Tonya Shellnutt was one of the presenters at the recent Pastors’ Day at the Capitol. She serves as Church Alliance Regional Director at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the largest religious liberty advocacy organization in the world. Shellnutt is a native of Montana, but now resides in Rock Hill, SC with her husband, Rich. The Shellnutts have five children. Tonya is also the state director for Concerned Women for America of South Carolina. She and her husband serve in the married adult ministry at the Oakdale Baptist Church in Rock Hill. In her ministry to churches and women across America she is a conservative voice urging people not to waver, compromise, or succumb to apathy. She is using her influence to inspire people to live a life of courage and faith.
Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index, interviewed Mrs. Shellnutt and we believe you will find her responses to the questions below most interesting and extremely helpful to you and your church.
The Christian Index: It seems that churches are becoming more vulnerable to being sued for their convictions. Statistics show that lawsuits against churches have increased in the past 25 years. Why do you think that is happening?
Tonya Shellnutt: It is clear that churches face a culture that is increasingly hostile or indifferent to churches. Some believe that if enough cultural and legal pressure is put on the Church that it will “come around” and modify its theology to suit the prevailing cultural norms. This has resulted in a legal climate that many churches find difficult to navigate. And it’s not just lawsuits either as churches face pressure from taxing authorities or land use commissions that significantly restrict their ministries.
Index: What are the primary reasons for churches are being sued?
Tonya Shellnutt: Churches face legal difficulties in a number of areas. We have seen an increase in churches being sued for employment decisions it makes such as terminating an employee engaged in conduct that violates the church’s religious convictions. Churches also face hostile land use boards and commissions and find themselves significantly restricted when they want to plant churches or relocate or expand. Many churches have been tested in the use of their facilities such as fielding requests by same-sex couples that want to use the church facility for a wedding ceremony. Numerous other smaller issues exist such as transgender youth attending church camps, same-sex couples wanting to volunteer at church, or potential legal obstacles in various outreach ministries. Suffice it to say that churches are frequently finding themselves in need of attorneys who are experienced in protecting the religious freedom of the church.
Index: Where do you think this intrusion against religious liberty will eventually lead if we do not reverse the trend that is obviously developing?
Tonya Shellnutt: If the Church does not unite on the issue of religious liberty, the legal and cultural pressure will only increase until churches find themselves even more marginalized and pushed to the edges of society. It’s not a matter of if churches will face legal challenges to their religious liberty; it’s a matter of where and when. And what affects one church will affect all churches. The Apostle Paul wrote: “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Index: Historically, in your opinion, what part has the church played in the fight to win and preserve religious freedom?
Tonya Shellnutt: Historically, the Church has served as a strong voice for preserving religious freedom. The Church has reminded culture and government why religious freedom is important and has stood against efforts to undermine it. The Church must once again serve in this role as the “conscience” of society on the issue of religious liberty.
Index: What can we do now to prevent Freedom From Religion and ACLU and others from encroaching upon our religious freedom?
Tonya Shellnutt: The best thing churches can do now is to stand united against threats to the religious liberty of the Church. It may or may not be your church that finds its religious liberty tested, but your church can and should be a part of standing for the religious liberty of all churches. The best way to do that is to be in an alliance that is focused on protecting religious liberty. This is why ADF has created the Church Alliance – a true alliance of churches standing to protect the religious liberty of all churches. By being a part of the Church Alliance, you can have comfort in knowing ADF has your church’s back, but you can also be proud to know that your membership is also helping the other church whose religious liberty is being tested.
Index: How does the Church Alliance of ADF assist churches and how can a church become a Church Alliance member?
Tonya Shellnutt: The Church Alliance helps churches in four ways: (1) by providing a religious liberty audit of a church’s bylaws and policies to ensure that the church is in the strongest possible position should its religious liberty be tested; (2) by giving the church direct access to religious liberty attorneys to ask questions about the church’s religious liberty as they arise or to seek consultation about specific situations intersecting with religious liberty; (3) by providing on-demand and breaking resources that educate and empower churches to understand the legal landscape as it relates to the religious liberty of churches; and (4) pro-bono legal defense for churches who find themselves in a religious liberty legal situation. Churches can sign up as part of the Church Alliance at www.ADFChurchAlliance.org. We have made the program affordable so even the smallest churches can participate.
Index: What are some of the most compelling cases ADF has won for churches and/or Christians in America?
Tonya Shellnutt: Just in the last few years, ADF has won two cases at the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of churches. One involved a small church in Arizona that put out roadside signs to advertise its services but was prohibited from doing so. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld that church’s right to put out its church signs. The other case was on behalf of a small Missouri church that was prohibited from participating in a state grant program simply because it was a church. The Supreme Court ruled last June in a 7-2 decision that this church was a member of the community too and could not be denied participation solely because of its status as a church.
ADF has also been privileged to participate in numerous cases on behalf of university students and professors, business owners, nonprofit ministries, school students, pregnancy centers, Christian schools, and numerous others to protect their religious liberty. By God’s grace we have an 80 percent success rate in our cases, demonstrating that when we show up to protect religious liberty, we most often win.
Index: In your opinion, why is it important for pastors and churches to have the freedom to speak out for freedom and against potential government tyranny (that may be strong a word, but it came to mind)?
Tonya Shellnutt: The public square is generally a battleground of powers. We are encountering today a government that is increasingly demanding more and more power over the lives of its citizens and even the Church. The Church of Jesus Christ always has been and always will be the one institution that challenges the government’s push for more and more power by reminding the government that it is not supreme over the lives of its citizens. As Peter and the other Apostles reminded the government of their day, there are times when “we must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).
It is important for churches and their pastors to speak boldly about religious liberty lest it become so restricted that we no longer have the ability to freely share and live out the Gospel. It is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ that will change people’s hearts and minds and the Church is where God deposited this message of life. As the liberty of the Church is restricted, society declines. So, for the sake of the gospel, churches must stand united on the issue of religious liberty because without religious liberty we cannot share our faith freely or live it out fully.