Category archives: Religious Liberty

Seventeen Years Later, Controversy Emerges Over Painting of “Ground Zero Cross”

by Alexandra McPhee

January 14, 2019

In Camdenton, Missouri, a county commission is facing the threat of a lawsuit for a painting hung on a courthouse wall in remembrance of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A year after almost 3,000 people were killed in the worst terrorist attack on American soil, a local high school student painted an image of a firefighter and young girl pointing to the “Ground Zero Cross,” a cross-shaped steel beam pulled from the rubble of Ground Zero in New York City and mounted on a platform. After the attacks, rescue and recovery workers found comfort in this new memorial, and the Camden County community saw the painting as a marker for a period of renewed national unity after catastrophic loss of life.

Commissioners called a public hearing after an activist secularist legal group, Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), demanded its removal. Despite the specter of high legal fees to defend the painting in court, residents are holding fast.

What say ye, if it costs Camden County a tremendous amount of money. Does the painting stay?” a commissioner asked.

Most, if not all, hands were raised. Voices from the crowd shouted: “We have people in the hall, too.” “Raise my taxes!”

Legal arguments grounded on the so-called principle of the “separation of church and state” are based on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

FFRF argues that the painting’s depiction of a cross-shaped beam constitutes an endorsement of Christianity, and thus, a violation of the separation of church and state. It dismisses the fact that a federal appellate court held that the very Ground Zero Cross depicted in the Camden County courthouse painting passed constitutional muster after a challenge to its exhibition in the National September 11 Museum by another secularist legal group.

Recent letters released en masse by FFRF demonstrate that the group’s understanding of the Establishment Clause fails to account for Supreme Court precedent that grounds its reasoning in the original meaning of the text of the U.S. Constitution rather than cut-and-paste phrases from previous Court opinions. In Marsh v. Chambers (1983), Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012), and Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014), the Supreme Court shows that it is increasingly relying on legal history, which recognizes the role religion has played in our nation, to decide various government actions.

The Supreme Court has not made clear whether this look at historical practices will be the standard under which courts consider establishment clause challenges to religious symbols located on government property. Hopefully, this will change now that the Court is slated to decide whether a war memorial in the shape of a cross and maintained by a local government can stand under the Establishment Clause. We have submitted a brief in that case urging the Court to recognize the pivotal role of religion in society and commemoration and to let the cross stand.

But even under the most subjective legal standard, which the Court put forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) (looking at the primary effect of a government action, the purpose of the action, or the extent to which the action entangles government with religion), the courthouse painting passes muster. The local artist’s sister-in-law said it best: “I think it’s sad, that this many years later, we’re all here. I obviously see [a cross] . . . but I see it as a symbol of hope and a reminder to what we’ve lost.”

The Postal Service Stamps Out the Christmas Spirit

by Alexandra McPhee

December 26, 2018

Tavia Hunt was just trying to get into the holiday spirit when she decided to request through a private vendor a customized stamp with a family photo (above). Unbeknownst to Hunt, she made the mistake of choosing a picture of her family posing in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia.

Hunt’s request was denied. She was told that the photo was a violation of a United States Postal Service (USPS) regulation that prohibits “content that is unsuitable for all-ages audiences, including . . . [a]ny depiction of political, religious, violent or sexual content.” The cathedral, apparently, was too religious.

According to USPS, it aims to “to limit content to family-friendly images or text that would not cause concern among mainstream, multi-generational users of the mail.”

It’s a bizarre state of affairs when even arguably religious content is considered as unsuitable as violent or sexual content or as cause for “concern.” First Liberty Institute, which has filed a demand letter on behalf of Hunt, pointed out the irony that St. Basil’s Cathedral “was secularized and converted into a museum decades ago.”

First Liberty rightly called out the USPS and said:

If the USPS insists that Tavia’s family photo in front of a historic cathedral contains religious content in violation of the USPS guidelines, then the guidelines raise significant First Amendment concerns that may require further legal action.

USPS has said the regulation prohibits any religious content to avoid “delegat[ing] unduly fine-grained distinctions to providers and increas[ing] First Amendment and [USPS] liability.”

Well, so much for that. The overbroad prohibition has created exactly the scenario USPS sought to avoid. Yet again, government treats religion as a leper, and now citizens are shut out from even being in the same picture with a cathedral if they want to appear on a stamp for their family Christmas card.

