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Church gathering bans, masks: What does the Bible say about religious liberty?

Church gathering bans, masks: What does the Bible say about religious liberty?

Unsplash/Mika Baumeister

Are Christians facing “a hill to die on”?

This idiom has been explained: “Fighting to take the position of a hill from an enemy is nearly impossible and results in mass casualties. One must be sure that the hill is worth the cost of taking it.

Colonial Americans determined that freedom from the oppression of Britain was such a hill. America’s leaders determined that responding to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and jihadist terrorism on 9/11 were such hills.

Are America’s Christians facing threats to our religious liberty on such a level that we must stand up at any cost?

Have we reached that point where we must say to secular authorities, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)?

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Public worship and governmental authority

Three churches in California have filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom, claiming that a ban on singing in worship to help stem the spread of coronavirus violates their First Amendment rights. One explained, “Singing in church is a biblical mandate.”

They point to the governor’s support of recent Black Lives Matter protests, claiming that he protected the protesters’ freedom of expression while blocking that of Christians in worship. In their view, the governor’s act constitutes a breach of their religious freedom.

John MacArthur’s well-known church in the Los Angeles area has chosen to reopen for in-person worship; a video of his sermon shows attendees sitting beside each other without wearing masks. The church’s website defends the decision as obeying “the biblical mandate to gather for corporate worship.”

South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom

In South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, the US Supreme Court denied in late May a California church’s request for an injunction against the state’s phased reopening plan.

The governor’s executive order limited religious gatherings to 25 percent of building capacity or a maximum of one hundred attendees. The court determined by a five-to-four vote that “although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

By contrast, the majority noted, “the Order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”

Writing in dissent, Justice Kavanaugh disagreed: “California’s 25 percent occupancy cap on religious worship services indisputably discriminates against religion, and such discrimination violates the First Amendment.” His dissent was joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch.

We can view this case as a disagreement regarding which activities are more like attending worship services and therefore subject to California’s attendance cap, or we can see it as an attack on public worship and therefore on religious liberty.

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak

Another Supreme Court case has caused grave concern. In Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, the same five-to-four majority denied a request from a Nevada church that it be allowed to operate under the same conditions as similar secular businesses.

The church wanted to hold services at 50 percent capacity rather than having the state cap its attendance at fifty people regardless of the size of the church building. Restaurants, bars, gyms, and casinos operate under the more permissive 50 percent capacity rule. In his dissent, Justice Gorsuch states: “There is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”

Justice Kavanaugh also dissented, stating: “Unlike a casino next door, a church with a 500-person occupancy limit may let in only 50 people, not 250 people. Nevada has offered no persuasive justification for that overt discrimination against places of worship. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is at least as high at restaurants, bars, casinos, and gyms as it is at religious services. Indeed, people congregating in restaurants, bars, casinos, and gyms often linger at least as long as they do at religious services.”

He added: “To be clear, a State’s closing or reopening plan may subject religious organizations to the same limits as secular organizations. And in light of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, those limits may be very strict. But a State may not impose strict limits on places of worship and looser limits on restaurants, bars, casinos, and gyms, at least without sufficient justification for the differential treatment of religion” (his emphasis).

He stated that “the State has not explained” why the 50 percent occupancy cap “is good enough for secular businesses where people congregate in large groups or remain in close proximity for extended periods—such as at restaurants, bars, casinos, and gyms—but is not good enough for places of worship.”

Nevada apparently did not provide such justification to the court. However, some argue that church services are uniquely dangerous with regard to spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Carlos del Rio, an infectious-disease expert at Emory University, said of church gatherings, “It’s an ideal setting for transmission. You have a lot of people in a closed space. And they’re speaking loudly, they’re singing. All those things are exactly what you don’t want.” By mid-July, more than 650 cases of COVID-19 had been linked to religious facilities.

Health experts warn that singing in public is especially dangerous, noting that singers use “diaphragmatic breathing” that generates a greater number of aerosols and spreads them a long distance. One choir in Washington had an outbreak in which fifty-two of the sixty-one members became infected with COVID-19 and two died.

Justice Kavanaugh then addressed the state’s second rationale: that Nevada wants to “jump-start business activity and preserve the economic well-being of its citizens.” As he notes, “no precedent suggests that a State may discriminate against religion simply because a religious organization does not generate the economic benefits that a restaurant, bar, casino, or gym might provide. Nevada’s rules reflect an implicit judgment that for-profit assemblies are important and religious gatherings are less so; that moneymaking is more important than faith during a pandemic.”

