Tag archives: Religious Liberty

Terrible News for Nigeria’s Christians as Violence Increases

by Lela Gilbert

April 16, 2021

On Friday, April 16, the Washington Post reported that tens of thousands of Nigerians have fled deadly attacks by armed groups, making the shocking statement that “the latest rebel attack on Wednesday drove out as many as 80% of the population of Damasak, according to the U.N. refugee agency, who said up to 65,000 people were on the move… . Assailants looted and burned down private homes, warehouses of humanitarian agencies, a police station, a clinic, and also a UNHCR facility… .”

Trying to verify this almost unbelievable story, I wrote to my Nigerian Christian friend Hassan John – who actively reports about the ongoing tragedy in his country. He replied, “Yes, the attack on Damasak and surrounding villages has been intense in the last two weeks. Most Christians have fled in the last four weeks as the intensity of the fight increased. Boko Haram has now taken over control of most of the region around Lake Chad up to the Cameroonian boarders. They are now moving in towards Mauduguri.”

Family Research Council continues to actively document the deteriorating security situation here, as explained in our full report on Nigeria updated earlier this year. The report explains, “1,202 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first six months of 2020. This is in addition to 11,000 Christians who have been killed since June 2015. Such violence has reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide—a ‘slow-motion war’ specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation.”

The stories that emerge from Nigeria are always terrifying and similar: heavily armed jihadis suddenly appear in the dead of night. They attack house after house, breaking down doors, shouting “Allahu Akbar.” They shoot the elderly and able-bodied men. They rape, mutilate, and murder women. They kidnap young boys and girls, often using them as slaves and concubines. They torch houses, schools, and churches.

Some villagers manage to flee into the bush. Too many of them are never seen again, while in following days it’s difficult to say for sure who is still alive, who has fled, and who has been kidnapped. Photos of survivors’ faces reflect the agony of trying to remember just what happened, exactly when the screaming and shooting began, and how they managed to escape with their lives after seeing friends and loved ones murdered or mutilated.

Beyond a doubt, there is a surging bloodbath in Nigeria. Murderous incidents are acted out with accelerating frequency and have long been attributed to two terror groups—Boko Haram and Fulani jihadis. Unfortunately, that picture is changing and worsening. The terrorist groups in Africa that enjoy major funding and notoriety are successfully reaching further into the continent, unifying their forces, absorbing other groups, and gaining greater power.

Olivier Guitta, Managing Director of GlobalStrat, ominously predicts the dawning of a new Caliphate. He writes:

Islamic State’s historical strong franchises have included the spinoff of Boko Haram in Nigeria that is part of Islamic State in West Africa Province. More recently the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has made huge progress almost supplanting al-Qaeda as the top dog in the region … the future looks unfortunately bright for Islamic State in a continent with lots of fragile, corrupt quasi-failed states that could allow the birth of a Caliphate in mini territories in Mozambique, the Sahel and possibly Nigeria.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest state and its most prosperous. The population is 53 percent Christian. And the Christian community is often intentionally targeted because of its religious faith. In many rural areas, residents report that they never go to sleep at night assured that they will not be attacked and murdered before sunrise. Those who have survived attacks report that the perpetrators shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they killed and destroyed.

Meanwhile, while nearly daily reports of kidnappings, murders and massacres continue to appear, WSJ explains that Islamic State is transforming itself into a different kind of enemy by “embracing an array of militant groups as if they were local franchises. After its dreams of imposing draconian Islamist law in a self-declared state in Syria were crushed, Islamic State successfully injected itself into localized conflicts in Nigeria, Libya and across the Sahel, the semiarid belt running east-west along the southern edge of the Sahara.”

As American Christians, we often focus our attention solely on our own country and its increasingly anti-Christian leadership and legislation. However, as we watch, pray and respond to opportunities to push back against ungodly forces in our homeland, let’s also keep in mind that there never has been a more dangerous and deadly time for Christians all across the world.

