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 2: Supreme Court rules churches are eligible for government funds, agrees to hear case of cake for gay wedding

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in a case over a church’s eligibility for grants from the state for secular purposes. The issue at hand was a state grant to resurface playgrounds. The case could have significant implications for other instances of government funds ending up with religious organizations.

The Supreme Court vacated rulings of lower courts in New Mexico and Colorado on the provision of public vouchers and textbook lending to religious schools. The cases were sent back to the lower courts.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of a Denver baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple.

The Supreme Court significantly narrowed the injunctions on Donald Trump’s travel ban, allowing the executive order to block the entry of foreigners from the six listed countries who have no “bona fide” relationship with persons in the US. It also agreed to hear the challenges to the ban, accepting appeals from the 5th and 9th Circuit Courts.

Executive Branch

A new Justice Department report found that only 54% of hate crimes from 2011-2015 were reported.

50 States

A Ten Commandments monument was installed at the Arkansas State Capitol. The ACLU announced plans to sue for its removal. The monument was destroyed by a vandal less than 24 hours after installation.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution is not violated when donors get tax credit for donating money that ends up at religious schools. Under Georgia law, taxpayers who owe taxes can get credit for paying what they owe by instead donating to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to students. Some of those students attend religious schools.

A Florida court held that religious schools can require all students to be immunized, even if they have religious objections.

Community

Jewish marchers were asked to leave a parade the day before Pride Day in Chicago because they carried “Jewish Pride” flags, which incorporated the Star of David. The organizers interpreted the flags as symbols of Palestinian oppression.

Other reads

A new survey was released on the tension between religious freedom and sexual freedom, and which Americans think should be preferred. 48% said religious freedom is more important, while 24% said sexual freedom is. 20% said that religious believers are motivated by hate in disputes over sexuality.

Are CrossFit gyms and yoga studios filling the church gap for non-religious people?

BuzzFeed looks at what clothes people from different faiths wear to worship.

 

Jun 18: Hand scanner and the mark of the devil, Lyle Jeffs arrested

Judicial Branch

The Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of a Christian coal miner who objected to his company’s use of a biometric hand scanner. He believes the scanner imparts the Mark of the Beast from the Book of Revelation. The company accommodated two employees with hand injuries but refused to give an exception to the plaintiff, so he left the company. The employer’s defense argued that the plaintiff’s interpretation of the Bible was incorrect, and should have allowed him to use his left hand.

The Supreme Court case last week exempting religious hospital systems from pension regulations didn’t fully resolve the issue. The Court ruled that “principal-purpose” organizations qualify for an exemption, but did not address whether or not the plaintiffs qualified as principal-purpose organizations.

Executive Branch

Lyle Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, was captured by the FBI after a year on the run. He is wanted in connection with a food stamp fraud case. Jeffs is the younger brother of Warren Jeffs, his predecessor as leader of the polygamist Mormon sect.

President Trump’s proposed tax reforms could significantly reduce charitable giving, including to religious organizations.

Other reads

A new paper breaks down political affiliations of clergy across faiths. It finds that the clergy are more partisan than their members.

The LA Times ran a story about what it is like to live as a Sikh at a time when they are increasingly targeted in hate crimes.

Apr 23: Justices favoring church in Trinity v Comer, may strike down Blaine Amendment

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Trinity v Comer. At issue is Missouri’s Blaine Amendment, a rule disqualifying religious groups from receiving publicly available funds that other organizations can receive. Missouri has a program to provide recycled tires for playground flooring, but denied Trinity Lutheran church’s application for the material.

Although the new Republican governor has allowed Trinity’s application to proceed, both sides urged the court to continue with the case to address future policy changes. In oral arguments the justices appeared to favor the plaintiff. A decision is expected in June.

Executive Branch

The Defense Department nearly doubled its list of recognized religions. It includes humanism and earth-based religions for the first time.

Federal Courts

Judge John Noonan of the 9th Circuit passed away, opening up an opportunity for Donald Trump to make another influential judicial appointment. Noonan was appointed by Ronald Reagan. The 9th Circuit stopped Trump’s first executive order on immigration.

US Steel Tubular Products was ordered to pay $150,000 for religious discrimination. It refused to hire a Nazirite applicant whose religious beliefs prevented a lock of his hair being cut off for a mandatory drug test. (*Note – I’ve been unable to uncover exactly what his religion is/was, but it seems related to Rastafarianism).

A gay man fired from his position as music director in a Catholic church lost his suit to be reinstated. A district court ruled that the position falls under the ministerial exception.

A federal judge issued policing and housing injunctions against two FLDS-dominated towns. Due to a majority of residents being members of the polygamist Mormon sect, they have been able to control law enforcement and housing regulations to the detriment of outsiders. The judge denied the Justice Department’s bid to disband the police force, instead mandating an independent mentor to advise on policy revision.

50 States

An atheist lawmaker sparked debate in Arizona for giving a legislative invocation that focused on nature, not God, as a higher power.

Idaho is one of four states that allow religious exceptions for the requirement to seek medical treatment for children. A local sheriff is concerned about the minors that die from preventable causes because of their parents’ faith healing beliefs.

Community

There are two cases of female Muslim athletes whose wearing of the hijab could have prevented them from competing. High school basketball player Je’Nan Hayes will be able to participate in playoff games after a rule that kept her on the bench for regionals was changed to allow her headscarf. Boxer Amaiya Zafar is expected to receive a waiver for her next fight, but must continue to request waivers before each match.

A transgender man sued a Catholic hospital in California for denying him a hysterectomy as part of his gender transition.

A Jewish woman sued a white nationalist for online harassment and inciting threats against her and her family.

Charges were dismissed against a faith healing pastor in Pennsylvania whose granddaughter died from a preventable illness.

Other reads

A compelling editorial argues that there is a double standard for violence linked to religion. Muslims are called terrorists, but Christians are just criminals. The author asserts that toxic masculinity is more to blame for mass shootings than religion is.

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 19: New travel ban blocked on religious freedom grounds

Executive Branch

Trump national security advisor Sebastian Gorka was alleged to be a member of a Nazi-allied group in his native Hungary.

Judicial Branch

President Trump’s new, revised travel ban has been blocked by courts in Hawaii and Maryland. Both courts found that previous administration statements provide clear evidence that the ban is intended to target Muslims, which is a violation of the first amendment’s establishment clause. Lawfare has an in-depth legal analysis of this argument.

Five 9th Circuit judges wrote a dissenting opinion criticizing the block on the original travel ban, arguing that the executive branch has the power to stop admission of aliens to the US.

A 3-judge panel on the 11th Circuit ruled against a fired lesbian security guard. The decision stated that the law does not protect individuals from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

Community

Sanctuary churches are at risk of prosecution for harboring illegal alien.

Life has changed for Latino Muslims under the Trump administration.

A Pennsylvania pastor was charged with medical neglect leading to the death of his granddaughter. The sect he leads eschews medical treatment in favor of faith-based healing, and has been linked to dozens of child deaths over decades. This is the first time one of its leaders has been charged.

 

A Jewish court ruled that a new Jewish-owned pizzeria could not serve the same type of pizza as a neighboring, preexisting restaurant. The rabbinical decision was issued in Hebrew and Aramaic and drew on a Jewish law preventing unfair competition.

Other reads

An explanation for why some evangelical Christians in America feel like they’re under attack.

CNN gives a thorough analysis of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s religious background and its manifestation in his writings.

The Atlantic discusses America’s growing secularism and how it is exacerbating partisan politics. Less religious people appear to be more politically extreme.

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.