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Ethics and Religion Talk: Should Secular Law be Based on Religious Law?

Reader Jason A-O asks: Is it ethical to pass laws in the U.S. that are based on a particular religion's rules/dogma? For example: laws that forbid the sale of alcohol on Sundays or laws that prohibit abortion under all circumstances or permit it under very limited circumstances.

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

First, we need to understand the purpose of civil and criminal law. According to the open library at the University of Minnesota, “civil law regulates the private rights of individuals. Criminal law regulates individuals' conduct to protect the public” ( In other words, the purpose of civil and criminal law is to order and protect the members of our civil society.

Second, we must establish different sources for law. For example, natural law is “an observable law related to natural phenomena” (Oxford Languages Online). The moral law is “in a system of ethics, an absolute principle defining the criteria of right action” (Ibid.). The Canon Law is “the law of the Catholic Church” (Wikipedia). The Divine Law is “any body of law that is perceived as deriving from a transcendent source, such as the will of God or gods” (Ibid.).

Laws are often passed with the influence of the values held in common and for the good of all in society. Because something is legal does not make it moral, e.g., abortion. Because a particular law is winning a majority vote does not mean it is successful, e.g., prohibition. What could be unethical is using only one principle for all without dialogue or the desire to come to a common understanding with which all are willing to abide. 

Rev. Salvatore Sapienza, the Senior Pastor at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ in Saugatuck/Douglas, responds:

The founders of our country were very clear in the separation of church and state. The United States of America is made of up citizens of various faith traditions, as well as people who do not believe in God. Therefore, no U.S. law should passed based solely on a particular religion’s rules or dogmas. 

One of the most religious Presidents in the history of the U.S., Jimmy Carter, stated, “When I was in office, I didn’t permit worship services in the White House as had been done earlier. I was careful to not ever promote my own Christianity as superior in America to other religions, because I feel that all religious believers should be treated carefully. We believe in separation of church and state, that there should be no unwarranted influence on the church or religion by the state, and vice versa.” 

While houses of worship are forbidden from endorsing particular political candidates or parties, people of faith should be encouraged to engage in the political process by speaking their truth to the powers-that-be and advocating for peace and justice in our land, so that all people can truly be afforded the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

Unitarian Universalists strongly believe in separation of church and state. No laws should be based on religious beliefs. For example for centuries the LGBTQA+ community has been targeted by some religions in the country. These citizens have been denied the basic rights due to religious beliefs. Not until 2015 was civil marriage available at the federal level to gay couples. These citizens were denied these rights because of religious beliefs. We believe that is an injustice. 

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

Many of our laws find similarities to religious codes of ethics— the Ten Commandments for example. But that we should have laws prohibiting theft, murder, and slander are necessary to maintain order and peace in society.  On the other hand, a law which forbids the sale of alcohol on Sunday is not necessary to maintain a civil society, but is directly related to the moral beliefs of a particular religious group.

Imam Kip Curnutt, Director of Religious Education and Associate Imam of Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids, responds:

 This question really hits at the difficulties found in pluralism. No doubt most ethical standards are rooted in religious tradition and the different traditions are in agreement about what is good and evil in broad sense but differ in the details. When you add into the mix a secular "progressive" ethic that is willing to leave behind tradition religious ethics it becomes even more complicated. I think in any system no matter how tolerant or pluralistic there must be some ultimate arbitrator between differing ethical values, especially at the legal level. The question is, in our society where is that placed? Is it with the Judeo-Christian roots of the culture? Is it with the enlightenment liberalist roots? Is it with the majority? In the American context I'm not sure what the answer is. In Islam we find a certain type of compromise between moral absolutism and pluralism in the legal realm. In classical Islamic societies court cases between Muslims and other religious minorities were to be decided based on Islamic law as it was the law of the land. However, at the same time religious minorities were allowed to have their own parallel court systems that decided on issues that only involved members of their own communities according to the laws of their own religion.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Reformed Presbyterians teach that the moral law of God, as summarized in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and reduced by Christ to the Two Great Commandments (Matthew 22:37-40), is binding on all humanity. It follows that as citizens of the US, Presbyterians should advocate for laws that agree with the moral law of God; but we must do so with due regard for the civil rights and liberty of conscience accorded to us and to all our fellow citizens by God and “the wholesome laws” (Westminster Confession, Ch. XXIII, Sec. II) of our commonwealth. 

Where we cannot persuade, we cannot compel. Many Christians today have forgotten the grim lessons taught by the “noble experiment” of National Prohibition. No law, not even the law of God, can make men good, or incline them to cease from evil or learn to do well. That said, there is nothing commanded in the moral law of God that is only a matter of personal choice or private practice, and our fellow citizens should not expect Christians to deny or betray our faith and the duties it lays upon us.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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