Dec 10: Masterpiece Cakeshop case begins, and more

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case this week. Baker Jack Phillips says his rights to freedom of religion and speech were violated by a Colorado law preventing discrimination by retailers. Phillips declined to bake a custom cake for a same-sex wedding.

Key questions included what counts as an artist and artistic expression that should be protected, and what types of activities a religious person can avoid in business. Justice Anthony Kennedy is widely speculated to be the swing vote that will decide the case.

A federal district court ruled that a prisoner’s humanist belief system does not qualify as a religion.

A federal judge upheld the Washington DC metro system’s decision to refuse Christmas ads from the local Catholic archdiocese. The metro system claims it is following an impartial policy, while the archdiocese says the decision is discriminatory.

Executive Branch

The Supreme Court allowed the Trump travel ban to be implemented in its latest form. The ACLU said they still consider it a Muslim ban and are committed to fighting it in court.

After the Trump administration shrunk the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, a coalition of five native tribes filed suit. The tribes argue that the land is sacred and the Trump does not have the authority to remove the monument designation.

Community

A Colorado County ended a school voucher program to end legal battles that have stretched on for years. The issue was the use of public money to pay tuition at private, religious schools.

Other reads

NCAA Magazine ran an in-depth article about the Coalition on Common Ground, an organization that brings LGBTQ activists and religious leaders together to talk about how to respect students of faith and LGBTQ students at public and private universities.

The Atlantic profiled Mike Pence’s political career, focusing on his faith and how his challenges and successes have mirrored those of the religious right as a whole. It makes a fascinating lens through which to view the Trump-evangelical political alliance.

Vice investigated the use of religious exemptions as a loophole by organizations running abusive reform schools without oversight.

Dec 3: Donald Trump tweets misleading videos about Muslims and violence, and more

Executive Branch

Donald Trump retweeted three videos with captions indicating they depict violence by Muslims.

Two videos are clearly misleading: one of a Dutch boy kicking another boy, neither of whom are Muslims or migrants. Another depicts a struggle between factions supporting and opposing Egyptian ex-President Mohamed Morsi in which a boy is pushed off a roof. Both factions are Muslim.

The third shows the destruction of a Virgin Mary statue in Syria by a radical cleric in Jubhat al-Nusra, a Syrian militia linked with ISIS. The actions have been decried by Christians as well as Muslims, who mutually revere Mary.

The original tweets came from the leader of a far-right anti-Muslim group in the UK, Jayda Fransen. Fransen was convicted in 2016 of abusing a woman in a hijab, and is currently on bail over threatening language in a speech in August.

The organization, called Britain First, identifies itself as a party but is considered by some to be an extremist group, has gained notoriety for sensationalist mosque invasions.

Muslim leaders in the US have spoken out against the tweets, which they consider Islamophobic.

Melania Trump decorated the White House for the Christmas season, emphasizing the Christian holiday to comport with the administration’s “end to the war on Christmas.”

Community

A Pennsylvania woman won her bid to be exempted from fingerprinting for religious reasons. An appellate court overturned the ruling of a lower court that her beliefs were personal, rather than religious.

An in-depth article in Forward covered the dispute between a New Jersey town and a Hasidic Jewish community.

A New York City mother sued for full custody of her son, accusing her ex-husband of radicalizing the boy. The family is Muslim, but the mother contends the father adopted extremist ideas that have begun to rub off on his son.

Other reads

NPR reported on Christian nationalism exemplified by Roy Moore. Its proponents argue that rather than just guiding individuals’ decisions, Christianity should guide American laws and institutions.

Politico argued that a lack of Imams may result in more radicalization, as young Muslims turn to the Internet for religious guidance. Both Islamophobia and the difficulty of travel from Muslim countries have contributed to the shortage.

A Seton Hall Law Review article examined what happened to the number of religious freedom cases after Hobby Lobby. Belying the decision’s critics, there has not been a spike in claims related to religious protections.

Ross Douthat asked if the connection between Donald Trump and evangelicals will cause an evangelical crisis, particularly among younger adherents.

A new book examines legal and philosophic approaches to religious freedom around the world, in an attempt to identify a system that can balance the rights of religious and non-religious people.

An interesting article reviewed religious freedom cases during US history.

Nov 26: Research on family values, Democrats, Republicans and the prosperity gospel

Judicial Branch

The Washington Post argued that the embattled Peace Cross east of Washington, DC, should be allowed to stand. A federal court ruled last month that the monument to World War I casualties must be taken down because it is shaped like a religious icon.

