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 4: Ramadan begins, Trump administration drafts religious exception for healthcare

Executive Branch

President Trump was criticized for his statement marking the beginning of Ramadan. The critics argued that the statement focused more on terrorism than on the Islamic month of fasting.

Muslims in New York City held an iftar, the meal at dusk that ends a day of Ramadan fasting, outside of Trump Tower in protest of the President’s policies and rhetoric.

A draft regulation by the Trump administration on birth control was leaked. The regulation would provide a religious exemption to the requirement that employers provide birth control to employees.

Judicial Branch

A Chinese man seeking asylum in the US for religious persecution in China filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. He lost his case after the Tenth Circuit used a narrow definition of persecution that did not include his circumstances.

A Michigan farmer filed suit against a farmer’s market religious discrimination. He rents out his orchard for weddings but not to same-sex couples, which puts him in violation of a city ordinance. As a result, he was kicked out of the East Lansing farmer’s market.

Two cases alleging discrimination in zoning rules were settled in New Jersey. Five years of litigation and a federal investigation concluded with the local mosque able to build according to its proposal.

Community

Alan Dershowitz has joined the legal team defending a Detroit doctor accused of female genital cutting. They will mount a religious freedom defense, saying that the doctor’s actions were religious in nature and protected by the First Amendment.

A Michigan school canceled released-time Bible classes after an activist group filed a complaint.

Other reads

The First Liberty Institute released a report entitled “Undeniable: A Survey of Hostility to Religion in America.” It documents over 1200 cases of alleged religious discrimination, most of which were litigated in court.

CNN investigated Donald Trump’s religious background to try to understand what religious beliefs he has, if any, and how they might impact his presidency.

Buzzfeed examined the phenomenon of Christian health care sharing ministries, which offer an alternative to health insurance. They have lower premiums as a result of less regulatory oversight, allowing less comprehensive coverage.

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.

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.

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.”

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.