​The 25-Year Legacy of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association

Gregory W. Hamilton July/August 2016

Public Advocacy

Because of their prophetic beliefs, Seventh-day Adventists have imagined a world without religious freedom perhaps more than most people of faith. Curiously this proclivity has at times led some Adventists to minimize the importance of religious freedom as a “public ministry.” Any group must reject tendencies toward public isolation and parochialism. In the 1880s Adventists and other alert groups sucessfuly held back an ill-intentioned national Sunday law. That issue will likely come back to prominence in the United States if Bible prophecy is to be fulfilled. But to wait passively for a national Sunday law and not defend the freedom rights of all people of faith would represent an unfortunate mind-set that must be challenged and overcome.

Yes, the thought of church-sponsored legal and constitutional advocacy in the public and political arena is not always understood, even by those members troubled at particular threats to conscience. Even those who are supportive wonder sometimes if our religious liberty efforts are on the “wrong side” because we champion the constitutional separation of church and state. Well, such a stand is not only constitutional but in the interests of humanity’s inalienable rights and very much the biblical model of freedom.

My church’s Declaration of Principles highlight this respected approach:

Declaration of Principles

The God-given right of religious liberty is best exercised when church and state are separate.

Government is God’s agency to protect individual rights and to conduct civil affairs; in exercising these responsibilities, officials are entitled to respect and cooperation.

Religious liberty entails freedom of conscience: to worship or not to worship; to profess, practice, and promulgate religious beliefs or to change them. In exercising these rights, however, one must respect the equivalent rights of all others.

Attempts to unite church and state are opposed to the interests of each, subversive of human rights and potentially persecuting in character; to oppose union, lawfully and honorably, is not only the citizen’s duty but the essence of the golden rule — to treat others as one wishes to be treated.

National Initiatives

Our church’s religious liberty efforts have been in cooperation with some of the leading figures in Washington, D.C. There is no reason we should not be the number one religious identity in the world that champions religious freedom in the public square. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Ben Carson, Secretary of State John Kerry, Kansas governor Sam Brownback, and Utah senator Orrin Hatch and Arizona senator John McCain—both Democrats and Republicans—have all joined with us in proclaiming the value of religious freedom for all.

This is due partly because of Liberty magazine and its role as a religious liberty sounding board for a large number of civic leaders in the public arena. It also reflects a steady government relations program on Capitol Hill. Certainly our mission is not just to foster political appeal. But recognition and respect from prominent thought leaders is a start in the right direction if we are to be publicly relevant on a national scale.

Some will assume that this has always been the case. But the challenge is still before us in the United States. At the state legislative level the Adventist Church has 14 established and professionally functioning government relations programs (five in the Northwest, one in California, and eight in the Southern Union), leaving 36 states with no representation at all. That is changing: four Midwestern states are in process. But that still leaves 32 states without representation. And beyond lie the lands of the “Great Khan”—uncharted but needful relationships with power.

Northwest Legacy

This year the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) will be celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary since it was rechartered in 1991. Richard Fenn and the NRLA charter members intended to revive the public advocacy programs that Adventist pioneer Alonzo T. Jones started back in the early 1900s. The North Pacific Religious Liberty Association (NPRLA) was originally founded in 1906, the same year that Liberty magazine began under its present title. Our Northwest Religious Liberty Association has advanced this legacy in substantive ways, providing quality representation through its Capitol Pastor program in the state legislatures of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

Our mission entails four specific branches of ministry: workplace mediation, education advocacy, Liberty magazine promotional work, and civic and legislative advocacy. More specifically, this means we are actively and professionally involved in the legislative, civic, judicial, academic, interfaith, ecumenical, and corporate arenas. We are constantly working there to prevent the erosion of the constitutional separation of church and state, uphold the free exercise of religion, and deal with anti-discrimination laws, particularly in the workplace. Our influence has even extended internationally to Romania, where NRLA influenced senators in that nation’s parliament to discourage a six-day workweek law. That law would have allowed Sunday rest only and the constitutional recognition of the Romanian Orthodox Church as the only state-approved religion.

NRLA’s civic and legislative accomplishments have been significant, and worth noting:

Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act (2010) applies a fairer standard for religious minorities and all conscientious employees of faith seeking holy day and religious garb accommodations by restoring the language of “significant expense and difficulty” to the legal definition of employer “undue hardship” in Oregon Title VII civil rights law. New York, California and Oregon are the only states who have restored this original intent to anti-discrimination law.