Is Chai Feldblum Reconsidering Religious Freedom?

by Peter Sprigg

December 21, 2018

I found it interesting that Chai Feldblum saw fit to respond to Everett Piper’s op-ed on the “Fairness for All” proposal, and to deny that her position is “that LGBT rights must always prevail, no matter what.” Her summary statement does sound more generous to religious liberty than other things she’s been quoted as saying in the past:

I believe there are some situations in which the rights of religious liberty for organizations who believe homosexuality is sinful will conflict with and should prevail over the rights of LGBT people who might experience discrimination at the hands of such religious organizations.

But what are some examples of those “situations?” And how does she define “religious organizations?” She never says.

I don’t doubt that Feldblum, in her concern for “religious pluralism,” would probably say pastors should not be forced to perform same-sex weddings, and churches should not be forced to hire pastors who identify as homosexual. But do “religious organizations” include anything other than churches, synagogues, and mosques? It would be nice to know.

Throughout her op-ed, she mentions only “religious organizations.” She does not talk about protecting the rights of profit-making organizations (e.g., Masterpiece Cakeshop), nor about the rights of religious individuals (e.g., Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran). My guess is that her concern for the “rights of religious liberty” simply does not extend to them.

I carefully analyzed her position in our paper opposing her renomination to the EEOC a year ago. Here is an excerpt:

Feldblum was best known to conservatives, however, for her blunt statements discounting the idea that the free exercise of religion should ever be allowed to trump “rights” asserted by those who identify as homosexual.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty held a conference in December 2005 regarding potential conflicts between same-sex marriage and religious liberty. Feldblum participated, and Maggie Gallagher drew attention to Feldblum’s views in a 2006 Weekly Standard article.

Sexual liberty should win in most cases,” Feldblum declared. “There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win …” In fact, she declared, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.”

Feldblum understands what this means for religious believers. In a related article [2006], she declared that “we are in a zero-sum game: a gain for one side necessarily entails a corresponding loss for the other side,” adding later, “And, in making the decision in this zero-sum game, I am convinced society should come down on the side of protecting the liberty of LGBT people.” Indeed, she openly endorses government coercion of the believer: “To the extent that forced compliance with an equality mandate burdened an individual’s belief liberty, my argument … is that such a burden is likely to be justified.”

Feldblum admitted that the heavy-handed approach she favors goes well beyond Supreme Court precedent, noting that:

[T]he Supreme Court, for the moment, has come down clearly on the side that the liberty protected by the substantive Due Process Clause is solely a negative liberty. … But in many circumstances, the only way to achieve real liberty for some individuals will be for the government to take affirmative steps to bring about that liberty—even if such steps might then interfere with the liberty of others.”

Feldblum deserves some credit for describing more accurately than most the moral concerns that social conservatives have regarding homosexual conduct, and for at least acknowledging the reality of the conflict between “gay rights” and religious liberty. And she has been gracious to participate in events like the Becket conference, and even in a 2008 panel discussion held at Family Research Council.

However, this should not be allowed to mask the extremism of her positions. After she wrote that the courts should essentially ignore the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment (recognizing only a more nebulous “belief liberty” instead), she admitted that “my suggestions are radical.”

And more recently, since she has been on the EEOC, she has also expressed skepticism of religious exemptions:

Feldblum has continued to state her view that religious liberty exemptions should be extremely narrow. For example, at an “LGBT Summit” sponsored by The Atlantic magazine in December 2015, she participated in a panel discussion with David Boaz of the Cato Institute, who identifies both as gay and 5 as a libertarian (and who supported the redefinition of marriage). The issue of private businesses impacted by non-discrimination laws, such as those in the wedding industry, was discussed, as Reason magazine reported:

Boaz stated: “I think we have millions of small businesses, and I would like to leave the heavy hand of government out of their relationships with their customers and their employees as much as possible.”

… Feldblum, however, dismissed the idea that religious beliefs could ever justify discrimination. “When someone has not been educated [about tolerance of LGBT individuals] and wants to keep discriminating,” she said, “there is only one federal government, there is only one state government, one local government that can say: We will not tolerate this in our society.”

Feldblum then referred to an EEOC case against a funeral home charged with “gender identity” discrimination:

With a religious exemption to non-discrimination laws, the funeral home owner “could say, ‘well, actually, we’re religiously based,’” said Feldblum, raising her arms high and rolling her eyes. “It’s a funeral home! We do not want to allow that and the only thing that can protect us is a law that doesn’t have [a religious] exemption.”

