by Shelley Curtis Weaver | 30 June 2023 |
Yesterday, attorneys and legal council affiliated with the religious liberty work of the Seventh-day Adventist church had a major victory. In Groff v. Dejoy, the United States Supreme Court upheld postal worker Gerald Groff’s claim of discrimination when he was required to work on his day of worship.
It is a somewhat different take on the issue from what we’ve typically expected from our religious liberty projects. Groff is an evangelical Christian who worships on Sunday, for one thing.
This showcases a commendable expansiveness in our advocacy, and displays our willingness to extend the premise of God’s value of free will and religious self-determination beyond our own special interest in the seventh-day Sabbath.
The results of the decision won’t receive the attention they might have, however, because the Supreme Court decision announced the same day that it had overturned the fifty-year-old precedent for affirmative action in college admission policies—which has understandably dominated the media focus.
Oddly, for the reputation of the church and our future advocacy, this overshadowing is probably a good thing. The clash between what we say and what we do would certainly show that we value individual and religious freedoms only to the extent that our own self-interests are concerned.
Despite the considerable investment defending personal and religious freedoms in Groff v. Dejoy, we have treated that boundary carelessly in our own practice. In an official statement last week, Ugandan Union Mission president Moses Maka Ndimukika denied that he had actively campaigned or supported the anti-LGBTQ bill recently signed into law in Uganda. It might be argued that his presence on The Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU), an entity intimately involved with forming government law and policy, is its own violation.
Nevertheless, three successive Ugandan Union Mission presidents have served as members of the IRCU in this capacity. His predecessor, Elder Blaisious Ruguri, denied even an awareness of the contents of the previous anti-LGBTQ bill championed by the IRCU during his own tenure.
It is also troubling that in addition to denying participation and endorsement of the legislation, Elder Ndimukika cloaks his statement in a recitation of church policy regarding sexual orientation. By association, these details conveniently form an implied endorsement of his IRCU participation. By pointing out that the official church position also condemns what it terms a “lifestyle” choice, Ndimukika really is arguing that the church is not so far removed from Ugandan policy after all.
In fact, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has a long history of conscripting religious leaders to support his specific government initiatives. This includes a 2014 meeting with General Conference president Ted Wilson, where Wilson secured certain commitments from Museveni to safeguard Adventist special interests. So any denial or claim of unwillingness to influence Ugandan government policies or programs is astonishing and appears to be false.
The truth is that the IRCU had a significant involvement in the passage of the recent law. In a speech during the ratification process for the new law, Ugandan president Museveni praised religious leaders in Uganda as being an important delegation behind passing the anti-LGBTQ legislation. Despite Elder Ndimukika’s denial of the rigor of their efforts, other members of the IRCU have stated the extent to which their committee cheered the campaign forward as their top priority that year.
It is difficult to imagine that Elder Ndimukika was active and involved in this committee without discussion or knowledge of the aims, penalties, and intentions of that legislation. If he objected to the bill, this was his opportunity to “dare to be a Daniel” and speak against its inherent human rights violations. His continuing good standing in the association indicates he took no such action. His doubling down within his statement on the sinfulness of homosexual identity, terming it a “lifestyle” or choice, also does not indicate he rejects the aims and premises of the new law.
If we believe that church and state should contain their authority in separate lanes of influence, then preachers, pastors, and “archbishops” should not have a legislative voice and power in passing civil legislation. If we propose to defend individual and religious freedoms, the Adventist church should be advocating for the freedom and dignity of homosexual people in Uganda. From both angles, advocates of human rights and personal/religious liberty would find plenty to criticize in our double standards.
It is equally distressing to hear the excuse of regional need and autonomy pulled out as a defense at this late date. While we might always have been much more mindful of the tendency of our mission efforts to impress the image of American/European culture upon the areas we evangelized, human rights considerations transcend culture and regional traditions.
We cannot ignore the consequences of policies and laws which embolden attacks, abuse, and entrapment. We, who once objected to the death penalty as an inhumane punishment, cannot excuse it as a sovereign right when it suits us.
The duplicity of regional policies
It’s worth noting that regional considerations have been denounced as relativism in Adventist discussions before this.
When Trans-European Division (TED) and North American Division (NAD) leaders argued that social norms, professional expectations, and even employment laws of their various countries compelled them to give equal and official ordination status to their female pastors, the response was far different. We were asked to consider the world church, the cultures whose traditions this would defy, the countries whose sensibilities it would offend. We were told that the world church could not risk church unity by compromising for just one or two divisions.
This was adamantly argued, even though the proposal wasn’t a unilateral mandate, and would certainly not have resulted in anyone’s death or life imprisonment.
Tragically, the church would not even have to honestly investigate the facts of human sexuality or alter its “official position” to honor our historic embrace of free will and religious liberty. The church would only have to be consistent with its claim to treat people with “compassion and care.”
This would require the official church response to condemn church leadership unequally yoked to legislative agenda. It would require the censure and removal of leaders entrenched in political and legislative partnerships, as the past three presidents of the Ugandan Union Mission have been.
Most importantly, the Adventist church might disavow support for this predatory and inflammatory law without slapping back at the LGBTQ community and making the statement a tacit rebuke of that community, rather than of the vicious law under discussion.
If the Groff v. Dejoy case were not overshadowed by the reversal of affirmative action, the great likelihood of some serious questions about this duplicity and double standard would likely have landed on our doorstep yesterday. This does not free us from the weight and obligation to reckon with it ourselves.
Shelley Curtis Weaver lives in coastal Washington state. She is a clay-artist, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, and a frequenter of Columbia River crossings. She has edited and contributed to The Journey to Wholeness Addiction Recovery curriculum from AdventSource.