May 28: Donald Trump tours world religions, wave of religious freedom legislation in Texas

Executive Branch

Donald Trump visited Riyadh, Jerusalem and Vatican City this week. Despite past controversies around his views on Islam, Judaism and the Pope, the trip was genial and has sparked little criticism.

The Pope gave him some reading material, and he was the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall.

Trump gave an important speech in Saudi Arabia, where he struck a different tone on Islam, calling it “one of the world’s great faiths.” Secretary of State Tillerson explained this rhetorical shift as an evolution in Trump’s views about Islam, while American Muslims remain skeptical that it indicates any change of heart.

Rex Tillerson himself made Islam-related news this week. He is breaking with an 18-year tradition by not hosting a public event to mark the end of Ramadan in late June.

As expected, Castilla Gingrich was nominated as the US Ambassador to the Vatican.

50 States

The Texas governor signed legislation into law protecting religious sermons from government subpoena. The bill was prompted by 2014 subpoenas for the sermons of pastors opposing an anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston.

Texas also passed legislation allowing religious organizations that do adoption and foster care matching to refuse to place children with non-Christian, unmarried or gay prospective parents.

Finally, Texas passed a bill requiring its Supreme Court to establish rules about the application of foreign laws to family law cases. This appears to be part of a national conservative campaign to “ban Sharia law.”

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled against a man using religious freedom as a justification for not paying taxes.

Judicial Branch

The 4th Circuit ruled against the Trump Administration’s travel ban, finding that it appeared to target Muslims.

Community

A white supremacist killed two people on an Oregon train who were trying to stop his verbal abuse of two Muslim women.

Two religious discrimination suits have been filed about accommodation of the wearing of long skirts – in a gym and in a hospital.

Other reads

Last Sunday’s 60 Minutes was about the 800+ religious institutions offering sanctuary to immigrants being sought by ICE.

The Guardian argues that the US is only a few decades behind Europe in secularization.

May 21: Samuel Alito on religious freedom, Clock Boy loses discrimination case

Judicial Branch

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito spoke at a seminary graduation on Wednesday, touching on religion and the first amendment. The Catholic school’s blog also interviewed him about his perspective on religious freedom.

A District Court dismissed Ahmed Mohamed’s discrimination lawsuit. Mohamed gained attention as “Clock Boy” when he was arrested at his high school after his homemade clock was mistaken for a bomb. The judge dismissed the lawsuit saying that religious and ethnic discrimination was not proved by the plaintiffs.

A District Court in California ruled against animal rights advocates suing a Jewish group. The group practices Kapparot, a ritual where a chicken is swung around the head while alive, then slaughtered and donated to the needy.  The advocates unsuccessfully argued against animal sacrifice for solely religious purposes.

Executive Branch

President Trump is on an ambitious trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Vatican City, where he will meet with religious leaders from three major world religions.

The White House plans to nominate Callista Gingrich, wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as ambassador to the Vatican. The Gingriches are devout Catholics

A legacy court case over FBI surveillance of Mosques may impact the ongoing challenge to President Trump’s travel ban. If a ruling comes down soon, it will set precedent that may guide the 9th Circuit in deciding if the travel ban was discriminatory.

50 States + territories

The Kansas Court of Appeals ruled against a mother who claimed that the state’s use of a religious organization for child placement services violated the separation of church and state.

A new law in Puerto Rico will take effect on May 25th. For the first time, employers in the territory will be required to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious practices, including participation in religious services.

Community

Two California men who attacked a Sikh man, cutting his hair and causing the amputation of a finger, were convicted of hate crimes.

A New Jersey teacher was reinstated after his 2013 firing for giving a Bible to a curious student.

Other reads

Gallup shows Americans’ views of the Bible over last 40 years. In the latest survey, a record low of 24% believe it is the “actual word of God to be taken literally.”

The Wichita Eagle has an interesting analysis of the relationship between mental illness and religion.

The New York Times asks if Muslims have to be Democrats. Muslims face a dilemma between a Trump-led Republican party with Islamophobic overtones or a socially liberal Democratic party.

May 14: States pass legislation on religious freedom, discrimination

State legislation

Florida passed a bill prohibiting discrimination against students and educators for religious expression at school, in assignments, and in extra-curricular activities. Critics contend that provisions allowing teachers to express religious identity and guaranteeing access to religious groups violate the separation of church and state.

