American Bible Society’s .bible domain policies restrict religious freedom online, critics say

The new domain strictly limits a wide range of faiths and essentially excludes any group with a scholarly or secular orientation.

RNS photo illustration by Kit Doyle

(RNS) — A group of Bible scholars is concerned about free expression on the internet.

Specifically, they object to the way the American Bible Society is running its recently acquired .bible domain name, which they say strictly limits a wide range of faiths and essentially excludes any group with a scholarly or secular orientation.

“The internet is public space,” said John Kutsko, executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature, the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible, with about 8,500 members, mostly scholars. “It’s our understanding that .bible was registered to be public space and not have the kind of restrictions that you would expect of a domain that was proprietary or brand-oriented.”

The question became urgent after the American Bible Society acquired the .bible top-level domain name — an identification string like “.com” or “.org” — and then applied restrictive policies on who can use it.

Those policies, critics say, strictly limit a wide range of faiths and essentially exclude any group with a scholarly or secular orientation. Further, they are inconsistent with the open-ended nature of the web, which is intended to be more democratic and to allow for free inquiry.

The ABS has been managing the domain since 2016 and has so far granted about 1,190 groups the .bible domain name.

But until a few weeks ago, the ABS prohibited registrants from posting any material that “espouses or promotes a religious, secular, or other worldview that is antithetical to New Testament principles, including but not limited to the promotion of a non-Christian religion or set of religious beliefs.”

After scholars with the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as some Jewish organizations, protested, the ABS modified its policies last month, inviting the participation of Jews.

But the scholars said this does not go far enough. In a commentary published by Religion News Service last week, Marc Zvi Brettler, a professor of Jewish studies at Duke University, said the restrictive policies of the ABS raise concerns about its suitability as sole custodian for the .bible domain.

READ: Who owns the .bible?

The revised policies prohibit any content that “advocates belief in any religious or faith tradition other than orthodox Christianity or Judaism.” It also prohibits “any content that communicates disrespect for God as He is revealed in the Bible” as well as “Any content that communicates disrespect for the Bible.”

John Kutsko, executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature.  Photo by Daniel Dubois

John Kutsko, executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature.  Photo by Daniel Dubois

“The policy remains at its core insufficient,” said Kutsko. “The ABS excludes those critical of religious traditions or views considered unorthodox by ABS, which is basically a good deal of scholarship.”

A short statement issued by the ABS acknowledged that it had met with “complaining parties” while maintaining that it is “in complete compliance with ICANN.” (ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the group that manages internet resources and coordinates its domain name system.)

Equally significant, the ABS has come under criticism from lawyers for requiring panelists who hear and arbitrate disputes regarding the domain name to affirm that they “enthusiastically support the mission of American Bible Society” and that they “believe that the Bible is the Word of God which brings salvation through Christ.”

Lawyers specializing in domain names call that a “litmus test.”

Doug Isenberg, an Atlanta domain name lawyer who has worked as a dispute panelist in other internet cases, said religious oaths for panelists are unprecedented.

“I’ve been a domain dispute panelist for a long time and I’ve never been asked to sign any type of statement before about my religious beliefs, or political beliefs, or anything other than a requirement that I can be neutral and impartial in reaching a decision,” he said.

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In a statement, ABS said its advisory council will review the criteria for membership on the dispute panel at its next meeting this spring. The ABS declined to elaborate further.

Scholars point out that the registry agreement the ABS submitted to ICANN in 2014 was far more expansive and open-ended. For one thing, it did not mention Christianity.

That application promised that the ABS would “provide world-wide access to all qualified parties interested in disseminating or seeking information (whether non-commercially or commercially) about Bible issues, news, culture, lifestyle, entertainment or any other topic.”

Said Kutsko: “What we saw is that there’s a bait and switch between the application to become a registry operator and then the accepted-use policy.”

The 202-year-old ABS is best-known for publishing Bibles, translating them into hundreds of languages and distributing them widely across the globe.

Until 2001 the organization did not engage in evangelism, said John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College and author of  “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.”

But that’s changed. Today, ABS views itself as a Christian ministry and gives grants to a host of evangelical groups, including Liberty University and Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ).

“You’re seeing a move away from an ecumenism of a previous era,” said Fea. “They clearly are drawing a lot more boundaries around the kinds of groups they want to work with.”

The ABS, said Brettler, “has a narrow religious view and it has only a religious view. It doesn’t recognize that the Bible is widely studied and respected by people who are not doing their study from a faith position.”

Indeed, there’s no one Bible everyone can agree on. Jews order the biblical books differently from Protestants and do not include the New Testament. Catholics include a set of Hebrew texts known as the Apocrypha. Mormons have other sacred scriptures beyond the Bible. And then there are various variants. Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, for example, excludes Jesus’ miracles as well as most mentions of the supernatural.

The ABS and a group of scholars, in addition to a representative from the Anti-Defamation League, met for a video conference call in January to talk through their concerns. The call was described as cordial and candid.

“We hope they will reconsider,” Kutsko said. “We want to communicate our understanding of the kinds of consequences that will result from this, which we don’t think are in the best interest of ICANN or the general public.”

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