LGBT activists like Feldblum are unlikely to accept any vision of religious liberty that extends beyond the four walls of a church’s sanctuary. But the “free exercise” of religion extends not just to churches but to individuals, and in every sphere of endeavor, including the public square and marketplace.

Stats Show People Still Want Reason for the Season This Christmas

by Alexandra McPhee

December 15, 2018

Think American citizens are ready to give Christ the boot this holiday season? Think again.

A 2018 report from LifeWay Research shows an overarching sentiment that “Christmas should be more about Jesus” (65 percent).

These numbers reflect the reality of a report from Ozark, Missouri, that many locals clamored to get the government to keep its traditional Christmas light display featuring a cross after the town received legal threats from an activist secular legal group about the display.

According to the Springfield News-Leader, Mayor Rick Gardner received “hundreds” of phone calls, text messages and other communications from members of the Ozark community following the town’s initial announcement [to take the cross down in the face of legal threats]. One person reportedly told Gardner that the cross “is a part of Ozark” and “this is Christian County, for Pete’s sake.”

The legal letter sent to officials claimed that the cross was a violation of the First Amendment. But the United States Supreme Court has said government can “recognize the role religion plays in our society.” And the question whether government can maintain displays depicting religious symbols—like the one in Ozark—is now before the United States Supreme Court.

The heckler’s veto—the one complaint that convinces public officials to cave on behalf of all citizens—might fly in some areas. After all, Ozark was essentially slapped with the same legal letter sent to Dover, Ravenna, and Streetsboro, Ohio, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Officials in all but Ozark and Streetsboro caved.

But what makes the difference is when citizens—the majority of whom say Christmas should be more about Jesus—make their voices heard. And they say keep the cross up and baby Jesus in the manger.

Fairness for Whom?

by Peter Sprigg

December 14, 2018

One major concern about “SOGI” laws—laws which add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected categories in non-discrimination laws governing employment, housing, and/or public accommodations—has been that they would pose a threat to religious liberty.

One response to this conflict between “LGBT rights” and religious liberty has been to propose a sort of grand compromise, in which SOGI protections and specific religious liberty protections are enacted in the same bill.

Only one state, Utah, has so far implemented this approach, enacting what became known as the “Utah Compromise” in 2015. Proposals to do something similar at the federal level have been discussed under the label of “Fairness for All.”

Family Research Council has argued that such an approach is unsustainable, for reasons explained in a 2016 paper.

However, World Magazine has now reported that the boards of two major evangelical organizations—the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)—have both passed motions endorsing the “Fairness for All” concept.

According to World, the NAE board unanimously—but quietly—adopted a motion in October that “calls on Congress to consider federal legislation consistent with three principles:” 

• We believe that God created human beings in his image as male or female and that sexual relations [should] be reserved for the marriage of one man and one woman.

• We support long-standing civil rights laws and First Amendment guarantees that protect free religious exercise.

• No one should face violence, harassment, or unjust discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

The first bullet point is a clear-cut statement of biblical teaching on sexuality and marriage. The second bullet point is a straightforward endorsement of long-standing American principles.

The third bullet point is the problem. What, exactly, is the definition of “unjust discrimination” in this context? Is it “unjust discrimination” for a Christian baker to decline to bake a cake to celebrate a same-sex wedding in violation of his own conscience? Or for that matter, is it “harassment” for a schoolteacher to refuse to use pronouns that falsify the sex of a student who identifies as transgender?

These are questions that need to be put to the LGBT activists with whom this “compromise” is being sought. The ball is in their court, not ours. Unfortunately for those seeking compromise with them, LGBT activists are likely to answer those questions with an emphatic “Yes.” Alas, there is virtually no chance that they would endorse the kind of much-needed legislation that would protect the freedoms of that baker or teacher.

Pronoun Police Get VA Teacher Fired

by Cathy Ruse

December 10, 2018

The pronoun police have marched into small-town America.

A high school French teacher in the tiny Virginia town of West Point has lost his job. His offense? He asked permission to avoid pronouns when referring to a biological girl student who now identifies as a boy.

Peter Vlaming (pictured) was fired last week in a unanimous vote by the local school board (all Democrats) because of his Christian belief that God made humans male and female, and that a girl cannot become a boy.

