Jan 14: Supreme Court declines to hear LGBT / religious exemption cases, clergy tax breaks ruled unconstitutional, and more

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court declined to hear two cases challenging state laws allowing religious people to decline to serve LGBT people in commercial and government interactions.

A federal judge ruled that tax breaks for clergy’s housing violate the establishment clause by favoring religious workers over secular ones.

Executive Branch

The new US Ambassador to the Netherlands was left speechless at his inaugural press conference in the country. He fell silent after repeated questions from reporters about his 2015 statement that Muslims had burned Dutch politicians. He later seemed to acknowledge that what he said was erroneous.

The Washington Post profiled Johnnie Moore, the “de facto spokesman” of Donald Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory board. He’s described as a gatekeeper between the White House and pastors.

50 States

Idaho did not pass a 2017 bill proposing to remove protections for parents who fail to seek medical treatment for their children because of religious beliefs. Proponents argue that parents’ negligence has lead to dozens of child deaths, while opponents say the choice to pursue faith healing is a matter of religious liberty.


A Texas school district refused parent requests for a school holiday on Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

A prison chaplain was granted an exemption from a requirement to carry pepper spray, which he objected to because of his religious beliefs. We covered the story in October.

Other reads

PRRI released the results of a survey on Millennial views about culture and religion, including discrimination, gender norms and free speech.

More European countries have banned the ritual slaughtering of animals prescribed by Judaism and Islam out of concerns about animal rights and suffering. The US hasn’t taken a definitive stance on the question.

Jan 7: Churches get FEMA funding, Christian refugees replace Muslims, and more

Executive Branch

The Trump Administration released new rules on FEMA funding to allow churches to receive government assistance.

The Trump administration has admitted Christian refugees at a 6-to-1 ratio over Muslims, a dramatic switch from historical statistics.

Judicial Branch

A federal court ruled that a clergyman’s loss of retirement benefits was an ecclesiastical matter that could not be interfered with by the courts.

50 States

Louisiana’s Attorney General published guidelines for students on religious expression in schools. They state that students have full freedom of expression, and must take the lead in religious activities because school employees may not promote religion.

A New York college canceled its trip to play baseball against a Mississippi college pursuant to a 2016 gubernatorial executive order. The order bans all non-essential state travel to Mississippi as a consequence of its religious freedom law that allows businesses to decline service based on religious beliefs.

California grappled with how to approach the growth of churches that incorporate marijuana in their services.

Other reads

Pew Research indicated that the US Muslim population is growing, and will double by 2050 to reach 2% of the national population.

USC’s Religion Dispatches interviewed a historian about the origins of religious freedom in the United States.

Dec 31: Masterpiece Cakeshop – Oregon version, and more

Judicial Branch

An Oregon appellate court upheld a decision against two bakers that refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.

A Georgia man filed suit in federal court after being prevented from preaching on the sidewalk outside a large park and event venue originally created for the Olympics. He argues his freedom of speech was violated.

A federal court in Idaho ruled against a Mormon college student alleging religious discrimination by his tennis coach. The court agreed the student had been harassed, but said the behavior was insufficiently coercive to qualify as a curtailment of the free exercise of his religion.

Legislative Branch

The Senate failed to move forward on confirming Donald Trump’s nominee for Ambassador for International Religious Freedom this year. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback accepted the nomination in July, but will now have to be re-nominated in 2018. The position has been unfilled since Trump took office, and the uncertainty has hampered the running of Kansas’ executive branch.

50 States

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that a lower court had contravened the First Amendment by disfavoring religion in its determination about where a child should attend school. The issue arose during divorce and custody proceedings, and one parent objected to the child attending a Lutheran private school, which the court privileged over the other parent’s preferences.

Other reads

The Washington Post profiled a dozen fascinating American religious figures who died in 2017.

Dec 24: Christmas Facts, Cardinal Bernard Law Dies


Pew Research published five interesting statistical facts about Christmas in America. Included were that 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, and 66% believe that Jesus was born from a virgin (down from 73% in 2014).


Cardinal Bernard Law died this week. He gained notoriety for covering up sexual abuse by priests in the Boston area, and for being subsequently promoted. Despite continued scandals, the structure of the church makes solutions challenging.

Judicial Branch

A federal court ruled against a religious discrimination lawsuit by a former fire chief in Atlanta. He was fired after publishing a religious book that said people in same-sex relationships are “vile.” He distributed the book at work.


Bishop William Barber and the Kairos Center at the Union Theological Seminary announced a partnership to revive Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. They plan to work through grassroots movements, especially with religious groups.

Other Reads

An LGBT rights think tank and Columbia Law School released a report about the challenges faced by LGBT seniors in seeking retirement care when most care facilities are religiously affiliated.

The Guardian profiled Nora Nash, a nun who uses her order’s stock ownership to push companies to act more socially responsibly.

Dec 17: Religious controversies at universities, and more

Judicial Branch

A federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the religious exceptions the Trump administration carved out of the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

A Third Circuit court upheld a ruling against a man fired from a hospital for refusing vaccinations after he was unable to produce substantiation that his refusal was based on religious beliefs.

A federal district court in South Carolina found that a school holding graduation ceremonies in the chapel of a local university violated the Establishment Clause.

50 States

A Christian student organization filed suit against the University of Iowa. The organization was de-registered after barring a gay student from serving in a leadership position.

The University of Minnesota attracted criticism after it issued guidance to faculty and staff to avoid holiday decorations with iconography indicative of a specific religion. The list of images to avoid included wrapped gifts, red and green or blue and white, bells and Santa Claus.

The first Sikh Attorney General in the US was elected in New Jersey.


A Satanic Temple filed suit against a Minnesota town for refusing to let them erect a Satanic memorial to soldiers opposite a similar monument with a cross.

A consortium of Christian media organizations announced an initiative to document suppression of conservative and Christian content by Google, Facebook, Apple and other tech companies.

Other reads

The New Yorker ran a fascinating investigation of the fraught relationship between Roy Moore and Alabama evangelicals. Moore lost the senate race to Doug Jones.

The Atlantic reviewed a new translation of the New Testament that strives to be as literal as possible, preserving bad grammar and awkward phrasing from the Greek.

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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.