Tuesday, April 13, 2021
It's Tuesday, April 13, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Free Exercise of Religion Vindicated: A Big Victory for Religious Liberty at the Supreme Court
Another big win for religious liberty at the United States Supreme Court, and one of the most interesting dimensions of this news story is the fact that many people in the country don't think that it's a big issue at all. Not just religious liberty, but this particular issue before the court. This was a court ruling, not a major decision, but a ruling nonetheless, that was handed down five-four in favor of churches and house churches in the state of California, who had made appeal over against restrictive rules that have been put in place by the California government, in the form of governor Gavin Newsom. Thus, the case is known as Tandon v. Newsom. And what this case concerned was the fact that the California governor had issued regulations that, up until the 15th of April, denied any kind of meeting in a house with more than three families.
And even as these churches, house churches, had sought relief, they were doing so over against having lost at the level of the ninth circuit. That's generally considered to be the most liberal appeals court in the United States. The case then went to the Supreme Court, and again, the ruling was five-four. It's an unsigned ruling, but there were signatures on dissents to the ruling. That five-four number reminds us of the fact that every single seat, every single vote on the Supreme Court matters. Looking at the court right now in its current composition, most people would say that there are six conservatives and three liberals. There are six justices nominated by Republican presidents and three by Democratic presidents, and yes, even as some people argued to the contrary, it really does make a difference. Many of these decisions are entirely predictable along not only ideological, but Democratic and Republican lines.
This is a liberal versus conservative count, regardless of how you want to identify the labels. But in reality, you're looking at five-four, meaning that in this case, the Chief Justice of the United States, generally classified as a conservative and appointed as chief justice by Republican President George W. Bush, the chief was on the side of the four, rather than the five in this ruling, which meant that he ruled along with the three Democratically nominated justices, the three more liberal justices, upholding, at least to this extent, the ruling by the ninth circuit. But the five is greater than the four, and thus by a one-vote margin, this is a big victory for religious liberty. Basically, what has taken place here is that the Supreme Court of the United States says that the state of California was violating the religious liberty rights of California citizens, by saying that you could not have meetings in a house, including prayer meetings, Bible studies, or house church meetings, that would involve individuals from more than three families.
Now, the state of California came back and argued that it's restriction did not violate religious liberty, because it was generally applicable. Now, in most cases, that argument of general applicability is quite important. It's not enough to indicate that a regulation, or a restriction, or a law is constitutional, but when it comes to religious Liberty, there must at least be the bare minimum of general applicability. But this ruling by the Supreme Court is so important because it indicates that general applicability is, even if generally right, not enough to justify a restriction on religious liberty. Now behind this is the legal principle that religious liberty, being clearly established in the US constitution under the bill of rights and the first amendment, the free exercise of religion being guaranteed, any kind of restriction on religious liberty requires what the court calls strict scrutiny.
That means that it's not a level playing field. That means that the one arguing for the restriction of religious liberty, in this case, the state of California under governor Gavin Newsom, bears the greater responsibility. The greater responsibility is to justify any infringement on religious liberty, not to justify overthrowing or restricting the restriction. The majority of five justices in this ruling that was handed down on Friday, said that the state, the state of California, the governor of California, had not met that minimal requirement for justifying this restriction on what would take place in a home. And in particular, the meeting of a house church, or a Bible study, or a prayer group, or anything similar. The exercise of the religious liberty interests of American citizens gathering together in private homes for a private religious, and in this case, Christian, Bible study or worship service. Now there are several issues we need to understand that really aren't in consideration here. The Supreme Court doesn't have an argument for or against house churches.
It doesn't have an argument for or against any kind of specific liturgy or order of worship. It doesn't have any kind of rule for or against any specific number of people who may be gathered in a worship service. It has the constitutional responsibility to guarantee the free exercise of religion, to issue rulings consistent with the constitutional guarantees of respected liberties that are at the very core of the American constitutional order. So the Supreme Court ruling isn't important because it has anything to do with house churches. That's actually rather irrelevant to the constitutional ruling here. It's not important because the Supreme Court has stood up for the right for people to do whatever they want in their homes. No, that's not actually the core issue here in the ruling either. It is to say that if the state of California intends to put restrictions in place, even in the context of COVID-19, that would restrict religious liberty, it's going to have justify those restrictions.