Britain’s Guardian reports that “more than 340 million Christians—one in eight—face high levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith, according to the 2021 World Watch List compiled by the Christian advocacy group Open Doors. It says there was a 60% increase over the previous year in the number of Christians killed for their faith. More than nine out of 10 of the global total of 4,761 deaths were in Africa.”

As we pray and lift up America’s present concerns, we ought also to remember to lift our eyes beyond our borders. Let’s pray for those who are endangered in faraway places—like long-suffering Nigeria—as if we were suffering with them.

Why Is Religious Freedom So Uniquely Important?

by Arielle Del Turco

April 12, 2021

At the heart of many recent contentious debates from the Equality Act to COVID-19 church restrictions is the issue of religious freedom. But what exactly is religious freedom, and what makes it so uniquely important?

At its core, religion is the search for truth about questions of ultimate meaning. Common to most religions is an organized collection of beliefs, behaviors, and practices that connect or relate humanity with the divine. Religious freedom, then, is the freedom to believe what you want in terms of doctrine and theology and the freedom to order your life according to your deepest convictions about ultimate things.

In other words, religious freedom protects the ability of individuals to choose and change their religious beliefs and align their lives in agreement with those beliefs.

Religious freedom is not relativistic, nor does it profess there is no truth about God. Rather, it affirms the deep importance of truth and upholds the right of individuals to come to their own conclusions about what is true of God, humanity, and the world.

Attacks on religious freedom target one’s conscience—the very core of their being. This makes religious freedom a unique and essential right. Tom Farr says, “Our nature impels us to seek answers to profound questions about ultimate things. If we are not free to pursue those answers, and to live according to the truths we discover, we cannot live a fully human life.”

Thus, religious freedom is not merely the right to attend church and practice your religion within the walls of a church, synagogue, or mosque. Rather, it is the ability to live out your faith, including in the public square.

This broad conception of religious freedom is enshrined in the United States Constitution. The First Amendment protects this basic right, often called our “first freedom.” The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Beyond this key constitutional protection, religious freedom is also a fundamental human right, one recognized by international resolutions and treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

Religious freedom is a widely recognized right around the globe. Yet, laws in many countries put qualifiers on the legal right to religious freedom, empowering governments to crack down when the beliefs of a community or an individual are perceived to oppose the government.

For Americans, these aggressive international violations remind us of the importance of protecting religious freedom at home. Yet, they also demonstrate the importance of promoting religious freedom in our foreign policy.

Societies that embrace religious freedom and pluralism tend to be more prosperous and secure. This makes sense. Societies that embrace individuals’ freedom to express their own viewpoints and live according to their beliefs are going to attract, rather than repel, talented people abroad as well as global economic engagement. Pluralistic societies that value human dignity and do not view religious groups or beliefs as a problem to be eliminated will not suffer from the violence that is fostered by religious discrimination.  

Religious freedom corresponds with and affirms other basic freedoms, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The right to openly express your most deeply held beliefs is essential to religious freedom, as is the right to peacefully assemble in houses of worship and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the concept of religious freedom is often misunderstood. This is seen with increasing frequency with activists who pit religious freedom against the demands of the moral revolution. For example, those whose beliefs about gender and sexuality are influenced by their faith are caricatured as intolerant and their beliefs are perceived as subversive. The resulting tension threatens to erode support for religious freedom as a freedom that benefits everyone—religious and non-religious.

Amid increasingly heated cultural debates, it is critical for those who value our first freedom to affirm its importance. Religious freedom will not endure by laws alone, although the law should include robust protections for religious freedom. Religious freedom also relies on cultural support.

By consistently living out our faith in the public square, we can foster a culture that respects religious freedom. So, pray in public, share your faith, and do not compromise your beliefs. Your constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion protects your ability to live according to your convictions. So, use it. Live according to your faith and defend the rights of others to do the same.

Biden’s Cabinet (Part 6): Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh’s Fixation on the LGBT Agenda

by Joseph Norris

March 23, 2021

This is Part 6 of a blog series examining the records of President Biden’s Cabinet picks on abortion and family issues. Read previous posts on Antony BlinkenXavier BecerraJennifer GranholmMarcia Fudge, and Shalanda Young.

