Author archives: Travis Weber

Judge to Public University: You Must Allow Pro-Life Views

by Travis Weber

February 16, 2015

In a bit of good news, a federal district court judge in Alabama has rejected a public university’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit brought by pro-life students alleging that they were denied permission to demonstrate based on their views.

The university reportedly told the students in an e-mail:

As you know, your organization advocates for a position that involves political and social controversy. Placing the crosses in proximity to Shelby Hall carries with it an implication that the College of Engineering endorses that position.”

Yet this “political and social controversy” was due to the students’ position on abortion. If the university was concerned with “controversy” connected to the topic of abortion, it might be able to prohibit all speech on that topic in certain areas on campus. But if, as alleged, the university was actually targeting the “controversy” arising from pro-life views, it would be targeting these pro-life students for their position on the issue of abortion, and would thus be engaged in view-point discrimination—something the government is strictly prohibited from doing. As the court noted:

The plaintiff has evidence that permission was denied because the plaintiff “advocates for a position that involves political and social controversy.” The Court agrees with the plaintiff that this e-mail constitutes evidence that Mitchell and Steadman denied permission due to the plaintiff’s viewpoint (“position”) on abortion (pro-life). Because it was clearly established in February 2014 that such viewpoint discrimination violates the First Amendment, Mitchell and Steadman cannot receive qualified immunity with regard to these denials.”

Thus the students’ free speech claims will be allowed to proceed. At a time when free expression is often marginalized, it is good to see such clear and straightforward application of free speech law by courts, and observe the First Amendment doing what is designed to do—promote free expression and the exchange of ideas.

American Sniper and the Restoration of Man

by Travis Weber

February 11, 2015

Why has American Sniper struck such a chord with the American public? No doubt in part this is due to the incredible storyline and cinematography, but other factors are certainly at play in such a blockbuster hit. While critics have scrutinized various aspects of Chris Kyle’s story, something within us is still attracted to a man with integrity (that term being defined as consistency between one’s beliefs and actions). As Kyle heads off to war in Iraq, backing-up his fellow countrymen as a sniper, his simple conviction about the importance of defending good against evil—and his willingness to act on that belief—is attractive to the viewer. His skill as a sniper, and record as the all-time crack marksmen in U.S. military history, almost become secondary.

As Owen Strachan notes at the Patheos blog, this movie has “struck a chord” because:

We are in an age that does not want to believe in manhood, at least the traditional kind. Men are not supposed to be strong today. They are not supposed to lead their families. They are not supposed to take ownership of provision for their household. They are not supposed to be fearless. Modern men have had their innate manhood bred out of them.

As a result, many men today don’t want to sacrifice for others. They want to be nice, and liked by everyone, and to win the approval of their peers.”

Against this backdrop, American Sniper is a rather shocking entrée. It presents a simple man who lives by a black-and-white moral code. He is traditional. This is not existential manhood; this is non-existential manhood. Kyle does what he thinks he should do, and does not second-guess himself. He believes that he should use his God-given strength and ability to defend the weak and defeat the wicked. He believes, in fact, that there are wicked people in the world. He is not afraid to say so. He is not afraid to act on this conviction.”

Yet, “Kyle was no wilting flower. He was not a perfect man. He knew this. He was rough around the edges, he sometimes shot off his mouth, and he had a tough time with rules. In other words, he was a classically aggressive man. Our culture wants to anesthetize such men, to stick a tranquilizer in them and dose them up on medication to tame their natural aggression.”

Strachan continues, “[t]his is not what the church advocates, however. The church gives men a vocabulary for their aggression, their innate manliness. It funnels their God-given testosterone in the direction of Christlike self-sacrifice for the good of others (Eph. 5; 1 Tim. 3). It does not seek to tame men, or ask them to become half-men (or half-women). It asks them to channel all their energy and aggression and skill into the greatest cause of all: serving the kingdom of the crucified and risen Christ.”

Moreover, as men lead in this way, it is attractive to women. Strachan notes the presence of a number of young women in the movie theater, presumably excited to see this man in action.

Women are attracted to a man on this journey in which he fights courageously for Christ.

For Christ “was fearless. He was brave. We don’t know how big his shoulders were, or how handsome he was, or how fast he could run. We do know that he laughed in the face of evil, and gave no quarter to his opponents, and did not apologize for claiming that he was the way, the truth, and the life. Even as death took him down, he struck a climactic blow against the kingdom of darkness. He crushed it. He ended the reign of Satan, and began the true reign of the Son of God. Jesus was not a pacifist. He was a conqueror, and he will return to judge the quick and the dead.”

At that point, this “true man, who redeemed us, will lead us into a world where heroes do not die, but live forever with their God.”

Until that time, Chris Kyle’s conviction can help serve as a reminder of what conviction truly means.

Atlanta Mayor Steps up Disparaging Attacks on Chief Cochran

by Travis Weber

January 29, 2015

Last week, Chief Cochran lodged a complaint (known as a “charge of discrimination”) with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging that the City of Atlanta discriminated against him for his religious beliefs when it fired him after he authored a book on Christianity which mentioned homosexuality.