And in this case, it has failed to justify those restrictions. Once again, the Supreme Court has said that a government has acted unconstitutionally in infringing the religious liberty rights of citizens. And not only even in the context, you might say, of the COVID-19 pandemic, but particularly in the context of this pandemic. The majority in this case was made up of justices Amy Coney Barrett, Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, and Brett M. Kavanaugh. And as I said, the liberal justices were on the other side and they joined together, three of them, in issuing a dissent to this ruling. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the three liberal justices, and that would include justices Stephen G. Brier and Sonia Sotomayor. She argued that the state of California had met the constitutional requirement, because this was a generally applicable restriction. That is to say, you couldn't have a meeting of more than three families in a house for a worship service, but you couldn't do it for a Boy Scout troop. You couldn't do it for a Tupperware party. You couldn't do it for any number of other things.
But here's where a key constitutional issue is at stake. There is no issue of strict scrutiny for a meeting of the Boy Scouts in a house. There is no requirement of strict scrutiny for a Tupperware party. There is a requirement of strict scrutiny because religious liberty is enshrined within the United States constitution as a fundamental right. But the majority in this case went on to make another very important argument. The unsigned ruling included these words: "Although California officials changed the challenged policy shortly after this application was filed, the previous restrictions remain in place until April 15, and officials with a track record of moving the goalposts retain authority to reinstate those heightened restrictions at any time."
That might appear to be rather bland language. Trust me, it's not. The majority in the Supreme Court here said that they did not trust the government of California that may have voluntarily indicated they would end these restrictions, to stand by that termination of the restrictions. Instead, they came right out in public in the ruling and said that they don't trust that the California officials, having trampled on religious liberty before, would not turn around and do so again, if the court did not decidedly hand down a ruling on the issue. Now this gets to another big dimension of the Christian worldview we have to keep in mind here. And that is that when you are looking at government assuming powers, it almost never gives back powers that it takes unto itself. We have seen that throughout the course of human history. When government says, we must, under these circumstances, put these restrictions of liberty in place, put these provisional organizations in place, put these provisional taxes in place, rulings in place, policies in place.
They almost never come back and say, well, you know the pandemic's over so we can shut all of those down. As a matter of fact, right now, as we are looking, hopefully, at the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, government at every level is going to have to be forced to relinquish its grip that it has taken in the course of this pandemic. And go back to understanding that it has no role in many areas of life, that it claimed to have, plausibly or implausibly, in the context of a deadly pandemic. One final issue in this ruling that was handed down by the Supreme Court on Friday, the ruling included this language saying that the challengers in this case, those who were challenging the restriction, looking to the court for relief, their interest in religious liberty was "irreparably harmed by the loss of free exercise rights for even the minimal periods of time, and the state has not shown that public health will be imperiled by employing less restrictive measures."
What's so important about that is that a majority of the Supreme Court, in this ruling, said an injury to religious liberty is a real harm. It is a harm to citizens. It is a harm to this constitutional order. It is a harm that must be reflected upon and must be recognized as a harm, and thus must be remedied even in the context of a pandemic. liberty is important, said the United States Supreme Court, even when that liberty is imperiled "for even minimal periods of time." Just remember this, if religious Liberty is imperiled anywhere, it is imperiled everywhere. If it is imperiled for any amount of time, it is imperiled for all time. It's a good day for liberty when the Supreme Court of the United States recognizes that, and writes it right before us in black and white text.
Amazon Workers in Bessemer, Alabama, Vote Against Forming Labor Union — Who Knows Best for Workers?
Next, as we're thinking about Christian worldview thinking, as we're thinking about thinking and understanding how to think rightly, we understand that the Christian worldview hands down very clear, non-negotiable answers to certain questions. Such as, what is marriage? How should human sexuality be organized, restricted? How should we understand human sexual behavior? How should we understand what it means to be male and female? What is the gospel? What is the church? The scripture speaks definitively in answers to those questions. Definitively in answers to any number of questions. And we need to match that definitive revelation with very clear conviction. On other issues, we have to extrapolate a bit. That is to say, we have to think. The Bible doesn't articulate any kind of comprehensive economic theory. There are principles, and I will write about that, and speak about that, and have on The Briefing repeatedly. There are basic principles, but there is no comprehensive system.
