Author archives: Travis Weber

Andrew Sullivan on Opioids: Pointing Us Toward God

by Travis Weber

February 23, 2018

Andrew Sullivan wrote a lengthy and illuminating piece recently digging deeper into the opioid crisis, in part by examining the attraction of the drug itself. One interesting aspect of the article was his observation about why opioids have been such a draw through the ages—they help us escape from pain, from reality. As Sullivan notes, if we simply attack the symptoms on the surface, we are missing a “deeper American story. It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it.”

For millennia, humans have searched for answers to life and the difficulty it brings. Some of these answers have involved God, and others have not. It is certainly clear that right now, America’s families have been hit hard by the opioid crisis.

Yet while we need to go to God, we often don’t, and we reject his advances. Like God trying to rescue us, the police officers trying to rescue the addict by administering antidotes “are hated,” for “[t]hey ruined the high.”

Marx’s claim that religion is the “opiate of the people” is old-hat. As Sullivan points out: “Opiates are now the religion of the people.”

We must go to God in our pain, not try to escape it by our own means—whether through opioids or otherwise. It must be said that prescription opioids (along with other pain management tools) can be used properly (like for the alleviation of chronic severe pain) alongside going to God in our pain.

Near the end of the piece, Sullivan again observes:

To see this epidemic as simply a pharmaceutical or chemically addictive problem is to miss something: the despair that currently makes so many want to fly away. Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many. Until we resolve these deeper social, cultural, and psychological problems, until we discover a new meaning or reimagine our old religion or reinvent our way of life, the poppy will flourish.

Indeed, in searching for “new meaning,” I believe Sullivan is yearning for God here, and I would point him toward the Good News: Though we have all strayed from and are separated from God (and part of this separation is pain), Jesus has paid the price for us to be restored to God. We just must accept him, choose to follow him, and submit our lives to him. This restoration then becomes our new eternal reality, even if we don’t see all its benefits immediately.

Sullivan continues:

We have seen this story before — in America and elsewhere. The allure of opiates’ joys are filling a hole in the human heart and soul today as they have since the dawn of civilization.

I would agree with this diagnosis, but only add that the medicine involves a spiritual element, most specifically the Good News discussed above. This is something Billy Graham, who recently passed away, would want us to remember. While the issue in all its facets is undoubtedly complex, it is clear that we must not neglect the spiritual aspect of the cure.

We as a nation need God, and need him publicly. Graham’s recent passing also reminds us of that. Let us remind ourselves again, and let us not forget it.

Fact-Checking Jimmy Kimmel on Christian Bakers: Two Big Errors, But Props for Trying

by Travis Weber

February 13, 2018

The other day, Jimmy Kimmel responded to a California Court ruling affirming Christian baker Cathy Miller’s First Amendment right to not be compelled to create a cake celebrating a same-sex wedding.

Here is a response to Jimmy Kimmel’s response, which I also presented on Facebook Live with our own Brynne Krispin (below).

First, I commend Kimmel for trying to tackle the issue, and for acknowledging the judge’s ruling in favor of the baker “sounded reasonable.” That’s a start.

But Kimmel then goes off track when trying to portray what happened.

In his skit, he plays a waiter who quizzes customers at his hypothetical restaurant, asking after they sat down but before serving them: “Are any of you gay?” After one woman says yes, he informs her his chef can’t make her a salad because he “believes homosexuality is a sin” (while offering her a salad made yesterday before “he knew you were gay”)—wrongly implying that the California baker did the exact same thing.

ERROR #1: Kimmel wrongly portrays business owners as refusing to serve people because they identify as LGBT

This is simply false. How many times do we have to say it?

What Kimmel portrayed is exactly what is NOT happening in the California case, Jack Phillips’ case, or any other.

Neither Cathy Miller nor any of the other Christians being dragged into court over this issue is quizzing customers to see who identifies as LGBT or not, and sending them on their way if they say they are gay. They are only drawing the line at creating items and sending messages which violate their conscience.

Nor is the issue when the item was baked; Jack Phillips and others are happy to sell a person identifying as LGBT cookies, cakes, brownies, etc.—whether made yesterday or today. Rather, the issue is whether the person of faith is being conscripted into using their talents in service of a proclamation against their will.

Indeed, in his brief to the Supreme Court, Jack Phillips clearly stated that he “would decline to create a wedding cake celebrating a same-sex marriage regardless of whether the customer is a same-sex couple or a heterosexual parent purchasing the cake” (emphasis mine). Yet at the same time, he “would celebrate a marriage between a man and a woman even if one or both spouses identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual” (emphasis mine).