Information emerging publicly to this point (such as the city’s own admission that no one has even alleged that Chief Cochran ever treated anyone unfairly based on their sexual orientation) reveals the chief’s already-strong case for religious discrimination. Chief Cochran’s allegations in his complaint only bolster his case:

After the complaint was filed, the city quickly released the following statement in response.

Former Chief Cochran filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and declared under penalty of perjury that the statements in the charge are true and correct. Unfortunately, the only truthful portions are his statements about his tenure as Chief and the identity of those in the room with him during two meetings. Everything else is patently false.

The City will respond directly to the EEOC at the appropriate time to inform the agency that instead of “unspecified policies,” Mr. Cochran was informed at the time of his suspension that he had failed to follow the City Code in seeking to engage in an outside income-producing venture. He was also informed that the issue was not the religious nature of his book, but the fact that he was espousing theories about certain groups of people that were in conflict with the City’s policy of inclusiveness. He was further informed that there was an issue with his espousing these beliefs while identifying himself as the Atlanta Fire Chief and while falsely claiming that his job description required him to run the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department on the basis of these beliefs. Finally, Mr. Cochran was informed that distributing the book to members of his command staff in the workplace was improper and sent a message to his staffers that they were expected to embrace his beliefs.

Although Mr. Cochran continues to claim that the City Ethics Officer authorized his publication of the book, that claim is as untruthful today as it was when first uttered. Mr. Cochran was told that the City Code required him to get the approval of the Board of Ethics before publishing his book, something he admits he never did.

Mr. Cochran states in his EEOC charge that he was told his faith influenced his leadership style and that this was the reason for his termination. What he was actually told was that his distribution of a book about his beliefs within his department had caused his employees to question his ability to continue to lead a diverse workforce.

The religious nature of his book is not the reason he is no longer employed by the City of Atlanta. The totality of his conduct—including the way he handled himself during his suspension after he agreed not to make public comments during the investigation—reflected poor judgment and failure to follow clearly defined work protocols.

Mr. Cochran continues to make false statements and accusations, even under penalty of perjury to the EEOC. This is just further proof that he has shown himself to be the wrong person for a leadership role in the City of Atlanta.

The city’s response reveals several things:

  • The fact that the city feels it needs to immediately and publicly respond to this complaint shows that the city is aware of the public importance of this debate. Typically an immediate public response to a legal filing is more general and cursory than the city’s here. Typically specific and targeted responses like the city’s first appear in the legal response. Yet the city is coming out swinging, which shows it realizes that this public debate over Chief Cochran matters. The city’s behavior here is unusual because now these statements can be used against the city if it contradicts them at all in future legal proceedings (this is typically why lawyers don’t want their clients to talk). Perhaps the city realizes it is losing this battle though, and it is scrambling to catch up a diffuse public support for Chief Cochran.
  • The viciousness of the city’s response (accusing Chief Cochran of committing perjury, and the sharpness of the city’s language in disputing him) reveals the nerve that the EEOC complaint touched.
  • The city is very sensitive about this being perceived as religious discrimination, but that’s exactly what it is. Specifically, the city says Chief Cochran’s religion is not at issue, but that his “theories about certain groups of people” are a problem—as if those two can be divided. Aside from the fact that this misrepresents Chief Cochran (he didn’t say anything about “groups of people” but spoke of a variety of sexual conduct that any one or more persons may engage in), the city is trying to parse something which can’t be parsed. The chief’s orthodox and faithful Christian views on sexuality are what inform his views of a variety of sexual conduct, including but not limited to homosexual conduct, which he believes (in concert with historic and orthodox Christian teaching) departs from God’s standard. The city is trying to ignore the fact that faithful Christianity directly informs views on sexuality. When the chief is punished for these views, he’s being punished for his religion. Thus this case has everything to do with religion.

If the city forces Chief Cochran to modify his views of sexuality as part of his discussion of his religion in his book, it is forcing him to deny and suppress the expression of his religion. Whatever the city wants to say, this case is all about religion.

Tarnishing Freedom in Georgia

by Travis Weber

January 28, 2015

It is reported that down in Georgia, opponents of individual rights and personal freedom are ratcheting up their smear campaign against proposed religious liberty legislation known as the “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act,” which is designed to ensure that individuals’ consciences cannot be easily trampled by intrusive government regulation.

A web page titled “Better Georgia” purports to state concerns with the legislation, House Bill 29, but is filled entirely with omissions and misrepresentations regarding H.B. 29 and how religious liberty law actually works. Let’s fact-check some of its ridiculous claims.


This bill would open the door to people who would use their religion to opt out of laws from child welfare to discrimination. It would lead to legal chaos over whose religion is more important in the eyes of our courts and lawmakers. The legislation would give criminals who abusetheir children or spouses a new excuse and make it even more difficult for police officers to put abusers behind bars.”

Veracity Level:

False. Child abuse is evil, and no one defends it. However, it is indeed offensive for Better Georgia’s out-of-state backers to imply that religious believers in Georgia are to blame for such abuse. Moreover, no religious freedom laws, including H.B. 29, permit people to “opt out” of child welfare laws, nor do such laws allow people to abuse their children.

Better Georgia had better check its fact-checkers.

