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.”

 

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.

Apr 9: Gorsuch confirmed to Supreme Court, House hearing on 1st Amendment at college

Judicial Branch

The Senate confirmed Neil Gorsuch to fill Antonin Scalia’s vacant Supreme Court seat. Republicans used the “nuclear option,” permanently altering Senate rules to circumvent a filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee. This effectively reduced the number of votes required to confirm a Supreme Court nominee from 60 to 51.

Gorsuch will have an immediate impact on the court as it decides high-profile cases, including several on religion.

The 7th Circuit ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBT individuals from workplace discrimination. It found that Kimberly Hively was illegally passed over for a full-time job because of her sexual orientation.

The ruling is at odds with an 11th Circuit ruling from March that found no legal protection for a security guard who was fired for her sexual orientation.

Legislative Branch

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the First Amendment on college campuses. It included a testimony on restrictions of religious freedom, particularly regarding religious clubs and their ability to apply religious tests for membership or leadership roles.

Executive Branch

The Department of Justice’s new crime reduction task force will have a subcommittee on preventing hate crimes. Reported hate crimes have spiked in the past year, including a 67% increase in hate crimes against Muslim Americans.

The Trump Administration has still not made appointments to high-profile positions related to religion. These include the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships and the Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom.

50 States

The Washington Supreme Court remanded a case for retrial because of improperly handling of religion and sexual orientation in child custody. The parents concerned raised their children as conservative Christians, which led to conflict when the mother came out as lesbian and they divorced. The higher court held that Washington case law disallows the use of the mother’s sexual orientation in custody determinations, independent of any potential conflict with the children’s religious convictions.

Montana governor Steve Bullock vetoed legislation banning foreign laws from being used in the Montana court system. Although the bill did not mention Sharia law, the debate in the legislature indicated that banning Islamic jurisprudence was one of its primary intentions.

The Arkansas legislature passed a similar piece of legislation implicitly banning Sharia law by forbidding the use of foreign laws.

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.

Mar 26: Teenager charged with anti-Semitic robocalls, Gorsuch hearings

Legislative Branch

Senate hearings to confirm Neal Gorsuch to the Supreme Court extended over three days last week. There was a lot of discussion about religious freedom and his past application of the relevant caselaw.

Judicial Branch

A federal judge in Virginia ruled in favor of Trump’s travel ban, denying a request to halt the order. He concluded that the restriction “falls within the bounds” of presidential authority.

The 5th circuit ruled that a Texas school board may continue to open its meetings with prayers given by students.

50 States

As expected, the Virginia bill allowing religious exemptions to those refusing to solemnize or provide services for a same-sex wedding was  vetoed by Governor Terry McAuliffe.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled against a Roman Catholic shrine in a property tax suit. The court said that the wildlife sanctuary and women’s shelter were not covered by religious exemption from taxation.

Nebraska’s legislature has voted to lift the ban on teachers wearing religious clothing, including Muslim hijabs, nun’s habits, and Jewish yarmulkes.

A debate over the use of vouchers for religious schools in Iowa may foreshadow contentions over Trump’s proposed education policies.

Community

An 18-year-old Israeli-American is alleged to be behind the threatening robocalls that have been received by Jewish Community Centers across the US. He apparently used the Tor network and voice disguising software to deliver bomb and shooting threats. His lawyer says a brain tumor, which he has had for 4 years, affected his judgment.

Other reads

The Benedict Option is a New York Times bestseller arguing that conservative Christians have lost the culture wars. It proposes a withdrawal from national politics to focus on building faith communities centered on Christ. The book has sparked a national discussion on conservative Christianity in the 21st century. Summary here, review here.

A pastor critically examines the framework of the contemporary sanctuary movement.