Category archives: Religious Liberty

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.

Welcome Back to College, USA

by Rob Schwarzwalder

September 10, 2014

The California State University system has booted InterVarsity from its 23 campuses because IV, an Evangelical Christian group, believes its local chapters should be led by (get ready) Evangelical Christians.

Women-only Mt. Holyoke College has announced that it is changing its gender categories, to wit:

  • Biologically born female; identifies as a woman.
  • Biologically born female; identifies as a man.
  • Biologically born female; identifies as other/they/ze.
  • Biologically born female; does not identify as either woman or man.
  • Biologically born male; identifies as woman.
  • Biologically born male; identifies as other/they/ze and when “other/they” identity includes woman.
  • Biologically born with both male and female anatomy (Intersex); identifies as a woman.

    The school’s policy notes one identity category still barred from admission: “Biologically born male; identifies as man.”

How about venerable Vanderbilt, which

… has decided student groups on campus cannot determine their own leadership. Consequently, a Muslim can run the Christian group, a global warming skeptic can run the Earth First group, a Republican can run the College Democrats, etc. … The rule came in part because, as you will not be surprised to learn, a Christian fraternity “had expelled several students for violating their behavior policy. One student said he was ousted because he is gay.” Tish Harrison Warren wrote about this at Christianity Today. Her Christian group allowed anyone to be a member, “[b]ut it asks key student leaders — the executive council and small group leaders — to affirm its doctrinal statement, which outlines broad Christian orthodoxy and does not mention sexual conduct specifically. But the university saw belief statements themselves as suspect.”

And, as of Wednesday of this week, “Rev. Bruce Shipman, the Episcopal chaplain at Yale, has resigned in the wake of controversy over a New York Times letter he wrote suggesting Jews were collectively culpable for Israel’s actions and for subsequent rises in global anti-Semitism.” Yale, founded as an explicitly Christian institution centuries ago, summons the decency to fire a nascent anti-Semite — a tiny flash of light in the gathering twilight that is the moral climate of the nation’s colleges and universities. Of course, this spasm of honor comes long after Yale jettisoned its original purpose: to train young men to “live religious, godly and blameless lives according to the rules of God’s Word, diligently reading the Holy Scriptures, the fountain of light and truth; and constantly attend upon all the duties of religion, both in public and secret … (each student was to) …consider the main end of his study to wit to know God in Jesus Christ.”

It is hard to know how to comment about the things listed above. Their stupidity and hypocrisy possess an umbra so glistening, not dissimilar to that displayed by an oil slick on a garage floor, that I will let them speak for themselves.

The Government’s Judgment of Religion

by James Wheeler

August 6, 2014

Others have written about the threats posed to religious liberty by the President’s Executive Order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of so-called “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” and by the White House’s refusal to provide a more robust religious liberty exception. However, the administration’s interpretation of the effect of the executive order is even more troubling. In fact, the administration’s interpretation could very well turn religious liberty on its head.

In a statement, the administration insisted that religious organizations can decide to hire only members of the same religion, but cannot refuse to hire someone “who is of [their] faith who happens to be LGBT.” What about those religions that would hold that a willfully practicing, unrepentant homosexual could not be a member of that religion? If such an individual claims to share the religion of a potential employer, must the employer hire the individual? The administration’s statement sure seems to suggest that. What’s more, Travis Weber, Director of FRC’s Center for Religious Liberty, asked the administration to clarify this important matter in an online Q & A session over a week ago and the administration has so far refused to do so — the White House instead responded to softball questions and platitudes about what a great job the administration is doing on a variety of topics, many irrelevant to the actual Executive Order.

The administration’s interpretation would upend one of the most fundamental principles in religious liberty law: The government cannot decide which religious doctrines are valid and which are not. But that is what the government would do if it forced a religious organization to employ a practicing homosexual in violation of the religious beliefs of the organization simply because the practicing homosexual “is of [its] faith.” The administration is telling millions of Americans that believe that homosexual behavior is a sin and that willful, unrepentant sins necessitate removing an individual from fellowship that those beliefs are unimportant. They are telling us that the government, and not we, will decide whether an individual who violates the tenants of our faith is still a member of our religion. That has been the very antithesis of religious liberty jurisprudence for decades, if not centuries. For the government to single out some beliefs for approbation and others for reprobation is to make government the arbiter of religious belief, something completely forbidden by the Constitution.

Because of these implications of the administration’s interpretation of the executive order, virtually every court that has ever considered religious exemptions in other non-discrimination laws has concluded that they must reach to employment decisions that are religiously motivated without considering whether the employer and employee share the same faith, even when the language of the exception appears limited to only decisions based on whether the employee belongs to the employer’s religion. These courts have recognized that to examine whether an individual shares the religion of an employer would require a court to examine the relative importance of beliefs within a religion (i.e. which beliefs about conduct, if violated, are enough to kick a person out) and would necessarily entangle courts in deciding questions of religious doctrine. Unfortunately, the administration is unwilling to acknowledge this problem; instead insisting that while it is permissible to not consider an individual a member of your religion for a multitude of reasons, if your reason is that individual’s unrepentant, willful homosexual practice, then your reason isn’t really religious enough to be protected. That turns religious liberty on its head, and was wisely forbidden in the Constitution.