The truth is that under H.B. 29, as with any strict scrutiny application to religious claims, an individual first has to prove they have a sincere religious belief, which has been substantially burdened by the government action in question. Only then can the claim move forward. Even then, if the government can show it has compelling interest in burdening the religious practice, and has done so through the least restrictive means, it is allowed to burden the religious exercise in question.

Thus, H.B. 29 does not automatically permit religious claims to win, but does provide a method for sincere conscientious objectors to be protected, while winnowing out those using religion as a pretext to escape application of general laws. This standard has been used in constitutional law for decades, and has been applied to religious claims for over 20 years under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), without any of the alleged “concerns” and “fears” RFRA opponents point to.

In its 1990 decision Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court significantly restricted free exercise rights, holding that laws infringing on religious exercise did not violate the First Amendment as long as they were neutral and generally applicable. In Smith, an individual sought and was denied unemployment benefits by the State of Oregon because he used peyote—a criminalized, controlled substance—yet he claimed his use of peyote was a religious practice protected by the Free Exercise Clause. The Supreme Court rejected this claim, holding that if a neutral and generally applicable law (such as the uniformly applicable criminal law in this case) happens to infringes on religious practice, such a law does not violate the Free Exercise Clause.

Many rightly saw Smith as a reduction in the protection afforded religious liberty, and the reaction to the Court’s decision was overwhelming. In 1993, a coalition of groups from across the religious and legal spectrum—from the Southern Baptists to the ACLU—came together to urge Congress to pass a law restoring strong protections for free exercise claims. The political support for such a law was also overwhelming, including strong backing from Democratic Congressional leaders such as Senator Ted Kennedy and Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Jerry Nadler. RFRA was passed unanimously by the U.S. House, 97-3 by the Senate, and signed into law by President Clinton. In over 20 years that the federal RFRA has been in existence, there is been no documented pattern of abuses such as those no claimed by the opponents of H.B. 29. As others have asked, where are these alleged child abusers and discriminators who are supposedly walking away from criminal charges under RFRA? They simply do not exist.

RFRA never was and should not be a partisan issue, as it protects those of all faiths and political persuasions. A review of RFRA and free exercise case law reveals its benefit to everyone from Muslims to Jews, Christians to Santeria adherents, and Native Americans to more obscure sects (among others), as they seek to protect their beliefs and consciences from being burdened by an ever-more intrusive government. Moreover, RFRAs cut across racial and social lines, and apply in a variety of factual scenarios, such as property disputes, restrictions on caring from the homeless, conscience objections to abortion, and restrictions on using controlled substances in religious ceremonies. They are not fact-specific. They are not race-specific. They are not religion-specific. And they are not political party-specific.

Despite this fact, many will attempt to manipulate the clear text of the law for partisan aims. Even a group of law professors writing in opposition to the bill can’t conceal their political agenda. They write:

The Federal RFRA, however, arose in a political context very different from the current one. The Federal RFRA responded directly to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), which many people perceived as a significant setback in constitutional protection for the religious liberty of vulnerable minority faith groups. The coalition that supported RFRA included Democrats and Republicans, people of all faiths, and groups that cared generally about civil liberties.”

So what these law professors—who might purport to neutrally explain the law and not promote partisan views—openly admit is that they only care about certain religious rights. Moreover, they imply that the people who supported RFRA in 1993 cared about “civil liberties” while those who support it now don’t. The truth is that some of those who supported it then still support it now. Shameful. These professors might as well just admit they are elevating their political preferences over the equal application of a neutral law. In addition, their position purporting high-minded concern that H.B. 29 might “invite” discrimination is contrary to a proper understanding of First Amendment law and its strict scrutiny standard (which RFRA codifies). The Supreme Court has consistently held that First Amendment rights are to be elevated over nondiscrimination principles—in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual Group of Boston (pertaining to free speech) and in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (pertaining to freedom of association).

Indeed, the text of H.B. 29 itself reveals an open-mindedness and neutrality which is at opposition to such political posturing, and at odds with the narrow-minded, politically-charged misrepresentations being thrown around on the internet by Better Georgia. Before unquestioningly getting on the bandwagon, everyone needs to take a deep breath and look at what actually is going on.

The alleged “incidents” highlighted by these scaremongers at Better Georgia are exactly that—scaremongering. The case of the toddler in Canada who died after severe application of Seventh-day Adventist dietary rules (aside from the issue that this is anything but a “pattern” of behavior) would not be an issue under H.B. 29 or any similar law—the government has the most compelling of interests in preventing deaths of children. The religious liberty claim would therefore flatly fail in that case. Rather than highlighting one scaremongering scenario which occurred in Canada, these purveyors of smear could focus on instances of suppression of religious practice closer to home. Georgians know better, as they recognize the threats illuminated by Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran’s termination due to his religious views.

Indeed, Chief Cochran’s recent firing clearly illustrates the threat to religious expression which is alive and well at home in Georgia. Despite the city’s assertion that Chief Cochran’s religion is not at issue in his termination (while his “discrimination” allegedly is), the city is trying to disconnect two areas—Chief Cochran’s religious beliefs, and human sexuality—which cannot be disconnected. The chief’s orthodox and faithful Christian views on sexuality are what inform his views of a variety of sexual conduct, including but not limited to homosexual conduct, which he believes (in concert with historic and orthodox Christian teaching) departs from God’s standard. The city is trying to ignore the fact that faithful Christianity directly informs views on sexuality. When the chief is punished for these views, he’s being punished for his religion. His case has everything to do with religion, and reveals the hostility to religion present in Atlanta.

