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.

Jan 22: Religious Freedom Review, inauguration edition

Executive Branch

President Obama declared last Monday, January 16, to be Religious Freedom Day in addition to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Controversy arose over Reverend Robert Jeffress’ participation in the customary service attended by the Trumps Friday morning. Jeffress, a Southern Baptist, gained notoriety for his remarks about minority groups – particularly comments about Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. His sermon was taken from Nehemiah and focused on God’s support for “building the wall” around Jerusalem.

Donald Trump’s inauguration had the most prayers in US history, with three invocations and three benedictions. They were given by the first female clergy to pray at an inauguration, a Hispanic evangelical, an African-American pastor, Franklin Graham, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and a rabbi. The Christians were all evangelicals and two are associated with the resurgent “prosperity gospel” theology.

On his first full day in office, President Trump attended the traditional prayer service at the National Cathedral with representation from 26 faiths. Most were evangelical, but Islam, Baha’i, Navajo and other minority religious were also represented.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case testing a Blaine amendment in Missouri. Blaine amendments, which put restrictions on government funds going to churches, were passed in many states in the 19th century on a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment. This case concerns the state’s denial of Trinity Lutheran Church of Missouri’s application for a public grant to used recycled tires on its playground.

50 States

Texas Supreme Court reversed a previous decision by agreeing to hear a case seeking to halt benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees in Houston.

Nebraska is looking to overturn a ban on teachers wearing religious garb.

Illinois community college found not to violate student’s religious rights after removing him from his paramedic class because his religious beliefs prevented him from being vaccinated.

Local

A Muslim convert fired from her job at a New Jersey jail for wearing a headscarf lost her appeal. The court found that she was not being discriminated against, as accommodating the headscarf would be an undue hardship on the jail.

Amish men sue the city of Auburn, Kentucky, over a requirement for horses to wear “equine diapers,” which they say violates their religious beliefs.

Other Reads

A review of Obama’s frequent discussions of his personal faith, and particularly of Christian theology: “Theologian in Chief.”