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.

Mar 12: New immigration ban calls for data on honor killings, Senators request White House aid against Jewish hate crimes

Executive

Donald Trump signed a new executive order denying new visas to citizens of six Muslim-majority countries. Unlike the previous order, it excludes Iraq and sets out a process for people to apply for exceptions. In addition, it says the government will collect and publish data on violence against women by foreign nationals in the US, including “honor killings,” a term many see as referring to Muslims.

Hawaii filed a lawsuit against the new ban, maintaining that it violates religious freedom by targeting Muslims and that it damages Hawaii’s economic interests. Five other states are planning legal action.

The Marine Corps is considering criminal charges against a drill instructor whose harassment of a Muslim recruit allegedly led to the soldier’s death.

Legislative Branch

Responding to the threats of bombs and shooters at Jewish community centers that continued last week around the country, all 100 Senators signed a letter to the Attorney General, FBI Director and Secretary of Homeland Security calling for federal assistance in solving the growing problem.

As part of an announced religious freedom campaign after being detained in an airport last month, Muhammad Ali, Jr. spoke to House representatives who sit on a border security subcommittee. On his flight out of Washington, DC, he encountered delays at the airport again.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court declined to hear the landmark case on transgender restroom use that prompted numerous amicus briefs from religious groups. They sent the case back to the lower court.

The court denied a bid to block the Dakota Access Pipeline on religious grounds. The judge ruled that the religious freedom objection was brought up too late.

50 States

The Kentucky legislature passed a bill guaranteeing the rights of students at public education institutions to express religious and political views, including through school newspapers and PA systems. The bill was prompted by a dispute over a school production of Charlie Brown’s Christmas, which includes a passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Muslim students visiting the office of Oklahoma state representative John Bennett were asked to fill out a form asking questions purportedly about their religion such as “Do you beat your wife?”

South Dakota’s governor signed the legislation passed last week protecting religious adoption agencies that do not place children with same-sex couples.

Other reads

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s record on religion, abortion and reproductive rights leans conservative, and has generally been upheld by the higher court.

Contemporary attempts by some critics to dismiss Islam as a religion have their roots in older anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon movements in America.

 

 

Mar 5: Hate crimes across America, South Dakota passes religious adoption bill

Executive Branch

Reports emerged that President Trump still plans to sign a version of the draft executive order on religious freedom that was circulated last month. It is now being refined after challenges to other executive order in the courts. Its most controversial component exempts businesses from being required to serve LGBT individuals.

The church of Sam Rodriguez Jr, an evangelical pastor who prayed at Donald Trump’s inauguration, is offering sanctuary to congregants who fear raids by immigration authorities may lead to their deportation. In related news, the ICE staked out a church homeless shelter in Virginia, worrying religious organizations participating in the sanctuary movement.

Judicial Branch

A flurry of amicus briefs have been filed by religious groups on both sides of the upcoming Supreme Court case on the use of male restrooms by a transgender high school student.

Legal arguments continued over whether Sioux religious beliefs could halt the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

A Hare Krishna community in Western Virginia reached an agreement with Energy Transfer Partners over a pipeline crossing their land. ETP, the same company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, will reroute the pipeline to avoid certain sites sacred to the community, but it will still cross Hare Krishna land.

50 States

South Dakota passed legislation shielding religious adoption agencies from state penalties for refusing to place children with same-sex couples and single parents on religious grounds.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has been sued for refusing to hire a Seventh-Day Adventist prison guard because of her religious requirement to abstain from work on the Sabbath.

Community

Bomb threats continued to target Jewish Community Centers. Interactive map of the 91 incidents (as of Sunday) here.

Four mosques have been burned down across the country in the last six weeks.

A Sikh man in Washington and two Hindu Indian immigrants in Kansas were shot in separate incidents apparently after being mistaken for Muslim immigrants.

Other Reads

NPR gave a fair analysis of the ongoing conflict between freedom of religion and the prevention of LGBT discrimination.

The numbers on refugee entry during the immigration ban, with fewer Muslim refugees than previously.

Feb 12: Trump’s religious freedom appointees, Sioux to use religious freedom in pipeline dispute

Executive Branch

Pam Pryor, who was responsible for the Trump campaign’s outreach to evangelical Christians, is leading the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department. She is vetting people to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and a front runner appears to be Ken Starr. Recently resigned as president of Baylor University amid a football sexual assault scandal, Starr is most well-known for his role as special counsel investigating President Clinton for the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals.

Judicial Branch

Part of the 9th Circuit’s temporary restraining order on Trump’s immigration executive order prevents the government from “proceeding with any action that prioritized the refugee claims of certain religious minorities.” It restated the religious freedom arguments against the order and said those claims are serious and present significant constitutional questions, particularly given President Trump’s past statements about a “Muslim ban.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s “Hail Mary” effort to block the Dakota Access pipeline is based on religious freedom grounds.

The 5th Circuit is hearing a case about a North Texas school board’s practice of opening meetings with prayers by students.

The 4th Circuit rejected the appeal of an Orthodox Jewish woman who was penalized by the DC airports authority for taking off work for Passover, taking the rare step of issuing an “unpublished opinion.”

50 States

Many pieces of legislation are being introduced in state legislatures that are related to religious freedom; Religious Freedom Review typically covers these bills once they have passed both chambers. The Washington Post, however, has a good summary of the various issues under debate across the country.

Georgia settled for $225,000 with Eric Walsh, a pastor claiming he was fired from the Department of Public Health for his religious beliefs. The state maintains he was let go for not disclosing his second income, but Dr. Walsh and his lawyers argue that it was religious discrimination and that the state requested he hand over his sermons, notes and other pastoral documentation.

A group of California parents filed suit the state over the portrayal of Hinduism in the social science curriculum.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his wife are set to host a “Christian cruise” in Alaska.

Other reads

An explanation of the two major religious freedom precedents that are germane in the 9th Circuit case over the immigration ban.’

A historical survey of American distrust of and discrimination against atheists.

A strong opinion piece arguing that Trump’s executive order would let fewer Christian refugees into the US, and that giving them preference would only exacerbate religious tension in conflict zones.