Vlaming was willing to use the student’s new masculine name, and to avoid using pronouns altogether with this student. But he was not willing to use a false pronoun. “I did agree to use the new masculine name [and] to avoid female pronouns,” said Vlaming, but “I won’t use male pronouns with a female student.”

Keep in mind, Vlaming’s position was not a failure of courtesy. Third person pronouns are not used face-to-face, they are used when talking about a person who is absent. Vlaming was happy to use the student’s new masculine name. But that was not enough for the school. They ordered him to use male pronouns for the student even when he was not in the presence of the student. 

Students are allowed to remain silent during the Pledge of Allegiance, but this teacher was not allowed to remain silent when it came to pronouns. Use a false pronoun, or lose your job.

God bless this teacher—he would not speak in denial of God’s truth about male and female, and for his silence the government terminated him.

Will Asia Bibi Be Forgotten?

by Arielle Del Turco

December 6, 2018

Last month, Christians around the world celebrated when Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian on death row for the crime of blasphemy, had her conviction set aside by the Pakistani Supreme Court. Bibi had been accused of blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed during an argument with several women after she shared a drink with them, thereby making the water ceremonially unclean. She was subsequently convicted, and spent the following eight years awaiting her execution.

Following Bibi’s release, thousands of Islamist Pakistanis demonstrated in the streets to demand she be put to death. Since her acquittal, Bibi has been held in protective custody in Pakistan due to threats of violence as she hopes to be granted asylum by a Western nation.

In a recent video message, Bibi’s husband pleaded with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, in addition to the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and U.S. President Donald Trump. The objective was to bring his family to the West to avoid the religiously motivated persecution they face in Pakistan.

Earlier this week, the Daily Mail reported that UK Prime Minister Theresa May personally intervened to prevent Bibi from receiving asylum in the UK, contradicting the British Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who has argued that the UK should provide Bibi refuge.

Asylum was made for cases like this. It’s to protect political and religious refugees who are facing persecution in their home country. So, why would the UK—which is usually so open to immigration—choose to deny entry to a Christian farmworker fleeing religious persecution?

The Daily Mail reported that Prime Minister Theresa May was persuaded that letting Bibi claim asylum would raise tensions within the Muslim community in the UK. May’s refusal to give Bibi refuge is devastating for Bibi and her family. It is a discouraging sign that the British government isn’t prioritizing religious freedom. Instead, the government is letting the fear of the mob dictate who earns the protection of the state and is validating the criticisms of politically-correct “multiculturalism.”

The UK first needs to embrace religious freedom at the cultural level so that religious refugees in crisis will be welcomed into the shelter of their country. This requires leaders who have the moral courage to stand up for religious freedom, even when a percentage of the population may oppose it.

The UK had an opportunity to make a stand for religious freedom and they chose not to. Thankfully, other nations have this same opportunity. As Bibi and her family continue to look for a safe place to live, we can pray that a Western country whose laws and culture still value religious freedom will grant her asylum and safe haven.

Arielle Del Turco is an intern at Family Research Council.

Religious Liberty and the “Wedding Vendor” Cases

by Alexandra McPhee

December 4, 2018

This year, the United States Supreme Court vindicated the free exercise rights of Jack Phillips, a cake baker from Colorado, who had suffered government discrimination after he declined to bake a cake for a same-sex commitment ceremony based on his conviction that a marriage is only between a man and a woman. Yet Jack’s ordeal wasn’t done; he was subsequently sued and has an ongoing case because he didn’t want to be forced to create a cake with a message about the transgender lifestyle he believed to be false.

Melissa and Aaron Klein, bakers from Oregon and formerly of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, are now asking the Supreme Court to review their case, which arose under similar circumstances. The Supreme Court could decide any day whether to review their case. If the Court does, they may get relief. If it doesn’t, the Kleins are stuck with an oppressive and unconstitutional state court ruling against them.

Their cases are not unique; attacks against traditional beliefs in marriage have been on the rise. Why is that?

Several years ago, the United States Supreme Court observed that “[m]any who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.” That quotation came from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court decision that ushered in a new era in the law surrounding religious liberty.

It is important that the Supreme Court recognized the sincerity of the orthodox belief that marriage is a sacred institution only available between one man and one woman. But by making marriage between two people of the same sex a constitutional right, Obergefell made it easier for courts and legislatures around the nation to conclude that same-sex couples have rights that somehow trump those of all who disagree—and thus violate their consciences.