The Missouri legislature passed legislation making it harder for employees to prove discrimination by employers. It raises the standard for proving bias against religion, sex, or race, and caps penalties against employers who persecute whistleblowers.

Oklahoma passed a bill augmenting its Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It guarantees that the government cannot force anyone to participate in or provide goods or services for a religious ceremony if it contradicts their religious beliefs.

Tennessee passed legislation explicitly guaranteeing students’ rights to be absent from sports activities for religious reasons. There don’t seem to be any cases where these rights have historically been violated.

Florida’s proposed budget has $654k for security for Jewish schools after repeated threats have caused evacuations from schools and community centers. The ACLU raised questions about the constitutionality of government-funded security for only one religion.

State courts

The California Supreme Court clarified the state’s Day of Rest statute requiring employees to be allowed one day off for every seven days of work.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that a T-shirt printing company legally denied service on religious grounds. The business declined to print shirts for the Lexington Pride Festival in 2012. The court held that the service was denied because of the message and not because of the persons who requested it, meaning it was not discrimination.

Executive Branch

Donald Trump gave the commencement address at the Christian Liberty University. His speech included remarks on religious freedom.

A geologist sued the National Park Service for civil rights violations after it denied him a permit to collect rock samples at the Grand Canyon. He alleges religious discrimination, as the denial appears to be based on his belief in Young Earth Creationism. He intends to use the samples to demonstrate that the Grand Canyon was formed 10,000 years ago rather than millions of years ago.

The US Fire Administration focused on fire prevention at religious institutions last week, which was National Arson Awareness Week.

Community

Transcripts from jury selection in a federal trial show the pervasiveness of anti-Islamic sentiment. Prospective jurors were asked about Islam because the Muslim defendant is charged with helping a man join ISIS. People said, among other things, that Muslims are criminals and not American citizens.

A DC interfaith rapid-response team formed to address hate crimes.

A New York Hindu temple joined the sanctuary movement.

A Florida school board opted to keep their current textbook after a lengthy debate over the accuracy and completeness of its chapter on Islam.

Other reads

Minority religions like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Santeria adherents set precedents that protect religious freedom for all, sometimes overturning Supreme Court decisions along the way.

Gallup released data from a new survey on liberal and conservative views among Americans about issues perceived to be moral questions. There is a strong trend toward liberalism.

An article in the Institute on Religion and Public Life argues that religious people who oppose abortion or physician-assisted suicide may soon be unable to practice medicine without violating their consciences.

May 7: Executive Order on religious freedom changes little

Executive Branch

On National Prayer Day, Thursday of last week, Donald Trump signed an executive order on religious freedom. It instructed the IRS not to pursue churches that endorsed candidates, and allows religious exemptions under the Affordable Care Act requirements around contraception.

In practice, the order changes little – the IRS has never really enforced the Johnson Amendment preventing church endorsement of politicians, and the Hobby Lobby case already established a precedent for a religious exemption to the ACA contraception mandate.

The executive order drew swift support and criticism from the usual sides, although after reading the actual text some reversed their criticism and said the EO doesn’t really matter.

The President’s remarks at the signing caused some consternation among the military after he claimed, incorrectly, that service members were prevented from receiving religious items in a hospital that they had requested.

Legislative Branch

The Republican healthcare bill may draw logic from the “Prosperity Gospel,” which believes that good people are blessed with prosperity. The bill would allow insurance companies to price discriminate between sicker and healthier people, perhaps under the assumption that they are responsible for their health outcomes and should pay accordingly.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the recent spike in religious hate crimes. The panel of witnesses addressed hate against Jewish, Sikh and other communities, but was criticized for the absence of Muslim witnesses.

Judicial Branch

The 8th Circuit upheld a ruling against a heroin dealer who claimed his religion involved the distribution of narcotics. The court pointed out that, unlike other religions that incorporate drug use, the defendant made no argument that his buyers were also believers.

50 States

The Muslim doctors charged in the female genital mutilation case in Michigan intend to mount a religious freedom defense.

A Kentucky judge permanently recused himself from any adoption cases involving gay couples, citing a conscientious objection to adoptions by same-sex couples. Critics contend that an inability to be impartial on this question may mean he is unfit to hear any cases.

A Charlotte lawsuit examines if religious freedom can protect a pastor against defamation suits for things he said over the pulpit.

