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 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.

Aug 13: Trump still silent on mosque bombing, threatens “fire and fury” against North Korea

Executive Branch

Donald Trump faced criticism for his silence on the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota last week.

Trump’s threat to meet North Korea with “fire and fury” was seen by some as a religious invocation. It speaks to a larger split between the right and the left on reading the Biblical God as benevolent or authoritarian.

Judicial Branch

Both a meatpacking plant and the Teamsters union representing its employees were charged with civil rights violations for discrimination against Muslim workers. The workers were told to choose between their religion and their jobs.

50 States

Long Beach, California, settled a federal discrimination lawsuit filed by a Muslim woman whose hijab was removed by a male police office after she was arrested.

Native American tribes in Oregon filed a federal lawsuit over a highway-widening project that destroyed a sacred site. The tribes argue that the construction was a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Rastafarian and Native religious groups in California continue to use cannabis in religious ceremonies without a license, attracting the attention of law enforcement.

Other reads

Forbes covered the research on religion’s impact on a company’s bottom line. Firms that are located in more religious counties, or have more religious executives, perform better.

ProPublica profiled Sikhs in America, who have been targeted for astonishing hate crimes since 1907.

New research investigated the relationship between religious conservatism and economic conservatism.

Jul 16: Jeff Sessions speaks to Alliance Defending Freedom, more Christian refugees admitted

Executive Branch

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization that works on religious freedom cases. During the speech he announced that the Justice Department will be issuing “guidance on how to apply federal religious liberty protections.”

Coverage of the speech resurfaced an ongoing conflict between the Southern Poverty Law Center and conservative Christian groups like the ADF, which the SPLC has labeled as “hate groups” alongside the KKK and neo-Nazis because of their disputes with LGBT rights advocates.

Pew demonstrates that Christians represent a growing proportion of refugees admitted to the US since Trump took office.

A group of pastors visiting the White House laid hands on Donald Trump to pray for him.

Judicial Branch

The 2nd Circuit ruled that a Catholic elementary school principal could be fired, despite her claim of discrimination. They held that the role was sufficiently religious to be allowed a ministerial exception, meaning she couldn’t sue the school under the Americans with Disability Act for letting her after she got sick.

Legislative Branch

The House voted against an amendment to a defense appropriation bill that proposed funding the identification of Islamic doctrines used to recruit terrorists.

Community

A Michigan community is trying to remove its village president from office over Facebook posts calling for the use of nuclear weapons to kill “every last Muslim.

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 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.

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.

Mar 19: New travel ban blocked on religious freedom grounds

Executive Branch

Trump national security advisor Sebastian Gorka was alleged to be a member of a Nazi-allied group in his native Hungary.

Judicial Branch

President Trump’s new, revised travel ban has been blocked by courts in Hawaii and Maryland. Both courts found that previous administration statements provide clear evidence that the ban is intended to target Muslims, which is a violation of the first amendment’s establishment clause. Lawfare has an in-depth legal analysis of this argument.

Five 9th Circuit judges wrote a dissenting opinion criticizing the block on the original travel ban, arguing that the executive branch has the power to stop admission of aliens to the US.

A 3-judge panel on the 11th Circuit ruled against a fired lesbian security guard. The decision stated that the law does not protect individuals from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

Community

Sanctuary churches are at risk of prosecution for harboring illegal alien.

Life has changed for Latino Muslims under the Trump administration.

A Pennsylvania pastor was charged with medical neglect leading to the death of his granddaughter. The sect he leads eschews medical treatment in favor of faith-based healing, and has been linked to dozens of child deaths over decades. This is the first time one of its leaders has been charged.

 

A Jewish court ruled that a new Jewish-owned pizzeria could not serve the same type of pizza as a neighboring, preexisting restaurant. The rabbinical decision was issued in Hebrew and Aramaic and drew on a Jewish law preventing unfair competition.

Other reads

An explanation for why some evangelical Christians in America feel like they’re under attack.

CNN gives a thorough analysis of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s religious background and its manifestation in his writings.

The Atlantic discusses America’s growing secularism and how it is exacerbating partisan politics. Less religious people appear to be more politically extreme.