United Methodist Church Resolution on Religious Liberty

239.  Religious Liberty

The United Methodist Church, as a worldwide denomination, declares religious liberty, the freedom of belief, to be a basic human right that has its roots in the Bible.  Paul admonished Christians with these words: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” (Romans 14:4 NRSV).  This understanding is fundamental to our religious heritage, which requires that we honor God, not by placing our demands on all persons, but by making true account of our own selves.

The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”

Minimal standards of the right to belief are amplified by the international community in the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 25, 1981. …

Our test of religious liberty is not limited by these standards.  We also believe that religious liberty includes the freedom to doubt or to deny the existence of God, and to refrain from observing religious practices.  Further, we believe that persons of faith have the right to propagate their faith through evangelistic outreach.  Persons must be allowed to live within the constraints and the demands of their convictions.  We believe it is the right of a person to be allowed to follow the call of conscience when it becomes impossible to live by both the dictates of the state and the decisions of faith.

Threats to Religious Liberty

Religious liberty involves much more than the right to worship within the walls of a house of worship.  Religious individuals, institutions, and their members have the right--indeed the obligation--to be engaged in faith-based witness on issues of state and society.  Broad latitude must be allowed in defining this religious function.

Theocracies or other governments and societies that give special privileges to adherents of one religion or ideology have a particular responsibility to ensure and guarantee not only the religious rights and spirituality of indigenous groups, but also the political, economic, social, and cultural rights of those who are not members of the favored group.

A grave threat to religious liberty exists in nation states where all forms of voluntary association--even for purposes of private religious worship--are limited or prohibited.  In such situations, special accommodation that uses the United Nations Declaration as a minimum standard must be made for the observance of religious functions.

Religious liberty in menaced in other ways.  Governments or political movements have used religious institutions or organizations for their own purposes by compromising their personnel through offering power, or by manipulation, infiltration, or control.  Governments also subvert religious organizations by means of surveillance of their legitimate activities through use of informers, covert searches of religious property, and politically motivated threats to the safety of religious leaders or the financial operation of religious institutions.  We pledge our continual efforts to protect against these activities.

We recognize that situations exist where religious observances seem to threaten the health or safety of a society.  However, the importance of religious liberty dictates that restrictions of religious observances that are alleged to be contrary to government policy on the presumption that health or safety is threatened must be carefully examined.  Governments must present a compelling interests test (i.e., public health and safety could be affected by a particular religious observance) to any government action that places a substantial burden on sincere religious practices.  That is, government should have to prove a compelling reason for burdening a religious practice as well as proving that it is pursuing its compelling reason in a way that places the most minimal burden on religion.

Denominational Action to Expand Religious Liberty

The United Methodist Church places a high priority on the struggle to maintain freedom of religious belief and practice in the world.  Religiously observant persons in some societies are denied the rights on which there have been international agreements.  Our members have an obligation to speak out on behalf of those for whom such freedoms are denied.

In carrying out their responsibilities, United Methodist agencies and institutions, shall:

  1. affirm and support these concerns for religious liberty in the ecumenical groups in which we participate;
  2. pursue application of these minimal standards of the human rights of religious liberty in all societies and work toward conditions where governmental units neither inhibit nor encourage religion;
  3. advocate, through education and political action, to gain religious liberty in all places where it is lacking;
  4. extend the compassionate ministry of the church to persons who suffer because either religious or governmental authorities seek to deny these rights to them, assuming a special responsibility to work on behalf of “unregistered,” in addition to governmentally sanctioned, religious institutions;
  5. educate ourselves so that we will be able to identify and respond to violations of religious liberty both in our own and in other societies; and
  6. offer support to the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance.

Adopted 1988; Amended and Readopted 2000.

from The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, 2004.