Other reads

The Washington Post asks if the Democratic party can include candidates who oppose abortion.

Esquire has a profile on Reverend William Barber, the activist preacher opposing Trump who has been called “the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr.”

 

Apr 30: President Trump’s first 100 days see greater religious intolerance

President Trump

In his first 100 days, President Trump has kept some of his promises related to religion, religious freedom and the separation of church and state. His supporters hope the remainder will be fulfilled shortly.

The Anti-Defamation League said anti-Semitic acts have increased by 86% since Trump was elected.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said Islamophobic incidents at US borders have increased by 1,035% in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency

Trump spoke at the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day event in the Capitol, condemning anti-Semitism in his remarks. The well-regarded speech was an important opportunity to mend relations with the Jewish community after criticism during the campaign and his first months in office.

New research from Pew indicates that white evangelicals who regularly attend church are twice as supportive of Trump as the general population.

Executive Branch

Trump may nominate Richard Grenell, a longtime US spokesman at the UN and foreign policy operative, as NATO Ambassador. It is unclear how Trump’s base will perceive Grenell, who is a gay man and a staunch evangelical Christian.

A Sikh man’s multi-year effort to join the Army may have been an important factor in the recent changes allowing soldiers to get permanent accommodations for religious dress and grooming.

Judicial Branch

A group of Mormon scholars filed an amicus brief against Trump’s immigration ban. It uses the precedent of federal discrimination against LDS immigrants in the 19th century.

50 States

Alabama passed legislation allowing adoption agencies to maintain faith-based policies on child placement. In particular, this allows religious agencies to not place children with same-sex couples.

The Amish countersued the government of Minnesota for fines and other sanctions leveled against them as a result of their refusal to install sewage systems.

Community

The San Diego Public School District created a plan for combating bullying and harassment of Muslim students.

Israel indicted the Israel-American teenager who earned money on the dark web by robocalling bomb threats into Jewish organizations in the US.

Other Reads

A high-profile prosecution of a Muslim physician who performed female genital cutting “procedures” on two Muslim girls in Michigan has prompted questions about whether the practice is religious or not. The Religious News Service has a thorough explanation. (Warning: explicit verbal content).

Progressive churches in Montana sponsoring refugees have encountered strong pushback from more conservative congregations.

The media/blogosphere has been discussing the possible rise or inevitable decline of a “religious left.” The Auburn Seminary in New York organizes politically liberal faith leaders to work for progressive causes.

Apr 23: Justices favoring church in Trinity v Comer, may strike down Blaine Amendment

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Trinity v Comer. At issue is Missouri’s Blaine Amendment, a rule disqualifying religious groups from receiving publicly available funds that other organizations can receive. Missouri has a program to provide recycled tires for playground flooring, but denied Trinity Lutheran church’s application for the material.

Although the new Republican governor has allowed Trinity’s application to proceed, both sides urged the court to continue with the case to address future policy changes. In oral arguments the justices appeared to favor the plaintiff. A decision is expected in June.

Executive Branch

The Defense Department nearly doubled its list of recognized religions. It includes humanism and earth-based religions for the first time.

Federal Courts

Judge John Noonan of the 9th Circuit passed away, opening up an opportunity for Donald Trump to make another influential judicial appointment. Noonan was appointed by Ronald Reagan. The 9th Circuit stopped Trump’s first executive order on immigration.

US Steel Tubular Products was ordered to pay $150,000 for religious discrimination. It refused to hire a Nazirite applicant whose religious beliefs prevented a lock of his hair being cut off for a mandatory drug test. (*Note – I’ve been unable to uncover exactly what his religion is/was, but it seems related to Rastafarianism).

A gay man fired from his position as music director in a Catholic church lost his suit to be reinstated. A district court ruled that the position falls under the ministerial exception.

A federal judge issued policing and housing injunctions against two FLDS-dominated towns. Due to a majority of residents being members of the polygamist Mormon sect, they have been able to control law enforcement and housing regulations to the detriment of outsiders. The judge denied the Justice Department’s bid to disband the police force, instead mandating an independent mentor to advise on policy revision.

50 States

An atheist lawmaker sparked debate in Arizona for giving a legislative invocation that focused on nature, not God, as a higher power.

Idaho is one of four states that allow religious exceptions for the requirement to seek medical treatment for children. A local sheriff is concerned about the minors that die from preventable causes because of their parents’ faith healing beliefs.