Idaho’s Free Exercise of Religion Act of 2000 restored the “compelling interest” and “least restrictive means” legal tests to free exercise jurisprudence, so that when religious individuals’ and institutions’ religious practices are challenged by the state, the burden of proof was returned to the shoulders of the state.

Alaska’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act was written by NRLA in 1998 and shepherded until 2001. It has renewed interest and momentum.

Washington State’s Religious Preference Policy for Native American Indian Inmates, rewritten in 2006 because of NRLA’s direct intervention, allows for dual religious preference for prisoner registration using the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person’s Act (RLUIPA) of 2000.

Defeated the forced unionization of all private child-care centers in Washington in 2010.

Defeated Greater Seattle’s Growth Management Act in 2001, which attempted to place a moratorium on the building of new churches and schools in rural King County.

A Moment in Time

When Oregon representative Dave Hunt took on the sponsorship of NRLA’s proposed Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act in 2007, he knew he was taking a political risk with his Democratic caucus colleagues in the Oregon House of Representatives, particularly after having served as a former national president of the American Baptist Churches USA. He had become majority leader that year.

Hunt had risen in 2009 to become speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives thanks to a slim coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans. This gave the Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act momentum for a fairer legal standard of accommodation for religious employees who needed their religious requirements met in a reasonable way without causing a “significant” hardship for employers. The bill met resistance among Republicans, where most supported big and small business interests over this new and fairer religious freedom standard for employees. Despite this, our bill passed both house and senate chambers by a 66 percent vote margin, and Governor Ted Kulongoski signed it into law.

But then we hit a snag, because this new law did not provide any relief for public school teachers, particularly when it came to the matter of wearing religious garb. This statutory prohibition (ORS 342.650) had remained in the newly signed Workplace Religious Freedom Act. Muslims, Sikhs, Catholics, Jews, and others urged the Oregon legislature to repeal it in a special 2010 legislative session.

This statutory prohibition originated with the Ku Klux Klan’s influence over both Republicans and Democrats in the Oregon legislature in the early 1920s. They successfully lobbied to shut all religious and private schools in Oregon and to ban the wearing of religious habits by public school teachers, of whom many were priests and nuns. Some feared that Communism was most easily advanced through Catholic schools, which made up the majority of Oregon schools at the time.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the school ban in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) by a vote of 9-0. The statutory prohibition on the wearing of religious garb by public school teachers and staff, however, remained.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fought our efforts by way of House Bill 3686, which aimed to repeal this prohibition. But after a one-month special session in 2010, we were able to amend that bill and thus save Oregon’s Workplace Religious Freedom Act.

If it wasn’t for Representative Hunt’s influence, and the work of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association in uniting Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, we would not have been able to overcome the ACLU’s powerful opposition successfully. Our new bill proposal passed by the same margin as it had in 2009, and an impressive interfaith bill signing ceremony occurred in Kulongoski’s office in April 2010.

Dave Hunt was honored at the 2009 Oregon Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting before more than 2,000 people and on the national stage in Washington, D.C., at the annual national Religious Liberty Dinner in 2010. The Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act is the working model for the federal Workplace Religious Freedom Act proposal before Congress. If that is ever passed and signed by the current president, or the next, it will help all people of faith, especially religious minorities, in the workplaces of every state in the union.

We need to build relationships with more men and women on either side of the political aisle who will champion the values of religious freedom. Every effort we make to protect the religious freedom of each citizen also benefits the right of every person of faith to carry out our unique mission. Every time we fail to stand up for the religious freedom of others, we lessen our own a little more.

Article Author: Gregory W. Hamilton

Gregory W. Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). Established in 1906, the Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a non-partisan government relations and legal mediation services program that champions religious freedom and human rights for all people and institutions of faith in the legislative, civic, academic, interfaith and corporate arenas in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Mr. Hamilton wrote the seminal work, "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," published in 1998 by Baylor University. From time to time, Greg publishes Liberty Express, a journal dedicated to special printed issues of interest on America's constitutional founding, church history and its developmental impact on today's church-state debates, and current constitutional and foreign policy trends. He is available to speak in North America and internationally about these subjects and related issues. To become familiar with the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, please visit www.nrla.com.