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 2: DOJ under Trump still pursues mosque cases, appeals travel ban injunction

Executive branch

The Department of Justice continues to pursue legacy RLUIPA cases alleging municipal zoning discrimination against Muslim communities.

The Trump administration appealed the travel ban injunction issued in Hawaii on religious freedom grounds. The appeal will be heard by the 9th Circuit, which issued the injunction on the original executive order.

13 states signed onto an amicus brief supporting the travel ban.

Judicial branch

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Advocate Healthcare Network v Stapleton. At issue is whether religiously-affiliated hospitals are exempt from ERISA, a federal law mandating certain standards for employee retirement funds, in the same way that churches are.

Legislative branch

President Trump’s proposed federal budget included deep cuts to welfare spending. A corollary debate has emerged about the role of religious charities vs the role of government in providing for the poor. Can churches replace government welfare spending, or do they rely on it?

50 states

Kentucky passed legislation calling on the state’s department of education to develop and offer social studies electives in Bible literacy.

Bills have been proposed in state legislatures across the country banning Sharia law. Muslim groups argue the laws perpetuate misconceptions about Islam.

Community

A West Virginia mother sued the Mercer County school district over weekly Bible classes. Unlike released time religious classes, this instruction is given to all students in the classroom during school hours.

Austin, Texas, church network offers sanctuary from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Other reads

A passionate discussion on religion, misogyny and marital relations was sparked this week by a Washington Post piece about Vice President Mike Pence. Pence follows the “Billy Graham rule” of not eating alone with a woman.

Mormonism may play a significant role in Utah’s high rates of social mobility, particularly in its emphasis on marriage.

Atheists struggle to find therapists in the Bible belt whose practices are not based in Christianity.

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.