Padlocked Pews

Christians in Russia now enjoy more religious freedom than they have in decades. But in another country I know of, some Christians are afraid to speak out. They know they risk having the government seize their church and confiscate its bank accounts. Believe it or not, that country is . . . the United States. In Florida, for example, the federal government tried to shut down a church after its members dared to speak out against abortion. It all began when New Covenant Church of Pompano Beach allowed Operation Rescue to rent its facilities for a rally. Some who attended the rally, including New Covenant's pastor, later took part in a sit-in at a nearby abortion clinic. The church made it clear that the sit-in was not officially sanctioned by the church; church members who took part did so on their own. But the National Organization for Women sued the church under the Federal Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organization Act, known as RICO. And in a shocking decision, the court said the church was guilty of "racketeering." The court ordered New Covenant to pay NOW's attorney fees of $234,000. The church appealed the decision. But the court allowed NOW's attorney to begin the process of seizing New Covenant's assets. The church had its back up against the wall. It simply didn't have enough money on hand to pay the damages. And, if forced to sell its building, what would happen to New Covenant's school and its community outreach program that feeds 23,000 needy people a year? At an emergency hearing last July, the court agreed that NOW could not seize the church if the congregation raised $265,000—the attorney fees plus interest—and put the money in an escrow account. Hundreds of Christians from around the country sent donations, and New Covenant was able to come up with the escrow money while it appealed the court's decision. New Covenant ultimately dropped its appeal after the church and NOW came to a confidential agreement—one that allowed the congregation to keep its building. But despite the settlement, it's outrageous that the church was forced to go through this ordeal in the first place. RICO was created to deal with organized crime. But in a stunning decision, the Supreme Court decided last year that RICO can be applied to political protest. Last February, I told "BreakPoint" listeners that we should pray that the courts would not use RICO as a sledgehammer against unpopular speech. But that's exactly what the courts are doing. Now, because churches have to worry about RICO lawsuits, prolife protests can be silenced before they begin. After all, what church wants to see its buildings padlocked and its offering money seized by the government? You and I need to let our representatives know that government has no business trying to limit religious liberty. All governments face that temptation. In Denmark, for example, a pastor was jailed for four months on a charge of "verbal violence." He had preached, you see, against homosexuality. The RICO law poses the same threat here, in America. That's why we have to be vigilant—otherwise your church or mine could be shut down if our views offend some bureaucrat.


Chuck Colson


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