Aug 27: SPLC sued by Christian ministry over hate group label, Justice Department downplays religious freedom EO

Judicial Branch

The Southern Poverty Law Center is well known for its documentation of hate groups. Its profiles of white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups have been widely cited in coverage of the Charlottesville violence.

The SPLC created a controversy this last year by including Christian organizations in its list of hate groups because of their opposition to same-sex relationships. This last week the SPLC was sued by a Presbyterian ministries company in a federal court for defamation because it listed the company as a hate group.

The SPLC lists are used by other companies, like Amazon and charity tracker Guidestar, to blacklist organizations that support causes of hate.

The 9th Circuit ruled against a public high school football coach who lost his position after continuing to pray on the field after games.

A federal judge granted a pipeline company access to land owned by an order of Catholic nuns. The nuns had argued that as part of their order of Adorers of Christ, they must preserve the sacredness of the earth. The judge ruled that they failed to demonstrate how the pipeline would disrupt the practice of their religion.

Executive Branch

The Justice Department defended Donald Trump’s executive order on religious freedom by saying it actually didn’t change anything.

The Justice Department also filed briefs defending the ACA birth control mandate and the Johnson Amendment prohibiting religious endorsement of political candidates, despite Trump’s executive orders not to enforce those same laws.

A group of Jewish leaders decided to cancel an annual call with the White House because of Donald Trump’s statements about the conservative rallies and violence in Charlottesville, which included public demonstrations of anti-Semitism.

Members of Trump’s evangelical advisory council resisted strong pressure to resign in the wake of his comments about Charlottesville.

50 States

A Wisconsin court ruled that a Christian photographer who does not work at same-sex weddings did not violate anti-discrimination laws because she does not have a physical storefront.

A devil-worshipping couple filed suit against an Oklahoma school district for religious discrimination against their children. The couple follows Anramainyu, a form of Zoroastrian devil worship.

Community

Muslim groups are turning to Jewish organizations to learn how to protect themselves from hate crimes. Mosque and Islamic center security is a particular focus. 

Aug 20: Faith leaders react to Charlottesville and Trump’s response

Executive Branch

Company executives resigned from Donald Trump’s business councils, leading to the dissolution of three advisory bodies, over his response to the Charlottesville protests last week. The evangelical advisory council, on the other hand, has seen relatively little turmoil. Only one pastor, of a New York megachurch, resigned.

The protests, which included KKK members and neo-Nazis, have alarmed Jewish groups. Some who have not previously criticized Trump, like Ivanka’s rabbi and Republican Jewish organizations, spoke out against his response to the protests and subsequent attack.

The Atlantic ran a piece analyzing the connection between white nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism. It tries to explain why people protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue would chant “Jews will not replace us!

The State Department released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2016.

Judicial Branch

A federal court upheld Nebraska laws preventing picketing at funerals. The issue was raised by the Westboro Baptist Church, which pickets the funerals of military personnel with signs saying the deaths were caused by the legalization of gay marriage.

22 states filed an amicus brief supporting a New Mexico city’s appeal to the Supreme Court. The case is over a display of the Ten Commandments, which a lower court ruled must be removed.

Legislative Branch

4,000 religious leaders signed a letter asking Congress to maintain the Johnson Amendment, which revokes tax-exemptions for non-profits that endorse political candidates.

50 States

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state welfare agency can’t vaccinate children in their custody over their parents’ religious objections.

Pew Research documented every reference to God in US state constitutions. The divine is referred to in all 50, most frequently in the Massachusetts constitution with 12 mentions.

The Guardian profiled the controversial Church of Cannabis in Denver.

Other reads

The Washington Post described what different faith traditions say their adherents should do when an eclipse occurs.

Jul 23: States sued for requiring clinics to inform patients about abortion options, budget defunds Johnson Amendment

Judicial Branch

Hawaii was sued by five pro-life health centers because of a new law requiring them to inform women about options for abortion. In the absence of any objective articles on the subject, here is one pro-choice and one pro-life.

