There has been considerable discussion in recent days concerning the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold Hobby Lobby's challenge of the contraception provisions within the Affordable Care Act. There's no shortage of provocative content within both the majority opinion and the spirited dissent penned by Justice Ginsburg ... and there's a great deal of room for partisans to disagree about whether this ruling represents a step forward or backward as it pertains to religious freedom.
To be sure, these are important issues and I am certainly among those who spend time analyzing decisions like this and debating the implications with my friends and colleagues.
But while we here in America continue the Hobby Lobby debate, there are religious freedom matters with serious life and death consequences elsewhere in the world right now, today, which also deserve your attention.
Working in the religious liberty field for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists I encounter terrible, tragic stories on a regular basis. Some involve Adventist church members, some involve people of other faiths, some involve persecution of non-believers and virtually all of them involve egregious misuse of power by governments.
The world applauded last month when Meriam Yehya Ibrahim -- who had been sentenced to death in Sudan for the "crime" of marrying a Christian man -- was released from prison. That this case runs counter to almost every other trend in the religious liberty arena may go without saying. While a righteous outcome, it's fair to say that Ms. Ibrahim, deemed a Muslim by the Sudanese government because she was born to a Muslim father (even though she herself says she never has been Muslim), was released in part due to intense pressure from foreign governments and human rights organizations.
Although still not free to leave Sudan, Ms. Ibrahim has, at least for now, been reunited with her husband and the child she delivered while in prison. However, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others who remain wrongfully imprisoned or tortured or killed just because they believe differently than those in power.
It is unconscionable (yet somehow common) that an individual not be allowed to choose his or her own faith. And yet, as this case in Sudan has vividly reminded us, it often is illegal to try to do something as fundamental as change your religion. What higher power possibly could desire "coerced belief?"
In Burma right now, the Buddhist-majority government is considering a bill that would require people to request permission to change their faith. Many international human rights experts rightly deplore this potential law, noting the potential for discrimination against ethnic or religious minorities, as well as the poor. While those promoting the bill say it would make it easier for people to convert to a new religion (and again, there's absolutely no good reason for government to have a hand in this at all), a review of the bill demonstrates otherwise, with severe criminal penalties for those who run afoul of the law. "Forcing someone to convert" comes with a prison sentence of up to a year. And "insulting another religion" would be punishable by between one and two years in prison.
It's clear that freedom of speech, like freedom of religion, is on life support in too many corners of the world.
The case of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim and the pending anti-conversion law in Burma should serve as contemporary reminders for all of us about how important it is to not only remain vigilant, but -- in the former case -- the positive outcomes that sometimes can result when individuals and governments and NGOs come together and press for a just result. And it is yet possible that international pressure will force the Burmese government to scrap its deeply flawed bill ... although there remain many other troubling restrictions on individuals' rights to practice religion there.
Bringing this all back home -- the Hobby Lobby decision certainly is an important one, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the Supreme Court. But legal cases that pass as important here in the U.S. pale in comparison to what's happening in many other corners of the world where upstanding citizens too often are hauled off to jail simply for the infraction of "insulting" another religion. Yes, there are wrongs that happen here in the religious liberty arena and we should fight to right them where they exist, but we must never lose sight of the true tragedies so many of our brothers and sisters experience on a regular basis in places like Sudan, Pakistan, Iran and dozens of other countries.
That is where we must intently focus our energies and our prayers -- and answer the call that God puts to us in Isaiah 1:17: "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed." (NIV)