Author archives: Travis Weber

Defending Family Values Across the Globe

by Travis Weber

April 10, 2019

This past weekend I was in Bogota, Colombia, to attend the 2019 Transatlantic Summit of the Political Network for Values—a conference where socially conservative legislators and activists gather from around the world to discuss the pressing concerns of life, family, and religious liberty. Many of the members of this network—which has asked me to serve on its committee of experts—come from primarily Catholic areas in Latin America and Europe, but share the concern of evangelicals in the United States that the historic Christian positions on these issues are being threatened. Meeting inside of the magnificent Congress of the Republic of Colombia, it became clear that there is much we can—and should—work on together.

In addition to remarks by pro-life and pro-family political leaders, the conference featured impassioned speeches like that of Obianuju Ekeocha, a Nigerian pro-life activist living in the UK. Obianuju rose to prominence after penning an open letter against Melinda Gates for pushing population control on Africa, and in addition to her day job as a scientist, she heads the pro-life organization Culture of Life Africa.

One of the most promising aspects of this gathering was the number of young people, not only in attendance, but who are seeking to serve their countries through political leadership. The young Colombian leader Angela Hernandez, who I met several years ago in Belgium at the same conference, again gave a fiery defense of the family this year.

Near the end of the conference, I spoke about FRC’s efforts to pass the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and end birth day abortion here in the U.S., in light of the increasing radicalism of the Democrat Party on this issue. When we have our own elected leaders openly defending infanticide, we know the time has come for action—and prayer.

We in the United States must remember that there are many fellow believers around the world who share our commitment to life, family, and religious liberty. This year’s Political Network for Values Conference was an encouraging reminder of that. May we continue to work together with all allies—foreign and domestic—to advance faith, family, and freedom.

UK Asylum Officers Would Benefit from Basic Bible Study

by Travis Weber

March 25, 2019

Disturbing news from Britain, where the Home Office tried to claim that Christianity is not a peaceful religion in an attempt to reject a recent Iranian asylum seeker.

From The Telegraph:

The Iranian national, who has not been identified, claimed asylum in 2016 but his application was rejected after government officials said his conversion from Islam was “inconsistent” with his claim that Christianity is a peaceful religion.

In order to reiterate the point, the Home Office wrote a lengthy and “unbelievably offensive” refusal letter referencing six Bible passages and claiming that the book of Revelation is filled with “images of revenge, destruction, death and violence”.

The Home Office rejection, below the quoted verses concludes: “These examples are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful’ religion, as opposed to Islam which contains violence, rage and revenge.”

Absurd, and sad. Hopefully this is just an aberrant staffer and not official policy. If it turns out that multiple officials signed off on such thinking, it will be cause for even more alarm. Thankfully, the Home Office has admitted this action is “inconsistent” with its policy. Light words. Such cherry-picking of verses is likely beyond even embarrassing exegetical malpractice, and perhaps reveals malicious intent. Regardless, it shows the need for immigration officials to be trained in basic theology and Bible knowledge!

The man’s lawyer was not happy:

Nathan Stevens, the immigration caseworker at Fadiga & Co Solicitors dealing with the Iranian man’s case, posted excerpts of the Home Office letter on Twitter earlier this week saying he was “genuinely shocked” to read such an “unbelievably offensive diatribe”. It has since been shared hundreds of times.

Mr Stevens, from London, added: “Whatever your views on faith, how can a government official arbitrarily pick bits out of a holy book and then use them to trash someone’s heartfelt reason for coming to a personal decision to follow another faith.”

He said that his client will be appealing the decision and he will be complaining to the Home Office.

Hopefully, the Home Office will right this ship. If not, it will only feed the idea, not without merit, that Western Europe is no longer able to actually defend the human rights and freedom it has long claimed to protect.

The Art of Disagreement

by Travis Weber

March 6, 2019

In the New York Times, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute has an interesting piece on the polarization and fracturing of America today. Of note:

Political scientists have found that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War. One in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. Millions of people organize their social lives and their news exposure along ideological lines to avoid people with opposing viewpoints. What’s our problem?

2014 article in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on “motive attribution asymmetry”—the assumption that your ideology is based in love, while your opponent’s is based in hate—suggests an answer. The researchers found that the average Republican and the average Democrat today suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of Palestinians and Israelis. Each side thinks it is driven by benevolence, while the other is evil and motivated by hatred—and is therefore an enemy with whom one cannot negotiate or compromise.