In other words: this is not about the person; it’s about the message.

ERROR #2: Kimmel tells the story of the potential customers, but not the business owners of faith.

In doing this, Kimmel missed a big opportunity to tell the stories of business owners of faith like Jack Phillips and Cathy Miller—and how they are being harassed by government agencies and dragged into court over this issue right now.

So what should Kimmel’s skit have shown?

The waiter should have played the government and the customer could have played the wedding vendor, and it would have been largely on-point. Jack Phillips and others are simply seeking to stay in the marketplace (the table), yet the government is coming to them and telling them to get out unless they modify their Christian beliefs. This is also happening at the hands of the ACLU in Michigan, where Christian adoption providers have a seat at the table along with pro-LGBT providers. Yet the ACLU is suing the state to force the Christian groups to leave because of their beliefs.

Kimmel’s own skit helps show this. Near the end, he referenced a Hindu chef who didn’t want to prepare a steak for a potential customer because of his religious beliefs. Now, just imagine if that Hindu chef’s job had been to simply prepare vegetable side dishes, and then one day all of a sudden his boss tells him to start preparing steaks—or be fired. Cathy Miller’s story is like this chef’s, and it is a story that needs to be told. If Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t tell it, we gladly will.

Generation Z – Seeking Answers to Good and Evil

by Travis Weber

February 13, 2018

Generation X and Millennials are old news; we are now turning our attention to Generation Z, the youngest generation of all. One research outfit recently conducted a groundbreaking study of the way this group sees the world, including ultimate matters of life—faith, meaning, and the existence of God. (Though Gen Z is defined as those born between 1999 to 2015, for the purpose of this study only those between ages of 13 and 18 were included.)

When looking at differences between Christian and non-Christian members of Gen Z, the study’s authors report one of their major findings to be that “the problem of evil is a major barrier to faith” for 29 percent of non-Christian members of Gen Z.

While this finding is in a new study, the objection raised by Gen Z has been around much longer. Decades ago, British author and scholar C.S. Lewis, who was a non-believer for years during his youth, dealt with the problem of evil in his book The Problem of Pain. In its introduction, Lewis writes: “I never noticed that the very strength and facility of the pessimists’ case at once poses us a problem. If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator?”

Indeed, the reality that human beings are able to recognize evil at all shows us that we are comparing it to something else—that which is good. And if we acknowledge that we recognize we have a moral compass, we should ask where its reference point is.

By appealing to God (or against God) to correct those things which our moral compass tells us are off course, don’t we already recognize him as the source? And if he is the source, he exists indeed.

This may seem counterintuitive, but the fact that members of Gen Z are struggling over the problem of evil is actually a hopeful sign. In raising this objection, as Lewis once did, they show they are at least on the road to faith—as Lewis was as a young man. Let us pray and seek out opportunities to help them arrive at their destination.

Can the LGBT Movement Own a Phrase?

by Travis Weber

January 26, 2018

In response to a recent video from the ministry Anchored North featuring a girl named Emily explaining sin, forgiveness, and the truth about God’s view of sexuality, The Guardian published a story titled: “‘Love Is Love’: media firm uses LGBT language to send anti-gay message.”

Whoa, stop right there! Whoever decided that “LGBT language” was a thing? And who made who the arbiter of it?

Well, no one did, but the animated response of The Guardian reminds us of an important point: the LGBT movement has indeed been using language, very purposefully, to advance its goals over the years.

In its article, The Guardian reports: “At one point in the video, Emily uses the popular LGBT-affirming phrase ‘born this way,’ but twists it to say that all humans are born with sin, but there is hope in Jesus.”

Who gave the LGBT movement ownership of the phrase “born this way?” No one did, but they took it and used it. However, words are words, and they can describe things besides what the LGBT movement wants them to describe. Some of these things are sin, repentance, and forgiveness.

While it accuses Christians of twisting “LGBT language,” the Guardian piece simply regurgitates terms frequently twisted by the LGBT movement itself to advance its ends. Yet that movement has no monopoly on language. From the animosity shown toward this threat to its hold over certain terminology, however, one realizes the importance of emotive language and certain images to the LGBT movement achieving its ends.

As reported later in the Guardian piece, one woman responded to Emily’s story by saying:

Any attempt to change someone’s sexual or gender identity, even through something as subtle as prayer, is conversion therapy.” (emphasis added)

Let this be a cultural moment for Christians in America to wake up and mark the importance of language and how we use it, along with recognizing the seriousness of the opposition to the gospel and God’s truth displayed here. If Americans who share these basic Christian beliefs on sexuality think they can side-step the cultural battles, they need to remind themselves of the above woman’s hostility to even prayer being a solution. That should wake us all up.