Confirmed by the Senate 68-29, Marty Walsh, the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), will have to choose between advancing the LGBT agenda and protecting religious liberty. Given the policies of past Democratic administrations and Walsh’s own track record, it is safe to assume that he will advocate for policies that favor the LGBT agenda to the detriment of religious liberty.

Walsh served as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives before serving two terms as the mayor of Boston. During his confirmation hearing on February 4, Walsh highlighted his status as a labor union member and advocate. A closer analysis of his background reveals a long track record of prioritizing the LGBT agenda. As a Massachusetts state representative, Walsh argued in favor of same-sex marriage bills. As Boston’s mayor, he intentionally hired several LGBT employees as a political statement, not based solely on their merits for the job, and made the bathrooms in City Hall gender-neutral. Walsh also sought to ensure that city employees had access to “transition-related healthcare services.” Walsh seems set to continue his LGBT activism at the DOL.

The policies of the Obama-era DOL severely limited the religious liberty of faith adherents that sought to contract with DOL. As a result, religious individuals and non-profit organizations were less likely to seek government contracts or utilize government services. Seeking to reverse this trend, the Trump administration’s DOL finalized a rule encouraging “the full and equal participation of religious organizations as federal contractors.” Family Research Council had submitted comments in support of this rule change, which ensured that people would “be free to believe as they engage with the government and in the public square.” This rule change is one of the policies that is likely in danger with Walsh at the helm of the DOL.

As FRC’s David Closson has noted, there is a growing perception in America that religious liberty is merely an excuse for bigotry. We must tactfully and graciously contradict this misconception, explaining that religious liberty—freedom of belief—is good for everyone, not just people of faith. Christians should also pray that Walsh and the DOL will seek the good of all American workers while still respecting the religious freedom protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Elected Leaders Are Moving to Protect Children and Religious Freedom

by Chantel Hoyt

March 22, 2021

In recent weeks, congressional Republicans introduced legislation that would allow faith-based child welfare agencies to operate in line with their convictions and protect their religious freedom. The Senate version of the bill was sponsored by Senators John Kennedy (R-La.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) while Representative Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) introduced a companion bill in the House. Speaking about the bill, Scott said, “At a time where religious freedoms are under assault, the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act [CWPIA] is a necessary protection for those who are living according to their convictions.”

Several states have also recognized the need for such legislation. In recent weeks, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Kentucky have all introduced legislation that aims to provide the same protections to faith-based child welfare agencies. Specifically, this includes the freedom to place children in homes consistent with their beliefs on biblical family life and sexuality.

While it is the first time this type of legislation has been introduced in these three states, their introduction, as well as the introduction of the federal CWPIA, signals broader concern around the country about the Biden administration’s focus on LGBT issues and how it will impact religious liberty. With President Biden’s support for the Equality Act—a bill that would negatively impact these faith-based agencies (and many other groups)—the future of faith-based child welfare agencies is uncertain. But those committed to preserving religious freedom aren’t likely to go down without a fight.

Legislatures in eight different states have felt the need to pass legislation to protect foster and adoption care agencies, beginning in 2012 (Virginia) and most recently in 2020 (Tennessee). Such legislation allows these agencies to operate in a way consistent with their religious beliefs, without suffering from license revocation, contract termination, or other adverse action from the state. This growing threat has already been seen in Michigan, South Carolina, Illinois, and Massachusetts as well as cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia. In many of these instances, faith-based foster and adoption care agencies have been forced to forego their religious beliefs, serve in a severely limited capacity, and even close their doors because they were not willing to compromise on their principles regarding marriage and sexuality.

Although such discriminatory actions harm the children these agencies serve, opponents of faith-based organizations tend to only focus on LGBT couples who are ‘turned away,’ supposedly limiting the pool of parents willing to help children in need. However, this logic makes two false assumptions.