Brooks continues:

People often say that our problem in America today is incivility or intolerance. This is incorrect. Motive attribution asymmetry leads to something far worse: contempt, which is a noxious brew of anger and disgust. And not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but also for other people. In the words of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

Quite alarming. Nevertheless, this is confirmed by what we see in our slice of social discourse—whether in reference to people holding to historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, or merely seeking to protect their ability to hold to such teaching.

A recent study in The Atlantic discusses how such intolerance is cemented as beliefs become more siloed within certain groups and communities. The worst offenders? “[T]he most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves.”

Brooks’ solution for all this?

Not eliminating different ideas, but embracing them. “What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better,” he says. When treated with contempt, we should not return it upon our opponent’s head. Instead, we must choose to respond with grace.

Of all people, Christians should most eagerly embrace this idea. Our faith itself is based on God not responding to our contempt with contempt, but by sending his Son to die in our place on a cross.

We should be the first to embrace the idea of showing grace to neighbors and those around us. There is much we cannot control in our society today, but let us seize one of the few areas we can change—our individual choice to respond with grace when treated with contempt.

What Does Tuesday’s Supreme Court Decision Mean for Trump’s Military Transgender Policy?

by Peter Sprigg , Travis Weber

January 23, 2019

On Tuesday, in Trump v. Karnoski and Trump v. Stockman, the Supreme Court announced it was staying the district court injunctions issued against President Trump’s military transgender troop policy until the cases sorted themselves out in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the cases arose out of Washington state and California, respectively).

But where does that leave the other cases in which this policy has been challenged?

In Doe v. Trump, the D.C. Circuit already lifted an injunction against the policy arising from a challenge in D.C., and this remains unaffected by the Supreme Court’s recent action.

That leaves one other case, Stone v. Trump, arising out of Maryland, and currently in the Fourth Circuit.

The preliminary injunction against the Trump policy in that case (granted 11/21/17) was based on specific language in the Presidential Memorandum to Mattis of August 25, 2017. But that memorandum was explicitly revoked when President Trump accepted the Mattis Report and Recommendations on March 23, 2018. Although both sides have filed revised briefs in response to the 3/23/18 policy, it does not appear that the judge has ruled in response to those (for example, to amend the preliminary injunction). Despite the Stone injunction (which is likely to eventually be dissolved), the Department of Defense appears to be viewing the Court’s decision yesterday as a signal to slowly but confidently move toward the implementation of Trump’s military transgender policy.

While the Supreme Court’s action yesterday stayed several injunctions, it didn’t wipe them out. The Court will still need to rule on the injunction and the merits at some point, which will dispose of any lingering issues. As the Solicitor General’s brief in Karnoski says in footnote 8, “If this Court were to vacate the injunctions in these cases in whole or in part, that decision would be binding precedent requiring the district court to similarly vacate the injunction in Stone.”

Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh: We See Religious Freedom Problems with Coach Kennedy Case

by Travis Weber

January 22, 2019

Today the Supreme Court refused to take up the case of Coach Joe Kennedy, but some of the justices nonetheless sent a signal in favor of religious liberty.

Coach Kennedy, represented by our friends at First Liberty Institute, is a Christian high school football coach from Bremerton, Washington, who was punished after taking a knee and praying on the field after games. His case has been deliberated in federal district court, then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, before making its way to the Supreme Court.

While the Court’s refusal to hear the case is not ideal, it appears that unresolved factual questions (the lower court never concluded whether Coach Kennedy was punished for praying or neglecting his professional duties) prevented the Court from hearing the full case and taking up the First Amendment free speech claim.

Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, penned a separate statement (see pp. 8-13) explaining that while he understands and agrees with the Court’s reason for not taking the case right now (if asked to do so, he would direct the lower court to reach a conclusion on this question, but at this point the Court was only asked to decide the legal question), he doesn’t necessarily agree with the lower court rulings, which appear problematic for religious liberty and the First Amendment:

While I thus concur in the denial of the present petition, the Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.

Alito criticized the “highly tendentious way” the Ninth Circuit applied the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos (dealing with the First Amendment rights of public employees) to Coach Kennedy’s situation, which would have required public school employees like teachers and coaches to refrain from any religious activity a student might see or the school might not like, from the time the teacher or coach shows up in the morning until the time they leave. Alito concluded:

If the Ninth Circuit continues to apply [this] interpretation of Garcetti in future cases involving public school teachers or coaches, review by this Court may be appropriate.

