Nov 12: Worst church shooting in US history, churches battle zoning laws

Executive Branch

A marine drill instructor was sentenced to 10 years in prison for abusive hazing of recruits. He particularly targeted Muslim marines, leading to the suicide of one.

The US Department of Agriculture released a memo giving broad permission for employers to express religious views at work. The policy clarification was ostensibly in response to a Michigan meatpacking plant, where leaflets opposing same-sex marriage in the break room were identified as sexual harassment by USDA inspectors.

Legislative Branch

A debate sprung up among Christians over whether there would be any biblical justification for Alabama Senator Roy Moore molesting a 14 year old girl, as he is alleged to have done.

The House Judiciary Committee saw a spirited debate over the definition of anti-Semitism, and if language that “demonizes Israel” should be included.

50 States

An Indiana court ruled against a professor suing for wrongful termination on the grounds of free speech. He was fired for making anti-Muslim statements in and out of the classroom.

Community

Hoboken elected the first turbaned Sikh mayor in the US.

PRRI released new survey data on Americans’ self-identification as religious, spiritual, both or neither. Among its extensive findings was that most spiritual but unreligious Americans are affiliated with a religion.

Community: Houses of Worship

The worst shooting at a house of worship in American history was perpetrated last week in Texas, killing twenty-six worshipers.

The Atlantic covered the ongoing disputes in communities across the country over zoning for houses of worship. It argued that this may be the most important, and overlooked, legal fight for religious freedom in America.

NYPD surveillance broke down community bonds at a mosque where Sayfullo Saipov worshipped for three months. Saipov drove a truck into a bike lane in New York City on October 31st, killing eight people.

Community: Education

The Stanford College Republicans were criticized for inviting the controversial co-founder of “Stop Islamization of America” to speak on campus. They defend the invitation on the grounds of free speech, while other students have called for the university not to provide funds to the event.

Notre Dame changed its policy to allow faculty, students, and staff to get contraception through the university’s insurance plans. No clear explanation was given for the change.

A Georgia school district instructed its staff, including sports coaches, that they may not participate in student-led prayers. The prayers are common before and after high school football games.

Other reads

The inaugural event of the Robert P. George initiative brought faith leaders together to discuss religious freedom. They maintained that religion contributes enormously to American civic life, and expressed concern that secularism is beginning to play the role of official religion in the US.

In a speech at Brigham Young University, political science professor David Campbell argued that the close association of religion with the Republican party has caused secularization, as people who oppose the Republican party often disaffiliate from their faiths as well, or extend that opposition to religion generally.

An Emory professor discussed the role that Islamic or Sharia Courts can play in American life, similar to Jewish rabbinical courts that arbitrate disputes within their communities.

Oct 29: Missouri man wins sex discrimination suit, Catholic Charities sued, and more

Executive Branch

With the expiration of 120 days, the Trump administration announced that they will allow entry of refugees from all countries – including the Muslim-majority countries that had been banned – with additional screening.

The Department of Health and Human Services released a memo seeking comment on barriers to faith-based organizations’ participation in programs or reception of grants.

The Trump administration nominated a Brandeis professor who works to combat on-campus anti-Semitism as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education.

Judicial Branch

The Atlantic reported on the Hawaii judge who ruled against Trump’s travel bans, and his legal rationales – including violation of the establishment clause on religion.

50 States

A gay man in Missouri won a discrimination suit on the basis of sex. Although Missouri law does not prohibit discrimination due to sexual orientation, the judge ruled that the plaintiff’s mistreatment for acting “insufficiently masculine” is covered under the sex discrimination portion of the statute.

An Arizona couple lost a bid to remove a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The conservative Christian plaintiffs run a calligraphy business and are concerned about the possibility of being asked to write invitations for a same-sex wedding.

A North Dakota couple filed suit against Catholic Charities for refusing their application for adoption. The couple is lives together but is unmarried.

A Kentucky judge has resigned after announcing he would recuse himself from adoption cases involving gay people because of his religious beliefs. He had issued a general order to attorneys telling them to request a special judge if they were bringing such a case.