Oregon State Appeals Court Rules Against Aaron and Melissa Klein

by Travis Weber

January 5, 2018

On December 28th, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled against Aaron and Melissa Klein, upholding a determination under state law that forced them to create a cake for a same-sex wedding against their consciences.

The court threw cold water on the Kleins’ First Amendment defenses, claiming that if it allowed them to proceed, then others seeking to defend racial discrimination through religious freedom claims would also be allowed to prevail.

The Court also goes overboard by accepting and recounting wholesale the feelings and perceptions of the upset same-sex couple, coloring bias into the entire narrative—while failing to do the same courtesy for the feelings and perceptions of Aaron and Melissa, who no doubt have been seriously harmed throughout this case. Moreover, Aaron and Melissa had to endure a barrage of hateful rhetoric directed at them as this incident developed, yet none of this is built into the court’s recounting of events, which ultimately supported highly excessive damages against the Kleins built on nothing more than the couple’s flimsy emotional narrative.

Yet there were a couple of bright spots in the opinion.

The one finding the court reversed was the part of the administrative ruling which acted as a “gag order” on the Kleins being able to speak about what happened to them. This finding was outrageous, and rightly reversed by the court of appeals.

Second, even though the court ruled against the Kleins’ freedom of expression claim, it recognized that to the degree such cake creations are artistic, they are very likely protected. Noting that “[i]t appears that the Supreme Court has never decided a free-speech challenge to the application of a public accommodations law to a retail establishment selling highly customized, creative goods and services that arguably are in the nature of art or other expression,” the court said that “[i]f BOLI’s [Bureau of Labor and Industry—the administrative entity which ruled against the Kleins] order can be understood to compel the Kleins to create pure ‘expression’ that they would not otherwise create, it is possible that the Court would regard BOLI’s order as a regulation of content, thus subject to strict scrutiny, the test for regulating fully protected expression.” This also “would be a different case if BOLI’s order had awarded damages against the Kleins for refusing to decorate a cake with a specific message requested by a customer (‘God Bless This Marriage.’)”

Well, the Supreme Court is about to decide this very issue in Jack Phillips’ case—Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission—in the upcoming months. When his case is decided, the Kleins’ case may be too. Indeed, at oral argument in Phillips’ case, the exact message “God Bless This Marriage” was mentioned by the justices as implicating protected expressive conduct (one wonders if the Oregon Court of Appeals specifically cited it in order to leave itself an “out”).

Finally, in another bright moment in its opinion, the Oregon Court of Appeals observed that the Kleins’ case (and therefore many of these wedding vendor cases) are unlike FAIR v. Rumsfeld, in which the Supreme Court said law schools must allow military recruiters (the military was under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy at the time) access to campus if they wanted to continue to receive federal funds. Opponents of the Kleins and others often claim their cases are like FAIR, and it was good to see the Court here dismiss that notion, observing that the law schools never objected to being forced to speak a message with which they disagree, while the Kleins and other wedding vendors do.

Despite these few promising points, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruling is a blow to freedom for all, and will only perpetuate the current culture war by suppressing the religious freedom of many people of good will who just want to live their lives in peace. The Kleins’ opponents could have easily obtained a cake from a nearby bakery, and the problem would be solved. Instead, once again, everyone has been dragged into years of litigation. Until a different approach to these conflicts is taken, we can only expect more of the same results.

Kicking Jesus Off the Bus?

by Travis Weber

December 13, 2017

Last week, a federal court ruled that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was permitted to reject an ad (pictured above) that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of D.C. wanted to run on the sides of area buses during the Christmas season.

Now why would such an ad be excluded?

In holding that WMATA’s commercial advertising guidelines (under which the ad was excluded) did not violate the First Amendment and could be permitted to stand, the court reviewed the guidelines under a standard for speech in nonpublic forums (which public buses are generally considered to be). For nonpublic forums, the government can discriminate based on content but not on viewpoint, and here, WMATA has a policy of not allowing certain types of content on its buses, including religious content.

While WMATA would be able to eliminate religious content from its buses, the Archdiocese had argued that WMATA was discriminating based on viewpoint because it was happy to have other Christmas ads which are religiously related and which convey the view that Christmas is a commercial holiday, but that WMATA didn’t want to accept the Archdiocese’s view that Christmas is noncommercial and should be focused on the gift of Christ (as the above poster does).

The court rejected this view, ruling that the bus guidelines did not discriminate based on viewpoint but only on content—noting that “religion is excluded as a subject matter.”