This is a great concern. Setting aside the enormous economic benefits society receives from religious organizations, if governments are allowed to discriminate against religious groups on the basis of their perceived economic contributions or lack thereof, we have crossed a red line of grave significance.

Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen stated: “The Bill of Rights exists to protect minorities from the tyrannical exercise of power by majorities. It doesn’t matter if the majority subjectively believes it’s right or if there is a colorable claim it can appeal to. Religious minorities are minorities, too, and the free-exercise clause is supposed to protect them from tyranny by the mob even when that mob is acting through elected representatives.”

Wheaton College dean Ed Stetzer has been a strong advocate for the principle that religious liberty is not violated when churches are asked to submit to governmental regulations, so long as the same regulations apply equally to similar organizations. However, he believes Nevada crossed this line and is restricting public worship in ways that are not being applied to similar gatherings, such as in casinos.

As a result, he writes: “For those churches that gather Sunday, contrary to the Nevada governor’s order, but by following all the rules that theaters and casinos do, and working to keep their parishioners safe—I stand with you.”

He explains: “You don’t have to agree that churches should be meeting. You don’t have to agree that it is safe. However, we can and should agree that churches should not be treated differently than similar contexts. That’s fundamental to our approach to religious liberty and in general.

“This crosses an important line. It’s time to speak and time to act.”

My position

Here’s my position: governmental authorities must not privilege secular gatherings over religious services on the basis of the perceived economic benefits of the former versus the latter. Nor should they apply attendance caps to churches that are not applied to similar gatherings.

However, as we have noted, some medical professionals believe that worship services involve activities such as singing and preaching that are known to spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus in ways not found in other public gatherings. People in casinos, restaurants, bars, and gyms do not typically preach or sing.

This factor should be considered as we judge the religious liberty issues related to the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on public worship. However, as is customary for such rulings, the five-justice majority did not state their reasoning in either case. Justice Kavanaugh stated that Nevada did not provide “sufficient justification for the differential treatment of religion.”

I must therefore assume that issues relative to virus transmission through singing and preaching did not play a role in Nevada’s case or the majority’s decision. If this is true, we should be concerned that the majority’s rulings in both cases appear, as the dissenting justices allege, to discriminate against churches and violate their religious freedom.

Wearing masks in public

Lily Damtew decided to close her coffee shop after she asked a customer to wear a mask and he spat at her feet and hurled chicken and rice at her window. The neighborhood’s support changed her mind. When she reopened six days later, her first customer said, “I see you’re open. That takes a lot of courage.”

You would not think courage would be required to ask customers to wear masks in a pandemic. But that’s where we are.

A Family Dollar security guard in Flint, Michigan, was shot and killed after telling a customer that her child had to wear a face mask to enter the store. A Starbucks worker was denounced on social media by a customer who refused to wear a mask. Fights over wearing masks in stores and other public places have become so widespread that the New York Times calls them “the new American pastime.”

I have written in the past on the scientific and medical reasons why wearing masks is so important during the pandemic. I understand that some people simply disagree on the merits. They are not convinced by the science I referenced, or they are convinced by those who claim contrary evidence.

Of course, the vast majority of those who disagree with mask mandates would never spit at a coffee shop owner or murder a security guard. Nonetheless, this issue has become emotional and divisive on a level that transcends the physical act of wearing a facemask.

One skeptic states, “There’s really nothing you can do to hide from the virus.” He sees mask mandates in his state as an example of “government over-reach” and adds, “There are people in power who want to see what people will submit to.”

The question of wearing masks in public can be especially relevant for public worship since it is difficult to sing or preach and impossible to take communion while wearing one. Several states and communities have exempted religious officiants and worship participants from mask-wearing mandates.

A large church in Oklahoma encourages worship attenders to wear masks but does not require them. “I think people would be really discouraged by even stricter, more draconian measures over our First Amendment rights,” Executive Pastor Steve Russell explained. One church has an area for those who want to wear masks during the service and another for those who do not.

My position: wearing masks in public is demonstrated by numerous scientific studies to be significantly beneficial for others and for those who wear them, constituting an opportunity to love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:39). Such a mandate is not an infringement of our civil liberties any more than other statutes that protect citizens and the community (such as speed limits).

Neither are mask-wearing mandates in worship an infringement of religious liberty, even when they place an imposition on some religious practices (such as singing and taking communion), so long as they are applied to other public gatherings without consideration of similar practical consequences.

