Author archives: Travis Weber

7 Points of Reflection: Responding to the Houston Mayor’s Press Conference Announcing the Withdrawal of the Subpoenas Targeting the Five Houston Pastors

by Travis Weber

October 29, 2014
  1. The mayor says the subpoenas were “legal, valid, and appropriate,” but is withdrawing them anyway.

No, they are not legal, valid, and appropriate. They requested irrelevant and privileged material, and had the purpose of harassing the pastors – these very qualities make them quite inappropriate.

  1. She says it is “extremely important” to protect her special rights ordinance.

What about free speech rights so essential to open democracy and religious liberty rights protected by the First Amendment? She didn’t mention it was important to protect these.

  1. She claims the pastors she met with (who were not the subject of the subpoenas nor authorized to speak on behalf of those who were) didn’t plan a “rally” to “attack me” or the city.

While she tries to paint herself as above the political fray, she’s the one who invalidated the signatures. At its heart, this entire situation is a political matter. She tries to separate her subpoena withdrawal from the politics here, but she ultimately can’t do this. It comes down to this – if the pastors had been speaking for the bathroom bill instead of against it, she’d be fine with that. This IS about political intimidation – no matter how much she says it isn’t.

  1. She cares about “broader concerns” implicated here so she dropped the subpoenas.

What about the “concern” of Houston citizens being able to democratically repeal a law they don’t like? That seems pretty “broad” to me.

 

  1. She says she had a good conversation about “rendering unto Caesar” with the pastors she met with (who, again, are not even the pastors who were targeted by the mayor’s office).

This isn’t a determination for her to make. Ultimately, this entire situation arose because the Houston 5 have not rendered unto the City what the City would like for them to – their views on sexuality.

  1. She believes she has “removed that discussion about freedom of religion from the local arena.”

No, she hasn’t. She’d prefer that “religion” have nothing to say about the versions of sexuality protected by HERO – the very thing which is driving the lawsuit – which she has vowed to defend. Thus her logic defeats itself.

  1. She also became defensive when asked why she wouldn’t just allow the citizens to vote on repealing HERO. She was asked a question expressing concern that the Houston 5 may still feel intimidated.

She attempted an answer, but did so unsatisfactorily. If the mayor wants to clear up the intimidation issue, she can allow the citizens she was elected to represent to actually vote on whether to repeal the ordinance – it’s that simple.

Federal Judge: Revised “Accommodation” for Religious Organizations Still not Good Enough

by Travis Weber

October 29, 2014

For the first time since the Obama Administration “tweaked” its HHS mandate “accommodation” this past August, a federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction blocking the government from enforcing the mandate on certain religious organizations. This is welcome news.

After the Hobby Lobby opinion came down, and after the Supreme Court issued its interim order in Wheaton College v. Burwell, the Administration revised it’s “accommodation” to permit religious objectors to HHS of their objection directly in addition to filling out the EBSA Form 700, if they chose. As we have argued before, however, this alternative step still leaves those with sincere religious objections in the position of having facilitated and played a part in matters which they believe are morally evil. The “revised accommodation” still forces these religious objectors to violate their conscience. Whether one government form is placed between them and the moral evil, they are still forced to take action which sets the objectionable activity in motion.

For this reason, we are heartened to see that Judge James Moody from the Middle District of Florida has blocked the administration from forcing its Interim Final Regulations on Ave Maria University, which had filed suit to avoid being forced to violate deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines. Judge Moody noted that the same consideration on which the 11th Circuit relied in granting relief for EWTN in Eternal Word Television Network, Inc. v. Sec’y, U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Services, 756 F.3d 1339 (11th Cir. 2014) earlier this year was at play here – imminent harm to a religious organization which would be forced to violate its principles of conscience once the organization’s insurance plan year kicked in and the HHS mandate applied. Judge Moody thus granted relief for Ave Maria University. The school’s freedom of religion is protected – at least for now.

Ministers: Beware

by Travis Weber

October 20, 2014

As if the over-stepping Houston major’s office subpoenaing sermons and other private communications of pastors wasn’t enough, we now receive news of two elderly ministers being told by city officials that any refusal to marry a same-sex couple could cause them to face up to 180 days in jail and $1,000 in fines for each day they decline to do so.