Politics

The Atlantic argued that Democrats need to reach out to religious voters in order to succeed, which includes moderating some positions on religious freedom and social issues.

Brigham Young University and Deseret News released a survey on American families. One of the most interesting finds is that people who are less connected to their families are significantly more likely to have voted for Trump.

David Brooks explained how the “siege mentality” may be responsible for conservative and liberal retrenchment over social and political issues.

50 States 

Nicholas Kristof wrote about the family values that red states espouse but that are actually practiced by blue states (on average).

The Virginia Pilot ran a piece investigating the use of religious exemptions by daycares in the state to avoid oversight and regulations.

Community 

Attendance has increased at liberal churches since the 2016 election, with a lot of activists seeking like-minded faith communities.

Other reads

A panel at Harvard discussed the link between the prosperity gospel and the election of Donald Trump.

Analysis of survey data provided interesting information about who believes in prosperity theology – mostly the poor, and more Democrats than Republicans.

Nov 19: FBI stats show rise in hate crimes, profile of Trump’s pastor, and more

Executive Branch

The FBI released hate crime statistics for 2016. The total number increased by 4.6%, with 21% of hate crimes targeting religion – mostly against Jews. The number of anti-Muslim assaults exceeded even 2001 to reach a historic high. Crimes targeting Jews and LGBT people also rose. Advocates point out that many hate crimes go unreported, meaning the true numbers are likely much higher.

The Washington Post published an extensive profile of Paula White, a televangelist who appears to be Donald Trump’s pastor and who leads his unofficial evangelical advisory council. White has been associated with the prosperity gospel, a strain of Christian theology that believes that faith is rewarded with wealth.

The Department of Homeland Security’s head of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships resigned after past comments deriding Islam and black people surfaced on CNN.

Legislative Branch

Evangelicals remain divided over Roy Moore, the Alabama senator accused of sexual assault against minors.

50 States

The Jehovah’s Witnesses incurred heavier penalties for refusing to give documents on child abusers to a California court. They will now pay $4,000 per day that they continue to withhold the evidence.

Community

Muslim employees fired from UPS filed a religious discrimination lawsuit, saying they were let go after a new manager refused to allow them to pray during work hours.

A Connecticut middle school rescinded an invitation to a Muslim woman to speak to a social studies class after receiving threats.

Other reads

The Washington Post reviewed the new Museum of the Bible. The piece discusses what assumptions the museum makes and how it deals with controversial topics.

Nov 12: Worst church shooting in US history, churches battle zoning laws

Executive Branch

A marine drill instructor was sentenced to 10 years in prison for abusive hazing of recruits. He particularly targeted Muslim marines, leading to the suicide of one.

The US Department of Agriculture released a memo giving broad permission for employers to express religious views at work. The policy clarification was ostensibly in response to a Michigan meatpacking plant, where leaflets opposing same-sex marriage in the break room were identified as sexual harassment by USDA inspectors.

Legislative Branch

A debate sprung up among Christians over whether there would be any biblical justification for Alabama Senator Roy Moore molesting a 14 year old girl, as he is alleged to have done.

The House Judiciary Committee saw a spirited debate over the definition of anti-Semitism, and if language that “demonizes Israel” should be included.

50 States

An Indiana court ruled against a professor suing for wrongful termination on the grounds of free speech. He was fired for making anti-Muslim statements in and out of the classroom.

Community

Hoboken elected the first turbaned Sikh mayor in the US.

PRRI released new survey data on Americans’ self-identification as religious, spiritual, both or neither. Among its extensive findings was that most spiritual but unreligious Americans are affiliated with a religion.

Community: Houses of Worship

The worst shooting at a house of worship in American history was perpetrated last week in Texas, killing twenty-six worshipers.

The Atlantic covered the ongoing disputes in communities across the country over zoning for houses of worship. It argued that this may be the most important, and overlooked, legal fight for religious freedom in America.

NYPD surveillance broke down community bonds at a mosque where Sayfullo Saipov worshipped for three months. Saipov drove a truck into a bike lane in New York City on October 31st, killing eight people.

Community: Education

The Stanford College Republicans were criticized for inviting the controversial co-founder of “Stop Islamization of America” to speak on campus. They defend the invitation on the grounds of free speech, while other students have called for the university not to provide funds to the event.

Notre Dame changed its policy to allow faculty, students, and staff to get contraception through the university’s insurance plans. No clear explanation was given for the change.

