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.

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.