There is no budget for the United States of America that is driven by any particular text of scripture, rather that comes under human wisdom, human judgment. It comes in the context of political negotiation. Yes, truth is at stake. Ideology is at stake. Political philosophy is at stake. Human flourishing is at stake, but politics is always a part of the mix. And furthermore, in a fallen world, no economic analysis is ever absolutely right. So when we're talking about matters political and economic, we have to recognize we're operating off of basic principles. There are several truths that are revealed to us in scripture that we must respect, and must not violate. And yet, at the same time, when you're talking about something, like say the potential unionization of the workforce in a plant in Alabama, there is no absolutely right or absolutely wrong answer. There is no Christian answer to be contrasted with an anti-Christian or a pagan answer.
Rather, you can have Christians who will disagree based upon their own experience, and their logic, their own economic philosophy, their own political understanding, on an issue like unionization. You also have the context of history. History tells us that there have been times when movements such as the movement of unionization for workers in the United States was very important. Both liberals and conservatives, as you speak of America now, would look back, say, in the early decades of the 20th century, and say that the rise of labor unions became a very important issue, structural and political issue, in terms of protecting the rights of workers over against what would have been their exploitation. In one sense, labor unions represent, we were just talking about religious liberty, liberty of association or freedom of association, is at least a part of the constitutional background for why you can have yes, the Boy Scouts, although they're not even known as the Boy Scouts anymore, ow you can have the Elk's club, how you can have a Democratic party and a Republican party, and of course, how you could have a labor union.
But going further, we understand that unionization is in itself a very heightened political process. There's a lot at stake here. And when you're looking at the economy of the United States in 2021, it's very different than looking back to, say, 1921. The immediate concern of the headlines was the fact that a union was trying to organize workers at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama. Bessemer is located just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and Amazon has a major facility there employing thousands of people. And given current United States labor law, any effort to organize a labor union at one of these work sites requires a vote, and a process that is overseen by government regulators. In the political dynamic here, the political left and the Democratic party, long allied with the labor unions as major political forces in the United States, had been pushing for, advocating for, this unionization effort, this organizing effort, there at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama.
And many, especially in the Democratic party, saw it as a great opportunity for labor to recapture some of its energy in the American economy and in American politics. Looking at the non-governmental employment sector in the United States, and that's the largest sector, the percentage of employees who had been involved in a union has gone down in recent decades, from about a quarter of the working population to right about 6%. Organized labor has been losing big when it comes to the employees of many of these organizations. Changes in the economy have been part of it, changes in politics.
Some of the labor unions got so liberal that some of their own members didn't want to have much to do with union representation. Furthermore, you had more fundamental shifts in the American economy, and in its workforce. You had the rise of high technology, entire new sectors of society, and they didn't fit the traditional union structure. Interestingly and tellingly in this case, the president of the United States, Joe Biden, intervened in this situation, which most presidents would not have dared to do, encouraging the employees there at the Amazon site in Bessemer to join and organize the union.
And employees had the opportunity to vote. And over the weekend, we came to know the result of that vote, and the vote was decisive. By 71%, the workers turned down the union organizing attempt. 71%. Organized labor thought that this might be their big new success story, but it wasn't. It wasn't even close. Now, one of the interesting things to note here is that the employees had a chance to make their voice known and they decided against the union. Now you have the pro-union organizer saying, well, it's not fair that we had to try to organize at a particular work site. And this one was in Alabama, which is not traditionally a pro-labor state. It might've turned out elsewhere, had the organizing effort been undertaken elsewhere. But the response to that is, well, you had the opportunity to try it elsewhere. But the press, and those who style themselves political progressives in the United States, have often made the argument just in the last couple of days that these workers voted against their own interest.
That's what you hear over and over again. You've seen headlines, such as the fact that the latest effort to try to help workers failed. Well, it failed in this case because the workers voted against what was defined as an attempt to help them, by 71% of the vote. What's going on here? Well, what's going on here is that Amazon, though, of course like any other large employer has all kinds of employee issues, nonetheless, it pays a starting wage at this facility in Alabama, which is more than twice the minimum wage. Amazon simply said to its employees, you have to understand that we are paying you already twice the minimum wage. And if you indeed decide you want to organize and join a labor union, understand that the first thing that will happen is that the labor union will charge you mandatory dues. Basically, Amazon said, we're paying you, look at other jobs in the community, would you rather have those pay scales? And furthermore, we pay you, do you really want to turn around and pay a union?