An Indiana judge ruled that preventing convicted sex offenders from attending church violates their religious freedom.

Community

The 31st undocumented immigrant to claim sanctuary at a house of worship did so at a Denver church on Thursday.

The Des Moines Register profiled an evangelical millennial working to persuade others that climate change is a real and important issue.

Other reads

A former CEO of NPR wrote a book on his experience immersing himself in Republican evangelical culture. He says he learned about religion, community service, gun control and other issues that often get short shrift in the media.

Former FBI Director James Comey revealed himself as the owner of a Twitter account named after theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The Washington Post explained Niebuhr’s continued impact on American political life.

Oct 22: Sports and religion, travel ban blocked for Muslim discrimination, and more

Executive Branch

The Justice Department settled legal cases with a group of colleges who sought religious exemptions to the ACA’s contraception mandate.

A man was convicted of a federal hate crime for leaving a voicemail at a mosque threatening to shoot its members.

Politico published a piece contending that Trump represents an alliance between evangelical and nationalist conservatives.

Judicial Branch

A judge in Maryland blocked the new travel ban. He was preceded by a judge in Hawaii, but the new ruling is distinct for insisting that the policy changes in the ban have not eliminated religious discrimination against Muslims.

The Supreme Court confirmed a lower court’s ruling that a New Mexico town must remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from outside its city hall.

50 States

California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation to prevent employers from punishing employees based on their reproductive health decisions. There was no religious exemption in the bill. Brown argued that these issues are already covered by state policies.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation began an effort to stop Oklahoma courts from ordering defendants to serve time at religious work camps. The camps are purportedly drug rehabilitation centers that involve unpaid labor at chicken processing plants and mandatory church attendance.

Sports

Religion and Politics explored the relationship between NFL religious ministries and the ongoing protests of racial inequality where players kneel during the national anthem.

A roundtable of basketball players discussed what it’s like to be Muslim in the NBA.

Community

A Museum of the Bible is set to open in November in Washington, DC. It is officially nonpartisan, but has drawn criticism from conservatives for omitting Jesus and from liberals for promoting a literalist evangelical interpretation of the Bible.

Other reads

The Atlantic discussed the use of the term “evil” as a framework to understand how conservative and liberal commentators understand morality differently.

Pew Research found that a majority of American adults now say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.

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.

Jul 16: Jeff Sessions speaks to Alliance Defending Freedom, more Christian refugees admitted

Executive Branch

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization that works on religious freedom cases. During the speech he announced that the Justice Department will be issuing “guidance on how to apply federal religious liberty protections.”

Coverage of the speech resurfaced an ongoing conflict between the Southern Poverty Law Center and conservative Christian groups like the ADF, which the SPLC has labeled as “hate groups” alongside the KKK and neo-Nazis because of their disputes with LGBT rights advocates.

Pew demonstrates that Christians represent a growing proportion of refugees admitted to the US since Trump took office.

A group of pastors visiting the White House laid hands on Donald Trump to pray for him.

Judicial Branch

The 2nd Circuit ruled that a Catholic elementary school principal could be fired, despite her claim of discrimination. They held that the role was sufficiently religious to be allowed a ministerial exception, meaning she couldn’t sue the school under the Americans with Disability Act for letting her after she got sick.

Legislative Branch

The House voted against an amendment to a defense appropriation bill that proposed funding the identification of Islamic doctrines used to recruit terrorists.

Community

A Michigan community is trying to remove its village president from office over Facebook posts calling for the use of nuclear weapons to kill “every last Muslim.

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.

May 28: Donald Trump tours world religions, wave of religious freedom legislation in Texas

Executive Branch

Donald Trump visited Riyadh, Jerusalem and Vatican City this week. Despite past controversies around his views on Islam, Judaism and the Pope, the trip was genial and has sparked little criticism.

The Pope gave him some reading material, and he was the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall.

Trump gave an important speech in Saudi Arabia, where he struck a different tone on Islam, calling it “one of the world’s great faiths.” Secretary of State Tillerson explained this rhetorical shift as an evolution in Trump’s views about Islam, while American Muslims remain skeptical that it indicates any change of heart.

