The Eric Walsh Test: Now Even the Weaker ‘Freedom of Worship’ Standard is Threatened

By George Yancey Published on April 28, 2016

I bow to nobody as a protector of religious freedom and a critic of Christianophobia in our society. But I have done so with two caveats. First, I do not like to hear American Christians talk about being “persecuted.” A quick look at what is happening in the Middle East shows what happens when persecution really occurs. Second, my research indicates that people who hate Christians are willing to allow religious activities in churches and homes, so I have told Christians to stop arguing that people with Christianophobia are going to interfere with their churches.

I still maintain the first caveat; however, the case of Eric Walsh is making me reconsider the second. As you may know, Eric Walsh is the lay pastor who was fired from the Georgia Department of Public Health for his sermons on homosexuality. Let’s put this as simply as possible. He was fired, or sanctioned by the government, for what he did in his church.

Those who fired him are now attempting to hide this with an excuse related to his “dishonesty” that I find impossible to believe. The reality is, they asked him for his sermons before firing him. When public universities consider candidates for academic positions, we know not to ask about their religious beliefs, family status or sexual preference, because we do not want those things to factor in any way in our hiring decisions. The same goes for most other organizations. The fact that they asked for his sermons is evidence that they are punishing him for what he preached in his own church.

When I did my research on Christianophobia, many survey respondents stated that they were okay with whatever Christians did in their own churches. Although they would claim otherwise, they really do not support freedom of religion since they want religious practice kept within the confines of homes and churches. What they have enunciated is really just the right to freedom of worship: churches can be sanctuaries where Christians can practice their faith, but church and home are the only places religion should be practiced. I reject this notion. I see this focus on freedom of worship as an unfair attempt to limit Christians in ways people would not limit other groups that want to influence society. However, now it seems that some individuals may not even be willing to grant this wrongly limited notion of freedom of worship.

When the government sanctions a person for what they do in church, then we are in dangerous territory, coming close to government determining what is an acceptable religious belief and what is not. Therefore now it’s not just freedom of religion but freedom of worship being opposed.

Will freedom of worship retain society’s support? The Eric Walsh situation may be the test that will tell us. No matter how this case comes out legally, the way opponents of religious freedom handle this situation will show whether they believe in freedom of worship to the same degree they support government’s right to force a baker to bake a cake. Will they defend Walsh’s job and career the way they have defended the right of a person to use the restroom of his or her choice?

Marvel and Disney have threatened boycotts, stating that they are inclusive companies that do not want to discriminate against others. Will they be consistent in that practice? Will they threaten boycotts over real religious discrimination? The same challenge awaits all the companies that have boycotted or threatened to boycott Georgia and North Carolina. They have staked positions for themselves as defenders of human rights. That means they’ll have to decide whether to stand for all human rights or just their friends’ rights. We know the lengths these companies will go to interfere with governments over issues of sexual freedom. Now let’s see if they will go to those same lengths to interfere with governments over issues of freedom of worship.

The Eric Walsh case puts the state’s governor to the test, too. Before vetoing it’s religious freedom bill, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal said, “Our people work side by side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to.” Now he will show whether he meant that, or whether it was an empty statement intended merely to ease some of the critique he faced with the bill’s veto. Apparently his own state government has decided they do not want to work side by side with “that” kind of Christian. It would be reassuring if he would step in proactively to correct this situation. He could show that he at least supports freedom of worship, if not freedom of religion.

I would say that every group that has joined in protest against religious freedom bills, or has boycotted states (or threatened boycotts) over “civil rights” issues should be asked if they support the right of Christians to worship according to their beliefs. If they say yes, then the truth of that claim can be shown by their response to Eric Walsh.

The principle is clear: Do not claim you support freedom of worship and then say nothing when the government punishes a pastor for his sermons. I will be watching these groups’ actions to see how they deal with the Eric Walsh test — whether they really believe what they say, or whether they’re only saying it. I do not think I will be the only one watching.

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