Moreover, Better Georgia’s “example” of the Canadian child abuse scenario reveals a deeper issue—sloppy analysis and a lack of critical thinking. Better Georgia links to a story about a religious believer’s alleged child abuse, yet fails to point out that no religious claim was even brought in the case. Of course, the fact that this “example” took place in Canada with its entirely different legal system was lost on the group too. It’s almost as if Better Georgia has scoured the web for any information it can find which links bad things happening with religion. The group certainly has not come up with a legitimate example showing any serious danger of H.B. 29.

Even the group’s touting of an opinion piece by a Georgia district attorney misses the mark. The examples in that piece involve criminal prosecution for child abuse without any discussion of a successful religious defense. Child abuse and other cases involving bodily harm to human beings are prosecuted routinely nationwide every day. These take place in states with laws like H.B. 29. Yet how often have we heard about successful religious freedom defenses to such prosecutions? Why can’t Better Georgia or any of its opponents point to any?

The reason they cannot is that such defenses are not successful. Multiple courts in multiple states have held that preventing child abuse is a compelling government interest. Georgia courts have already held that the state has a compelling interest in the welfare of children. As noted above, under H.B. 29 and similar laws, the government can burden religious beliefs when it has a compelling government interest. In failing to discuss this point while asserting the dangers of H.B. 29, District Attorney Cooke has misrepresented the danger of the bill and needs to revisit his analysis.

Another “case” cited by H.B. 29 opponents is a situation involving parents beating their son to death. According to Better Georgia, these parents might be able to walk away from criminal charges because of H.B. 29. Not only is this an absolute distraction from the issue, but it is an insult to Georgians’ intelligence that they might consider H.B. 29 to legitimately offer a defense to such actions. Better Georgia claims “abusers will be able to hide behind religion in court.” Really? How would they do that under H.B. 29? This group, which is shamefully playing on Georgians’ fears based on cooked-up nonexistent situations, has not pointed to one legitimate explanation of how this scenario would be permitted under the strict scrutiny standard laid out above.

Indeed, Better Georgia does not even highlight any attempted legal defense using a religious freedom claim. The fear that there would be one appears nonexistent. Yet, sadly, this simplistic reduction of how religious freedom law works manipulates human passion and deliberately confuses in order to promote division and hatred of religious people—based entirely on misrepresentations. Better Georgia should be ashamed. Georgia does deserve better.

It’s unclear what Better Georgia is even specifically basing its claims on in these alleged “concerning scenarios.” Perhaps it is looking at language in Section 50-15A-3 to exclude the bill’s application to parental rights regarding “the care and custody of such parent’s minor children.” But any simple reading of this provision reveals that it is stating the area of parental rights as it currently exists is to be left unrestricted by the additional protections of H.B. 29. Therefore, the state will continue to be able to regulate parental rights as it currently does, and this bill does not alter that. Indeed, H.B. 29 notes that these parental rights issues are to be left unrestricted “as provided for under the laws of this state and of the United States.”

Yet the Better Georgia “advocacy” does not stop there. Alas, more fact checking is needed.


Georgia House Bill 29 would provide a free pass for business owners who believe homosexuality is a sin to openly deny gay Americans employment or service.”

Veracity Level:

False. Neither H.B. 29 nor other similar laws applying strict scrutiny to claims of religious exercise give anyone a “free pass.” As pointed out above, the religious liberty claim has to go through multiple hurdles before receiving protection under the law. Moreover, the evidence of such “free passes” being permitted is simply nonexistent. A cursory evaluation of how other similar laws have been interpreted reveals no “free passes.” Indeed, it is notable that Better Georgia can’t even cite to one instance of a business owner “openly deny[ing]” such service!

For these same reasons, claims that the Michigan RFRA will “let EMTs refuse to serve gay people” and that the Arizona and Mississippi RFRAs from previous years are “right-to-discriminate” bills are completely misleading. When people are provided with a proper understanding of strict scrutiny’s application to religious claims, they can see that those making these “free pass” arguments are engaged in baseless fabrication.

More fact-checking is needed.


A restaurateur could deny service to an out-of-wedlock mother, a cop could refuse to intervene in a domestic dispute if his religion allows for husbands beating their wives, and a hotel chain could refuse to rent rooms to Jews, Hindus or Muslims.”

Veracity Level:

False. Indeed, the opposite is true. The protections in H.B. 29 are the very protections needed to ensure the exercise of all religions—whether Jews, Hindus, or Muslims—is protected. If the smear campaign had cared to accurately represent this point, it would have seen that only this month, the U.S. Supreme Court protected a Muslim inmate’s right to religious practice under the same strict scrutiny standard in RFRA’s cousin—the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Indeed, H.B. 29 and similar laws protect religious exercise regardless of religion. These laws do NOT discriminate, nor do they discriminate between religions, but protect individual religious claims under the framework explained above. Moreover, they protect religious exercise in a variety of situations—such as the Texas RFRA’s protection of those seeking to feed the homeless—which are not cited in this attempt to incite hatred against religion. Any simple reading of the law will reveal all this. But apparently Better Georgia did not even do that.