Community

There are two cases of female Muslim athletes whose wearing of the hijab could have prevented them from competing. High school basketball player Je’Nan Hayes will be able to participate in playoff games after a rule that kept her on the bench for regionals was changed to allow her headscarf. Boxer Amaiya Zafar is expected to receive a waiver for her next fight, but must continue to request waivers before each match.

A transgender man sued a Catholic hospital in California for denying him a hysterectomy as part of his gender transition.

A Jewish woman sued a white nationalist for online harassment and inciting threats against her and her family.

Charges were dismissed against a faith healing pastor in Pennsylvania whose granddaughter died from a preventable illness.

Other reads

A compelling editorial argues that there is a double standard for violence linked to religion. Muslims are called terrorists, but Christians are just criminals. The author asserts that toxic masculinity is more to blame for mass shootings than religion is.

Apr 16: Gorsuch sworn in to Supreme Court, Trinity v Comer may fizzle

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court may not rule on Trinity v Comer, a case about churches receiving public funds for secular purposes (in this case for a kindergarten playground). Missouri’s new governor, a Republican, has altered state policy to allow the funds to be disbursed. The court requested that both parties submit views on how the new policy impacts the case.

Neil Gorsuch was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice on Monday. Gorsuch, a 49-year-old conservative, is expected to have a significant impact on the court for decades.

Upcoming cases he could help decide contest issues around religious freedomgun rights and voting rights.

Executive Branch

Donald Trump’s weekly address focused on the Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt, and the threat posed by terrorism to religious freedom.

Speculation continues about where President Trump will attend church in Washington, DC. He has not yet attended regular services.

President Obama began a tradition of hosting a Passover seder at the White House. Although the seder was held again this week, President Trump did not attend. the highest-level attendee was Secretary of Veteran Affairs David Shulkin.

50 States

Nebraska’s Supreme Court struck down a state policy preventing same-sex couples from becoming foster parents. It found that the rule was equivalent to a business having a “whites only” employment policy.

Indiana passed legislation guaranteeing students’ rights to pray at school, form religious and secular clubs, and to wear religious clothing and jewelry. Critics say the law is redundant with existing legal protections.

Community

Muslims in a Minneapolis suburb are trying to stop a self-described “Religious Policeman” who stops people engaging in behavior contrary to his interpretation of Sharia law.

Other reads

There is a group of conservatives who work to increase religious freedom for Christians but oppose extending the same protections to Muslims. The Atlantic investigates why.

NPR examines the sanctuary movement and how churches address the risk and controversy of hosting people sought by immigration authorities.

Reza Aslan’s CNN show “Believer” is wrapping up this week. The religious scholar explores a different rare faith on each episode, but has drawn criticism from his colleagues for sensationalizing religious practices. The New Yorker argues he is pushing his own brand of spiritual understanding, which discounts scripture and religious authority while emphasizing universalism and individual experience.

President Trump and Republican lawmakers have discussed repealing the Johnson Amendment, which prevents tax-exempt churches from endorsing politicians running for office. New research from Brazil indicates that even if clergy could advise their congregations how to vote, it may not make a very large difference.

The Pew Forum has a new report out about restrictions on religion across the world, which have increased since last year.

Apr 9: Gorsuch confirmed to Supreme Court, House hearing on 1st Amendment at college

Judicial Branch

The Senate confirmed Neil Gorsuch to fill Antonin Scalia’s vacant Supreme Court seat. Republicans used the “nuclear option,” permanently altering Senate rules to circumvent a filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee. This effectively reduced the number of votes required to confirm a Supreme Court nominee from 60 to 51.

Gorsuch will have an immediate impact on the court as it decides high-profile cases, including several on religion.

The 7th Circuit ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBT individuals from workplace discrimination. It found that Kimberly Hively was illegally passed over for a full-time job because of her sexual orientation.

The ruling is at odds with an 11th Circuit ruling from March that found no legal protection for a security guard who was fired for her sexual orientation.

Legislative Branch

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the First Amendment on college campuses. It included a testimony on restrictions of religious freedom, particularly regarding religious clubs and their ability to apply religious tests for membership or leadership roles.

Executive Branch

The Department of Justice’s new crime reduction task force will have a subcommittee on preventing hate crimes. Reported hate crimes have spiked in the past year, including a 67% increase in hate crimes against Muslim Americans.