Is the United States becoming China?

Christians in China say the persecutions they are now experiencing are worse than what the church experienced during the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

China’s record on human rights, especially with regard to its minorities, is beyond horrific. The Uighurs, a Muslim minority, have been subjected to forced sterilization and abortion in a form of “demographic genocide.” Chinese Christians are being pressured to renounce their faith and to spy on other believers.

It has been reported that Christians who receive social welfare payments from the Chinese government have been ordered to remove crosses and religious symbols from their homes or lose their subsidies. One official posted portraits of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping in a Christian’s home and said, “These are the greatest Gods. If you want to worship somebody, they are the ones.”

I note these horrific developments because they relate to the US’s response to the pandemic and could be relevant to religious and civil liberties as a result.

In an article for the Boston Globe, cultural psychologist and author Michele Gelfand writes: “The decentralized, defiant, do-it-your-own-way norms that make our country so entrepreneurial and creative also deepen our danger during the coronavirus crisis. To fight this pandemic, we can’t just shift our resources; we have to shift our cultural patterns as well.”

In her view, our nation’s conflicted responses to the pandemic “reflect a broader cultural phenomenon. In a loose culture like the United States’s, people are simply not used to tightly coordinating their social action toward a common goal and, compared with other nations, we’re more ambivalent about sacrificing our freedom for strict rules that constrain our choices.”

Dr. Gelfand cites the US, Italy, and Brazil as examples of “looser culture” which “have weaker rules and are much more permissive.” She contrasts them with Singapore, Austria, and China as “tight cultures” which have “many rules and punishments governing social behavior.”

The latter have “histories of famine, warfare, natural disasters, and, yes, pathogen outbreaks” and have learned the hard way that “tight rules and order save lives.” Cultures that have faced few threats, such as the US, “have the luxury of remaining loose. They understandably prioritize freedom over constraint, and they are highly creative and open, but also more disorganized than their tight counterparts.”

She notes that the US shifted “from loose to tight” during World War II and believes we need to do so again by “temporarily sacrificing liberty for stricter rules” so we can “limit the damage from this disease.”

The question, of course, is this: What does “temporarily sacrificing liberty for stricter rules” mean? And will such sacrifices be temporary?

Philosopher Matthew B. Crawford notes that “emergency powers are seldom relinquished once the emergency has passed.” He adds: “Bureaucracies have their own interests, quite apart from the public interest that is their official brief and warrant. They are very much in the business of tending and feeding the narratives that justify their existence. Further, given the way bureaucracies must compete for funding from the legislature, each must make a maximal case for the urgency of its mission, hence the necessity of its expansion.”

I agree with Crawford when he states: “By all means, let us defer to technocratic competence in times of emergency.” But, like him, I am also concerned that such deference does not become our permanent posture with regard to governmental authority.

Bad news and good news on religious liberty

Activists burned a stack of Bibles in front of the federal courthouse in Portland recently. A statue of Jesus was beheaded at a Miami church.

A recent faculty survey at Harvard University found that 79.7 percent consider themselves “very liberal” or “liberal”; 18.9 percent say they are “moderate”; only 1.46 percent call themselves “conservative” or “very conservative.”

Unsurprisingly, 67 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe Christianity’s influence on American life is decreasing. Two-thirds say their beliefs are in conflict with mainstream American culture. Sixty percent say a major cause of this problem is “negative portrayals of Christianity in pop culture“; 43 percent also claim that “government policies have limited religion’s role in public life.”

Are our religious freedoms under attack?

In Bostock v. Clayton County, the Supreme Court determined that LGBTQ persons must not face employment discrimination, but the court made no allowance for religious objections. However, as religious liberties legal authority David French notes, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “contains a provision specifically designed to protect the autonomy of religious organizations.” In his view, this provision “has a profound impact on the relevant applicant pool and (along with the First Amendment) permits employers to require that applicants agree to the organization’s statement of faith.”

In addition, French reminds us that “religious employers are completely exempt from nondiscrimination statutes when hiring and firing ‘ministerial’ employees.” And religious schools and similar organizations can apply for exemptions to Title IX policies regarding dorm rooms and sexual conduct when “the application of this subsection would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”

In other words, religious schools and organizations after Bostock can still be exempt from Title IX restrictions on their religious beliefs regarding sexuality and other moral issues.

