Dec 10: Masterpiece Cakeshop case begins, and more

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case this week. Baker Jack Phillips says his rights to freedom of religion and speech were violated by a Colorado law preventing discrimination by retailers. Phillips declined to bake a custom cake for a same-sex wedding.

Key questions included what counts as an artist and artistic expression that should be protected, and what types of activities a religious person can avoid in business. Justice Anthony Kennedy is widely speculated to be the swing vote that will decide the case.

A federal district court ruled that a prisoner’s humanist belief system does not qualify as a religion.

A federal judge upheld the Washington DC metro system’s decision to refuse Christmas ads from the local Catholic archdiocese. The metro system claims it is following an impartial policy, while the archdiocese says the decision is discriminatory.

Executive Branch

The Supreme Court allowed the Trump travel ban to be implemented in its latest form. The ACLU said they still consider it a Muslim ban and are committed to fighting it in court.

After the Trump administration shrunk the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, a coalition of five native tribes filed suit. The tribes argue that the land is sacred and the Trump does not have the authority to remove the monument designation.

Community

A Colorado County ended a school voucher program to end legal battles that have stretched on for years. The issue was the use of public money to pay tuition at private, religious schools.

Other reads

NCAA Magazine ran an in-depth article about the Coalition on Common Ground, an organization that brings LGBTQ activists and religious leaders together to talk about how to respect students of faith and LGBTQ students at public and private universities.

The Atlantic profiled Mike Pence’s political career, focusing on his faith and how his challenges and successes have mirrored those of the religious right as a whole. It makes a fascinating lens through which to view the Trump-evangelical political alliance.

Vice investigated the use of religious exemptions as a loophole by organizations running abusive reform schools without oversight.

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.

Jul 30: No transgender military after evangelical visit; Brownback for Ambassador

Executive Branch

Donald Trump tweeted that transgender Americans will not be allowed to serve in the military. The tweet may have been designed for his conservative Christian base, which had expressed concern about using public funds to pay for transgender medical treatments. Indeed, he apparently discussed the policy with a group of evangelical leaders who visited the White House two weeks ago.

Donald Trump nominated Kansas governor Sam Brownback as Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom. Brownback leaves a controversial legacy in Kansas, with massive tax cuts designed to provide an economic boost that never materialized. He was known there as a strong social conservative, which concerns some in the LGBT community as he takes his new appointment.

Community

An Imam in California apologized for statements in a sermon that criticized Israel’s actions in the ongoing dispute over Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. He appeared to call for the destruction of Jewish people who were limiting access to the Mosque.

A KFC franchisee filed suit against the company for forbidding him from advertising that the chicken he sells is halal.

Other reads

Pew released a new survey of Muslims in America, showing they feel marginalized and discriminated against, but are proud to be American and believe they can succeed in the US. They also appear to be growing more politically, culturally and religiously liberal.

The New York Times highlighted research showing that less religious people are more likely to believe in alien encounters, ghosts and the paranormal. The author postulates that people seek spiritual meaning whether they are religious or not.

Jun 25: Mississippi allows denial of services to LGBT people, Ramadan goes unmarked at White House

Judicial Branch

The Fifth Circuit reversed a lower court’s decision and ruled that the State of Mississippi can enforce a law allowing businesses and state employees to cite religious beliefs to deny service to LGBT people.

Two weeks ago, Iraqi Christian immigrants in Michigan who had criminal records were rounded up by ICE for deportation. After bipartisan objections, the ACLU brought a suit that caused a temporary restraining order to halt the deportation.

An undocumented immigrant is using a religious freedom defense to fight his deportation. He argues that splitting up his family would violate tenets of his Seventh-Day Adventist faith.

Executive Branch

Ramadan ended on Saturday without a celebration at the White House, the first time in twenty years that the Muslim month of fasting has gone unmarked.

Beginning July 1, the State Department’s anti-Semitism monitoring office will be unstaffed. It normally has three staffers in addition to an appointed envoy.

Mike Pence spoke at the anniversary of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian advocacy group. He urged the group to return to its political activism of past decades.

Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka was fired as an FBI counterterrorism lecturer due to Islamophobia.

50 States

The Michigan legislature passed a bill to increase the penalties for doctors and parents involved in female genital cutting. Meanwhile, two more mothers were indicted in the female genital cutting case outside Detroit.

An Indiana Christian school drew attention for accepting publicly-funded school vouchers while denying admission to LGBT students.

Other reads

PRRI released a report on Americans’ perceptions of discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity and immigrant status. The responses are broken down by religion and party affiliation.

People who rate as more religious have fewer gambling problems. The Huffington Post reported on a study about the relationship between religion and gambling.

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 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.

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.