and last May’s SCOTUS South Bay Pentecostal Church v Newsom ruling (where a church sued California Governor Gavin Newsom over in-person worship attendance limits) Justice Kavanaugh said:
In my view, the State of California’s explanation, at least on that record, did not persuasively distinguish religious services from several of the favored secular organizations, particularly restaurants and supermarkets… but accepting South Bay as a precedent, this case is much different because it involves bars, casinos, and gyms.
Along with his colleagues, Justice Gorsuch specifically called out what he saw as discrimination and favoritism, “In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion… But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
I completely agree. Calvary Chapel wasn't asking for full indoor capacity, just equal treatment and were denied... again, I want all of us to remember, as we all said out loud earlier, unfairness isn’t persecution. Say it out loud a few times… Despite the unfairness, American Christians are not being persecuted. It would be different if the government were saying, “Whether digitally or outside, we don’t want Christians gathering in any format whatsoever.” But there isn’t one state telling Christians not to meet. For the time being, we need to be gracious in our response and gather in different ways.
Some churches like North Point Ministries have decided not to meet for the rest of the year. Churches can still gather outside, digitally, in smaller in-person venues, drive-in services, etc. For instance, J.D. Greear and the Summit Church shifted their large in-person worship gatherings into home churches for the rest of 2020.
Pivoting during a pandemic isn’t compromise.
Flexibility is a gracious acknowledgement of this pandemic’s undeniable reality.
There are so many ways in which we can gather, encourage one another, and so on. Instead of complaining, let’s try our best to pour that passion into a flexible and gracious attitude.
Help Your Church Make Society Better
Do in-person religious gatherings improve a person’s quality of life? Will equal treatment of religious houses of worship make society better? Does religion make an equal or more of a contribution to society than gambling? Spiritually and emotionally—yes. Economically—no… at least, not in the eyes of Nevada…
Yet, I’d argue that church—authentic churches—makes society better. Without a doubt, mental health is a huge issue right now. Did you know that when people workout they not only feel better physically, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually? This is why I think gyms and workout facilities make society better. I’d say the same about churches. The presence of a church should help people to become more spiritually healthy, as well as becoming emotionally and mentally healthier.
If the church has made your life better, partner with your church to share Jesus’ love.
Think about the skills or expertise you have. Ask yourself how you might use your gifts to serve others. Talk to your church leaders, small group leaders, Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, or whoever and get advice. Ask them what needs to be done to serve people in the local community or even those attending the church. Keep your eyes open and search for chances to serve others. Better yet, pray for God to place a person in your path each day that you can share Jesus with. I 100% guarantee you that God will say YES to that prayer.
So, yeah... the ruling bothered me. I don't think it was the right move. But I must own the fact that my seasons of indifference and selfishness has led to a decline in religious freedom and a rise in Churchianity. However, when all is said and done, I love Jesus. I care enough about Him that I'm committing to use religious freedom as a tool to share His message. Will you join me?
 Emily Rumball, “Crowds Flock to Las Vegas Casinos After Reopening,” Daily Hive (June 10, 2020).  Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U.S. No. 19A1070 (2020) (Emergency Application for an Injunction Pending Appellate Review), 13-14. https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19A1070/147153/20200707185749882_Calvary%20Chapel%20Emergency%20Application%20for%20Injunction%20with%20Appendix%20FINAL.pdf.  Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U.S. No. 19A1070 (2020) (Emergency Application for an Injunction Pending Appellate Review), 20-23.  Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U.S. No. 19A1070 (2020) (Response to Emergency Application for an Injunction Pending Appellate Review), 7.  South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom 590 U.S. No. 19A1044 (2020) (Roberts, C.J, concurring), 2. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/19a1044_pok0.pdf.  Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak U.S. District Court No. 3:20-cv-00303-RFB-VCF (2020) (Boulware, R.F.), 7. https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/churchesandcasinos.pdf.  Ian Millhiser, “The Supreme Court’s Surprising Decision on Churches and the Pandemic, Explained,” Vox (July 25, 2020).  Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U.S. No. 19A1070 (2020) (Alito, dissenting), 1. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/19a1070_08l1.pdf.  Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U.S. No. 19A1070 (2020) (Kavanaugh, dissenting), 7. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/19a1070_08l1.pdf.  Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U.S. No. 19A1070 (2020) (Kavanaugh, dissenting), 11.  Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U.S. No. 19A1070 (2020) (Gorsuch, dissenting), 1. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/19a1070_08l1.pdf.  Kate Shellnut, “More Pastors Agree With Andy Stanley: No Worship Services Until 2021,” Christianity Today (July 15, 2020).