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.

Jan 15: ACA won’t accommodate religious orgs, Catholic hospital denies transgender operation

Executive Branch

Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions addressed questions about religious freedom and immigration screening of Muslims, saying he was opposed to a religious registry but that religious beliefs could be a factor in determining entry to the US. Full NPR coverage here (see section #4 for religious issues); C-SPAN clips related to religion compiled here.

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson also faced questions about President-elect Trump’s proposals about Muslims. He said that he opposed a wholesale ban on Muslim immigration, and he would need “a lot more information” to take a position on a database registering Muslims. C-SPAN clips here.

Judicial Branch

After hearing Zubik v. Burwell in July, the Supreme Court requested that executive agencies review the contraceptive insurance requirements of the Affordable Care Act and determine whether and how to accommodate religious organizations. Departments of Labor, Treasury and Health and Human Services announced last week that they are making no accommodation.

Transgender New Jersey man sued a Catholic hospital for denying a hysterectomy to treat gender dysphoria.

Legislative Branch

Congressman Mark Walker (R-NC) joins Senator James Lankford (R-OK) as co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

50 States

A series of “anti-Sharia law” or “anti-foreign law” bills are being introduced and passed in state legislatures across the country.

Michigan Department of Corrections settled a suit brought by Muslim inmates who were not provided Halal food or mealtimes to provide enough calories during Ramadan.

Missouri State University settled with a student who was expelled from their counseling Master’s program for saying he would not counsel gay couples due to his Christian beliefs. The American Counseling Association’s code of ethics forbids any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Counseling, psychology and social work are an oft-overlooked source of friction between principles of non-discrimination and freedom of conscience.

Local

A series of three cases across Virginia where land-use requirements are being used to block mosque construction.

New Jersey Superior Court ruled that Morris County’s Historic Preservation Trust Fund recipients can include churches, finding that it doesn’t violate the separation of church and state.

Gay substitute teacher sues Catholic high school for termination after a Facebook post about his wedding.

An atheist prisoner in Pennsylvania’s only option for early release is to participate in a religious “Therapeutic Community program.”

Other reads

A thoughtful (if one-sided) piece in the LDS-affiliated Deseret News about the conflict between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom, and approaches to compromise.