Author archives: Natalie Pugh

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.

Religious Freedom for Bakers is Common Ground for Most Americans

by Natalie Pugh

November 13, 2017

The Cato Institute published their Free Speech and Tolerance Survey for 2017 at the end of October. In their research, they asked over 2,000 United States citizens about their opinions on free speech. Their study revealed that 50% of Americans think businesses with religious objections should still be required to serve those who identify as gay and lesbian as a general rule (which the wedding vendors who have been sued are happy to do), but 68% believe a baker should not be required to bake a custom wedding cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony. These results show that, at least on this issue, Americans can identify and support a genuine desire to live according to one’s religious beliefs.

The survey also revealed that most Americans feel that political correctness is preventing important discussions (71%) and feel afraid to voice their opinions (58%). Additionally, while an overwhelming majority (79%) of Americans find hate speech “morally unacceptable,” only 40% believe the government should prevent public expressions of hate speech.

If most Americans believe in the value of free speech, even to the point of allowing hate speech, why is there so much outrage over speech in our society? The problem lies in the conflicting ideas of what Americans find offensive. In the survey, people’s answers followed closely to party values. Despite their support for free speech as an idea, most strong liberals (51%) think it’s acceptable to punch Nazis; and most conservatives (53%) support revoking citizenship status of individuals who burn the American flag. While both sides of the political spectrum would like to punish specific speech that they find offensive, they need to recognize that taking away free speech would hurt each other equally.

There is no clear consensus on what classifies as “hateful” or “offensive” speech among Americans. A majority of liberals (59%) think saying people who identify as transgender have a mental disorder is hate speech, however the majority of conservatives disagree. While 39% of conservatives think saying the police are “racist” is hate speech, only 17% of liberals agree. Given the highly partisan viewpoint that individuals are placing on speech, any laws to censor speech would be completely dependent on which political party was currently holding a majority on Capitol Hill. This would destroy the basic principle of free speech.

The right to speak freely is a foundational right of our nation. It allows citizens to voice their displeasure with our current government, society, or situation, and through dialogue, devise a plan for improvement. Without this right, citizens would lose the ability to hold their government accountable or merely express their opinions, as the party in power could suppress the spread of any ideas they disliked. This could have devastating effects on Americans’ right to assemble, right to protest, freedom of the press, and religious freedom.

Has society already destroyed the acceptance of free speech? A majority of Americans are afraid to publicly voice their opinions. It’s not hard to imagine why when 59% of Democrats believe employers should punish their employees for offensive Facebook posts. However, freedom of speech is still a constitutional right for every American citizen. While an argument for censorship can sound convincing in today’s divisive climate, it is important to remember the equality that freedom of speech gives to each citizen.

Ultimately, we need to remember the origin of the Bill of Rights that our Founding Fathers fought so hard to achieve. Being occasionally offended is a small price to pay to ensure freedom of speech for all citizens, regardless of their political party. 

The Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration: What It Got Right and What It Got Wrong

by Travis Weber , Natalie Pugh

October 3, 2017

Earlier this month, religious leaders of various faiths met at the Beverley Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles to celebrate the newly signed Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration—a notable document because it is a proclamation supporting some degree of religious freedom sponsored and backed by a majority Muslim country.

While the majority of Bahrain’s population is Shia Muslim, most of its government positions are held by Sunni Muslims. In addition, there are small numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Jews all living in the country. Against this multi-religious backdrop, the religious freedom declaration was backed and signed by the King of Bahrain.

What did the declaration get right?

This document makes a lot of statements worth celebrating. First of all, it declares that “religious faith and expression are inalienable rights” which provides the foundation for promoting religious freedom. In Part II, it rejects forced observance of a religion and claims that every person has the right to practice their religion as long as they do not harm any others in the process. Part III focuses more on the harm that has been done in the name of religion and condemns all terrorist activities such as “the sowing of terror, the encouragement of extremism and radicalization, suicide bombing, promotion of sexual slavery, and the abuse of women and children.” The religious rights and responsibilities established in Part IV state that individuals have a right to practice their religion and the government has a responsibility to protect citizens of all religions. Overall, these are all commendable statements that seem to show a genuine interest in protecting religious freedom.

Where did it fall short?

While the document expressly states that it does not condone compelled religion, it still does not allow Muslims the freedom to convert away from their religion, as it is illegal to proselytize Muslims in Bahrain. While Part II recognizes the freedom to choose one’s faith, this is conditioned on submitting to the laws of the land. What happens when the laws of the land prohibit conversion, such as in the case of Bahrain and many other nations with Islamic teaching reflected in their laws? These Muslims still don’t have religious freedom in spite of this declaration, and neither do non-Muslims have the freedom to share their faith with Muslims.

Other portions of the declaration are meandering and vague. For instance, while the goal of Section III is admirable and the specific activities listed are reprehensible, this section’s condemnation of certain activities does not have a fixed and clear target. Instead, the list is prefixed with the statement: “Any act that is found morally repugnant by the vast majority of mankind and is insulting to our collective moral conscience cannot be part of God’s revealed will.” Yet religious expression should not be censored by the fickle morality of the majority.

Another statement of concern is the admonition that the clergy teach that “extremism is not holier than moderation.” Extremism and radicalism have become synonymous with terrorism and therefore are evil words in modern rhetoric. But the words themselves need some context to have any meaning. In some ways, being “extreme” is good. For example, before he gathered many supporters, William Wilberforce was quite “extreme” in his campaign to abolish slavery. He might have been termed “extreme,” but it it was a noble cause motivated by his Christian faith. It didn’t matter that not many were on his side. Spiritually speaking, being extreme is a fundamental part of being a Christian. We are called to be on fire for Christ; being lukewarm or moderate is not enough (Revelations 3:15-16). What is extreme to one is moderate to another, and vice versa. “Extreme” may not always correspond to “evil,” and the declaration needs more context to make sense of this point.

The Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration is only a statement of intent. Even though it was signed by the king, it is not a legally binding document. Yet it is a good start. Later this year, a team of lawyers will meet to work on turning the declaration into actual laws. Hopefully, the laws they write will fix some of the ambiguity and flaws in the original declaration. If that happens, we may see a platform which could serve as a source for some reform on religious freedom within the Islamic world. Until then, all we can do is hope and pray.

Travis Weber is the Director of FRC’s Center for Religious Liberty. Natalie Pugh is an intern at FRC.

Archives