But is all of “religion” really being excluded? It doesn’t seem so. WMATA permits Christmas-related ads from the Salvation Army, and ads from a religiously-focused yoga group.

Yet, as the court recognizes later in its opinion, the guidelines prohibit ads that “promote” or “oppose” religious beliefs. The court relies on these guidelines to distinguish the Archdiocese’s proposed ad from ads by the Salvation Army and a yoga studio, which WMATA permitted despite their religious overtones, claiming they don’t promote specific beliefs. So it is not religion per se that WMATA wants to prohibit, but rather messages opposed to or promoting religious belief. And since the Archdiocese is understandably seeking to promote its own religious belief in its own ad which it would be paying for, WMATA declared it off limits (thus, the court’s comment that “religion is excluded”—seeming to refer to religion generally—isn’t even correct).

We should be especially wary of government restrictions on one’s viewpoint. They are the most dangerous at their core, and go to the heart of why we have the First Amendment. In ruling for WMATA here, the court observed that under the lower standard of scrutiny applied, the government could rely on administrative convenience and the avoidance of controversy as a legitimate basis to exclude ads—as it and other authorities have done in response to Islam-related ads (indeed, the whole reason WMATA and other authorities have chosen to lower the level of scrutiny they have to meet and eliminate whole areas of discussion from their buses is to avoid legally having to host controversial Islam-related messages—now, the same ad which has run in years past in the D.C. metro system is not being permitted on buses). But suppressing a message for fear of the response is the essence of the heckler’s veto, and is no way for a free country to act.

If for no other reason, this is perhaps why the courts should be inclined to rule for the Archdiocese here, and be loath to affirm any policy which could be used to justify views the government doesn’t like.

10th Circuit Lets Police Officers Off the Hook After Telling Woman She Could Not Pray in Her Own Home

by Travis Weber , Natalie Pugh

November 22, 2017

First Liberty, a non-profit law firm, recently filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court on behalf of their client, Mary Anne Sause, after the 10th Circuit ruled that the police officers who told her she could not pray did not clearly violate her rights. As recounted by the court, and alleged in her complaint, the police officers entered Sause’s house to investigate a noise complaint. When one officer left to search the house, an action he did not provide a valid reason for, Sause became frightened and asked the officer with her if she could pray. The officer said she could and Sause knelt on her prayer rug and began to pray. Once the other officer returned to the room he allegedly ordered Sause to get up and stop praying as he and the other officer began to mock Sause for praying and tell her that she should leave the state since no one liked her. As recounted, the behavior of these officers is reprehensible in multiple ways. Yet it is also troubling that the 10th Circuit let the officers off the hook for their actions in this case.

In its opinion, the court held that even assuming the police officers violated Sause’s First Amendment rights when they told her to stop praying, the officers had qualified immunity and therefore could not be held responsible.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects public officials, such as police officers, from liability if their actions did not violate a clearly established law or constitutional right. Because the specific circumstances of this case had never been presented to the 10th Circuit before, that court claimed the officers did not violate a clearly established law and were protected by qualified immunity.

Yet the right to exercise your religion, in this case the right to pray, is clearly established—in the Constitution. While it is difficult to expect police officers to perfectly understand the legal dynamics of every possible situation they might encounter with a civilian, and thus qualified immunity may be necessary in some contexts to allow police officers to do their jobs effectively, the violation in this case is nevertheless obvious and the officers responsible should not be allowed to hide behind qualified immunity.

It is essential that officers understand basic rights—including our First Amendment rights—named in the Constitution, which every student learns in public school. To claim that a police officer shouldn’t be expected to know that an American citizen has the right to pray in a context like that alleged in this case is a dangerous turn.

The Supreme Court should take up this case and declare to the nation that religious freedom is a vital constitutional right which should be respected by all public officials. No individual in a country which claims to protect the religious liberty of its citizens should ever be told that they cannot pray.

Why It Is Unnecessary to Force Jack Phillips to Bake a Wedding Cake

by Travis Weber

November 21, 2017

There are actually a number of answers to this question, but one of them is quite simple: because there are so many others nearby who are happy to do so.

One amicus brief filed in support of Jack Phillips by numerous law and economics scholars, including the esteemed Richard Epstein, makes this point quite nicely.

That brief points out that according to a search on Gayweddings.com, there are 67 other bakeries in the Denver area alone that are willing to create a same-sex wedding cake, including one that is only 1/10 of a mile from Jack Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop. Forty-two of these bakeries are shown below; notice where they are compared to Jack’s shop, marked by the orange circle:

Given all these shops that are happy to create a wedding cake for a prospective same-sex couple, is it really necessary to force Jack Phillips to be the one to do so?