The first is that faith-based child welfare agencies are LGBT couples’ only option to become parents. This is simply not the case. The majority of agencies in the country are more than willing to work with same-sex couples. Only about 25 percent of agencies are faith-based and have narrow criteria potential parents must meet. For example, in Philadelphia in 2018, only two out of the nearly 30 child welfare agencies were faith-based. The city terminated these agencies’ contracts anyway. The lawsuit filed against the city by foster parents who worked with Catholic Social Services has shown that the agency had not denied service or turned away anyone because of their LGBT status. Further, it showed that should they be unable to partner with a couple that approaches them, they would help that couple connect with one of the other 29 agencies in the city. This is not enough for the activists. Clearly, they were sued because of their religious belief. The picture of a same-sex couple being turned away from a faith-based agency and having nowhere else to turn is simply inaccurate.  

The second false assumption is that more children will receive homes and much needed care if faith-based agencies are forced to make the choice between their beliefs and continuing to help those in need. The reality, though, is that fewer children will receive the care they need because some of the highest performing and longest serving agencies will be shut down or sidelined simply because they’re faith-based. Illinois’ foster and adoption system, for example, seems to still be suffering after the closure of Catholic Charities in 2011. Sadly, Illinois has seen a 14 percent decrease in the number of non-relative foster care beds or homes from 2012 to 2017, and the state lost 1,547 foster homes during that same time period—homes that could have been available to serve foster children in need. It should go without saying that this will harm children in the foster care and adoption systems.

Protecting the ability of faith-based child welfare agencies to continue operating in accordance with their religious beliefs is good for everyone. It helps more children receive care by increasing the number of agencies able to serve them. Allowing religious organizations of any kind to operate alongside non-religious ones is crucial to preserve freedom of religion in our society and to ensure that we are able to serve as many children in need as possible.

We are thankful for the many states and those in Congress who are taking steps to protect this crucial area of religious freedom.

Biden’s Cabinet (Part 4): Marcia Fudge Would Roll Back Religious Liberty Protections at HUD

by Joseph Norris , Mia Steupert

March 10, 2021

This is Part 4 of a blog series examining the records of President Biden’s Cabinet picks on abortion and family issues. Read previous posts on Antony BlinkenXavier Becerra, and Jennifer Granholm.

The ongoing debate over how legal protections for sexual orientation and gender ideology impact individuals, businesses, religious institutions, and the public square will take center stage under President Biden’s administration. This is something President Biden’s nominee to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Marcia Fudge will have to grapple with if she is confirmed. The six-term Democratic Congresswoman from Ohio will be in charge of leading a department that is tasked with ensuring housing for low-income individuals through a litany of government-funded programs. It is likely that she will strengthen Obama-era regulations that prioritized LGBTQ-identified individuals over others, including women, girls, individuals of faith, and faith-based organizations.

A study released by Baylor University found that most homeless shelters in the United States are run by Christian organizations. These organizations could bear the brunt of the liberal sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) policies that are passed by HUD. If Fudge is confirmed, she will have the opportunity to renew and further the Obama-era policies that used departmental rules to elevate protections of LGBTQ-identified individuals over others. Already, she voted in favor of codifying these special protections back in 2014, which would have enforced the LBTGQ ideology on private contractors with traditional religious beliefs. President Obama used HUD to advance LGBTQ ideology, when back in 2009, his administration commissioned a study to investigate discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. This led to a 2012 rule which forced participants in HUD-assisted and HUD-insured housing programs to forfeit their religious beliefs if they wanted to continue their participation. Following this, a 2016 rule regarding HUD’s Community Planning and Development Programs was finalized which forced those participating in these programs (like sex-segregated homeless shelters) to allow biological men into private spaces intended for biological women and to forfeit their religious beliefs if they wanted to continue participation.

