The Window on the World is our weekly opportunity to talk about American culture from a Christian perspective. We usually keep our window closed during the summer. One of the disadvantages of closing it is that we miss some things worth talking about. One of the more important happenings this past summer was a series of decisions handed by the Supreme Court, each of which affect the moral and spiritual fabric of America.

The first was the Supreme Court decision not to allow obscenity or pornography on the Internet to be regulated. The Court found the 1996 Communications Decency Act to be an abridgment of the freedom of speech and struck it down. The result is that there are no federal safeguards to protect children (or anyone else, for that matter) from on-line smut. In the words of Indiana Senator Dan Coats, families must “fend for themselves in an Internet universe of raw indecency.”

Two other important decisions related to physician-assisted suicide. This is a topic we have discussed before. The Bible teaches that human life is a gift from God, a gift only God has the right to take away. Nevertheless, the idea of allowing doctors to help their patients kill themselves is becoming increasingly popular in modern culture.

In two cases this summer the Supreme Court unanimously agreed to allow states to ban physician-assisted suicide [Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg]. This is good news for the sick and the elderly in the Delaware Valley since Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware all consider assisted suicide a crime. Happily, the Court refused to say that the Constitution guarantees the right to kill oneself.

The only unsettling thing about the legal reasoning in these cases is that the justices refused to rule out the possibility of assisted suicide in the future. The majority opinion states it is too early to tell if laws preventing assisted suicide are constitutional or not. In the meantime, states may continue to experiment with physician-assisted suicide. As Chief Justice Rehnquist explained, “Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society.”

Another decision handed down by the Court this summer is especially important for Christians. In City of Boerne v. Flores the Supreme Court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The RFRA was passed by Congress in 1993, almost unanimously. Its purpose was to protect the religious freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”

The RFRA was intended to make sure Americans actually have the freedoms the Constitution says they have. Under the law Christian students in public schools were free to skip religiously objectionable reading assignments. Nurses could not be fired for refusing to perform abortions. Prison inmates had the right to attend chapel services, and so forth.

However, these rights were stripped away in City of Boerne. The Supreme Court rejected “the guarantee of the right to participate in religious practices and conduct without impermissible governmental interference, even when such conduct conflicts with a neutral, generally applicable law.” The Court no longer regards the exercise of religion as a right which deserves special protection.

I am not a legal scholar, although I have read most of the Supreme Court decisions on the subject of church and state. It seems to me that this summer’s decisions were a mixed bag. There was more good news than expected, but there was some bad news, too, particularly with respect to pornography and religious freedom. Time will tell, but it is even possible that America has moved one step closer to the bondage of religion.

How should Christians respond to the decisions of the highest court in the land? First, we should thank God for the religious freedom we still enjoy in this country. By and large, America is still the country described by James Madison, where “all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience” [G. Hunt, “James Madison and Religious Liberty,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association (1901)].

This is a wonderful time and place to be a Christian. Although God sometimes uses persecution to bring great blessing to the church, religious freedom is a good thing. It is good to have the right of public assembly for worship. It is good to have independence from government control of the church. It is especially good to have the freedom to share our faith with others, a freedom now under attack in Russia, India, Israel and other civilized nations. We should praise God for the way our government creates a healthy environment for the church.

The actions taken by the Supreme Court also remind us that the justices need our prayers. The decisions of the Court chart the moral future of the nation. They affect how we will live and work. They affect what we will read and how we will worship. They even affect how we will die. Some of us remember to pray for our President and our Mayor (although we do not pray for them as often as we ought to, either). But how often do we pray, by name, for William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia and the rest of our justices on the Supreme Court?

The Bible urges that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made… for… all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Praying for all those in authority surely includes praying for the highest court in the land. Among other things, we should pray that our religion will remain free for as long as this country endures.

[Information for this Window on the World came from a variety of news media, newsletters and Supreme Court decisions].

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org