For many years, the husband and wife team of Donald and Evelyn Knapp have presided over wedding services across the street from the local county clerk’s office in Coeur d’Alene, a beautiful city in North Idaho. Now, they are told they have to conform to their city’s iron-fisted demand that they “marry” men to men and women to women.

In other words, from the city to the ministers: Your religious liberty doesn’t really mean a thing when it comes to the new sexuality; you must come into line in accord with our views. When the city says something related to human sexuality should be accepted, that’s the final word.

For years, we have also been told by gay-marriage advocates that no harm would come from legalizing same-sex marriages. No one would be forced to participate.

Yet it seems that day has arrived. Court-issued stays have been lifted, and gay marriages have started to proceed in Idaho. Now a minister is being told by his government that he must officiate at these “marriages.”

Now that we are past the point where we were told the gay-rights crusade would stop, should we expect it to just stop here? I’ve grown doubtful of such expectations, as the advocacy and pressure for acceptance continue full steam. No, this crusade will likely continue until all are forced to approve.

These developments have occurred incrementally. As Albert Mohler points out, “[t]his is how religious liberty dies. Liberties die by a thousand cuts. An intimidating letter here, a subpoena there, a warning in yet another place. The message is simple and easily understood. Be quiet or risk trouble.”

How true. We are more in danger of remaining apathetic to threats to our freedom when the individual threats just don’t appear to be a big deal. The danger is in the accumulation, though. Hopefully, for many, this latest “increment” will be too big to ignore.

In the name of religious rights for prisoners

by Travis Weber

October 7, 2014

Today oral argument will be heard by the Supreme Court in Holt v. Hobbs, a case in which a Muslim prisoner is seeking to grow a ½ inch beard in compliance with his religious faith. The prison policy at issue actually permits ½ inch beards, but only for medical reasons. For this marginalization of his religion, Mr. Holt has sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and is asking the Court to apply strict scrutiny (the same high standard of protection for religious rights required by RFRA and affirmed by the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby) and protect his religious rights in the face of a discriminatory prison policy.

Many see the importance of protecting religious rights for prisoners, including those who have personally benefitted and come to faith through access to religious programs in prison. My law school colleague Jesse Wiese, now advocating for prisoners at the Justice Fellowship, is one of these; he has written about his experiences in support of Mr. Holt’s religious claim in this case. A win for Mr. Holt under RLUIPA in this case will protect all prisoners, regardless of faith. Along with protecting a Muslim prisoner who wants to grow a beard to a reasonable length (in keeping with the prison’s need to maintain order and discipline), the application of strict scrutiny here will strengthen the law’s protections for Jewish prisoners seeking dress or grooming accommodations, or those seeking access to Bible studies in prison. As it is said, a win for religious freedom for one is a win for religious freedom for all.

Moreover, a win for Mr. Holt here will strengthen protections for religious exercise in public spaces in the United States, something that groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation just can’t stand. Religion always has occupied a unique role in the public life of our country. We can expect the Supreme Court to again affirm that principle with a ruling for Mr. Holt in this case.

FRC Files Amicus Brief in Reed v. Town of Gilbert

by Travis Weber

September 22, 2014

Today, Family Research Council filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

In this case, a Gilbert, Arizona sign ordinance discriminated against certain signs based on the content of the signs — whether they were political, ideological, and directional. Directional signs were placed under more severe restrictions.

A local church — Good News Community Church — and its pastor — Clyde Reed – needed to announce the times and locations of their services, but because their announcement signs (which directed individuals to a public school were services were being held) were deemed directional, the church was severely hampered in getting its message out.

Pastor Reed and Good News Community Church sued to vindicate their constitutional rights. The lower courts ruled against them, so they have now taken their case to the Supreme Court.

In our brief, filed in support of Pastor Reed and Good News Community Church, we argue that the town does regulate signs differently based on their content, for politics, ideology, and directions are all matters of differing content. Well-established Supreme Court jurisprudence bars content-based restrictions on speech unless the government can meet strict scrutiny — which says that unless the government regulation advances a compelling government interest, and this is done in the least restrictive way possible – the government regulation cannot stand. We conclude that because there are content-based restrictions on speech in this case, the Supreme Court should send this case back to the district court to determine if the town can meet strict scrutiny.

