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.

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.

Feb 19: Undocumented immigrant takes refuge in church, Congressional hearing on religious liberty

Executive Branch

Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, took refuge in a Colorado church after her request for a stay of deportation was denied. More than 800 US houses of worship are part of the “sanctuary movement.” Although not protected by law, cultural norms and past directives from ICE have prevented government agents from arresting people inside of religious buildings.

Legislative Branch

The House Subcommitttee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, of the Committee on the Judiciary, held a hearing on the state of religious liberty in America. The witnesses included representatives from the Christian-affiliated Christian Legal Center and the Alliance Defending Freedom, as well as from Becket and former US Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein. Full texts are available here, and video is available here.

Saperstein, the only non-Christian witness, notably stated that he believed the draft executive order on religious freedom to be unconstitutional.

The House voted to overturn an Obama-era regulation that took effect last month preventing states from denying funds to Planned Parenthood. Speaker Ryan said the religious freedom of taxpayers was one reason for the action.

Judicial Branch

Another federal court has issued a preliminary injunction against President Trump’s immigration executive order. This injunction is based on the evidence presented to the court from statements by Trump and his advisors that the ban is intended specifically to target Muslims, which would be religious discrimination.

The 6th Circuit has ruled against Jackson County, Michigan for its practice of saying prayers at public meetings. The main issue was that the prayers were only offered by county commissioners and always by Christians.

A Social Security Administration judge in Texas filed suit against the SSA for being officially reprimanded over his refusal to watch an LGBT sensitivity training video, which he said would violate his religious beliefs.

50 States

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Barronelle Stutzman, a florist who denied service to a gay couple for their wedding on the basis that it would violate her religious beliefs.

A Virginia bill to prevent the withholding of government funds to religious organizations that decline to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies passed the state house and senate. The bill is likely to be vetoed by the current governor.

Community

An unprecedented rash of bomb threats have been called in at more than 45 Jewish organizations in the past several months. Ongoing investigations have so far been unsuccessful.

Other reads

Why immigration rules that involve decisions about religion quickly get messy, with the government having to weigh in on doctrine and theology to decide who counts as Christian, Muslim, etc.

A discussion of what makes certain places sacred in Native American religions, and the relationship to the Dakota Access Pipeline and other contested spaces.

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.

Jan 10: Confirmation hearings, the Army accommodates religious dress

Executive Branch

Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing for Attorney General is ongoing, with some questions about religion. Sessions stated that protecting religious freedom will be a “very high priority,” but agreed that the AG is required to follow and enforce court decisions such as Roe v. Wade and Oberfell v. Hodges. He also said that Muslims as a religious group should not be denied admission to the US.

Betsy DeVos’ (NYT profile here) confirmation hearing has been delayed until next week. As a prominent school voucher activist, questions have been raised about the use of government funds for religious schools.

The US Army has issued a new regulation allowing US military personnel to wear beards, turbans and hijabs as required by their religious beliefs.

The Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein, will leave his post after the Inauguration. There is concern that his replacement will not be appointed for a year or more, as happened with both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Judicial Branch

A federal judge has issued a temporary injunction on an executive extension of the Affordable Care Act that defines sex bias to include discrimination based on abortions and gender identification. Proponents of the ruling argue it is protecting doctors’ rights to refuse to perform medical procedures like abortions if they are morally opposed. Opponents fear it will allow discrimination of healthcare provision to those who have had abortions or identify as transgender.

A Marine who was court-martialed for several counts of disobeying a lawful order, including a refusal to remove provocative Bible verses from her desk, has petitioned to be heard by the Supreme Court after losing her appeal at the US Court of Appeals for Armed Forces.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about an exemption for religious organizations from minimum funding and other requirements in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Most affected organizations are hospitals.

Legislative Branch

The International Religious Freedom Act has been amended to include the right to not practice a religion and to protect nontheistic beliefs.

One of the first bills of the 115th Congress is HR 172 to repeal the Johnson Amendment, the law preventing tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing political candidates or participating in campaigns. President-elect Trump promised multiple times in his campaign to repeal the amendment.

50 States (and the District)

Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) plans to invoke congressional authority to block Washington, DC’s new physician-assisted suicide law.

“Bathroom bills” about transgender use of gender- or sex-designated bathrooms are being introduced in states across the country.

Local

A federal court ruled that Bernards Township in New Jersey (NYT profile of case here) discriminated in its application of city parking ordinances to a mosque. The legal dispute has been running for 5 years.

What we’re monitoring

The Atlantic has an excellent piece identifying what we can expect in 2017 under the Trump administration, particularly with a Supreme Court vacancy and over 100 other federal judicial appointees to come. National trends to watch are government-Muslim relations and questions of religious exemptions around medical treatment and procedures.