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.

Sep 10: Trump advisory board supports DACA, judicial nominee questioned about Catholicism

Executive Branch

Religion News Service ran an extensive profile of Donald Trump’s informal Christian advisory group. He has given more access to religious leaders than any other modern president, but only includes evangelical Christian pastors. It’s unclear if they have had any effect on policy.

The advisory board is lobbying against the rollback of DACA, which grants legal status to undocumented immigrants who arrived as minors (“Dreamers”). Faith leaders across different traditions oppose deportation of Dreamers.

Churches in Houston sued FEMA because it excludes religious organizations from receiving public disaster assistance. Donald Trump tweeted his support for the churches’ cause.

Legislative Branch

A Catholic nominee for a federal judgeship was intensely questioned by the Senate over how judges should handle conflict between the law and their religious beliefs. She said that Democratic Senators misinterpreted an article she wrote as a law student about when Catholic judges should recuse themselves from cases involving moral questions.

Judicial Branch

Donald Trump nominated five judges in Texas, two of which spent part of their careers at the First Liberty Institute. First Liberty Institute is a conservative non-profit law firm that litigates religious liberty cases, and has been criticized by liberal groups and LGBT rights organizations.

Justice Department lawyers filed an amicus brief supporting the Denver baker who is being sued for refusing to make a custom wedding cake for a gay couple. They ask the Supreme Court to carve out a narrow exception to discrimination laws for expressive professions.

The 6th Circuit ruled that a Michigan county’s board meetings can continue to begin with prayers led by a commissioner.

Community

The National Cathedral removed stained glass windows picturing Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Surveys

PRRI published a report based on the largest ever survey of American religious identity. It found that white evangelical Protestants are beginning to experience the same membership decline that other denominations began to see decades ago. Overall, white Christians are declining as a proportion of the population, down to 43% from 81% in 1976. The full report is here.

FiveThirtyEight analyzed what the survey data might mean for the future of political parties.

The Atlantic wrote about the people who report being religiously unaffiliated.

The 2017 Baylor Religion Survey results were also released. They focus on the intersection of Trump support with religion, the use of technology, and the role of faith in mental health.

Other reads

An interesting article discussed the Doctrine of Christian Discovery underpinning the legal justification of land seizure from Native Americans.

JSTOR examined the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and what religious authenticity means.

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. 

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.

Jun 11: Marches against Sharia, Supreme Court upholds pension exception for religious hospitals

National

ACT for America, a conservative national security grassroots organization, staged Marches Against Sharia across the US on Saturday. The group was protesting the supposed infiltration of Islamic law into American jurisprudence.

That claim – along with others touted by marchers, such as wild accusations of bestiality – is refuted by experts.

Most cities with marches saw counter-protests calling for tolerance and condemning ACT as Islamophobic.  A number of protests got physical and arrests were made in several states.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in favor of religious hospital systems claiming exemptions from federal pension fund requirements. They were being sued by former employees who argued that the hospital networks should have complied with the ERISA law protecting employees with pension plans.

The Supreme Court declined to hear a religious freedom suit filed by a Marine. After being court-martialed on several offenses, she appealed over her conviction for disobeying orders to remove bible verses from her desk. Lower courts ruled against her.

Executive Branch

President Trump spoke at the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative evangelical political organization. He said that he and evangelicals are under siege, and touted his Supreme Court nomination and executive orders on religion as steps in the right direction.

The Atlantic ran a profile of the man running the Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights. He is religious, conservative, and the son of Colombian immigrants. His office oversees language, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation cases related to healthcare.

Secretary Ben Carson spoke at the Religious Liberty Dinner at the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center. He discussed the rights of private citizens and businesses to act according to their beliefs.

Congress

Bernie Sanders drew attention for his intense questioning at a senate confirmation hearing. He argued that the belief that members of other religions are condemned before God makes a nominee unable to serve all Americans fairly.