RFRA never was and should not become a partisan issue, as it protects those of all faiths and political persuasions. Thankfully, some liberal organizations are willing to more fairly represent it. Aside from what Better Georgia thinks, all Americans of political persuasions and religions who care about individual expression should be supporting H.B. 29. The bill’s text and our own judicial system’s well-grounded history of analyzing religious claims lend support to this conclusion. Meanwhile, Better Georgia’s conclusions have no support whatsoever.

The Supreme Court, prisoner rights, religious liberty, and human dignity

by Travis Weber

January 20, 2015

Today, in Holt v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion (authored by Justice Alito) holding that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLIUPA”) provided a Muslim inmate the right to exercise his religion by growing a ½ inch beard.

Like RFRA, RLIUPA applies strict scrutiny to prisoners’ religious rights claims, and provides that the government may not burden prisoners’ religious exercise (even through a law of general applicability) unless the government can show that the burden furthers a compelling government interest by the least restrictive means.

In this case, Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, wished to grow a ½ inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Prison policy only permitted ¼ inch beards, however, and even then only for medical reasons. The Arkansas Department of Corrections (“DOC”) did not dispute the sincerity of Holt’s belief, or that its regulation burdened this belief.

However, the DOC argued that it had a compelling interest in its policy in order to prevent contraband in the prison, and that it advanced this interest through the least restrictive means.

While the Court agreed that correctional facilities have a compelling interest in eliminating contraband, it disagreed that the DOC’s policy here advanced that interest, noting that not much could be hidden in a ½ inch beard. Additionally, the Court observed that if a ½ inch beard could hide contraband, a prisoner could also hide contraband in his hair (which could be longer than ½ inch). Indeed, contraband could be hidden in longer hair (or in clothing) much more easily. Yet the DOC did not require prisoners to go around with shaved heads or without clothing. The DOC contended that the ½ inch beard requested by Mr. Holt is longer than the ¼ inch beard permitted for medical reasons, but the DOC has failed to show how this ¼ difference would cause a security risk. In addition, the DOC argued that few inmates request medical exemptions, while many would request religious exemptions. But the Court rejected this reasoning because the DOC had not argued that its refusal to allow religious exemptions was based on cost control or for administrative reasons.

While Justice Alito recognized that deference is due to prison officials’ policy decisions because of the unique and dangerous environment in which they operate, he also noted that such officials still must be held to RLUIPA’s statutory requirements. They did not meet those requirements in this case.

Moreover, as the Court noted, even if the DOC could show this compelling interest was advanced by its policy, it was not advancing it via the least restrictive means. For instance, its security concerns could be satisfied by searching Mr. Holt’s beard rather than making him cut it. The DOC already searches all prisoners’ hair and clothing; why couldn’t it search a beard just the same? The DOC argued that guards could be cut by razors while searching a beard, but they could also be cut during searches of hair and clothing. Even assuming that searching a beard is unsafe for guards, the DOC never showed why it could not have Holt run a comb through his beard to search for contraband.

The DOC also argued it could restrict beards because it had a compelling interest in preventing prisoners from disguising their identities, and escaping or avoiding capture. While the Court did not disagree that the DOC has an interest in quickly and efficiently identifying prisoners, the DOC had not shown why it could not take photos of prisoners so they could be identified with and without beards. The DOC also argued that while this method may work with escaped prisoners, photos would be unhelpful in preventing prisoners from quickly shaving and entering restricted areas in prison. Yet the Court was unpersuaded by the DOC’s arguments; in its view, the DOC failed to explain why the photo method would not work when it had worked at other prisons, and failed to show how a prisoner with a ¼ inch beard for medical reasons could not also pose the same security risk as that purportedly posed by Mr. Holt.

The Court observed that while deference to prison officials is justified, blind deference is not. While the DOC is not required to show in every respect why it has not adopted the procedures of other prison systems, its rejection of them without a good reason is persuasive evidence of its failure to meet RLUIPA. The Court made sure to point out that this does not put prisons in an impossible position; they still have reason to restrict religious practices when they are being used to cloak prohibited conduct or abused in a manner which undermines the prison’s compelling interests.

While the Court was unanimous, Justice Ginsburg took the opportunity to write a one-paragraph concurring opinion (which Justice Sotomayor joined) stating she joined the Court’s opinion with the “understanding” that “[u]nlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, … accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.” This statement likely refers to Justice Ginsburg’s belief that the successful RFRA claim in Hobby Lobby “harmed” women seeking contraceptives, while Mr. Holt’s claim does not. I disagree with Justice Ginsburg on this point, but I’ll reserve that discussion for another time.