In 2020, the Trump administration proposed a rule to begin to roll back these regulations with then-Secretary Ben Carson remarking that this was an attempt to “better accommodate religious beliefs of shelter providers.” This rule would have given those operating as single-sex or sex-segregated facilities some flexibility in developing their own “admissions determination” policies. While the rule would not have given complete freedom, since organizations were still bound by local policy, it gave facilities more freedom to exercise their religious beliefs. Additionally, in compliance with a 2018 executive order titled “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative,” nine federal agencies, including HUD, finalized a rule that these agencies must give faith-based organizations the same opportunities to participate in their programs as their secular counterparts. With Fudge’s past voting record as a congresswomen, her past statements and her backing by the Human Rights Campaign for her pro-LGBTQ voting record, it is safe to assume that Fudge will scale back the advances for religious liberty made at HUD by the Trump administration.

There has been no clear statement whether Congresswoman Fudge would continue these policies, but her voting record is a strong indication. During her 12 years in Congress, she developed a strong pro-LGBTQ voting record. In 2011, she sponsored a bill that would add SOGI protections to school activities and facilities. Similarly, she voted in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would have amended the Defense of Marriage Act to codify same-sex marriage. Outside of Congress she has publicly supported SOGI ideology and called for more action on the issue. Given her past record and her statements, it is likely that Marcia Fudge will not only push for a return to the regulations from the Obama administration but will also take these rules that threaten the religious liberty of Americans to new heights.

President Biden has already shown during his first few weeks in office that he has no problem advancing his liberal agenda through unilateral action. Fudge could issue memoranda or guidance and oversee rules that limit religious liberty and force organizations across the country to decide between their faith and access to greater resources to help the needy in their community, including battered women and the homeless. We should all pray that, if confirmed, Fudge’s actions do not come to fruition, for if they did, they would limit the avenues of help for those in need. If she is confirmed, we pray for a conversion of her heart and that she will use her platform to uphold the religious liberty rights of all people.

Joseph Norris is a Policy and Government Affairs intern focusing on pro-life issues.

Mia Steupert is a Policy and Government Affairs intern focusing on family and religious liberty.

H.R. 1: A Religious Test for Redistricting?

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.

March 3, 2021

Tucked away in H.R. 1, a bill intended to enact sweeping election reforms, is a problematic religious test for public service—this time on redistricting commissions set up by the bill.

H.R. 1 requires states to establish a nonpartisan agency in the state legislature. This nonpartisan agency will establish an independent redistricting commission to organize electoral districts.

Section 2412 establishes eligibility criteria to serve on the redistricting commission. Any individual applying to serve on the redistricting commission must provide personal information, including:

The reason or reasons the individual desires to serve on the independent redistricting commission, the individual’s qualifications, and information relevant to the ability of the individual to be fair and impartial, including, but not limited to—

(I) any involvement with, or financial support of, professional, social, political, religious, or  community organizations or causes [emphasis added].

While it may appear minor, this is incredibly problematic because it suggests that religious affiliations may affect an individual’s ability to be impartial, and thereby may make them ineligible to serve on the commission. This is not only discriminatory, but also unconstitutional.

Article 6, Clause 3, of the U.S. Constitution states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This is a tradition that has protected religious believers from discrimination for centuries. It is critical that we preserve the integrity of this constitutional clause and refuse to allow religious tests to become enshrined in law through H.R. 1.

As cancel culture rages, it is easy to see how this provision will be utilized to target conservative Christians, whose biblical values are increasingly at odds with the culture’s embrace of certain favored ideologies. When Judge Amy Coney Barrett was chosen to be a Supreme Court Justice, the Left relentlessly called her eligibility for the office into question based on her informal affiliation with a Catholic prayer group.

Provisions like this one only legitimize that shameful argument. The subtle religious test in H.R. 1 is just another reason Congress should reject this bill.