And French notes that religious organizations and schools increasingly have a right of equal access to public funds and public facilities. He adds that “the same civil rights act that now protects LGBT Americans also explicitly protects people of faith.” Employees cannot be harassed because of our religious beliefs or practices or denied a reasonable accommodation of our beliefs or practices.

He adds more good news: “In the face of progressive control of the vast majority of the legal educational establishment, conservatives have created, sustained, and nurtured an intellectually vibrant and determined community of lawyers, scholars, and judges who have transformed American law to better match the meaning and text of the American Constitution. It has not accomplished all it could (what movement ever does?)—and there have been bitter disappointments—but it has made an enormous impact by securing liberties that American Christians now take for granted.”

He concludes: “I’ve spent the vast bulk of my professional life standing guard on the citadel of free exercise and free speech, working to expand its walls and hardening its fortifications. But that citadel exists for a purpose beyond its mere continued existence. It is supposed to empower the church to fearlessly act as salt and light in a broken world.”

Biblical responses to religious liberty issues

In Chapter 7 of my book, The State of Our Nation: 7 Critical Issues, I discuss religious liberty in the context of recent bias against Christians and the challenge of same-sex marriage. There I note that Christians must resist the temptation to withdraw from culture, choosing instead to take Christ to all nations as fervently and effectively as possible (Matthew 28:19).

Old Testament prophets clearly and consistently spoke out against the cultural sins of their day. For example, Hosea condemned the “swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery” of his culture (Hosea 4:2). He also warned his society against drunkenness and sexual immorality (4:18) as well.

Amos condemned enslavement (Amos 1:6–8), mistreatment of pregnant women (1:13) and the poor (2:6), sexual abuse (2:7), drunkenness (4:1), greed (5:11), and corruption (5:12). Obadiah warned against violence (v. 10); Micah condemned theft (Micah 2:1–2).

Much like the prophets of old, Paul was grieved by idolatry (Acts 17:16) and the sins of his day, many of which he listed specifically (Romans 1:18–32Galatians 5:19–21). He had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart” (Romans 9:2) for his fellow Jews who had not made Jesus their Messiah. And he gave his life as a missionary to the Gentile world (Galatians 2:7–8).

In his cultural engagement, the apostle followed the example and ministry of our Lord. Jesus fed the hungry (John 6:1–14), healed the sick (Mark 1:33–34), and befriended the outcast (Luke 19:1–10).

He taught us to do the same, calling us to be “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13–16). Both transform all they contact. As a result, the first Christians gave their goods to anyone who “had need” (Acts 2:45) and ministered to “the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits” (Acts 5:16).

Clearly, they did more than “preach the gospel.” Or, better said, they preached the gospel of God’s love in actions as well as in words. They met felt need in order to meet spiritual need, earning the right to share the message of salvation in Christ.

What do we do when this spiritual calling conflicts with the secular authorities?

Serving Christ and Caesar

It was Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus was teaching the crowds gathered in the Temple corridors. Here, the unlikeliest of political coalitions came against him.

The Pharisees hated the Roman occupation, but they also hated Jesus. They considered his grace-centered message to violate the Law and its demands. In their minds, he was a heretic whose influence must be stopped.

The Herodians supported the Roman occupation in every way. They and the Pharisees were in constant political conflict. But they also saw Jesus as a threat to the Empire’s power. Like the Pharisees, they wanted him arrested or even killed.

So, they “went out and plotted how to entangle him in his words” (Matthew 22:15). Luke gives us their underlying motive: “They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor” (Luke 20:20 NIV).

The Pharisees sent some of their “disciples” to him (Matthew 22:16), students at one of the two Pharisaic theological seminaries in Jerusalem. Their youth might endear them to Jesus; at any event, they would be less recognizable to him than their leaders.

After patronizing him with compliments, they asked their entrapping question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (v. 17). Their grammar required a “yes” or “no” answer. And either would serve their purpose.

They pushed a very hot button. The “taxes” to which they referred were the poll-tax or “census” tax paid by all males over the age of fourteen and all females over the age of twelve. It was paid directly to the Emperor himself.

And it required the use of a coin despised by the Jewish populace. This was the “denarius,” a silver coin minted by the Emperor himself. It was the only Roman coin which claimed divine status for the Caesar. On one side, it pictured the head of Emperor Tiberius with the Latin inscription, “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus.” On the other side, it pictured Pax, the Roman goddess of peace, with the Latin inscription, “high priest.” It was idolatrous in the extreme.

