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Right to Privacy

Theological Statement

The Christian faith stresses the dignity of and respect for human personality and the need to protect its privacy. Our human right to privacy has an importance in this age of electronic communication and information data bases that it did not have in the days when our scriptures were written. The right to privacy, however, and the corollary duty to protect the privacy of others, are not without mention in the Bible.

Jesus tells us to give our alms in secret so that God may bless us (Matthew 6:4). What God commands us to do, we surely must have a right to do. And with that right, comes a duty. We are to protect the secrets of others and not disclose them, for doing so will bring us both shame and ill repute (Proverbs 25:9-10). Vulnerability is closely linked with our need for privacy and we have a positive duty to make the vulnerable less vulnerable; when we see the naked, we are to cover them (Isaiah 58:7), and by extension, when we encounter information which is better kept private, we are to keep it from going farther.

The ability to respect the privacy of others is a virtue: he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing hidden (Proverbs 11:13). Conversely, because gossip leads to the invasion of others' privacy and the revelation of their secrets, gossips are viewed as destructive people, and a careful steward of private information will not let oneself become vulnerable to them (Proverbs 20:19).

At the same time, our scriptures recognize that privacy can be abused. Employing privacy to slander another in secret is an offence against God, who will destroy the violator (Psalm 101:5). Delilah abuses her relationship with Samson to learn the secret of his strength, then violates his privacy, jeopardizing his life by sharing his secret with his enemies (Judges 16:9). The Bible recognizes that privacy can be abused in the service of oppression; the poor are devoured in secret, Habakkuk (3:14) reminds us, for frequently evil is the result of conspiracies undertaken in secret. The prophets of Israel denounced the repression of the poor, widows, orphans, and others of their society, and our Lord's ministry began with the announced purpose to set at liberty the poor and disadvantaged.

Privacy takes on special meaning in the context of our spirituality. The Psalmist identifies privacy with inwardness; "You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart" (Psalm 51:6). Privacy is an attribute of God, who owns secrets (Deuteronomy 29:29), and who creates humanity in secret (Psalm 139:15). We have no privacy, however, from God, from whom no secret is hidden (Ezekiel 28:3, Mark 4:22), and who will reveal all secrets (Luke 8:17). The secrets of our heart are disclosed to God (1 Corinthians 14:25) who judges these secrets by Christ (Romans 2:16). These scriptural roots claim our attention in several areas of modern life.

Privacy as a Civil Liberty

Because privacy is a human right, it is also a civil liberty. Privacy is meaningless if it does not include privacy from the intrusion of government bodies. Implicit in the right to privacy is the assumption that humans are the owners of their private information, and it is from that position of ownership that the right to choose whether or not to disclose flows. The power to control one's own information is the mark of a free person rather than a slave.

We recall among the many offenses of slavery how slaves were exhibited naked on the auction block so that potential buyers might examine them as a commodity. Invasion of the privacy of an ordinary citizen of society negates this dignity and respect. Further, the Christian faith is supportive of a society that elicits hope and trust, not a society that foments fear and threatens with oppression. The packaging and sale in today's world of information about persons represents a commodification of their humanity and is an offence against their freedom.

We recognize that many of the obligations of government necessitate the collection of personal information by the government. Every instance of such collection must be justified through due process where challenge is possible.

The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church affirm that "illegal and unconscionable activities directed against persons or groups by their own governments must not be justified or kept secret, even under the guise of national security" (¶ 164C). "We strongly reject domestic surveillance and intimidation of political opponents by governments in power and all other misuses of elective or appointive offices" (¶ 164A).

Law Enforcement

We recognize that privacy can be abused for idolatry and murder (Deuteronomy 27:24), for political intrigue (2 Samuel 15:10), and for treachery (Judges 3:19). The psalmist prays that God will protect us from the secret plots of the wicked (Psalm 64:2) and Psalm 10:9 warns its readers of the wicked who lurk in secret like a lion.