Rex Tillerson himself made Islam-related news this week. He is breaking with an 18-year tradition by not hosting a public event to mark the end of Ramadan in late June.

As expected, Castilla Gingrich was nominated as the US Ambassador to the Vatican.

50 States

The Texas governor signed legislation into law protecting religious sermons from government subpoena. The bill was prompted by 2014 subpoenas for the sermons of pastors opposing an anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston.

Texas also passed legislation allowing religious organizations that do adoption and foster care matching to refuse to place children with non-Christian, unmarried or gay prospective parents.

Finally, Texas passed a bill requiring its Supreme Court to establish rules about the application of foreign laws to family law cases. This appears to be part of a national conservative campaign to “ban Sharia law.”

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled against a man using religious freedom as a justification for not paying taxes.

Judicial Branch

The 4th Circuit ruled against the Trump Administration’s travel ban, finding that it appeared to target Muslims.

Community

A white supremacist killed two people on an Oregon train who were trying to stop his verbal abuse of two Muslim women.

Two religious discrimination suits have been filed about accommodation of the wearing of long skirts – in a gym and in a hospital.

Other reads

Last Sunday’s 60 Minutes was about the 800+ religious institutions offering sanctuary to immigrants being sought by ICE.

The Guardian argues that the US is only a few decades behind Europe in secularization.

May 14: States pass legislation on religious freedom, discrimination

State legislation

Florida passed a bill prohibiting discrimination against students and educators for religious expression at school, in assignments, and in extra-curricular activities. Critics contend that provisions allowing teachers to express religious identity and guaranteeing access to religious groups violate the separation of church and state.

The Missouri legislature passed legislation making it harder for employees to prove discrimination by employers. It raises the standard for proving bias against religion, sex, or race, and caps penalties against employers who persecute whistleblowers.

Oklahoma passed a bill augmenting its Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It guarantees that the government cannot force anyone to participate in or provide goods or services for a religious ceremony if it contradicts their religious beliefs.

Tennessee passed legislation explicitly guaranteeing students’ rights to be absent from sports activities for religious reasons. There don’t seem to be any cases where these rights have historically been violated.

Florida’s proposed budget has $654k for security for Jewish schools after repeated threats have caused evacuations from schools and community centers. The ACLU raised questions about the constitutionality of government-funded security for only one religion.

State courts

The California Supreme Court clarified the state’s Day of Rest statute requiring employees to be allowed one day off for every seven days of work.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that a T-shirt printing company legally denied service on religious grounds. The business declined to print shirts for the Lexington Pride Festival in 2012. The court held that the service was denied because of the message and not because of the persons who requested it, meaning it was not discrimination.

Executive Branch

Donald Trump gave the commencement address at the Christian Liberty University. His speech included remarks on religious freedom.

A geologist sued the National Park Service for civil rights violations after it denied him a permit to collect rock samples at the Grand Canyon. He alleges religious discrimination, as the denial appears to be based on his belief in Young Earth Creationism. He intends to use the samples to demonstrate that the Grand Canyon was formed 10,000 years ago rather than millions of years ago.

The US Fire Administration focused on fire prevention at religious institutions last week, which was National Arson Awareness Week.

Community

Transcripts from jury selection in a federal trial show the pervasiveness of anti-Islamic sentiment. Prospective jurors were asked about Islam because the Muslim defendant is charged with helping a man join ISIS. People said, among other things, that Muslims are criminals and not American citizens.

A DC interfaith rapid-response team formed to address hate crimes.

A New York Hindu temple joined the sanctuary movement.

A Florida school board opted to keep their current textbook after a lengthy debate over the accuracy and completeness of its chapter on Islam.

Other reads

Minority religions like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Santeria adherents set precedents that protect religious freedom for all, sometimes overturning Supreme Court decisions along the way.

Gallup released data from a new survey on liberal and conservative views among Americans about issues perceived to be moral questions. There is a strong trend toward liberalism.

An article in the Institute on Religion and Public Life argues that religious people who oppose abortion or physician-assisted suicide may soon be unable to practice medicine without violating their consciences.

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.”