Will Rabbi Saperstein Be a True Advocate for Religious Liberty?

by Rob Schwarzwalder

July 29, 2014

After a hiatus of nine months, President Obama has nominated Rabbi David Saperstein to be the next U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, an office within our State Department.

That Rabbi Saperstein is Jewish is a blessing: It is an affirmation that the United States rebukes the anti-Semitism rising in so many countries, and that we believe Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox can partner together in standing for the “unalienable rights” bestowed to us by our Creator, including what our Constitution affirms is our “first freedom,” religious liberty.

As he speaks and works on behalf of our country, Rabbi Saperstein will, I hope, prove to be an effective and assertive advocate for those persecuted for their faith. However, I fear he is entering his new role with his hands tied: Barack Obama has sought to cabin and diminish lived-out faith in our country. What our President and his administration fail to sustain and advance at home they cannot defend and encourage abroad.

The Rabbi’s predecessor, the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, left an at-best mixed legacy during her 30 months in the position, at least some of it not her fault. Dr. Tom Farr of Georgetown University, one of the nation’s most respected advocates for international religious liberty, notes that Dr. Johnson Cook was given “very few resources (by the Obama Administration) she could employ to develop strategies to advance international religious freedom.”

Additionally, Rabbi Saperstein’s well-known liberalism is troubling. For example, he criticized the Supreme Court’s decision last month in the Hobby Lobby case, endorsing the idea that the federal government has the right to tell business owners they must provide coverage of contraceptives that can cause abortion. “We believe the court was wrong in saying there are religious claims corporations can make,” he said. “Corporations don’t have souls or consciences the way that people or associations of like-minded people do.” This is nonsense: Corporations are associations of people; that they are constituted for profit makes them no less so. Thus, our legal systems recognizes their embodiment as “corpora” (bodies) – and those people who constitute corporations through direct or shareholding ownership have a right not to be coerced into providing services that conscientiously they find wrong.

Additionally, the Rabbi has been a board member of People for the American Way, whose mission statement affirms its staunch commitment to “progressive” policies. Such PAW “progressivism” includes the marginalization of faith in public life, unrestricted access to abortion-on-demand, and what it calls “dumping” the Defense of Marriage Act. Rabbi Saperstein even went out of his way to oppose the ban on “partial-birth” abortion, saying he was “dismayed” by passage of the measure in the House of Representatives.

Over the past five and one-half years, an Administration much more preoccupied with the advancement of homosexuality in law and society than concerned with protecting religious liberty, either in the United States or through American foreign policy, has failed to inspire confidence in its commitment to what Hamilton called “the sacred rights of conscience” as they are played-out in public life.

We have a deep interest in fighting for international religious liberty, as to do so advances our national security and vital interests. By standing with, and battling for, those persecuted or repressed because of their faith, we build good will toward our country in areas where such is urgently needed. That, in this case, our security and interests are coincident with our deeply cherished values makes religious liberty all the more of a priority for our diplomatic agenda.

Rabbi Saperstein once chaired the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, where I briefly worked years ago. All Americans should pray that the Rabbi will be a lion for religious liberty, and with everyone of good will, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to defending and advancing religious liberty worldwide. However, given his personal convictions and public associations, I confess to having more than a few apprehensions.

Senate Passes Special Envoy Bill to Prioritize State Department Engagement on Religious Liberty

by Leanna Baumer

July 11, 2014

The plight of Iraq’s Jewish community, Syria’s persecuted Christian and Muslim minorities, and Egypt’s beleaguered Christian population has largely gone unnoticed by the Western world and has only occasionally been addressed by the American diplomatic corps (save onetime hashtag campaigns). The appalling case of Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim, a woman married to a U.S. citizen and detained in prison for months for refusing to renounce her faith, has made the State Department’s lackluster defense of the rights of conscience internationally all the more apparent.

However, last night, the U.S. Senate took an encouraging step forward in the effort to force the State Department to prioritize the freedom of religion in diplomatic efforts globally. In a unanimous vote, the Senate cleared the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2014 (S. 653).

Sponsored by Missouri Senator Roy Blunt (R), S. 653 aims to skirt the intractable bureaucracy of the State Department and elevate the engagement of religious freedom issues in the region of the world most threatened by attacks against people of faith. S. 653 creates the new post of “Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia,” a position to be filled by a Presidential appointee with regional expertise and experience in the field of human rights and religious freedom.

While a companion bill (long championed by Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia) had passed the House of Representatives almost a year ago, S. 653 has languished in the Senate. Last night’s Senate passage marked a breakthrough in negotiations, with the amended Senate bill now containing a sunset provision (unless reauthorized, the Special Envoy position will expire in 2019) to address cost concerns. Now sent back to the House, S.653 faces strong prospects of quick passage given the large bi-partisan levels of support for the Special Envoy in the House previously (H.R. 301 passed by a vote of 402-22 last year).

As entire religious communities face extinction in parts of the Middle East and South Central Asia, the urgency of articulating religious freedom principles abroad has never been starker. A Special Envoy empowered to speak on behalf of religious minorities undergoing persecution will give the U.S. greater leverage in advocating for a freedom so foundational to all others. It is vital that Congress finish consideration of S.653 and that the President sign this bi-partisan legislation into law.

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