Steve Weaver, church historian and pastor of Farmdale Baptist Church in Frankfort, recently posted the following on his blog:
Baptists have historically defended the principle of religious liberty. Since Baptists have always believed in churches made up only of professing, baptized believers, they have always rejected the idea of a state church union which results in a church composed of all citizens. In the sixteenth century, the European Anabaptists opposed the use of the sword to mandate matters of the conscience. Seventeenth-century proto-Baptists such as Thomas Helwys (in England) and Roger Williams (in Colonial America) spoke directly to the governing authorities appealing for religious liberty. Baptists have always stood on the side of religious liberty for all. In fact, it was a group of Baptists in Danbury, CT, concerned about the infringement of the newly formed federal government upon the consciences of American citizens, to whom Thomas Jefferson responded in a letter with the famous expression of “separation of church and state” that has become such an important part of the American discussion concerning religious liberty. This expression was a summary of the rights guaranteed in the 1st amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
We have the first amendment, in large part, due to the efforts of American Baptists such as Isaac Backus and John Leland. Leland, prominent Baptist preacher at the turn of the 19th century, had petitioned his Virginia legislator, James Madison, directly regarding his concern that more needed to be done to ensure religious liberty in the new country than the “Religious Test” clause of Article VI, paragraph 3 of the Constitution. Since Baptists represented a significant portion of the vote in Madison’s district, Leland’s threat to run for Madison’s seat in the House of Representatives resulted in a visit by Madison to his home. Coming out of that meeting was a compromise that included Leland agreeing not to run for Madison’s seat and Madison agreeing to champion Leland’s and his fellow Baptists’ concern for religious liberty. Madison kept his word and pushed for the Bill of Rights. Without Baptist involvement in the political process, it is at least possible that the protection of religious liberty from Congress would not exist.
Today, more than at any point since the turn of the 19th century, religious freedom in America is in jeopardy. Once again, Baptists need to lead the way in guaranteeing that our commitment to freedom of conscience in religious matters is preserved. The Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky today vetoed a bill (HB 279) which included important protections of religious liberty on the state level. This bill passed both houses of the Kentucky legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Kentucky Baptist Convention, in historic Baptist manner, championed this bill and called for its passage. Now, we stand in need for the Baptists of Kentucky to speak up and ask their representatives to overturn the governor’s veto.
What can you do to help?
Call the legislative message line at 800-372-7181 and leave a message with a secretary for all the legislators in your county – Senators and Representatives – AND Senate and House leadership:
“Please override the veto of HB 279 – The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
Call now and on Monday, March 25 and on Tuesday, March 26.
The legislative message line is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. EDT.
You can also plan to attend a solemn assembly in the Capitol Rotunda at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, March 26.
What is the Religious Freedom Bill (HB279) all about?
The text of the bill:
Government shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A “burden” shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.
The bill restores the “compelling interest/least restrictive means” as a legal test the government must pass before restricting religious freedom, bringing Kentucky in line with federal judicial standards.
Last Oct. 25, the Kentucky Supreme Court changed the state judicial standard when dealing with religious freedom cases to the “rational basis,” which means government just needs “a reason” to infringe on someone’s religious freedom.
If HB 279 is signed into law, the “compelling interest/least restrictive means” test would be re-established and would mean that the government once again would have to have a compelling interest to restrict religious freedom, and even then it could only use the least restrictive means to accomplish its compelling interest.
Vetoing the bill puts Kentucky out of step with federal courts, which have used the “compelling interest/least restrictive means” test since the 1930s. In 1990, the U.S Supreme Court did the same thing as our Kentucky Supreme Court when it chose the “rational basis” test. Congress corrected the federal court with the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, the same thing the Kentucky General Assembly is trying to do now with HB279.