Supreme Court Takes a Look at Religious Liberty for Adoption Providers in Fulton Case

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

November 4, 2020

Today, the Supreme Court heard telephonic oral arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that concerns the right of religious foster care agencies to speak and act consistently with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Catholic Social Services (“CSS”) is a religiously affiliated ministry that has provided foster care services in the City of Philadelphia for over 200 years. Part of its work requires it to evaluate prospective foster parents to certify that they meet state standards. Because of its sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, CSS considers same-sex couples to be unmarried and is unable to certify them as foster parents. Although an LGBT-identified couple has never approached CSS, if this were to happen, CSS would simply refer the couple to another agency that would be able to certify them. Nevertheless, the City of Philadelphia stopped referring children to CSS.

At the Supreme Court, several of the justices demonstrated willingness to protect the religious beliefs of CSS and similar agencies. Justice Kavanaugh emphasized the fact that CSS’s beliefs have never prevented an LGBT-identified couple from fostering a child in Philadelphia. He stated that:

It seems like Philadelphia created a clash … and was looking for a fight and has brought that serious, controversial fight all the way to the Supreme Court even though no same-sex couple had gone to CSS, even though 30 agencies are available for same-sex couples, and even though CSS would refer any same-sex couple to one of those other agencies.

He emphasized that on this controversial issue, the government should seek “win-win answers” and try to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs as much as possible:

[G]overnments should be looking, where possible, for win-win answers, recognizing that neither side is going to win completely on these issues given the First Amendment on the one hand and given Obergefell on the other … [W]e need to find a balance that also respects religious beliefs … And what I fear here is that [a position that does not allow any exemptions for organizations like CSS] would require us to go back on the promise of respect for religious believers.        

Justice Alito expressed concern that the City had attempted to suppress a viewpoint with which it did not agree:

[I]f we are honest about what’s really going on here, it’s not about ensuring that same-sex couples in Philadelphia have the opportunity to become foster parents. It’s the fact that the city can’t stand the message that Catholic Social Services and the Archdiocese are sending by continuing to adhere to the old-fashioned view about marriage.

Even some of the Court’s more liberal justices were concerned about the City’s actions. Justice Breyer stated, “What’s actually bothering me quite a lot about this case is I think that no [LGBT-identified] family has ever been turned down by this agency. Indeed, none has ever applied.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who participated in oral arguments for the first time on Monday, asked one of the attorneys whether the Court’s controversial decision in Employment Division v. Smith should be overruled. Justice Alito also questioned the “stability” of the Smith decision. If the Court were to overrule this decision, it would likely reinstate a legal standard that provides strong protection for religious liberty.

The Court’s decision could have significant implications not only for the rights of religious foster care agencies, but religious liberty in a much broader sense. The Court is expected to decide this case by the end of June, and it is certainly one to keep an eye on.

Key Trump Administration Officials Show How Religious Freedom Is Being Defended at Home and Abroad

by Ruth Moreno

October 28, 2020

On October 27, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) held an insightful virtual panel event on the importance of protecting religious liberty both domestically and internationally. The event, titled “Religious Freedom in the Age of COVID-19 and Beyond,” addressed how the current pandemic has affected the national and international dialogue on religious liberty.

The Freedom of Religion Is “Essential”

Much has been said about the threats to religious liberty posed by overbearing officials here in the United States. Roger Severino, Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the HHS, emphasized during Tuesday’s panel that as the COVID-19 pandemic claims more and more lives, we must be prepared to ask the question: what do people live for?

For many people, Severino said, “it is their belief in God and religious community.” This means we may need to rethink what we mean when we talk about what counts as an “essential” service.

We really tread on dangerous waters when we’re picking and choosing what counts as essential versus not, when part of human nature is to seek the transcendent and express it according to your best lights,” Severino said.

He also spoke more broadly about how the federal government has been working hard to uphold religious liberty and freedom of conscience, saying it “should not be up for debate. It should be beyond dispute just like every other civil right.”

Claire Murray, who serves as an Associate Attorney General at the Department of Justice (DOJ), reminded panelists that “There’s no pandemic exception to the Constitution” regarding religious freedom. Within the DOJ, Murray has worked to make sure religious organizations are not singled out by state and local leaders. Since the beginning of the government-enforced lockdowns, the DOJ has filed six amicus briefs on behalf of religious organizations.