A Georgia school district instructed its staff, including sports coaches, that they may not participate in student-led prayers. The prayers are common before and after high school football games.

Other reads

The inaugural event of the Robert P. George initiative brought faith leaders together to discuss religious freedom. They maintained that religion contributes enormously to American civic life, and expressed concern that secularism is beginning to play the role of official religion in the US.

In a speech at Brigham Young University, political science professor David Campbell argued that the close association of religion with the Republican party has caused secularization, as people who oppose the Republican party often disaffiliate from their faiths as well, or extend that opposition to religion generally.

An Emory professor discussed the role that Islamic or Sharia Courts can play in American life, similar to Jewish rabbinical courts that arbitrate disputes within their communities.

Nov 5: Bears Ears National Monument shrunk, Justice nominee litigated religious freedom, and more

Executive Branch

Donald Trump is shrinking the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. President Obama created the monument after a coalition of native tribes that consider the area sacred petitioned for its protection.

Mother Jones reported that Eric Dreiband, who was nominated as Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, has a record of defending religious discrimination in his private career as an attorney.

Legislative Branch

The Senate approved the appointment of Notre Dame professor Amy Coney Barrett to the 7th Circuit. Her initial nomination hearings drew attention after she was questioned about her Catholic faith and if it would prevent her from being impartial.

Judicial Branch

Hawaii and Massachusetts led a coalition of 20 Attorneys General in filing an amicus brief in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court Case. They argue that the First Amendment should not serve as a shield for discrimination on religious grounds.

A large group of religious leaders also filed an amicus brief, saying that ruling in favor of the baker would set a dangerous precedent of allowing discrimination.

50 States

A California court issued a permanent injunction against a state requirement for private pregnancy clinics to post information about contraception and abortion services. Faith-based clinics objected to the requirement on religious grounds.

Community

A new report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations showed a rise in bullying of Muslim high school students in California, reaching record levels.

A study from the Anti-Defamation League revealed a 67% spike in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017.

Secular groups argued that the Iowa City Police Department’s chaplaincy program violates the separation of church and state.

Georgetown’s Student Activities Commission voted to allow Love Saxa, a student organization promoting marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, to keep its student funding. The vote was prompted by complaints that the group violates university tolerance standards by its rhetoric and by inviting homophobic speakers to campus.

A fired bus driver sued her former employer for religious discrimination. She was let go after refusing to take fingerprints for her background check on religious grounds, saying that she believes fingerprinting would leave the mark of the devil on her.

Other reads

An essay in the Atlantic argued that Islam doesn’t need a Martin Luther so much as a John Locke.

Oct 29: Missouri man wins sex discrimination suit, Catholic Charities sued, and more

Executive Branch

With the expiration of 120 days, the Trump administration announced that they will allow entry of refugees from all countries – including the Muslim-majority countries that had been banned – with additional screening.

The Department of Health and Human Services released a memo seeking comment on barriers to faith-based organizations’ participation in programs or reception of grants.

The Trump administration nominated a Brandeis professor who works to combat on-campus anti-Semitism as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education.

Judicial Branch

The Atlantic reported on the Hawaii judge who ruled against Trump’s travel bans, and his legal rationales – including violation of the establishment clause on religion.

50 States

A gay man in Missouri won a discrimination suit on the basis of sex. Although Missouri law does not prohibit discrimination due to sexual orientation, the judge ruled that the plaintiff’s mistreatment for acting “insufficiently masculine” is covered under the sex discrimination portion of the statute.

An Arizona couple lost a bid to remove a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The conservative Christian plaintiffs run a calligraphy business and are concerned about the possibility of being asked to write invitations for a same-sex wedding.

A North Dakota couple filed suit against Catholic Charities for refusing their application for adoption. The couple is lives together but is unmarried.

A Kentucky judge has resigned after announcing he would recuse himself from adoption cases involving gay people because of his religious beliefs. He had issued a general order to attorneys telling them to request a special judge if they were bringing such a case.

An Indiana judge ruled that preventing convicted sex offenders from attending church violates their religious freedom.

Community

The 31st undocumented immigrant to claim sanctuary at a house of worship did so at a Denver church on Thursday.

The Des Moines Register profiled an evangelical millennial working to persuade others that climate change is a real and important issue.

Other reads

A former CEO of NPR wrote a book on his experience immersing himself in Republican evangelical culture. He says he learned about religion, community service, gun control and other issues that often get short shrift in the media.