The Trump Administration has still not made appointments to high-profile positions related to religion. These include the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships and the Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom.

50 States

The Washington Supreme Court remanded a case for retrial because of improperly handling of religion and sexual orientation in child custody. The parents concerned raised their children as conservative Christians, which led to conflict when the mother came out as lesbian and they divorced. The higher court held that Washington case law disallows the use of the mother’s sexual orientation in custody determinations, independent of any potential conflict with the children’s religious convictions.

Montana governor Steve Bullock vetoed legislation banning foreign laws from being used in the Montana court system. Although the bill did not mention Sharia law, the debate in the legislature indicated that banning Islamic jurisprudence was one of its primary intentions.

The Arkansas legislature passed a similar piece of legislation implicitly banning Sharia law by forbidding the use of foreign laws.

Apr 2: DOJ under Trump still pursues mosque cases, appeals travel ban injunction

Executive branch

The Department of Justice continues to pursue legacy RLUIPA cases alleging municipal zoning discrimination against Muslim communities.

The Trump administration appealed the travel ban injunction issued in Hawaii on religious freedom grounds. The appeal will be heard by the 9th Circuit, which issued the injunction on the original executive order.

13 states signed onto an amicus brief supporting the travel ban.

Judicial branch

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Advocate Healthcare Network v Stapleton. At issue is whether religiously-affiliated hospitals are exempt from ERISA, a federal law mandating certain standards for employee retirement funds, in the same way that churches are.

Legislative branch

President Trump’s proposed federal budget included deep cuts to welfare spending. A corollary debate has emerged about the role of religious charities vs the role of government in providing for the poor. Can churches replace government welfare spending, or do they rely on it?

50 states

Kentucky passed legislation calling on the state’s department of education to develop and offer social studies electives in Bible literacy.

Bills have been proposed in state legislatures across the country banning Sharia law. Muslim groups argue the laws perpetuate misconceptions about Islam.

Community

A West Virginia mother sued the Mercer County school district over weekly Bible classes. Unlike released time religious classes, this instruction is given to all students in the classroom during school hours.

Austin, Texas, church network offers sanctuary from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Other reads

A passionate discussion on religion, misogyny and marital relations was sparked this week by a Washington Post piece about Vice President Mike Pence. Pence follows the “Billy Graham rule” of not eating alone with a woman.

Mormonism may play a significant role in Utah’s high rates of social mobility, particularly in its emphasis on marriage.

Atheists struggle to find therapists in the Bible belt whose practices are not based in Christianity.

Mar 26: Teenager charged with anti-Semitic robocalls, Gorsuch hearings

Legislative Branch

Senate hearings to confirm Neal Gorsuch to the Supreme Court extended over three days last week. There was a lot of discussion about religious freedom and his past application of the relevant caselaw.

Judicial Branch

A federal judge in Virginia ruled in favor of Trump’s travel ban, denying a request to halt the order. He concluded that the restriction “falls within the bounds” of presidential authority.

The 5th circuit ruled that a Texas school board may continue to open its meetings with prayers given by students.

50 States

As expected, the Virginia bill allowing religious exemptions to those refusing to solemnize or provide services for a same-sex wedding was  vetoed by Governor Terry McAuliffe.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled against a Roman Catholic shrine in a property tax suit. The court said that the wildlife sanctuary and women’s shelter were not covered by religious exemption from taxation.

Nebraska’s legislature has voted to lift the ban on teachers wearing religious clothing, including Muslim hijabs, nun’s habits, and Jewish yarmulkes.

A debate over the use of vouchers for religious schools in Iowa may foreshadow contentions over Trump’s proposed education policies.

Community

An 18-year-old Israeli-American is alleged to be behind the threatening robocalls that have been received by Jewish Community Centers across the US. He apparently used the Tor network and voice disguising software to deliver bomb and shooting threats. His lawyer says a brain tumor, which he has had for 4 years, affected his judgment.

Other reads

The Benedict Option is a New York Times bestseller arguing that conservative Christians have lost the culture wars. It proposes a withdrawal from national politics to focus on building faith communities centered on Christ. The book has sparked a national discussion on conservative Christianity in the 21st century. Summary here, review here.

A pastor critically examines the framework of the contemporary sanctuary movement.