We therefore recognize that law enforcement in particular requires the collection and presentation of data to prove a defendant's guilt. We affirm, however, the principle that all are innocent until proven guilty, and, as innocent persons, enjoy the right to privacy.

Medical Privacy

The purpose of health care, whether provided by physicians or other professionals, whether provided by solo practitioners or large institutions, is to restore the health of individual human beings. Persons who seek healing entrust medical practitioners and institutions with their private information, which remains their property.

We therefore support the understanding that patient records and the information in them are the property of the patients to whom the individual pertains, and are not the property of the medical institutions which maintain the records. Institutions are trustees of such information, and must use it for its intended purpose, namely the restoration to health of the affected individuals and, where appropriate, for the health of the public.

We oppose the use of private medical information to promote the products of commercial enterprises. We oppose the provision of private medical information to employers or creditors without the consent of the persons who own the information. We oppose the use of private medical information in legal situations without the person's consent, as this amounts to involuntary self-incrimination.

We oppose the use of private medical information without the owner's permission, to discriminate against the owner of the information in employment, in housing, in the provision of credit.

Genetic Privacy

We are particularly opposed to the use of genetic information concerning an individual in order to discriminate in the provision of credit, employment, and various forms of insurance.

We support genetic privacy and nondiscrimination legislation that seeks to prohibit discrimination on the basis of genetic information with respect to life insurance, health insurance, employment, and other areas of life in which genetic information can be used for injustice and oppression.

National Security and Government Privacy

Governments are comprised of human beings and it is understandable that governments will have the same desire for privacy that individual humans will have. In addition, governments have responsibilities for national security that individuals do not have, and have a legitimate right to keep certain information secret, whose transmission could leave a nation vulnerable. In Isaiah 39, the King of Judah unwisely allowed the Babylonians information on both the treasure and the defense of Judah; this information was then used by Babylon to defeat Judah. We oppose, however, the extension of government's legitimate need for security to include information which is of little value to an enemy, but which might be embarrassing to the government, or might subject the government to greater accountability from a concerned public.

Citizens of all countries should have access to all essential information regarding their government and its policies. Openness is a redemptive gift of God, calling for trust and honesty between various segments of the community. Justice is the cornerstone of that trust we have come to expect in our elective and appointive representatives of the community. Communal wholeness is attained through the concerted use of these elements.

In the United States, we support the Freedom of Information Act, and encourage its widespread use. We support sunshine laws which require that the business of government not be conducted in secret. We recognize that agencies charged with public and national security need information in order to discharge their duties. We believe that when government needs private information, all three branches of government must agree that the public need outweighs the private right-the legislative branch to create appropriate laws, the executive branch to identify particular needs, and the judicial branch to approve them. We strongly oppose, however, in the United States the provisions of the USA Patriot Act that permit warrantless intrusion into private communications by telephone, mail, and email, and the secret searching of bank records and other records. Revelations that intelligence agencies, local police, the Internal Revenue Service, and the United States military have, over a number of years, developed a domestic espionage apparatus involving the gathering of information about the lawful political activities of millions of citizens is a continuing cause for concern. It is deplorable that in a society that is democratic in theory and structure there are signs of increasing repression: dragnet arrests; police and the intelligence community's harassment of minority leaders; charges of conspiracy; summary acquittals of police accused of brutality; the rising militancy of rank-and-file police; support for the use of preventive detention; the utilization of wiretaps; censorship of journalism in educational and correctional institutions; heavy punitive action against dissidents; the confinement of those who protested within the military forces; the utilization of grand juries for the purpose of harassment rather than indictment; and the use of church members, clergy, and missionaries for secret intelligence purposes by local police departments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

We call for restoration of legal protections against any kind of wiretapping without a warrant of a court and restraint in the use of wiretapping and electronic surveillance. Surveillance creates an air of suspicion throughout the whole society and contributes to the insecurity of law-abiding American citizens.

We affirm the many civil, school, and church authorities who are working toward the elimination of these abuses through their work and example; and we note that many of the most flagrant of these acts of repression no longer occur. Congress, the press, and the American people have begun watching agency activities more closely and with a greater demand for public accountability.