Showing some sympathy to prison officials, Justice Sotomayor also wrote a concurring opinion in which she emphasized her understanding that the Court was not repudiating the idea that prison officials’ justifications should be offered some deference; rather, the Court was rightly skeptical of the justifications offered in this case. Indeed, the DOC’s “failure to demonstrate why the less restrictive policies [Mr. Holt] identified in the course of the litigation were insufficient to achieve its compelling interests” was what was ultimately fatal to its case, not the Court’s “independent judgment” of these matters. In addition, “least restrictive means,” in Justice Sotomayor’s opinion, did not mean that government officials need to consider and reject every conceivable alternative to satisfy RLUIPA; rather, they must consider the alternatives posed. In this case, the DOC failed to do that.

The Supreme Court ruled correctly in holding that Mr. Holt’s right to religious exercise under RLUIPA was violated because the DOC could not show it was advancing a compelling government interest, or that it was doing so through the least restrictive means.  RLUIPA clearly sets forth the hurdles the government has to overcome when burdening a prisoner’s religious beliefs, and the DOC failed to meet them here.

But this case is significant for another reason: It affirms our belief that religious liberty is intricately connected to and flows from our inherent human dignity. It cannot be taken away from us, even if we are imprisoned. While prisons have legitimate interests of their own, incarceration does not eliminate the fundamental human right of freedom of religion.

This case is a win for Mr. Holt. But the next time an inmate (perhaps with different beliefs) is facing some other burdensome regulation, he’ll be able to draw support from Mr. Holt’s precedent. In this way, a bulwark of religious liberty protections continues to be built, one component at a time. As it is said, a win for religious liberty for one is a win for religious liberty for all. 

At the Supreme Court: A Small Church and a Big Case

by Travis Weber

January 13, 2015

On January 12th, I attended Supreme Court oral arguments in a case—Reed v. Town of Gilbert—which will determine how easily the government can restrict signs giving directions to church services. Specifically, the Court is set to decide whether, under free speech protections of the First Amendment, a local government’s mere assertion that its sign code (despite on its face discriminating based on content) lacks a discriminatory motive renders the sign code content-neutral and justifies the code’s differential treatment of signs pointing the way to a church’s meeting location.

In this case, the Town of Gilbert had divided signs up based on whether they were ideological, political, or directional—and imposed different restrictions on each category of sign. Good News Community Church in Gilbert, Arizona, and its pastor, Clyde Reed, sued, claiming that signs pointing the way to their Sunday morning service (which contained religious speech and directions, and thus resulted in them being placed in the directional sign category) were treated less fairly and that this unfair treatment violated the First Amendment.

At oral arguments yesterday, both sides received their fair share of questions, but the justices were noticeably more skeptical of the town’s argument—especially its claim that it could severely restrict a sign containing ideological content announcing an event if the sign also included directions to that event, while at the same time easing restrictions on a sign containing the same exact ideological content and yet lacking directions.

The town attempted to defend itself by arguing it had an interest in preventing roadside clutter arising from numerable directional signs. But then it admitted it was granting preference to ideological and political signs because of the special First Amendment protection offered them, which prompted questions from the justices asking how the town was not impermissibly discriminating based on the content of the signs.

A breakthrough moment occurred when the town’s counsel admitted under questioning by Justice Breyer that the town could put up a sign saying: “Come to the next service next Tuesday, 4th and H Streets,” but could not add “three blocks right and two blocks left” to that same sign because that would make it a directional sign. Justice Breyer’s response: “Well, my goodness. I mean—I mean, on that, it does sound as if the town is being a little unreasonable, doesn’t it?”, pretty well captured the justices’ view of the case.

The justices will now consider the legal issues and issue a written opinion deciding the case sometime before the end of June 2015.

While seeming more innocuous than some of the other high profile social issues which have reached the court over the last year or so, this case matters (significantly) to free speech law. It therefore matters a lot to Americans of all opinions and interests who want to take part in public debates and discussions over numerable issues in our country. Even if it doesn’t matter to them personally, it should—for it affects their legal rights under the First Amendment.

This issue is also incredibly important to the ability of churches to communicate when and where they meet, and will thus heavily impact their flourishing and wellbeing. Our local churches serve as nerve centers for communities of faith across America, and must be supported and allowed to prosper. For all these reasons, Family Research Council filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court last September asking it to rule in favor of Pastor Reed and Good News Community Church in this case.

As we argued in our brief, and as the church’s attorney argued before the Court yesterday, the Supreme Court should rule in favor of the plaintiffs and strike down the town’s ordinance here as unconstitutional. Such a ruling would not only protect the First Amendment rights of Pastor Reed and Good News Community Church, but those of any person or group our government wants to marginalize and silence in the public debate.

Family Research Council’s amicus brief in Reed v. Town of Gilbert is available here:

City of Atlanta: No orthodox Christians need apply

by Travis Weber

January 8, 2015

At a press conference held on Tuesday this week, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed fired Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Chief Kelvin Cochran. How did we get here?

One year ago, Chief Cochran wrote a book discussing orthodox Christianity, including a mention of how God views homosexual practice. The book had been around for a year, with no problems. Yet when one of Atlanta’s secret thought police secretly uncovered the not-so-secret book, a hullabaloo erupted. All the usual suspects contributed to a hearty round of hand-wringing and head-shaking.

Mayor Reed was “deeply disturbed” and indignantly proclaimed he would not tolerate such discrimination within his administration.

Unless that discrimination is against Christians, of course.

