On August 22, 2008, members of the ClubAdventist.com community interviewed Mitch Tyner, who served as associate general counsel of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists from 1993-2006. Special thanks to site moderator Stan Jensen for making this available to RLTV.
Here are some questions and answers from the online interview:
Is there any move at all to change the adversarial nature of our legal system in which winning the case becomes the all-consuming goal often with the real truth becoming incidental and justice sacrificed?
If only someone could come up with a nice, neat way to do that…
People don’t usually go to court unless they have very strong motivation to win. It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, etc. So the motivation, by the time you get to that point, is to get what’s coming to you and teach the other guy a lesson for causing you all this cost and difficulty.
However, there is a movement called alternative dispute resolution, that seeks to use mediation and/or arbitration as substitutes. Mediation is especially appropriate when what is sought is not just money, but rather a reconciliation and accounting. Sadly, these methods are not used to the degree they might be.
Should Adventists encourage their children to become lawyers? Is it a noble profession?
I know of no area of the law that a Christian cannot practice in good conscience. Usually, that question envisions criminal defense work, which requires holding the government’s feet to the fire, forcing it to meet all its obligations as to necessary proof before incarcerating an individual. To do that is to protect all our rights, not merely getting a bad guy out of a jam.
Are there circumstances when it is acceptable for believers to sue other believers? When is it better to suffer a wrong done than sue another believer?
There are times when legal rights can only be established by a court. Property boundaries are just one example. There are instances when one becomes a plaintiff involuntarily because your insurance company brings suit on your behalf. In other instances where the decision is yours alone, you must weigh the importance of what can be achieved against the harm the suit may cause. Obviously, that’s easier to say than to do, and it is inherently subjective.
What are the upcoming challenges when it comes to religious liberty and what can the average person do about them?
The big challenge I see facing us is the growing mistrust of religion. After 9/11, people are much, much more prone to argue that people who take religion very seriously fly airplanes into tall buildings: you can’t trust very religious people. It has cast a pall over all efforts to gain more protection for the free exercise of religion. The idea of religious neutrality, a bedrock assumption of true religious liberty, is being questioned. Religious people have a huge challenge: to constantly demonstrate that religious freedom is both necessary and in the best interest of all.
Probably a very simple and obvious question, but I’m sure you’re much more up on the policy platforms of the candidates in this area than any of us. Do you believe Obama or McCain would be the President most likely to expand religious liberty (or the reverse)?
The protection of individual rights, the rights of minorities against majorities, has historically been a liberal project, not one favored by conservatives.
Voltaire’s famous quote about disagreeing with what someone says but defending to the death their right to say it has become commonplace in some ways in our society. But what do we do with it as a church? I know that in the US, for example, the ACLU is widely reviled for its perceived support of NAMBLA. That’s a pretty extreme example, but do SDAs support the right of people with whom we disagree (I know you’ve written on the issue of homosexuality, for example)? Or do we apply our limited resources to supporting causes that we can fully get behind?
You ask an interesting question: Do SDAs support those rights. As a matter of fact, the church organization usually does. I fear that a lot of members do not. We have too many members, especially in the US, who think Christians – and they usually mean Protestants – should be in a superior position. Sort of ‘all are equal but we are more equal than others’. It doesn’t work that way.
In my view, if we are not prepared to protect the rights of those with whom we disagree, we are not serious about religious freedom. That said, it’s one thing to support in principle, quite another to put money into a case. One of the frustrations of representing plaintiffs is that there are so many more deserving plaintiffs, with good cases, than money to support the effort. . . .
Will the legalization of gay marriage harm religious freedom? What about the right of churches to discriminate?
I believe that opposition by churches to equality based on sexual orientation is one of the leading causes of opposition to advancing religious liberty protections. For a lengthy treatment of the subject, see my chapter in the recently released book, “Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Adventist Perspectives,” published by the Association of Adventist Forums.
Does the legalization of gay marriage in California mean that pastors have to perform the marriages?
No pastor, at least in the US, can be forced to marry anyone. The Adventist ministers manual says that I can marry two members or two non -member, but not one of each. That is pure religious discrimination, but it is not illegal. On the other hand, if a pastor is a public employee, such as a chaplain, we might have a different situation.
If a government decides that pastors should not preach about a certain topic, such as homosexuality as a sin, what would the legal department do?
That depends on what country you’re talking about. In the US, we would have a winning lawsuit. There is no way a US court would approve government efforts to dictate sermon content. My impression is that the same result would be reached in Canada, other common law countries, and virtually everywhere except the most repressive regimes, where the ability to successfully contest government intrusion doesn’t really exist anyway. Thus all the verbiage about the danger of churches being muzzled and pastors being required to perform gay marriages is, in my view, mere hype.