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.

Jun 11: Marches against Sharia, Supreme Court upholds pension exception for religious hospitals

National

ACT for America, a conservative national security grassroots organization, staged Marches Against Sharia across the US on Saturday. The group was protesting the supposed infiltration of Islamic law into American jurisprudence.

That claim – along with others touted by marchers, such as wild accusations of bestiality – is refuted by experts.

Most cities with marches saw counter-protests calling for tolerance and condemning ACT as Islamophobic.  A number of protests got physical and arrests were made in several states.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in favor of religious hospital systems claiming exemptions from federal pension fund requirements. They were being sued by former employees who argued that the hospital networks should have complied with the ERISA law protecting employees with pension plans.

The Supreme Court declined to hear a religious freedom suit filed by a Marine. After being court-martialed on several offenses, she appealed over her conviction for disobeying orders to remove bible verses from her desk. Lower courts ruled against her.

Executive Branch

President Trump spoke at the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative evangelical political organization. He said that he and evangelicals are under siege, and touted his Supreme Court nomination and executive orders on religion as steps in the right direction.

The Atlantic ran a profile of the man running the Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights. He is religious, conservative, and the son of Colombian immigrants. His office oversees language, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation cases related to healthcare.

Secretary Ben Carson spoke at the Religious Liberty Dinner at the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center. He discussed the rights of private citizens and businesses to act according to their beliefs.

Congress

Bernie Sanders drew attention for his intense questioning at a senate confirmation hearing. He argued that the belief that members of other religions are condemned before God makes a nominee unable to serve all Americans fairly.

50 States

A District Court in Florida ruled against a Christian school that was denied the use of a stadium loudspeaker to broadcast prayers at a football championship game. The school claimed that freedoms of speech and religion were violated, while the court held that allowing use of the loudspeaker would have been state endorsement of religion.

A Montana court struck down a state rule eliminating tax credits for donations to religious school scholarships.

Other reads

Number of megachurches by state.

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 21: Samuel Alito on religious freedom, Clock Boy loses discrimination case

Judicial Branch

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito spoke at a seminary graduation on Wednesday, touching on religion and the first amendment. The Catholic school’s blog also interviewed him about his perspective on religious freedom.

A District Court dismissed Ahmed Mohamed’s discrimination lawsuit. Mohamed gained attention as “Clock Boy” when he was arrested at his high school after his homemade clock was mistaken for a bomb. The judge dismissed the lawsuit saying that religious and ethnic discrimination was not proved by the plaintiffs.

A District Court in California ruled against animal rights advocates suing a Jewish group. The group practices Kapparot, a ritual where a chicken is swung around the head while alive, then slaughtered and donated to the needy.  The advocates unsuccessfully argued against animal sacrifice for solely religious purposes.

Executive Branch

President Trump is on an ambitious trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Vatican City, where he will meet with religious leaders from three major world religions.

The White House plans to nominate Callista Gingrich, wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as ambassador to the Vatican. The Gingriches are devout Catholics

A legacy court case over FBI surveillance of Mosques may impact the ongoing challenge to President Trump’s travel ban. If a ruling comes down soon, it will set precedent that may guide the 9th Circuit in deciding if the travel ban was discriminatory.

50 States + territories

The Kansas Court of Appeals ruled against a mother who claimed that the state’s use of a religious organization for child placement services violated the separation of church and state.

A new law in Puerto Rico will take effect on May 25th. For the first time, employers in the territory will be required to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious practices, including participation in religious services.

Community

Two California men who attacked a Sikh man, cutting his hair and causing the amputation of a finger, were convicted of hate crimes.

A New Jersey teacher was reinstated after his 2013 firing for giving a Bible to a curious student.

Other reads

Gallup shows Americans’ views of the Bible over last 40 years. In the latest survey, a record low of 24% believe it is the “actual word of God to be taken literally.”

The Wichita Eagle has an interesting analysis of the relationship between mental illness and religion.

The New York Times asks if Muslims have to be Democrats. Muslims face a dilemma between a Trump-led Republican party with Islamophobic overtones or a socially liberal Democratic party.

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 30: President Trump’s first 100 days see greater religious intolerance

President Trump

In his first 100 days, President Trump has kept some of his promises related to religion, religious freedom and the separation of church and state. His supporters hope the remainder will be fulfilled shortly.

The Anti-Defamation League said anti-Semitic acts have increased by 86% since Trump was elected.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said Islamophobic incidents at US borders have increased by 1,035% in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency

Trump spoke at the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day event in the Capitol, condemning anti-Semitism in his remarks. The well-regarded speech was an important opportunity to mend relations with the Jewish community after criticism during the campaign and his first months in office.

New research from Pew indicates that white evangelicals who regularly attend church are twice as supportive of Trump as the general population.

Executive Branch

Trump may nominate Richard Grenell, a longtime US spokesman at the UN and foreign policy operative, as NATO Ambassador. It is unclear how Trump’s base will perceive Grenell, who is a gay man and a staunch evangelical Christian.

A Sikh man’s multi-year effort to join the Army may have been an important factor in the recent changes allowing soldiers to get permanent accommodations for religious dress and grooming.

Judicial Branch

A group of Mormon scholars filed an amicus brief against Trump’s immigration ban. It uses the precedent of federal discrimination against LDS immigrants in the 19th century.

50 States

Alabama passed legislation allowing adoption agencies to maintain faith-based policies on child placement. In particular, this allows religious agencies to not place children with same-sex couples.

The Amish countersued the government of Minnesota for fines and other sanctions leveled against them as a result of their refusal to install sewage systems.

Community

The San Diego Public School District created a plan for combating bullying and harassment of Muslim students.

Israel indicted the Israel-American teenager who earned money on the dark web by robocalling bomb threats into Jewish organizations in the US.

Other Reads

A high-profile prosecution of a Muslim physician who performed female genital cutting “procedures” on two Muslim girls in Michigan has prompted questions about whether the practice is religious or not. The Religious News Service has a thorough explanation. (Warning: explicit verbal content).

Progressive churches in Montana sponsoring refugees have encountered strong pushback from more conservative congregations.

The media/blogosphere has been discussing the possible rise or inevitable decline of a “religious left.” The Auburn Seminary in New York organizes politically liberal faith leaders to work for progressive causes.

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.