Former FBI Director James Comey revealed himself as the owner of a Twitter account named after theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The Washington Post explained Niebuhr’s continued impact on American political life.

Oct 22: Sports and religion, travel ban blocked for Muslim discrimination, and more

Executive Branch

The Justice Department settled legal cases with a group of colleges who sought religious exemptions to the ACA’s contraception mandate.

A man was convicted of a federal hate crime for leaving a voicemail at a mosque threatening to shoot its members.

Politico published a piece contending that Trump represents an alliance between evangelical and nationalist conservatives.

Judicial Branch

A judge in Maryland blocked the new travel ban. He was preceded by a judge in Hawaii, but the new ruling is distinct for insisting that the policy changes in the ban have not eliminated religious discrimination against Muslims.

The Supreme Court confirmed a lower court’s ruling that a New Mexico town must remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from outside its city hall.

50 States

California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation to prevent employers from punishing employees based on their reproductive health decisions. There was no religious exemption in the bill. Brown argued that these issues are already covered by state policies.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation began an effort to stop Oklahoma courts from ordering defendants to serve time at religious work camps. The camps are purportedly drug rehabilitation centers that involve unpaid labor at chicken processing plants and mandatory church attendance.

Sports

Religion and Politics explored the relationship between NFL religious ministries and the ongoing protests of racial inequality where players kneel during the national anthem.

A roundtable of basketball players discussed what it’s like to be Muslim in the NBA.

Community

A Museum of the Bible is set to open in November in Washington, DC. It is officially nonpartisan, but has drawn criticism from conservatives for omitting Jesus and from liberals for promoting a literalist evangelical interpretation of the Bible.

Other reads

The Atlantic discussed the use of the term “evil” as a framework to understand how conservative and liberal commentators understand morality differently.

Pew Research found that a majority of American adults now say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.

Oct 15: Trump speaks to Values Voters, Christian Hogwarts profiled

Executive Branch

Donald Trump spoke at the conservative Values Voter Summit. He listed the actions he’s taken that align with conservative Christian causes in both domestic and foreign policy, and committed to protect religious freedom.

Judicial Branch

A federal judge ruled that a tax exemption for housing clergy violates the establishment clause. She found that the exemption, passed in 1952, was unconstitutional because it provided a public benefit only available to members of the clergy.

A district court ruled that the US House Chaplain may bar an atheist from giving the congressional invocation. The atheist, who was invited by Mark Pocan (D-Wis), was informed that he did not meet the requirements that he be ordained by a recognized body in a faith he practices, and that the prayer address a higher power.

Other reads

Buzzfeed published an utterly fascinating article about a Bethel Church institution called “the School of Supernatural Ministry”that teaches Christian millennials how to prophesy and perform faith healing.

FiveThirtyEight compiled a summary of research indicating that college attendance does not reduce students’ religiosity.

Oct 8: Sessions issues memo on religious freedom, “thoughts and prayers” for Las Vegas

Executive Branch

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a 25-page memo instructing the government to give the greatest possible deference to religious liberty claims. The most controversial implication of the memo is that religious freedom will receive preference when it conflicts with LGBT non-discrimination or contraception access. It clarifies that religious exemptions can apply to for-profit companies as well as explicitly religious institutions such as churches.

As a result of the memo, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a new policy that allows any employer to exclude contraception from its health insurance coverage if it expresses a religious or moral objection. This widens the religious exception to the Affordable Care Act mandate that companies provide birth control to female employees.

Judicial Branch

The Red Mass sermon ushering in the new Supreme Court term focused on immigration and religious freedom. Five justices attended the service, given by LA Archbishop Jose Gomez.

Legislative Branch

The Judiciary Committee narrowly recommended the nomination of a judicial appointee who was questioned at length about her religion and if it would impair her impartiality.

50 States

The Mississippi law that allows denial of commercial services to LGBT people for religious reasons went into effect.

Community

After the Las Vegas shootings, there was a backlash against the tweets and political statements about sending “thoughts and prayers” to the victims. The primary complaint was that thinking and praying may make people feel better, but action is required to solve the problem.

A series of articles responded to the critique by explaining how prayer and action are linked, what neuroscience says about prayer, and who tends to use the phrase most often.

A conference of scientists and theologians discussed the moral implications of rapidly advancing gene editing technology.

Other reads

Pew analyzed national religions across the globe – from official state religions to governments that are formally hostile to religions. It found that 20% of countries have no official religion, but have policies that unofficially favor one or more religions over others.