As we think about our morally degenerating society and what it means for the future of freedom of religion and freedom of speech, what are we to make of the 22 clergy recently found guilty of trespassing while protesting at the State Capitol? The incident raises serious questions about First Amendment rights and what the Bible has to say about civil disobedience, especially in light of the LGBT’s push for restrictions on what churches and religious institutions can do and say. We must understand from a faith perspective what it means to properly protest and invoke civil disobedience if necessary.
On May 6, 2014, more than 20 Missouri clergy staged a protest at the State Capitol calling for lawmakers to pass an expansion of Medicaid. Their protest was peaceful, but it took a serious turn when it moved into the gallery overlooking the Senate floor – while the Senate was in session. The clergy – with about 80 other protesters – began chanting and singing so loud that the Senate could not conduct its business and was forced to adjourn for about an hour.
State Capitol police moved in, clearing the gallery. That is when the 23 clergy made their decision to continue their protest through civil disobedience and were arrested. They were charged with first-degree trespassing, a misdemeanor, and for disrupting government operations.
Following a two-day trial in Cole County Court in Jefferson City, the arrested clergy were found guilty of trespassing by a jury, Aug. 18, but were acquitted of the other charges. Judge Dan Green said the defendants will face a fine of up to $500, and he would set the amount of those fines. The clergy could have faced up to six months in jail.
While I do not agree with their point of view (I feel the expansion of a corrupt, mismanaged Medicaid system would bankrupt our state if expanded without serious reforms), the protesters had every right to do what they did – until they crossed the line by nosily entering the Senate gallery while the Senate was in session. We are a nation of laws, not mob rule. If we are not careful, our actions can be interpreted as having contempt for the law, that personal interests are superior to concerns of society as a whole. By disregarding legal protocol, the clergy took the law into their own hands, encouraging chaos. Such behavior is self-defeating, for it creates negative feelings by their fellow citizens, inflicting damage to their cause. It also ignores the lawful channels afforded by a constitutional government. While their views are lauded by liberal ideologues, it hurts our Christian witness.
Christians have an obligation to obey the law (1 Peter 2 and Romans 13) unless it directly contradicts what God has said. Examples include Esther (Esther 4), Daniel (Daniel 1, 6), Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego (Daniel 3), and Peter and John’s refusal to stop preaching (Acts 5:29). These are examples of people who were ordered to act contrary to the will of God. So they disobeyed and God blessed their faithfulness.
While we are to advocate for the poor before government authorities as the clergy felt they were doing, we should not break the law unless it contradicts God’s will – and if we do – we are to peacefully accept the consequences of our actions and continue our protest – even if unjustly jailed. State Rep. Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City), who defended the clergy, obviously had no understanding of the Christian concept of civil disobedience as it relates to American law. His arguments were silly and rightly rejected by the jury. It was odd seeing Barnes trying to litigate the case, claiming he was defending the First Amendment. Yet he opposed SJR 39 (the Missouri Religious Freedom Amendment) earlier this year. He is hardly a friend of religious liberty.
God ordained three institutions: The Church, the family and government. Christians are to be good citizens. Yes, that may include protests and civil disobedience, especially when government coerces us to follow laws contrary to God’s will, forcing us to violate our conscience. Only God – not government -– is Lord of the conscience.
The 23 Missouri clergy were right to advocate for the poor, but when they carried their protest to the Senate gallery while the Senate was in session, they broke the law. A goofy legal defense notwithstanding, the clergy should peacefully accept their penalty while continuing to advocate for the poor. God is a God of order. He ordained government for our own good and His glory.