Alito wasn’t finished:

What is perhaps most troubling about the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is language that can be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith—even when the coach is plainly not on duty. I hope that this is not the message that the Ninth Circuit meant to convey, but its opinion can certainly be read that way. After emphasizing that [Coach Kennedy] was hired to “communicate a positive message through the example set by his own conduct,” the court criticized him for “his media appearances and prayer in the [Bremerton High School (BHS)] bleachers (while wearing BHS apparel and surrounded by others).” [citation omitted] This conduct, in the opinion of the Ninth Circuit, “signal[ed] his intent to send a message to students and parents about appropriate behavior and what he values as a coach.” [citation omitted] But when [Coach Kennedy] prayed in the bleachers, he had been suspended. He was attending a game like any other fan. The suggestion that even while off duty, a teacher or coach cannot engage in any outward manifestation of religious faith is remarkable.

It’s very encouraging to see Justice Alito on record noting the religious liberty problems with this case—something we’ve come to expect from him—along with Justices Thomas and Gorsuch. But it’s particularly heartening to see Justice Kavanaugh join this statement. While his judicial record would have suggested he’d rule the right way on religious liberty issues once seated on the Court, his refusal to join these three justices in dissenting from denial of cert in the Planned Parenthood defunding cases late last year left many wondering whether he would be a true originalist. While these actions don’t necessarily indicate how the justices will rule on the merits (there’s a good chance Justice Roberts still agrees with his originalist colleagues on these matters), they are heartening nevertheless.

Justice Alito concluded by almost inviting Coach Kennedy to ask the Court to reconsider Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, a Title VII case lowering employee protections against religious discrimination, and Employment Division v. Smith, which cut back on Free Exercise protections and prompted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to be passed over twenty-five years ago.

Let us hope Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh are prophesying where the Court is going on religious liberty.

What to Know About Indonesia’s New “Blasphemy Reporting App”

by Travis Weber

December 12, 2018

It was recently announced that Google agreed to list an app created by the Indonesian government allowing users to report alleged “blasphemy” to authorities. The app is called “Smart Grip” (locally known as “Smart Pakem”), and is available in the Google Play store. What does this mean, and what are we to think of this? First, some background, and then discussion of the app.

What are blasphemy laws?

Blasphemy laws generally prohibit and punish insults to religion. They are often abused when allegations of blasphemy are made against religious minorities—often with no evidence—to settle personal disputes. Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman convicted and sentenced to death for blasphemy after a dispute with a Muslim coworker, was prosecuted after an allegation that she committed the crime (she has since been released, to the tune of much public hostility).

How does Indonesia view blasphemy?

Indonesia criminalizes blasphemy. Article 156 of the penal code states it is illegal to “publicly give[] expression to feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt.” Maximum punishment for this crime is four years. Article 156(a) goes further, prohibiting one from “deliberately … giv[ing] expression to feelings or commit[ing] an act” which is “at enmity with, abus[es], or stain[s] a religion … with the intention to prevent a person to adhere to any religion based on the belief of the almighty God.” Maximum punishment for this crime is five years.

What effect have these laws had?

Among other cases, Jakarta’s former governor, a Christian, was imprisoned for blasphemy last year, and it was only recently announced he would be released. A Buddhist woman was also convicted of blasphemy after complaining about the noise level of a neighborhood mosque’s loudspeakers.

How did the app come into being?

Development of the app was requested by the Indonesian government, and it was created by Jakarta’s High Prosecution Office (it has also been reported that a body charged with “religious oversight” in the Indonesia Attorney General’s office launched the app). This is a dangerous, anti-religious freedom office, according to experts, yet it has been approved by Google for listing in its app store.

What does the app do?

It allows users to report, directly to the government, groups practicing unrecognized faiths or unorthodox interpretations of Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions, including Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism.

What are the implications?