The tax it paid led to a Jewish revolt in AD 6, which established the Zealot movement. That movement eventually resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation in AD 70. At this time, that movement was growing in power and influence.

Thus, these schemers were asking Jesus to take a position on the most inflammatory issue of the day.

If he said that it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, the public would turn from him in revolt and his influence would be at an end. If he said that it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus would be a traitor to Rome and the authorities would arrest and execute him. Either way, the hands of his opponents would be clean, and they would be rid of their enemy.

Here is Jesus’ timeless answer. He asked for a denarius, and then he asked them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” (v. 20). They told him that it bore the image and inscription of Caesar. And he replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). If taxes belong to the nation, pay them. If worship belongs to God, give it. Give to each what is due. Live in two countries, a citizen of both.

Ambassadors for Christ

Paul clarifies this image of citizenship when he called us “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). An American ambassador lives in a foreign country under appointment by his president at home. They obey the laws of that nation. They give allegiance to its leaders and people. But they always have a second allegiance, an even higher allegiance to their home country and their leader. And if they must choose between the two, their loyalties are clear.

Like secular ambassadors, we are each to obey and support our governing authorities:

  • “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).
  • “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:6–7 NIV).
  • “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1–2 NIV; cf. Titus 3:1–2).

But we are also to obey and serve our Lord:

  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7).
  • “You kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:10–12 NIV).
  • “By me kings reign and rulers issue decrees that are just; by me princes govern, and nobles—who rule on earth” (Proverbs 8:15–16 NIV).

Peter explains well the relationship between Christ and Caesar: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. . . . Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:13–1417).

We are to love people, fear God, and honor the state. We are not to fear people or the state but God alone.

In other words, serve your highest authority. When you can serve Christ and state, serve both. If you must choose, choose Christ.

Even at such times, we are to be respectful (Titus 3:2), considerate (1 Timothy 2:2), and reverent (1 Peter 3:15). “Speaking the truth in love” is to be our goal (Ephesians 4:15). But we are also to be bold (Acts 4:29Ephesians 6:19), strong (1 Corinthians 16:13), and courageous (Philippians 1:28) in serving our Lord.

When the Sanhedrin demanded that the apostles stop preaching the gospel, “Peter and the other apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men'” (Acts 5:29).

Serve your highest authority, always.

Conclusion

As David French noted, religious liberty is “supposed to empower the church to fearlessly act as salt and light in a broken world.” He is right: religious freedom is a means to the end of spiritual freedom. American Christians can have complete liberty to preach the gospel and seek to win others to Christ, but if we do not preach the gospel and seek to win others to Christ, such liberty loses its eternal significance.

Hopefully, recent restrictions on public worship will ease when the pandemic is gone. However, we should watch carefully for arguments privileging secular gatherings versus worship services on the ground of economic advantages. And we should beware rulings that seem to apply a more restrictive standard to religious services than to similar gatherings.

I am convinced that mask-wearing in public is a significant way to love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:39). However, I would be concerned if mask-wearing mandates were applied to religious gatherings in ways that unfairly target or stigmatize them.

And I am grateful for the advances with regard to religious liberty that David French discusses. However, I am concerned about the temptation to trust secular authorities to protect us from secular abuses. Court compositions can change quickly, and justices do not always rule in ways that are consistent with their previous decisions or perceived beliefs.

In other words, the church must seize the opportunity that is ours today, using our religious freedom to share spiritual freedom in Christ as fully and effectively as possible.

I have been privileged to teach doctoral seminars for Dallas Baptist University at Oxford University several times over the years. We always make it a point to visit the Martyr’s Memorial. It commemorates three Protestant martyrs—Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer. The three were burned at the stake near this location, Latimer and Ridley in 1555, Cranmer the next year.

As the flames rose around Latimer and Ridley, Latimer said to his fellow martyr, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”

I have taught the word of God at this very location. The candle they lit “never shall be put out.”

We are called to shine it in our dark culture with grace and courage, to the glory of God.

Originally posted at denisonforum.org

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Adapted from Dr. Jim Denison’s daily cultural commentary at www.denisonforum.org. Jim Denison, Ph.D., is a cultural apologist, building a bridge between faith and culture by engaging contemporary issues with biblical truth. He founded the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture in February 2009 and is the author of seven books, including “Radical Islam: What You Need to Know.” For more information on the Denison Forum, visit www.denisonforum.org. To connect with Dr. Denison in social media, visit www.twitter.com/jimdenison or www.facebook.com/denisonforum. Original source: www.denisonforum.org.

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