A win for Pastor Reed and Good News Community Church in this case will help advance a strong interpretation of First Amendment free speech rights, which is good not only for small congregations like Good News Community Church, but for all who wish to speak free from government interference. Ensuring an open marketplace of ideas in which all voices are protected and can speak freely is what the First Amendment is all about.

Our press release is here, and our brief can be read here.

A Tale of Two…Groups Which Voluntarily Relinquished their Freedom to Associate

by Travis Weber

September 3, 2014

Several days ago, the organizers of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade announced they will permit a group composed of gay NBC employees to march in their annual event with a banner identifying themselves as gay. By now, we are used to such tidbits of news. But this is significant for other reasons.

Back in the 1990’s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important free speech ruling in a case called Hurley v. Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston. In Hurley, the Court held that private associations communicating a message (through a parade, for instance) could not be forced to include unwanted groups in their parade, for this would compel the parade organizers to communicate a message against their will and make free speech and freedom of association protections meaningless. Such forced speech cannot be accomplished even in the name of eradicating discrimination, the Court held.

The Hurley case dealt with the Boston parade, but it settled almost the same issue for the NYC parade. Thus, the NYC parade organizers are not forced by law to do what they just decided to do – include the gay group and its banner. Nevertheless, they are doing exactly that. Thus, here we see an example of cultural pressure superseding legal requirements and causing a group to do what it isn’t required by law to do.

This same phenomenon occurred in the Boy Scouts of America v. Dale case and its aftermath. There, the Supreme Court held that the scouts were protected by the freedom to associate and did not have to permit homosexual scouts or scout masters. Despite being constitutionally protected, the Scouts reversed course in permitting gay scouts (while retaining the ban on gay scout masters). Alas, another high profile entity ceded to cultural pressure that which the law does not require.

Though these are only two situations, they are high profile matters which illustrate my point: it is highly important to address cultural trends over the long-term, and the thinking that underlies them, in addition to fighting legal battles and addressing matters through the legislature. These cases are monumental constitutional rulings, and many who still wish to speak freely can rely on them. But we can win great court battles and still lose the culture (as these cases illustrate) without properly addressing these trends at the roots. The “how” of addressing these trends is more difficult. One might start by studying how those advancing “anything goes” sexuality have been so successful over the past decades, and after properly understanding the context and our opponents’ messages, we can ascertain the best long-term language to communicate the importance of religious liberty and other issues. Only when we have acquired the proper ammunition for re-shaping our culture over the long-term, can we begin to use it.

A “God” that is not God; Victoria Beeching, love and acceptance

by Travis Weber

August 21, 2014

At First Things, Professor Robert George usefully explains internal viewpoints that are shaping external issues which are shattering our culture today.

The other week, Victoria Beeching, a well-known singer in the Christian music scene, came out and announced: “I am gay and God loves me just the way I am.” Ok, got it. But one understandable response to such a statement might be: “What makes you say that?”

In his article, Professor George looks to Plato’s description of the three forms of “atheism” — the belief that there simply is no God, the belief that God exists but doesn’t really care what goes on down here, and the belief that there is a God who sees what’s going on down here, but he is malleable and makes no demands of us. This third form, Professor George argues, is the biggest threat to the West today.

I would agree. Most acknowledge some sort of god, and many appeal to his existence regarding earthly affairs. While their appeals vary widely in form and substance, they still appeal to a god in some way, and thus recognize his relevance for our lives today. These facts dispense at the outset with the first two forms of atheism mentioned above. All one has to do is look to the appeals all around us and all over social media — “Jesus is love”; “Jesus never condemned anyone”; and Ms. Beeching’s “I am gay and God loves me just the way I am” etc., etc., to get a sense of the overwhelming prevalence of the view that God won’t tell you what to do, He just wants to hang out, and He loves you regardless of your actions. This view is of course convenient for human beings to hold (as Professor George points out), and ultimately places our authority over that of God — consequently removing Him from that station of authority in our lives which defines His very existence. God is thus obliterated, and our “god” becomes our desires.

