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.

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 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.

Jan 29: Trump bans some immigrants, wants to let Christians in

Executive Branch

President Trump signed an executive order on Friday banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, suspending refugee admission for 120 days, and mandating that asylum seekers of minority religions from those countries would be given priority. Trump later stated that the latter clause was to enable the prioritization of Christians.

The ACLU has the best summary of how various elements of the executive order may violate the First Amendment. The ACLU and others have filed suit.

There has been controversy over President Trump’s statement memorializing International Holocaust Remembrance Day (also on Friday) because it omitted any mention of Jews. The Administration responded that this was intentional.

Judicial Branch

A lawsuit has been filed in federal court over Bible study electives offered in Mercer County, West Virginia.

Three judges that could be nominated by President Trump to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

50 States

California has banned state-funded travel to four other states due to laws considered as discriminatory against LGBT people. The Kansas law in question enables college campus religious groups to require members to maintain religious standards. The Tennessee law allows therapists to reject clients whose goals contradict the therapists’ personal beliefs.

Queens College has been sued for rejecting the application of a pro-life student club. The club was later granted recognition, but the dispute is ongoing.

An Iowa security officer filed suit claiming he was fired because he used “In Christ” as part of his email signature.

A lawsuit was filed against North Carolina arguing that its sex offender law was unconstitutional – restricting registered sex offenders from, among other things, attending worship services.

A Texas state legislator is facing criticism over a “survey” he sent to Texas mosques, questioning if they support Shari’a law and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Local

New York City issued a complaint against a contracting company for discrimination against Muslim workers.

Other reads

A provocative op-ed in Time arguing that the Trump administration’s immigration policies could infringe on church ministries.

A senator in Australia proposed creating a central registry of officiators willing to perform a same-sex wedding, to avoid potential legal tension.

Jan 22: Religious Freedom Review, inauguration edition

Executive Branch

President Obama declared last Monday, January 16, to be Religious Freedom Day in addition to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Controversy arose over Reverend Robert Jeffress’ participation in the customary service attended by the Trumps Friday morning. Jeffress, a Southern Baptist, gained notoriety for his remarks about minority groups – particularly comments about Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. His sermon was taken from Nehemiah and focused on God’s support for “building the wall” around Jerusalem.

Donald Trump’s inauguration had the most prayers in US history, with three invocations and three benedictions. They were given by the first female clergy to pray at an inauguration, a Hispanic evangelical, an African-American pastor, Franklin Graham, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and a rabbi. The Christians were all evangelicals and two are associated with the resurgent “prosperity gospel” theology.

On his first full day in office, President Trump attended the traditional prayer service at the National Cathedral with representation from 26 faiths. Most were evangelical, but Islam, Baha’i, Navajo and other minority religious were also represented.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case testing a Blaine amendment in Missouri. Blaine amendments, which put restrictions on government funds going to churches, were passed in many states in the 19th century on a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment. This case concerns the state’s denial of Trinity Lutheran Church of Missouri’s application for a public grant to used recycled tires on its playground.

50 States

Texas Supreme Court reversed a previous decision by agreeing to hear a case seeking to halt benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees in Houston.

Nebraska is looking to overturn a ban on teachers wearing religious garb.

Illinois community college found not to violate student’s religious rights after removing him from his paramedic class because his religious beliefs prevented him from being vaccinated.

Local

A Muslim convert fired from her job at a New Jersey jail for wearing a headscarf lost her appeal. The court found that she was not being discriminated against, as accommodating the headscarf would be an undue hardship on the jail.

Amish men sue the city of Auburn, Kentucky, over a requirement for horses to wear “equine diapers,” which they say violates their religious beliefs.

Other Reads

A review of Obama’s frequent discussions of his personal faith, and particularly of Christian theology: “Theologian in Chief.”

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.