Murray also addressed the continuing controversy over the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious order which was exempted from certain parts of the Affordable Care Act and associated mandates which would have forced them to violate their religious beliefs about contraception and abortion. Murray said that President Trump’s 2017 Executive Order on the protection of religious liberty has helped guide the federal government as it continues dealing with challenges and settlements in lower federal courts.

Progress in Protecting the Rights of Believers Around the World

Yet domestic religious freedom policy work is only part of the story; many more good efforts are being undertaken overseas. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback and Ambassador Andrew Bremberg, the United States’ Permanent Representative to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, both spoke at length about the United States’ mission to protect religious liberty internationally, which Brownback called “a centerpiece of policy.”

Ambassador Brownback also remarked on some unexpected religious freedom developments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several countries have released prisoners of conscience for fear that they will contract the virus, which Brownback applauded as “good news.” However, Brownback also warned against the scapegoating of religious minorities who have spread the virus within their communities and said that he has been “pushing back against that aggressively.”

Brownback concluded that the overall trendline has been positive, while Bremberg noted he is still “deeply concerned about governments around the world” using COVID to suppress religious freedom, and reminded panelists that the current focus on the pandemic has allowed the world’s worst human rights abusers to get away with their atrocities. Ambassador Bremberg spoke specifically about religious persecution in Russia, Nigeria, and especially in China.

Although the United Nations (UN) has an office dedicated to religious liberty, Bremberg regrets the silence which has come over many in the international community regarding the persecution of Uyghur Muslim minorities in China. Still, though, the United States has pressed ahead in promoting religious liberty, and Bremberg hopes other countries will look to us, and not to China, as a model.

Brownback agreed, saying “You’ve got a fundamental choice between the Chinese model and the U.S. model on religious freedom … The U.S. says, ‘you are free to do what you want with your soul. It’s a God-given right. No government has the right to interfere with it.’”

The United States’ tradition of religious liberty is inspired by our Declaration of Independence, but Ambassador Bremberg emphasized that the United States should not have to fight alone. The UN lists religious liberty as a fundamental right in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and though there is much work to be done, the international community has made some progress in protecting this right for all people.

Today, many countries still have apostasy and blasphemy laws so strict that changing one’s faith or otherwise violating these laws is enough to give one the death penalty. Under the Trump administration, the United States has formed an International Religious Freedom Alliance with 30 other countries and several more which may join. The Alliance has worked to protect religious rights in conflict zones and do away with these atrocious apostasy and blasphemy laws.

Ambassador Bremberg closed the panel with a further call to action: “Will we choose to protect, defend, [and] fight for, fundamental human rights established over 70 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the right for religious freedom? Or will we not fight for them?”

All Americans Should Stand for Religious Liberty

Fighting for religious liberty, both at home and abroad, takes a lot of time and effort. The rise of secularism and the devaluing of the religious voice, as Severino said, have threatened people’s rights to exercise their faith as they see fit. It is the duty of all Americans, of all faiths, to stand up and fight for religious liberty alongside Severino, Murray, Brownback, Bremberg, and other members of the Trump administration who have worked so hard to protect this most fundamental right.

For several years now, key Trump administration officials like those at this HHS event have been attempting to diligently implement the administration’s religious freedom policies, often in the face of much opposition. They and many others within the executive branch have been fighting for our rights day-in and day-out, often with little credit. As we approach a presidential election, it’s appropriate to take note of the many positive religious liberty developments that have actually occurred under the Trump administration.

To find out more about what the administration has been doing to protect religious freedom, both at home and abroad, please see the full list of the Trump administration’s accomplishments at PrayVoteStand.org

In Fulton, the Religious Liberty of Foster Care Providers Hangs in the Balance

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

October 21, 2020

During its last term, the Supreme Court garnered considerable attention by wading into the culture wars over polarizing social issues such as abortion and sexuality. Decisions to strike down a common-sense law requiring abortionists to have hospital admitting privileges and to redefine “sex” to include sexual orientation and gender identity were mourned by conservatives and applauded by liberals.

