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.

Mar 12: New immigration ban calls for data on honor killings, Senators request White House aid against Jewish hate crimes

Executive

Donald Trump signed a new executive order denying new visas to citizens of six Muslim-majority countries. Unlike the previous order, it excludes Iraq and sets out a process for people to apply for exceptions. In addition, it says the government will collect and publish data on violence against women by foreign nationals in the US, including “honor killings,” a term many see as referring to Muslims.

Hawaii filed a lawsuit against the new ban, maintaining that it violates religious freedom by targeting Muslims and that it damages Hawaii’s economic interests. Five other states are planning legal action.

The Marine Corps is considering criminal charges against a drill instructor whose harassment of a Muslim recruit allegedly led to the soldier’s death.

Legislative Branch

Responding to the threats of bombs and shooters at Jewish community centers that continued last week around the country, all 100 Senators signed a letter to the Attorney General, FBI Director and Secretary of Homeland Security calling for federal assistance in solving the growing problem.

As part of an announced religious freedom campaign after being detained in an airport last month, Muhammad Ali, Jr. spoke to House representatives who sit on a border security subcommittee. On his flight out of Washington, DC, he encountered delays at the airport again.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court declined to hear the landmark case on transgender restroom use that prompted numerous amicus briefs from religious groups. They sent the case back to the lower court.

The court denied a bid to block the Dakota Access Pipeline on religious grounds. The judge ruled that the religious freedom objection was brought up too late.

50 States

The Kentucky legislature passed a bill guaranteeing the rights of students at public education institutions to express religious and political views, including through school newspapers and PA systems. The bill was prompted by a dispute over a school production of Charlie Brown’s Christmas, which includes a passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Muslim students visiting the office of Oklahoma state representative John Bennett were asked to fill out a form asking questions purportedly about their religion such as “Do you beat your wife?”

South Dakota’s governor signed the legislation passed last week protecting religious adoption agencies that do not place children with same-sex couples.

Other reads

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s record on religion, abortion and reproductive rights leans conservative, and has generally been upheld by the higher court.

Contemporary attempts by some critics to dismiss Islam as a religion have their roots in older anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon movements in America.

 

 

Mar 5: Hate crimes across America, South Dakota passes religious adoption bill

Executive Branch

Reports emerged that President Trump still plans to sign a version of the draft executive order on religious freedom that was circulated last month. It is now being refined after challenges to other executive order in the courts. Its most controversial component exempts businesses from being required to serve LGBT individuals.

The church of Sam Rodriguez Jr, an evangelical pastor who prayed at Donald Trump’s inauguration, is offering sanctuary to congregants who fear raids by immigration authorities may lead to their deportation. In related news, the ICE staked out a church homeless shelter in Virginia, worrying religious organizations participating in the sanctuary movement.

Judicial Branch

A flurry of amicus briefs have been filed by religious groups on both sides of the upcoming Supreme Court case on the use of male restrooms by a transgender high school student.

Legal arguments continued over whether Sioux religious beliefs could halt the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

A Hare Krishna community in Western Virginia reached an agreement with Energy Transfer Partners over a pipeline crossing their land. ETP, the same company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, will reroute the pipeline to avoid certain sites sacred to the community, but it will still cross Hare Krishna land.

50 States

South Dakota passed legislation shielding religious adoption agencies from state penalties for refusing to place children with same-sex couples and single parents on religious grounds.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has been sued for refusing to hire a Seventh-Day Adventist prison guard because of her religious requirement to abstain from work on the Sabbath.

Community

Bomb threats continued to target Jewish Community Centers. Interactive map of the 91 incidents (as of Sunday) here.

Four mosques have been burned down across the country in the last six weeks.

A Sikh man in Washington and two Hindu Indian immigrants in Kansas were shot in separate incidents apparently after being mistaken for Muslim immigrants.

Other Reads

NPR gave a fair analysis of the ongoing conflict between freedom of religion and the prevention of LGBT discrimination.

The numbers on refugee entry during the immigration ban, with fewer Muslim refugees than previously.

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.