While the prospective customers may be offended at Jack’s beliefs, part of living in a free country is that we interact with people who believe differently than us.

Yet they can easily travel nearby and obtain the cake from someone else—someone happy to help create it.

Meanwhile, forcing Jack Phillips to create the cake comes with the heavy cost of forcing him to violate his conscience or stop designing wedding cakes (and potentially go out of business).

Regardless of our personal views on the issue, that is not a vision of American “freedom” that any of us should want to be a part of.

 

Did the ACLU Hide the Ball and Rush an Abortion?

by Travis Weber

November 6, 2017

Based on the DOJ’s recently-filed cert petition before the Supreme Court in Garza v. Hargan, it appears that this is exactly what may have happened.

As you may recall, this was the case featuring an unlawful immigrant minor being held in the care and custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the legal question of whether the ACLU could force the government to turn her over to get an abortion. Last week, after the full D.C. Circuit unexpectedly stepped in and ordered the government to do exactly that, it did—and she got an abortion—but now it is looking like this series of events may have unfolded in a manner not entirely on the up-and-up.

As recounted in the DOJ’s cert petition, there was an exchange of emails between ACLU and DOJ attorneys about when and how Jane Doe (the minor girl) would be taken for counseling and then an abortion—which must be separated by 24 hours under Texas law. Here, the ACLU told the DOJ a counseling appointment for Ms. Doe would occur on October 25—an assertion on which the DOJ relied to conclude it still had time to file for an emergency stay before the abortion would occur on October 26. However, at the last minute the ACLU got the doctor who had counseled Ms. Doe the previous week to agree to do the abortion on October 25—and yet didn’t tell the DOJ. By early morning on the 25th, Ms. Doe had gotten the abortion, and it was too late for DOJ lawyers—left in the dark by the ACLU’s deliberate withholding of this information—to request an emergency stay. The question now is whether this conceal and coverup operation violated legal ethics rules.

The DOJ cert petition argues two main points:

  1. Because the ACLU unilaterally acted in a way that made this case moot (by taking Ms. Doe for the abortion) before the opposing party (the DOJ) had an opportunity to respond by being able to request an emergency stay from the Supreme Court, longstanding Supreme Court precedent requires the case to be dismissed with orders to lower courts to vacate their judgments.
  2. Related to the failure to inform the DOJ the abortion would occur the early morning of the 25th, the ACLU counsel may have violated legal ethical duties.

If the Supreme Court agrees with the first argument, this would be a positive development as it would wipe out the erroneous en banc D.C. Circuit ruling and require the district court to dismiss all the remaining abortion rights claims (though often skipped over in recent discussions, this case features a number of other unnamed minors whose abortion claims are being advanced by the court-appointed guardian, and the case would have continued even though Ms. Doe got an abortion). The second argument should be taken seriously for the simple reason that our legal system depends on it.

What is deeply scary, and beyond the legal banter of this case, is that the ACLU apparently had such a fervent desire to see Ms. Doe’s baby killed that it chose to walk in the shadows of concealment and deception to do so.

Vice President Pence Announces Relief for Middle East Christians

by Travis Weber

October 27, 2017

Several days ago, Vice President Pence announced that the Trump administration would address the needs of the Middle East’s Christian community directly, bypassing UN aid programs which have been largely ineffective in helping Christians affected by ISIS. Speaking before a gathering of the group In Defense of Christians, Pence stated:

Here’s the sad reality: The United Nations claims that more than 160 projects are in Christian areas, but for a third of those projects, there are no Christians to help. The believers in Nineveh, Iraq, have had less than 2 percent of their housing needs addressed, and the majority of Christians and Yazidis remain in shelters.

Projects that are supposedly marked “finished” have little more than a U.N. flag hung outside an unusable building, in many cases a school.

And while faith-based groups with proven track records and deep roots in these communities are more than willing to assist, the United Nations too often denies their funding requests. My friends, those days are over.

Our fellow Christians and all who are persecuted in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly. And tonight, it is my privilege to announce that President Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations. And from this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID.

We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups. The United States will work hand-in-hand from this day forward with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith.

This is good news indeed. While much of the focus in the Middle East has been on defeating ISIS, communities left devastated in its wake will need to rebuild and try to get on with their lives. For the Middle East’s Christian community, politically less powerful than other communities and often without a voice or advocate in the region’s larger decision-making, this is especially important. For too long, they haven’t received proper assistance in returning to their ancestral lands (the same lands the first Christians walked nearly 2,000 years ago), even while Iran and other power players try to come in and ply their influence in the vacuum created by ISIS’s defeat.

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