Religious persecution in Indonesia likely to increase if this app is used. No doubt, variations of Christianity displeasing to Muslims and others are likely to be reported. But others will be affected too. One of the groups described as “deviant” on the app are the Ahmadiyah, a peaceful group of Muslims with adherents around the world (including the U.S.), but who are viewed as heretical by many other Muslims. Indonesia has many Muslims—such as those represented by Nahdlatul Ulama—who do not want to see a spread in the use of blasphemy laws. They have even publicly criticized developments like the recent conviction of a Buddhist woman for blasphemy. But hardline, violent Muslims are on the rise in Indonesia, and this app will only aid them. If they are allowed to continue to grow, Indonesia could turn out like Pakistan in the future—with not just one, but many Asia Bibi’s of its own.

What has been the reaction to the app?

It has drawn widespread backlash from diverse quarters, creating an unusual alliance against it—from Robert Spencer to Human Rights Watch and the “friendly atheist” blog. It does not seem that Google has publicly responded to news inquiries or criticism yet.

Supreme Court Refuses to Rule on State Decisions to Defund Planned Parenthood

by Travis Weber

December 10, 2018

Over the past several years, a number of states have tried to terminate Medicaid contracts with Planned Parenthood for various reasons, not the least of which because of videos released depicting Planned Parenthood officials engaging in the sale of fetal tissue and body parts.

But how much discretion does a state have to terminate those contracts? Can an individual sue any time they disagree? This question goes beyond the topic of Planned Parenthood funding specifically. But today, the United States Supreme Court declined to review a set of cases that could have provided an answer, leaving in place several lower court decisions that have blocked state executive decisions to terminate Medicaid contracts with and defund Planned Parenthood.

In Planned Parenthood of Gulf Coast v. Gee (5th Cir.) and Planned Parenthood of Kansas & Mid-Missouri v. Andersen (10th Cir.), two circuit courts separately agreed that individuals have the right to sue states for withdrawing Medicaid funding from and thus limiting access to providers.

In other words, in five circuits, according to Justice Clarence Thomas (writing in dissent from the court’s decision today (see pp. 9-12)), “individuals could sue whenever a state changes medical product providers or services.” Sound like bad policy? At the very least, it’s one inconsistently applied across the circuits.

For one, states need clarity on this issue, and they still don’t have it.

Justice Thomas called it “the Supreme Court’s job” “to clarify the confusion in the law in this area.” True. The Court’s own rules—and caselaw—provide as much.

So what explains the Court’s refusal to do its job here?” Justice Thomas posited. “I suspect it has something to do with the fact that some respondents in these cases are named ‘Planned Parenthood.’”

As Justice Thomas notes, “the question presented here would not even affect Planned Parenthood’s ability to challenge the States’ decisions” to defund. But Justice Thomas suggests that the political cloud that hovers over the topics of abortion and Planned Parenthood prevent even the most sterile and noncontroversial legal issues from getting the attention they deserve. We’re inclined to agree.

This case “has nothing to do with abortion,” Justice Thomas points out. It’s just about a private right of action under Medicaid—involving whether individuals can sue, for instance, whenever a state changes medical product providers or services.

Are these cases considered hot potatoes because of their broader abortion defunding implications? Possibly.

Right now, 13 states have taken action to defund abortion in Medicaid programs: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Florida’s measure wound up in the courts, and was blocked. Other cases, like a challenge to an Ohio funding law, involve payment to abortion providers in other contexts.

These cases are not directly affected by the Supreme Court’s actions today. But the optics certainly wouldn’t look good for Planned Parenthood if a Supreme Court decision, even on different legal grounds, meant that states could go forward with their decision to defund Planned Parenthood.

One of these days, the Supreme Court will have to confront the issue.

Christianity’s Blessings to Society

by Travis Weber

October 24, 2018

The new life of a believer in Christ motivates him or her to be a good citizen—to seek the well-being of the city or place in which they live. The latest example of this principle comes not from the United States, but from Nigeria.

A recent profile in The Economist, of all places, discusses the development of the “church-city” and the benefits it has brought with it.

Begun as a church, the plot of land north of Lagos, Nigeria now houses 12,000 people and covers more than 6,000 acres. That population will likely double by 2036.

As The Economist notes, “[m]ost African cities are messy, especially around the edges. Suburban roads are invariably crooked, unpaved and unsigned. Houses are plonked down wherever people can acquire land. Many homes are half-built . . .”

