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.”

 

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.