Religious Freedom Under Attack

We have seen Arab Spring in the Middle East, and we are now witnessing Christian Winter in America. Traditional Christian and Biblical principles, once the keystone of our free society, are falling like leaves, dark harbingers of meaner days ahead.

While many Christians are rightfully alarmed over reports that 100 churches were attacked or burned to the ground in Egypt, and that fellow Christians are being killed and imprisoned around the world for openly displaying their faith, the slippery slope of religious persecution leading to an unknown but frightening future is taking place this very moment here in America.

The ability of Christians to exercise their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion is being challenged daily-at school board meetings, through federal court challenges, in hostile workplaces, and the public square. For example, secularists have recently launched a new effort to remove "one nation under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance in Massachusetts. The Faith from Freedom Foundation has challenged countless small town high schools to end prayer at sporting events. Our own military now finds itself increasingly accused of discrimination against Christian chaplains and military personnel who stand for traditional marriage. Most alarming, the chilling effect on free speech and religious freedom is coming from the Constitution's only named, protected franchise-the free press.

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Most recently in a classic case of extreme irony, a Charlotte, N.C. conference that I am heading to discuss religious liberties had its paid newspaper ads marketing the event censored by The Charlotte Observer, owned by McClatchy Company.

The conference, scheduled for Sept. 28-29, is billed as the 2013 "Truth For A New Generation." It is an apologetics conference with nationally known speakers such as Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Eric Metaxas, and more than 20 other speakers who will be discussing a host of important issues and questions related to religious freedom. Additionally, a panel of scholars will present a session entitled the "National Briefing on Religious Freedom," moderated by Fox News correspondent Lauren Greene, and hosted in conjunction with the Chuck Colson Center for Worldview.

Attendees have registered from 30 states and internationally, yet a final marketing push for the event included plans to buy a series of ads in the local paper, The Charlotte Observer. The Truth For A New Generation (TNG) marketing team created an ad showing three of the top questions being asked today by people throughout America. They were chosen to encourage discourse, inquiry, and to result in a strong ad, to raise awareness about the conference:

"Is same sex marriage morally wrong?"
"Are Islam and Christianity the same?"
"Are godless people going to destroy America?"

 As a broadcaster, author, educator-and as one who regularly stands before audiences to do open mic Q & A-these truly are questions people are asking.

Yet the marketing and editorial directors of the Charlotte Observer thought otherwise.
Shockingly, The Observer said that our ad contained "leading questions" and that it "unfairly singled out certain groups," and would "unduly influence people."

What we went through in the purchasing of these ads was not only opposition to a Christian event and opposition to the Christian viewpoint, it was clear that we were "out of order" for merely raising the questions that we raised.

The religious discrimination we experienced was blatant. The Truth For A New Generation event is a ministry of a 501©3 non-profit religious organization. Yet after being quoted a price for the newspaper ads we wanted to place, providing the Observer our credit card number for payment, we were subsequently told that our ad wouldn't run as written. We were informed that our ad amounted to "political advocacy" because of the questions it raised. (Bear in mind that this was an ad by a religious organization, promoting a religious event).

Much discussion with the Observer ensued. We were told that the asking of those three questions was unacceptable. Inflammatory. We had "unnecessarily singled out three groups" to malign. We countered by explaining that our ad copy merely asked three questions that millions of Americans are pondering these days. An Observer official said, "I am not going to run something that will almost certainly offend my homosexual, Muslim, and agnostic readers."

The TNG staff and I spoke with The Observer's editorial and advertising staff intermittently for several hours. As the day wore on, the battleground to run the ad began to shift. If we did not agree to change the copy, we would have to pay at the rate for "political or advocacy items," totaling over $14,000, which was more than double the rate to which we had originally agreed. (A full-page ad, which was originally quoted at $12,000.00, would- for our "advocacy" ad- be $45,000.00).

They said our ad was "Intentionally designed to sway public opinion about these issues." An Observer staff person said, "I'm not going to publish an ad obviously designed to sway public opinion." I especially found that excuse to be curious: Aren't all ads and articles designed to influence the public though?

As the discussions continued, and it became obvious that the two staff members from the Charlotte Observer were not going to honor the original agreement for the ads, we realized that the ad was being subjected to a punitive rate structure based on viewpoint discrimination. When asked how the ad was "an advocacy piece," or how the asking of the three questions could be construed as "political"- since no responses were given to the questions raised in the ad- I was told that it was, "not hard to guess what your answers would be." Was it because I am evangelical minister?

Perhaps realizing that they were treading on free speech issues, the battleground shifted yet again. Frank now told us that the ads could not run because they could "Subject the Observer to a lawsuit." When asked what was in the ad that would be grounds for a lawsuit, no response was given. Eventually after much discussion and the forced changing of the wording in the ad by adding more "questions," apparently so as to soften the impact of the questions dealing with homosexuality, Islam, and secularism, they agreed to sell us the ad space.

Only after changing the wording and in our opinion weakening the ad's effectiveness was the original price structure honored. In the end, they honored the original rate that was quoted us. We were told, "We shouldn't do this, but because there is a misunderstanding on your part about the nature of different types of ads, we will….." With only a week to go until the September 27-28 event-and because final marketing strategies were hanging in the balance, TNG staff agreed to the mandatory changes of wording. The first of four ads ran on Thursday, September 19.

I and the TNG staff firmly believe the fight over the ads and the inflated rate structure was an attempt by Observer staff to censor a viewpoint with which they disagreed, namely Christianity. This is an example of the media using its power to control how and what people think, and amounts to suppression of the exchange of ideas. That we were in a battle to exercise our religious liberties to express our biblical worldview using our freedom of speech is indisputable. To ignore suppression of free speech now will open the doors for greater risks to our freedoms tomorrow.

How ironic that in one nightly newscast it is possible to watch authoritarian regimes being toppled by rebels, supported by the US government and idolized by mainstream media, and a few minutes later watch Christians lose their rights under the coercive power of political correctness and media censorship. It is time for Christians to be vigilant.

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