This vigilance must not be relaxed, for if it is, there may be renewed acts of repression and fresh attempts to curtail the rights of citizens whenever redress is sought for economic and social grievances.

We are particularly appalled when the promotion of fear appears to be a means of undermining our civil liberties including the right to privacy. We agree with Benjamin Franklin in his statement that, "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor security."

Sexual Privacy

Of all topics related to privacy, the Bible is most clear regarding our right to sexual privacy. In the Biblical narrative, privacy is addressed in the very first pages of Genesis. Immediately upon eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil, Adam and Eve cover their loins (Genesis 3:7), a recognition not only that human beings need privacy, but that it is in the area of sexual relationship that human beings are most vulnerable to each other, and that we legitimately seek a degree of privacy in the area of sex and reproduction that exceeds what we require in other areas.

Subsequent statements of the Hebrew Scriptures emphasize the primacy of sexuality in matters of privacy. When identification is made of those for whom sexual relationships are forbidden, what is forbidden is described in euphemisms of privacy: one must not "uncover the nakedness" of those with whom sexual intercourse is forbidden. (Deuteronomy 22:30; Leviticus 18:6-19; 20:18-19). By extension, one must also not "uncover the nakedness" of those for whom sexual intercourse is protected. We therefore support the privacy rights of men and women regarding reproductive health decisions. The scriptures also acknowledge our need for privacy in meeting our bodies' needs; the servants of Eglon, king of Moab, do not rush into his chamber after his murder, thinking that he is relieving himself (Judges 3:19).

We therefore maintain the appropriateness of a greater degree of privacy regarding sexuality than in other areas.

We oppose strip searches by law enforcement personnel of the opposite sex. We oppose the employment of prison guards of the opposite sex where prisoners have no privacy for dressing, undressing, or the performance of bodily functions. We support the right of medical patients to have a chaperone of the same sex present when being examined by a practitioner of the opposite sex. It is in the deprivation of the right to sexual privacy that the most degrading forms of dehumanization occur in our society.

Charge

We call upon:

  • The General Board of Church and Society to represent this perspective to American legislators in Washington and to the global community at the United Nations in New York. We respectfully request the Congress of the United States to:
    1. enact comprehensive charter legislation for all of the intelligence agencies that would prohibit them from engaging in surveillance or disruption of lawful political activity. We oppose any charter provision that permits intelligence agencies to recruit and use as agents clergy or missionaries;
    2. place statutory limitations upon the demand by governmental bureaus and agencies for personal information about any citizen or family for statistical purposes. When such requests by agencies are for information not required by law, the respondent should be informed that compliance is voluntary. Restrictions should be placed by law on private agencies in gathering, storing, and disseminating personal information; and
    3. retain the Freedom of Information Act as it is, in support of the right of all citizens to know the actions of their government.
  • The General Board of Discipleship to include in its curricula an understanding of the biblical bases for the right to privacy. they have influence, both personally and as members of church congregations.
  • All church members and leaders to continue to be sensitive to this situation in their local community and in the nation by:
    1. seeking to understand and undergird responsible institutions and agencies of the community and being supportive of measurements that will improve them and upgrade their personnel; and
    2. establishing programs in the community sponsored by local churches to:
      • educate church members and their wider community about the potential for repression in the institutions of society;
      • study and affirm the biblical and constitutional basis for justice under law;
      • work in state and federal legislatures to bring about just and responsible criminal code revisions that do not reinforce repressive elements in our nation's life;
      • oppose forms of legislation that would legalize repression; support legislation that would prohibit intelligence agencies from conducting surveillance or disruption of lawful political activities or otherwise violating constitutional rights;
      • develop an awareness of the rights and protection citizens should expect; and
      • work for institutional change in situations where rights are not respected and protection is not furnished.

ADOPTED 2008
Resolution #276, 2004 Book of Resolutions
Resolution #258, 2000 Book of Resolutions

See Social Principles, ¶ 164A.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2008. Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

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