delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998
I don’t know about you, but I found the recitation this morning from all parts of the world of gross human rights violations very depressing. It really does focus our minds to think of what is happening in this world. We would like to believe it is full of free people, but all too often those people are being repressed and discriminated against. The Seventh Day Adventist Church experiences those kinds of things as well. For example, church workers are imprisoned without trial simply for bringing Bibles into a particular country.
While I was in Hong Kong I ran into a couple of missionaries who had been expelled from China. I said, “You should let the world know about this.” They said, “The fact that they violated our human rights is nothing. We have simply been expelled because we are not nationals of the country. If you make this public, the people we have left behind will experience far worse, so don’t say anything.” I fear that kind of situation is all too frequent. It is too damaging to say some of these things in certain instances because it will only make things worse. These are human rights violations that Seventh Day Adventists have experienced worldwide.
There are also more formal human rights violations, such as the church registration problems in Latvia. Despite a hundred-year history of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in that country, the church is struggling to be recognized as a legitimate religion under the new law being considered there. In Turkmenistan, one of the former republics of the Soviet Union, there have been attempts to close down the church; all attempts to register the church have totally failed. In Kazakhstan, meetings have been closed down and efforts to rent meeting places have been denied, although this is not a state function. A bomb was thrown into one of the church meeting places. In Austria, Adventists now are considered second-class citizens as a result of a law passed last year.
I want to concentrate on something that may be intriguing to some of you, because it is what I might call “innocent discrimination.” It may not occur to you to think that it can happen, but it does. Simply because Seventh Day Adventists worship on a different day of the week than other Christians means that we have some discrimination problems. For example, people expect you to take Sunday off. You go in and say, “I want to have Saturday off,” and they suddenly scratch their heads and say, “oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” We share the same Sabbath day as members of the Jewish faith, but it seems employers hadn’t met any of those either. The U.S. Postal Service is particularly difficult. We always are in negotiation with them to obtain the privilege of having Saturday off for our members.
A recent concern that has just developed is that the licensing board for dentists in the southern states has decided that it will only give exams on Saturdays. So despite the fact that the Seventh Day Adventist Church operates the largest clinical dental school in the country at Loma Linda University, theoretically at least you cannot become an Adventist dentist in the southern states.
In Botswana, we have a problem with university exams. All exams are scheduled on Saturday. I am sure that the people who decided that did not really have the intention to discriminate against Seventh Day Adventists or Jews as a result. But that is the experience that we have. We could multiply the examples. In Western Europe many exams are scheduled on Saturday. We have to go explain why our members cannot do it. Sometimes some very bizarre things are worked out. The Seventh Day Adventist probably will take the exam the Friday beforehand. He will then be kind of incarcerated somewhere so he cannot communicate the exam’s contents to anybody else before they take it on Saturday. Or there will be some procedure by which the Adventist cannot learn anything from anybody else during Saturday and he will take the exam on Sunday. We also have concerns about military service, which creates some difficulties. Adventists have been discriminated against on that basis.
But primarily in the democracies, our difficulty is this unintentional discrimination concerning the day of worship. When I was involved in denominational work in England, I got a phone call from an employer who was really trying to help. He said, “Look, I have one of your lot working for me. Well, this chap wants to have his Sabbath off, and it is going to be really, really difficult for us,” and he went on to explain the problems it would cause. I said, “Well, I am sorry to hear about that,” but he was simply confirming that what this person had told him was true. I said, “Yes, it is true, we do believe in the seventh-day Sabbath and we do keep that as a holy day of worship.” He said, “I’ll tell you what. You give him a special dispensation and we’ll say no more about it.” Even though we smile about this, it illustrates some of the problems we are up against.
These questions are raised not simply to be difficult or because we want to be different for difference’s sake. These are questions of conscience, and they should be regarded as such. Religious liberty means to uphold those questions of conscience.