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By John D. Pierce

thickIn many churches the thickest book to be found is neither the Bible nor the hymnal. It is the wedding policies and procedures manual.

Rules and regulations are many and varied. Churches have the freedom to choose if and how weddings are conducted.

Based on religious belief systems — or practicalities such as paying for air conditioning and polishing the center aisle — these bulky manuals detail the many do’s and don’ts.

Some congregations allow for only members to be married at the church. Others charge outsiders more to cover the utilities and custodial costs.

Families wishing to pop a cork or two will likely hold the reception at the local country club rather than the church fellowship hall where Jesus’ turning water to wine would have been in violation of the wedding manual.

Ministers make their own decisions about which weddings to perform — unless it’s the grandchild of an influential and generous member whereby the minister is most certainly available.

Some ministers will not conduct weddings if either in the relationship has experienced divorce. I’ve been called upon for such occasions in the past.

Since divorce has hit most every family (include those of ministers and deacons) now, that rule may have loosened or disappeared over the years.

Deep in some church wedding manuals are prohibitions against ceremonies uniting persons of different religious traditions — even other Christian denominations.

The words “unequally yoked” usually appear with varying interpretations of Paul’s words to the Corinthians used to forbid church weddings between a Christian and a non-Christian, certain interfaith marriages or other combinations deemed problematic.

Ministers may require a set number of premarital counseling sessions before agreeing to perform a wedding — or simply be unavailable each year on Masters weekend.

Churches and ministers get to choose. So beware of those like the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and others who misuse “religious liberty” claims to seek preferential treatment for themselves or punitive measures against gay and lesbian persons.

These are intentionally deceptive efforts to carry out a political agenda that is their wrongheaded response to grand disappointment and anger over last year’s Supreme Court decision permitting legal same-sex marriages in the U.S.

However, that court decision pertains to legal unions only and in no way impacts the freedom of churches to carry out their ministries — including weddings — free of government intrusion.

One is more likely to find a close-up selfie of a preacher with both the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti than an actual account of a minister being coerced by government to perform a wedding against his or her convictions or wishes. It has not and cannot happen.

Religious liberty — the real thing — permits churches to make their own decisions about faith and practice thanks to the marvelous though often maligned concept of separation of church and state. But such discrimination cannot and must not be transferred to the public arena where human rights are violated based on gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or any other characteristic.

In recent years, good words — like “patriot” and “evangelical” and even “Christian” — have been captured and redefined by religious and political fundamentalism. Now the very idea of “religious liberty” is under assault — both in terminology and practice by those who would abuse it.

In fact, some are actually using “religious freedom” to convey the very opposite of what it means.

This strategic (if not ignorant) misuse of so-called “religious liberty” is highly revealed in a recent comment by pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas.

It is not really news when Jeffress pops off foolishly about something political and/or religious. He is a go-to guy for media seeking some nonsensical comment regarding just about any issue of the day.

This particular comment came in an interview with Baptist Press, the news arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, regarding Jeffress and other “evangelicals” lending support to their favored presidential candidate (who may or may not have been “born again” recently due to their great influence).

Summing up a meeting between the politician and these preachers, Jeffress spoke of the candidate’s “real desire to protect the religious freedoms of all Americans, but certainly Christian Americans.”

Sound the alarms! That is NOT religious freedom.

First, it is telling that Jeffress would reference “Christian Americans” rather than “American Christians.” There is a difference in how these descriptive terms convey the higher allegiance.

Second, “religious freedoms of all Americans” needs no qualifier. To add “but certainly” (whether noting Christians or any other particular faith group) negates the “of all.”

The cherished concept of “religious liberty” must never mean that government can grant preferential treatment or privilege to any religious expression over all others. The words “but certainly…” have no valid place following “for all.”

Not only are the words and efforts of Jeffress, Georgia Baptist leaders and other so-called evangelicals dangerous misrepresentations of religious liberty they are in contrast to the words and deeds of the very one they claim to follow.

Their expressed concerns are not for the rights and benefits of long-suffering minorities, but for retaining long-accumulated political clout. Yet according to that other authoritative book for churches, Jesus turned the spotlight from religious elites to those who were broken, abused, outcast and powerless.

Regarding freedom of religion, these modern religious elitists are wrong in language, concept and focus.

Real religious freedom is much too important to lose — or to be abused by those concerned only or primarily about themselves. Religious liberty has no definition or application apart from “for all.”

John Pierce

About John Pierce

John D. Pierce is editor of Nurturing Faith Journal — the signature publication of Baptists Today, Inc. He is also publisher of Nurturing Faith Books and Resources. Previously he served as managing editor of The Christian Index and as Baptist campus minister at Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University. A native of Ringgold, Ga., he is a graduate of Berry College (B.A.), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Columbia Theological Seminary (D.Min.). He speaks frequently in churches, consults with congregations concerning communications and holds interim pastorates.