Yet in Redemption City, “[e]verything tends to work. Whereas Lagos hums with diesel generators, Redemption City has a steady electricity supply from a small gas-fired power station. It also has its own water supply. ‘We make life easy,’ says Pastor Fola Sanusi, the man in charge of Redemption City’s growth. The city also makes rules, of the kind that could never be enforced in the hurly-burly of Lagos. ‘No parking, no waiting, no trading, no hawking,’ reads one sign.”

‘If you wait for the government, it won’t get done,’” says Olaitan Olubiyi, one of the pastors. “So [Redemption City] relies on the government for very little – it builds its own roads, collects its own rubbish, and organises its own sewerage systems.” The Guardian reports that the government sometimes sends its own municipal experts to learn from Redemption City’s.

Though the properties are supposed to be kept within the community of Christians inhabiting the city, they seem to be making their way into the broader real estate market, being listed on some agencies’ websites.

Other churches in the surrounding area are currently building communities of their own. The Economist concludes: “Pentecostal Christianity has already remade many Africans’ spiritual lives. Now it is remaking their cities.”

While the concept is a bit unusual, this story reminds us that what one believes has direct consequences for society and the conditions in which we live. Our faith leads us to care for our surroundings, and religious organizations often have a widescale impact on the common good. While we are all imperfect, the Christian is (and should be) driven by principles which flow from a faith that seeks the good of our neighbor—and our cities.

Pakistani Christian Woman’s Fate Hangs in the Balance

by Travis Weber

October 8, 2018

Earlier today, Pakistan’s Supreme Court heard the final appeal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted of the crime of “blasphemy” after being accused of insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad—a claim which arose out of an argument with several Muslim women who grew angry at her for drinking water from the same bowl as them, which they believed made the water ceremonially unclean.

Subsequently, in the first and most high-profile case under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, Mrs. Bibi was charged, convicted, and sentenced to death.

Now, today, there appears to be a glimmer of hope that she could be acquitted by the high court and set free, with sources currently reporting the justices are set to reverse her conviction.

Yet the opposition to this within Pakistani society is great. Over the course of this ten-year long prosecution, multiple Pakistani politicians who have stood up for Mrs. Bibi have been assassinated, including Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the cabinet’s only Christian, and Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was killed by his own bodyguard. The bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri—who was later convicted and executed by the Pakistani government—has been lionized as a hero by Islamists, including the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which rallies around punishing blasphemy and which is currently warning against any “concession or softness” for Mrs. Bibi, claiming that “[i]f there is any attempt to hand her over to a foreign country, there will be terrible consequences.”

This sad saga reminds us of the clear threat posed to religious freedom by the abuse of blasphemy laws. These laws—which infringe on a proper conception of religious freedom—would be bad enough on their face. Yet quite often, they aren’t even used for their ostensible purpose, but become vehicles to settle personal disagreements and even political scores.

Mrs. Bibi’s case also reminds us that we need religious freedom at the cultural level in addition to the governmental level. Pakistan may have government leaders willing to defend her, but when the worldview prevailing in Pakistani culture is closer to that of the TLP party than Mr. Taseer’s, the road toward religious freedom will remain beset with almost insurmountable obstacles. 

Let us pray for Mrs. Bibi’s release and safety in the coming weeks. Let us also pray for freedom and flourishing in Pakistan—desiring blessing for all in that land, Mrs. Bibi’s friend and foe alike.

Americans Can “Afford to Not Care” About Voting. Yet We Should Still Care.

by Travis Weber

October 3, 2018

Some of us may think of ourselves as non-political. We perhaps appreciate when leaders stand for things we believe in, but think “that’s just not for me.” We may vote if someone pesters us about it, but aren’t too excited about the opportunity.

Speaking at the 2018 Values Voter Summit, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin had some words for those who think this way (start watching at the 12:00 minute mark):

It’s interesting, I was asked some time ago by an interviewer on a radio program what I thought the greatest threat to America was. I don’t know what they thought I was going to say, but I will share with you what I did say and what I truly believe. The greatest threat, I believe, to America is apathy, because I’ll tell you we are blessed to such a degree – and think about the irony of this. We are blessed to such a degree that we can afford to not care and our lives will continue to be better than 99 percent of those who have ever lived would experience. How blessed we are that we can literally afford to not care.

This is a great reminder for all of us who enjoy more freedom than most of the world has known or ever will know. We have the freedom to vote for leaders who represent our values—to vote freely; not coerced, not pressured, and not in physical danger because we vote a certain way. Let us exercise this freedom next month.

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