50 States

A District Court in Florida ruled against a Christian school that was denied the use of a stadium loudspeaker to broadcast prayers at a football championship game. The school claimed that freedoms of speech and religion were violated, while the court held that allowing use of the loudspeaker would have been state endorsement of religion.

A Montana court struck down a state rule eliminating tax credits for donations to religious school scholarships.

Other reads

Number of megachurches by state.

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 26: Muhammad Ali Jr. detained, hate crimes against Jewish communities

Executive Branch

Muhammad Ali’s son was detained at an airport and reportedly questioned at length about his religion, name and nationality. A spokesman maintained that Customs does not discriminate on the basis of religion, race or ethnicity.

Melania Trump began a rally in Florida with a reading of the Lord’s Prayer.

50 States

Hate crimes against Jewish institutions continued. There were more bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers and over 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis were vandalized. President Trump condemned the actions after facing criticism for failing to address the issue when questioned during previous press conferences.

A formerly Muslim, Syrian man lost his suit against the Christian church that baptized him. They published his baptism online after promising not to, which resulted in his kidnapping and torture when he returned to Syria. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that the question of a baptism’s publicity is theological and outside the court’s jurisdiction.

Bob Jones University’s federal tax-exempt status was reinstated. The Christian university lost it after a 1983 Supreme Court case penalized it for policies against interracial dating and marriage among students. The case became an important precedent, cited in decisions such as Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized gay marriage.

A group of atheists, humanists and nonbelievers filed suit against the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, saying they have been blocked from giving the invocation that traditionally opens legislative sessions.

Local

A settlement was reached in Sterling, Michigan, where the city was sued in 2015 by the Muslim-American community and the Department of Justice over alleged discrimination in the application of zoning laws to the building of a new mosque. The settlement favors the plaintiffs and will allow the mosque to be built.

Other reads

More discussion of the resurgent sanctuary movement offering refuge to undocumented immigrants in houses of worship.

A review of the fraught historical relationship between the FBI and minority religions in the United States.

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 12: Trump’s religious freedom appointees, Sioux to use religious freedom in pipeline dispute

Executive Branch

Pam Pryor, who was responsible for the Trump campaign’s outreach to evangelical Christians, is leading the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department. She is vetting people to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and a front runner appears to be Ken Starr. Recently resigned as president of Baylor University amid a football sexual assault scandal, Starr is most well-known for his role as special counsel investigating President Clinton for the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals.

Judicial Branch

Part of the 9th Circuit’s temporary restraining order on Trump’s immigration executive order prevents the government from “proceeding with any action that prioritized the refugee claims of certain religious minorities.” It restated the religious freedom arguments against the order and said those claims are serious and present significant constitutional questions, particularly given President Trump’s past statements about a “Muslim ban.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s “Hail Mary” effort to block the Dakota Access pipeline is based on religious freedom grounds.

The 5th Circuit is hearing a case about a North Texas school board’s practice of opening meetings with prayers by students.

The 4th Circuit rejected the appeal of an Orthodox Jewish woman who was penalized by the DC airports authority for taking off work for Passover, taking the rare step of issuing an “unpublished opinion.”

50 States

Many pieces of legislation are being introduced in state legislatures that are related to religious freedom; Religious Freedom Review typically covers these bills once they have passed both chambers. The Washington Post, however, has a good summary of the various issues under debate across the country.

Georgia settled for $225,000 with Eric Walsh, a pastor claiming he was fired from the Department of Public Health for his religious beliefs. The state maintains he was let go for not disclosing his second income, but Dr. Walsh and his lawyers argue that it was religious discrimination and that the state requested he hand over his sermons, notes and other pastoral documentation.

A group of California parents filed suit the state over the portrayal of Hinduism in the social science curriculum.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his wife are set to host a “Christian cruise” in Alaska.

Other reads

An explanation of the two major religious freedom precedents that are germane in the 9th Circuit case over the immigration ban.’

A historical survey of American distrust of and discrimination against atheists.

A strong opinion piece arguing that Trump’s executive order would let fewer Christian refugees into the US, and that giving them preference would only exacerbate religious tension in conflict zones.

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.