Perhaps the mayor should take up his feeling of being “deeply disturbed” with God. Chief Cochran was only quoting the Bible. He didn’t come up with the ideas he expressed.

The mayor’s office then opened an investigation because “there are a number of passages” in Chief Cochran’s book “that directly conflict with the city’s nondiscrimination policies.”

Well, who knew? The views one expresses in one’s own writings have to now conform to official city policies.

If this wasn’t bad enough, let’s turn to the chief’s firing. In a press conference held yesterday, the mayor claimed:

Chief Cochran’s “actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse workforce. Every single employee under the Fire Chief’s command deserves the certainty that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide employment decisions. His actions and his statements during the investigation and his suspension have eroded my confidence in his ability to convey that message.”

I want to make my position and the city of Atlanta’s position crystal clear,” Reed continued. “The city’s nondiscrimination policy … really unequivocally states that we will not discriminate.” Thus, according the mayor, any individual who violates that policy or “creates an environment where that is a concern” will notcontinue his or her employment withthe city government.

The only problem is: there is no evidence here of any discrimination whatsoever! There never has been.

In essence, the chief was fired by the mayor and his allies because (if they were honest) they “think he might discriminate against gay people.” Never mind there is zero evidence of any such discrimination. Simply put, no one can point to any adverse action Chief Cochran has ever taken against someone based on their homosexuality! If they could, we certainly would have heard about it, given the frenzied fears of “potential” future discrimination and a “possible” hostile work environment. But because that’s all the mayor and his allies have to go on, all we’ve heard about is the “possibility” of future discrimination.

This is a clear case of someone being eliminated from their position because of their views alone. This is even worse than other recent cases of disapproval of orthodox Christian views among public figures in the United States. Without exaggeration, we can say we have just seen the government monitoring personal expression for approval or disapproval, backed up by power of law.

But if he’s going to bury Chief Cochran, Mayor Reed needs all the ammunition he can get. So he scrambles, and tacks on another “justification”: “Chief Cochran also failed to notify me, as Mayor and Chief Executive of the City of Atlanta and his employer, of his plans to publish the book and its inflammatory content. This demonstrates an irreconcilable lapse in judgment.”

Never mind that Chief Cochran plausibly describes how he not only notified the mayor of his plans to publish the book, but provided him in January 2014 with a pre-publication copy for his review, which the mayor told him he planned on reading during an upcoming trip.

Reed didn’t even stop there. He claimed Chief Cochran published his book in violation of standards of conduct which require approval from the Ethics Officer and the Board of Ethics.

Never mind that, as Cochran reports, not only did the director of Atlanta’s ethics office give him permission to write the book, but he was also given permission to mention in his biography that he was the city’s fire chief.

Well, which is it, Mayor Reed? The “nondiscrimination” issue. Or the ethics issue? On the latter, the chief and mayor offer contradicting testimony. On the former, the mayor doesn’t even offer any evidence whatsoever!

These developments are likely to cause widespread consternation among Christians, but they should alarm anyone concerned about freedom of expression in general.

At the press conference, the mayor was in vehement and repeated denial that Chief Cochran was fired for his religious beliefs. The mayor would have us believe that “[t]his is about judg[]ment” and “not about religious freedom” or “free speech.” According to the mayor, “[j]udg[]ment is the basis of the problem.” But Mayor Reed knows he is wrong, which is why he is so defensive about there being no “religious persecution”—he clearly knows it is taking place.

In addition, the mayor was accompanied by his cabinet and Alex Wan (the city’s lone gay council member) at the press conference. If the issue is about ethics, why have the lone gay council member flanking you as you make the announcement? For that matter, why not have an ethics officer?

Indeed, the issue is about orthodox Christian views. And if it’s about “judgment” on the expression of such views, we are in a brave new world.

Chief Cochran must vigorously stand for his rights. All who care about the right to free expression without government intrusion and interference should stand with him, even if they disagree with him in this case. For when the law fails to protect one, it soon fails to protect all.

As we are reminded by Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who was an outspoken opponent of Hitler and ultimately was confined to a concentration camp:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

NOTE: Stand with Chief Cochran by signing our petition supporting him at

DC Council votes in support of forcing abortion coverage

by Travis Weber

December 18, 2014

Yesterday, the DC Council passed a bill called the “Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act of 2014,” which could force employers in the District of Columbia (including the Family Research Council) to cover abortions.

The actual language of the bill would prevent employers from “discriminat[ing] against” an individual with respect to the “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” because of an individual’s “reproductive health decisions.” The definition of “reproductive health decisions” includes but is not limited to “a decision by an employee … related to the use or intended use of … contraception or fertility control or the planned or intended initiation or termination of a pregnancy.” In plain terms, no employer would be able to say they don’t want to cover an abortion.

There is no exemption in the bill for any employer who might object to such coverage. This would have drastic consequences for a number of employers and organizations in the District who not only might object to such coverage on conscience grounds, but whose actual purpose for existing is to stop abortion because they believe it is a moral evil. This is the essence of a Freedom of Association violation – disrupting the very purpose of autonomous, private groups through legislative bulldozing tactics, thus rendering the groups’ existence meaningless.