No doubt some reading this will call me a “hate-monger” or some such term, and in doing so, will only help me prove my point. Nevertheless, I will point out, as it is important to do, that my communication of these truths is done in love. Of course, God’s love is all-encompassing and greater than we can conceive, but this does not entitle us to deny His truths and objective reality. A firm distinction must be made between loving the person no matter what he or she chooses to do (and we are all called to do that), but not enabling him or her to live according to a subjective reality based on one of these forms of atheism. It is no love which ceases to act to draw people into a right relationship with God (which is my desire) — but this can only be done by presenting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God.

For once and for all, I am telling you: “Sex” means “transgender,” and it also means “gender identity.”

by Travis Weber

August 20, 2014

You had better get with it. I’m not sure why people continue to insist that your “sex” is something integral to your created being, a function of your unique biological identity and who you were born to be — what an anachronistic concept. So says the Department of Labor (DOL), in a recent directive stating that the Department will now interpret “sex discrimination” to also include discrimination on the basis of “gender identity” and “transgender” status. The DOL relies on a 2012 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) decision stating as much, along with other “case law principles” which supposedly support this reasoning.

One theory on which the government relies here is based on “sex stereotyping” as a form of “sex discrimination” — because a male chooses to identify as female, the theory goes, discriminating against them constitutes a form of stereotyping how males are supposed to act, and thus constitutes “sex discrimination.” Such thinking is far-fetched to begin with, but even the legal issues are not as clear cut as the government would have us believe. For while other protected classes are clearly rooted in easily-identifiable inborn characteristics, “sex stereotyping” is based on one’s actions — thus individuals are not protected based on any “gender identity” status alone if they can’t show they were stereotyped, according to this theory.

In addition, the DOL points to the EEOC’s argument that “treating a person differently because the person is transgender is by definition sex discrimination because it is ‘related to the sex of the victim.’” But a person “is transgender” based on a choice not a biological reality, unless someone is prepared to introduce a new biological third category of sex, beyond male and female. Absent such a creation, being “transgender” is still only “related” to sex as an action taken with regard to one’s sexuality.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter even if the “case law principles,” (as the EEOC refers to them), support the government’s wishful thinking on human sexuality here. A person’s sex is not determined on our own, but by God who crafted us distinctly as men and women. We must recognize this truth and submit our sexuality to God for the purposes and ends for which he designed it. Anything else will only produce misery for us, for our society, and for our entire human race.

Genocide in Iraq

by Travis Weber

July 31, 2014

It is hard to ignore the disturbing reports emerging from Iraq which contribute to mounting evidence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) extermination of Christians and anything reflecting the Christian religion. Congressman Frank Wolf and others have spoken persuasively and forcefully on this tragedy. Yet judging by the actions (or lack thereof) of our president and the other leaders of the free world, one wouldn’t think much was going on in Iraq. However, the available evidence shows that ISIS’s extermination of Christians is one of the clearest cases of genocide since World War II.

What little President Obama has said about preventing atrocities in foreign lands has centered on the Responsibility to Protect – a relatively recent doctrine which is not clearly established or grounded in international law. While its validity can be debated, there exist clearer grounds on which to address the plight of Iraq’s Christians  – the obligation to prevent genocide contained in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948.

After the horror of the Nazi ideology and ensuing Holocaust was fully realized, the nations of the world gathered together, formed the United Nations, and affirmed they would never let such horrors happen again. The Genocide Convention laid down into international law a binding treaty arrangement in which contracting nations agreed to “undertake to prevent and to punish” genocide. As part of this obligation, parties could “call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action … as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.” Some argue that the “obligation to prevent” is not a clear, independent requirement of the treaty, but that argument is overcome by the clear language and purpose of the treaty, and a decision of the International Court of Justice holding that the treaty contains a clear, independent obligation to prevent genocide. Indeed, the whole point of the treaty was to prevent horrors like the Holocaust from happening again.

According to the Convention, genocide consists of “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” –

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

While only one of these acts is required to have genocide, ISIS clearly appears to have engaged in at least the first three acts listed above. It appears to have undertaken them with the “intent to destroy” Christians and Christian heritage in Iraq “in whole,” and at least “in part.” Christians are a “religious group.” If the elements of this crime are not met in this case, I’m not sure when they are.