Now you might say that the workers were right or wrong, but you can't say that they didn't know what they were doing. And of course, there are all kinds of issues that are at stake here. Talking about economic complexity, Christians understand, of course there are all kinds of issues here. Is there the potential of the exploitation of workers? There's always that opportunity. Is there an opportunity for nefarious action undertaken by unions? Well, just look at other headlines and look at how much corruption has been present in major American unions. Furthermore, there have been two very dangerous or nefarious developments in the United States when it comes to labor unions. The first has to do with the fact that you now have public employees, government employees, who are far more likely to be unionized than employees in the private sphere.
Now what's wrong with that? What's wrong with that is that when you had the labor union movement start, the guarantee was that this would not be extended to those who are actually working for the taxpayers. But as it is now, the largest, most powerful labor unions in the United States are labor unions for government employees. And in particular, professions such as public school teachers. That's one of the reasons why in many States, a part of the fiscal crisis that is now foreseen, if not already immediately before the state, is the fact that they have guaranteed pension plans for public employees that are so generous there is no way that the state will ever be able to pay them. But politically, because of the unionization of government workers, there's no political way that those benefits are likely to be cut. Not without a massive political cost.
And get this, most politicians are not willing to pay a massive political cost because the most immediate danger of that political cost is that it costs the politician, the politician's job. The second and nefarious or very negative development in American labor life is that many of these unions have taken very, very liberal worldview postures when it comes to any number of issues. And by the way, yes, that is in many ways a change. Now, when you look at labor unions, they've always been pro-labor. There is no fun being a labor union if you're not pro-labor. But the point is that if you were to go back to the last half of the 20th century, labor unions were often amongst the most anticommunist organizations on planet Earth. American workers, and in particular workers represented by unions, such as the AFL-CIO. That's the most historic powerful worker's unions in the United States.
They were ardently anticommunist. They recognized that the entire system that provided their jobs, and put food on the table of their families, and gave them benefits, was established upon freedom that would be absolutely squashed and destroyed by communism. But in more recent years, labor unions, including the teacher's unions, have been pressing in a very liberal direction on any number of social issues. They are now clearly identified with the left wing of American politics.
A Major Divide in the United States — And the Issues Are Larger, Not Smaller, Than You Might Have Expected
But actually the most important worldview dimension that I think is before us here is the fact that you have so many people in government, and in one party in particular. So many people in the media saying that these voters, these workers who voted in the election that came to an end just in recent days in Bessemer, Alabama, acted against their best interest. Now, of course, if you're going to argue that someone acted against their own best interests, voted against their best interests, you're going to have to say that you know their best interests, and those who voted did not. But that's a larger pattern we see across the United States.
It goes back to the fact that even years ago, you had a state like Kansas that voted very red. That is to say, in a very conservative pattern, in American general elections. Every four years, you had the reality that Kansas was showing up red. But you had those on the left in the United States who were saying that those in Kansas were voting against their own economic interest, by, for example, supporting Republican presidential candidates. But the people in Kansas kept doing it. And the argument was so condescending coming from the left, you don't know what is in your own best interest.
And in particular, many of those in the elite said that the reason why so many voters, whether in the state of Kansas, just to take one example, in an election, or these workers in Bessemer, Alabama, just to take another, the reason that they voted that way is because they have been convinced by someone to believe that social issues, such as that a pro-life position, or a definition of marriage, or upholding the understanding of male and female, and men and woman, and boy and girl, is more important than perhaps an economic issue in which they might more side, they might, not necessarily, but might, be more likely to vote for a Democrat on some economic issue. But they actually turn out to care more about the sanctity of human life. They care more about the integrity of morality. They care more about stability of the institutions of society. They care more about the survival of any kind of objective morality in this country.
And that's what we need to see. We need to understand that there are those right now who simply cannot comprehend why anyone in a situation like this would believe that there are certain moral values that are more important than what some would argue, especially from the left, would be political values. That there are those right now who would actually honor and respect liberty more than they would some kind of government or labor union promise of security. There are those right now who have a hope for opportunity that actually outweighs any kind of hope that could be established by a restrictive contract. Or for that matter, any political party's political and economic assurances. Once again, we're looking at a major divide in the United States. And one of the most interesting aspects about it is that as you look at that, divide the issues turn out to be larger, rather than smaller than you might've expected.
That, by the way, is true of that ruling handed down by the Supreme Court on Friday. It's true of the result of this labor union vote that was announced on Sunday. And it's true as you look at the major media coverage of both of these developments on Monday and on Tuesday, you can count on it. We're going to watch it together and think about it together. Let's commit to think as Christians.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Indianapolis, Indiana, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.