Aside from this injustice, there are a number of legal problems with the bill. As pointed out by Alliance Defending Freedom, the bill would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Weldon Amendment, and the First Amendment protections of Free Speech, Free Exercise, and Freedom of Association.

Even the mayor’s office recognized the legal problems with the bill. Yet, more interested in ramming its policies down every District employer’s throat, the DC Council went ahead and passed the bill in defiance of the mayor’s concerns. One of the mayor’s concerns was a potential Equal Protection violation because the bill only addressed protections for women. In response, the Council reportedly added protections for men as well. That the Council would make this correction, and leave other groups who expressed religious and associational concerns hanging out to dry, only confirms the devious nature of the DC Council.

If following one’s conscience is to retain any meaning at all for those living and working in the District, the mayor absolutely must veto this bill!

Think Progress implicitly endorses Texas RFRA

by Travis Weber

December 12, 2014

Think Progress reported yesterday on a decision by the city of Dallas to revise regulations on feeding the homeless. These revisions, which made it easier to feed and care for those living on Dallas streets, were motivated by a federal court ruling last year in favor of several religious ministries desiring to take food to the homeless and feed and care for them wherever they are found.

Years ago, Dallas had cracked down on feeding the homeless and placed restrictions on how it could be done, and several Dallas area ministries and individuals who were impacted by these changes sued. The Think Progress report discusses these events:

After Big Hart Ministries Association and Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry sued the city, six years passed before a judge ruled that the law violated the charities’ religious liberties under a Texas statute. Wednesday’s City Council vote carries the judge’s logic further, softening the rules charities face and effectively ending Dallas’ effort to clamp down on on-the-street feeding programs for the indigent regardless of religious affiliation.” (emphasis added)

Big Hart Ministries Association, Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry, and William Edwards had sued under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). The Texas RFRA states that (1) sincere religious practices (2) cannot be substantially burdened by the government unless the government (3) has a compelling interest which it is (4) advancing by the least restrictive means possible. In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs had alleged that – in violation of the Texas RFRA – they had a sincere belief that their religion requires them to care for the homeless, and that the city was substantially burdening that belief by making it impossible to carry out with heavy regulations on feeding the homeless. Early in 2013, a federal judge ruled that the plaintiffs religious beliefs were indeed substantially burdened, and the city did not have a compelling interest in its regulations – thus, they violated the Texas RFRA. Finally, this past week, in response to this ruling, the Dallas City Council approved changes to regulations on feeding the homeless.

Think Progress does not refer to the Texas RFRA by name – but that’s the law which has benefitted the homeless in this situation. This is exactly what RFRAs – whether in Texas or elsewhere – are meant to accomplish: protect the exercise of sincere religious faith, in recognition of the valuable role it plays in society and benefits it brings to people around us. Furthermore, and contrary to many popular claims, RFRAs do protect religious exercise “regardless of religious affiliation.” A quick search of how the laws have been used in court will reveal that they have protected religious exercise for a variety of faiths.

It would be nice (and intellectually consistent) for Think Progress to extend this logic to other situations implicating RFRA. Indeed, the beauty of law is that it is blind to political preferences. This is why having RFRAs passed into law is so important to protecting religious freedom today. When religious freedom is diminished and made part of a political game, everyone suffers.

At Family Research Council, we fully support RFRA and what it stands for – protecting the exercise of faith for all in the face of often overreaching and too powerful governments.

To the business community: Religious freedom and you - perfect together

by Travis Weber

December 1, 2014

Writing at the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project blog, Samuel Gregg explores the idea – and idea for which new evidence is consistently emerging – that religious freedom is good for business.

Gregg begins by noting historically that as certain religious groups have been marginalized in political life, they have turned their energies toward commerce – and prospered. In other cases, certain groups have been marginalized in their nation’s financial life – thus handicapping the economy. This isn’t good for growth, obviously. Gregg then focuses his attention on the more recently discovered correlation between economic growth and religious freedom:

[T]here is growing evidence that respect for religious freedom tends to correlate with greater economic and business development. One recent academic article, for instance, found (1) a positive relationship between global economic competitiveness and religious freedom, and (2) that religious restrictions and hostilities tended to be detrimental to economic growth.”

Moreover, other rights and freedoms are not entirely unaffected:

[T]he strongest interest that business has in being attentive to the religious freedom of individuals and groups is the fact that substantive infringements upon one form of freedom often have significant and negative implications for other expressions of human liberty. If, for instance, governments can substantially nullify religious liberty, then they are surely capable of repressing any other civil liberty. This included rights with particular economic significance, such as the right to economic initiative and creativity, property rights, and the freedom of businesses to organize themselves in ways they deem necessary to (1) make a profit and (2) treat employees in ways consistent with the owner’s religious beliefs.”

He concludes by noting that, nevertheless:

[M]ore work needs to be done in this area. Correlation is not causation. While there do seem to be significant correlations between restrictions on religious liberty and the economic freedom of individuals and corporate bodies, the case for causation requires further elaboration.”

But, businesses take note!

If … the various forms of liberty are as interdependent as they seem to be, business surely has at least a high degree of self-interest in seeing substantive conceptions of religious liberty and the rights and protections associated with religious freedom prevail.”

Businesses take note, indeed.