We have seen this primarily in the wedding vendor industry, the subject of our newly updated publication released today, Religious Liberty and the “Wedding Vendor” Cases. Business owners across the country have had to face the unacceptable choice of violating their religious beliefs or losing their livelihoods—all because they will not use their skills to affirm or facilitate the celebration of a same-sex wedding.

Today, we bring to your attention fifteen cases where business owners have had to collectively endure thousands of hours of litigation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for sticking to their beliefs in natural marriage. This is an unacceptable affront to every American’s constitutional right to the free exercise of their religion, and we must stand to ensure that this latest campaign against the freedom of conscience comes to an end.

For more information, read our newly updated publication.

Let There Be (Christmas) Lights

by Alexandra McPhee

November 27, 2018

For several years, Jeremy and Kristy Morris and their young children hosted a five-day long event on their property celebrating Christmas. When they decided to move to a new community and explained to the new HOA that they planned to host this event, communications with the HOA hit a discriminatory pitch. In 2014, the HOA explained in a letter that

It’s not the intention of the Board to discourage you from becoming part of our great neighborhood, but we do not wish to become entwined in any expensive litigation to enforce long standing rules and regulations and fill our neighborhood with the hundreds of people and possible undesirables. We have worked hard to keep our area peaceful, quiet, and clean . . . .

And finally, I am somewhat hesitant in bringing up the fact that some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith. And I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up.

Though citing “rules and regulations,” the letter’s concluding paragraph made clear that the HOA’s true opposition to the Christmas event was the “Christ” part of the occasion.

The Morris’ filed suit once they realized that the HOA wanted to qualify the terms of their residence in the new community because they were Christians. They argued that the HOA was violating the Fair Housing Act by committing religious discrimination. The Fair Housing Act prohibits “discriminatory practices [that] make housing unavailable to persons because of . . . religion.” In other words, no person or organization has the right to exclude someone from something as essential as housing because of their religious beliefs.

The case went to trial, and the evidence exposed the true extent of the HOA’s hostility towards the Morris’ and their faith. The jury sided with the Morris’ and awarded a total of $75,000 to the family.

The facts of this case are troubling, especially because of the HOA’s express hostility. An earlier draft of the above letter showed that the HOA even referred to the potential Christmas event attendees as “the riff-raff you seemed to attract over by WalMart.”

But the jury vindicated the Morris’ civil rights and held the HOA accountable for its attack on religious expression. This case demonstrates that we must always be vigilant in defending our federally protected rights to express our faith.

In India, Twitter Gets a Taste of the True Danger of Viewpoint Suppression

by Alexandra McPhee

November 26, 2018

Last Thursday, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, was accused of violating India’s blasphemy law during his recent visit to the country. A legal group filed a petition against him asking a court to determine that Dorsey violated several penal laws, including section 295A, which prohibits the “outrage [of the] religious feelings of any class.” It could become a high-profile example of the active enforcement of blasphemy laws, which exist in dozens of countries and are still enforced today.

Though intended to protect “religious feelings,” blasphemy laws like India’s section 295A are used by the government and hostile private parties seeking retaliation to suppress people of minority faiths. In Pakistan, for instance, the country’s highest court overturned the conviction of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who wallowed in jail for almost ten years on death row because of a dispute that resulted in an accusation of blasphemy when she drank water from a common well used by Muslim women.

Blasphemy laws also undermine speech and religious liberty by saddling convicted individuals with onerous penalties for expressing their beliefs. The law in Pakistan, which carries the death penalty, is the most extreme example.  But penalties commonly include years-long imprisonment and fines. A violation of India’s section 295A, for instance, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.

While six states in America still have blasphemy laws on the books, they are unenforced and the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections would surely trump those laws if they were ever brought against someone in court. Countries like India and Pakistan also have provisions in their constitutions supposedly protecting the freedom of conscience or religious exercise, but those provisions obviously are not fully and effectively enforced.

Multiple news stories reveal that Twitter actively bans or censors users for expressing views with which the organization disagrees. Turnabout is fair play, perhaps. But, hopefully, this will serve as a wakeup call to the company about the true danger of suppressing the expression of beliefs.

No one should have to fear the sword of the government or blasphemy laws being used against them for expressing their beliefs. To ensure that all people can speak and worship according to their conscience, we must fight against blasphemy laws and guarantee protections for the freedom to believe.

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