The responsibility to prevent genocide contained in the Genocide Convention requires that the United States and other parties to the treaty act to prevent genocide when they recognize it is occurring. It is difficult to deny that genocide of Iraq’s Christians is currently underway. In other instances, nations have refrained from calling genocide “genocide” (such as in the Darfur region of Sudan several years ago, or in Rwanda in the early 1990s) out of fear of triggering their legal obligation to act to prevent genocide under the Genocide Convention. Is this the effect the treaty was intended to have? It is inconceivable that a mechanism designed to prevent future atrocities would be used as a reason to avoid denouncing those atrocities. Yet there is reason to believe nations have and will continue to operate this way.

While governments may try to craft arguments against their obligation if they do not want to address the issue, that will become more difficult as more facts come to light. The evidence from Iraq is clear – ISIS’ stated intent is to target Christians, which is a classification based on religion, one of the requirements for genocide. No nation which is a party to the Genocide Convention should be able to escape its requirement to act to prevent what ISIS is now doing to Iraq’s Christians.

Over twenty years ago, President Clinton hesitated to take decisive action to stop genocide in Rwanda. He avoided calling it genocide precisely because of the concerns expressed here – the United States would be obligated to do something if genocide was recognized. As a result, over a million lives were lost. Several years later, President Clinton went to Rwanda and admitted his error.

 

Yet this is precisely the point of the binding legal “obligation to prevent” contained in the Genocide Convention – it should not be able to be manipulated according to the shifting winds of foreign policy. It was always understood that binding obligations were necessary to prevent nations from wavering in the future when memories of the Holocaust started to fade.

The Genocide Convention was designed to prevent future horrors. Yet the nations of the world now stand by as genocide of Christians occurs before their very eyes in Iraq. All the elements of this crime are met, and we have an obligation to prevent it. What are we waiting for? That same question, which was asked of Nazi appeasers in the 1930s and President Clinton in the 1990s, will someday be asked of us about Iraq.

A Judge is Judged for Injudicious Behavior

by Travis Weber

July 16, 2014

I recently wrote about the depressing abuse of free speech in which a song writer decided to ridicule the Supreme Court justices in the Hobby Lobby majority opinion for nothing connected to the opinion whatsoever. Yes, of course. Freedom … .

Since then, a federal judge weighed in on his personal blog with his view that, instead of ruling on the issues in Hobby Lobby, the Court should “stfu” “shut the f*** up” in the parlance of some kids these days. Apparently, U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf of Nebraska believes the Court shouldn’t wade into issues to which he believes most Americans would react poorly. His reaction is the poor one, however. What’s worse is that it comes from a federal judge.

Therefore, I was heartened to see the news in the L.A. Times that he was being rebuked for his entirely improper behavior:

[A]fter coming under fire from fellow jurists and legal experts for writing a blistering criticism of the high court’s recent ruling in the Hobby Lobby case,” Judge Kopf was reported to comment that “[b]logging will be light while I figure this out.”

The L.A. Times is too kind, though. And imprecise. It wasn’t his “blistering criticism” of the decision that was problematic—it was his attack on other judges, his choice of words in that attack, and his crude rejection of the decision which betrayed any semblance of impartiality. Criticism of legal arguments and decisions occurs all the time and is a normal and even necessary component to our judicial system. What is not proper, however, is a personal attack. Neither is an overtly partial judge. But what is most troubling is Judge Kopf’s use of an obscenity. It has no place on the federal bench.

The judge, who also caught the attention of many earlier this year for inappropriate comments about a female attorney, apparently cut back on his recent blogging activity after receiving “a note from a lawyer he held in the highest respect who explained to him that people ‘expect judges not to be publicly profane, lewd or disrespectful.’”

Thank you, Mr. or Ms. Lawyer, whoever you are. You are a credit to the profession.

As the L.A. Times reports: “The incident raised questions about whether impartial, black-robed jurists can thrive in a blogosphere that often places high value on quick analysis and provocative comments.”

Exactly. Judges should simply refrain from blogging if they can’t resist the temptation. For now, I extend a hearty “thank you” to the attorney who took the time to explain to Judge Kopf that his behavior was indecent. Such actions preserve the integrity of the bar and the decency of our society.

Archives