A federal court issued an injunction on a new Illinois law requiring health clinics to inform patients about other facilities that perform abortions. The plaintiffs are non-profit pro-life pregnancy centers claiming a conscientious objection to providing the information.

The 4th Circuit ruled against Rowan County, North Carolina in a case over their practice of praying before meetings. The distinguishing features were that the elected officials themselves said the prayers and invited the audience to join them.

An order of Catholic nuns sued federal energy regulators for allowing a gas pipeline to be laid underneath their property. They argued that it violates their practice of religion, as part of the Adorers’ order is to treasure and protect nature.

A federal court in California allowed a lawsuit against the state to proceed. Hindu students argue that the public education system unfairly denigrates Hinduism. A key example was a sixth grade class divided into “castes” as an object lesson.

Legislative Branch

The House Appropriations Committee included a section in the 2018 budget to defund IRS enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment removes tax-exempt status from nonprofits, including churches, that endorse political candidates.

50 States

A Muslim woman running for Senate in Arizona received a barrage of hate comments on her Facebook page. They were prompted by a post she wrote about her gratitude for America’s religious freedom. Her opponent, Republican Jeff Flake, told her “Hang in there…Sorry you have to put up with this.”

The evangelical Noah’s Ark theme park “Ark Encounter” is in a showdown with government regulators over its tax status and whether it can claim religious exemptions.

Oregon passed legislation banning state courts from using Sharia law in issuing rulings.

Other reads

An academic investigation challenged the idea that people with higher educational attainment are less religious.

The Ethicist column in the NY Times Magazine tackled the case of a Muslim man fired as a limo driver for refusing to carry wine.

New research finds additional underpinnings for American religious freedom. The founding fathers used a branch of Christian history that believed Christianity had been corrupted by its affiliation with government in post-Constantine Europe.

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 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.

Feb 5: Neil Gorsuch for Supreme Court, Trump order on religious freedom

Executive Branch

The Nation obtained a draft of a proposed Executive Order extending religious freedom protection to “any act or any refusal to act that is motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not the act is required or compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” It sparked a contentious debate over what the effects would be – protecting people from having to violate sincerely-held religious principles and/or allowing widespread discrimination against LGBT people and other minorities.

The debate continues over Trump’s (now suspended) immigration ban, including whether or not it is intended to target Muslims and would thereby be an unconstitutional violation of the freedom of religion. The consensus seems to be that the strongest challenge to the ban will be on statutory grounds instead.

Donald Trump’s comments at the National Prayer breakfast drew attention for various comments, the most substantive of which was the reiteration of his promise to “destroy” the Johnson amendment that prevents church endorsement of political candidates. Most of the other controversial statements appear to have been taken out of context. Full remarks available here.

Jerry Falwell Jr, President of the evangelical Liberty University, has been tapped to head up a task force on Department of Education regulation.

Judicial Branch

Trump nominated 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch to take Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court. He participated in eleven decisions dealing with religious freedom on the 10th Circuit. The Washington Post compiled excerpts from a unanimous opinion he wrote denying summary judgment in a religious freedom case about a Native American prisoner’s access to a sweat lodge.

A former NYPD officer sued in federal court over discriminatory treatment by other police officers for wearing a Muslim hijab at work.

50 States

Kentucky is debating legislation that would codify the ability of a school district to offer religiously neutral electives on Hebrew scripture and the Bible.

Washington State introduced a bill allowing prayer on school grounds prompted by the 2015 firing of an assistant football coach for leading postgame prayers on the field.

Local

Pennsylvania parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter for the death of their daughter after they failed to seek medical treatment for her on religious grounds. They stated that as part of their membership in Faith Tabernacle church they do not believe in medical treatment. The church has been linked to dozens of child deaths since the 1970s.

Other reads

FactCheck.org assessed claims made by the Trump administration that Christian refugees were unfairly kept out of the country under President Obama.

Pew has a useful summary of historical data on refugees in the United States.