While secular activists lamented, conservatives celebrated decisions upholding the rights of religious families and schools to participate in neutral tuition assistance programs and requiring foreign organizations to adopt policies opposing prostitution and sex trafficking to receive federal funds to combat HIV/AIDS. The Court will likely remain in the public eye during its current term, when it will hear arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that will have significant implications for the future of religious liberty and foster care in America. The justices will hear oral arguments in the case on November 4.

The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” Thus, the Constitution protects religious liberty in two separate but related provisions. The Establishment Clause prevents Congress from favoring any religious denomination at the national level, while the Free Exercise Clause guarantees Americans the right to believe and act according to their religious convictions. Both Clauses also constrain the actions of the states. Prior to 1963, the right to freely exercise one’s religion was somewhat limited. While an individual’s religious beliefs were absolutely protected, his or her freedom to act on those beliefs could be fairly easily regulated.  

In 1963 and 1972, the Supreme Court decided two landmark religious liberty cases, Sherbert v. Verner and Wisconsin v. Yoder. These cases established the strict scrutiny standard, which means that when the government implements a law or policy that burdens someone’s right to free exercise, it must show (1) that it has a compelling state interest that justifies its burden on religious exercise and (2) that its law or policy is the least restrictive means of accomplishing this compelling interest. Because of their robust protection of religious liberty, Sherbert and Yoder ushered in a Golden Age of religious freedom in America.

In 1990, the Court issued an unexpected decision that dramatically changed religious liberty protections. In Employment Division v. Smith, the Court abandoned the strict scrutiny standard and held that the government only needs to show that its law or policy is neutral and generally applicable in order to overcome a free exercise challenge. This “neutral law of general applicability” standard waters down protections for religious liberty by giving the government a lower bar to overcome. The government only needs to demonstrate that the law treats religious and secular groups equally and was not enacted to target religion. Under this standard, religious individuals are rarely successful in court and must prove that they were actively targeted for their religious beliefs to prevail.

In its upcoming term, the Court will consider Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The decision will impact the rights of religious foster care agencies to speak and act consistently with their sincerely held religious beliefs. One of the plaintiffs in the case, Catholic Social Services (CSS), is a faith-based foster care agency that operates in Philadelphia. When a child enters Philadelphia’s foster care system, the City refers them to one of several foster care agencies. These agencies then evaluate prospective foster parents to certify that they meet state standards. Because of its sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, CSS considers same-sex couples to be unmarried and is unable to certify them as foster parents. However, if an LGBT-identified couple were ever to approach them (which has never happened), CSS would refer them to another agency that would be a better fit. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services has stopped referring children to CSS.

In the lower courts, CSS argued that the City’s actions were neither neutral nor generally applicable and targeted CSS because of its religious beliefs. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that there was no First Amendment violation and that Philadelphia did not treat CSS differently because of its religious beliefs. Rather, the court found that Philadelphia was merely engaged in a good-faith effort to enforce its nondiscrimination policy, which “prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in public accommodations.”  

In Fulton, one of the major issues that the Supreme Court will consider is whether it should revisit its decision in Employment Division v. Smith. If the Court revisits and overrules Smith, it will be a major victory for religious liberty that could restore the favorable strict scrutiny standard. However, if the Court declines to revisit Smith, or revisits and upholds Smith, its damaging precedent will become further entrenched in American law, dealing a major blow to religious liberty. The Court’s decision could be influenced by its recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which, as Justice Alito predicted in his dissent, could affect the speech of those who desire to “express[] disapproval of same-sex relationships …”

Allowing religious discrimination against faith-based foster care agencies would not just be a blow to the constitutionally-protected right of religious liberty. It would also be detrimental to the already overburdened foster care system. In states and localities that have forced religious agencies to close, children suffer. For example, after Illinois passed a statute that forced all foster care and adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples, nearly 3,000 children were displaced from religious agencies that were forced to close, and over 5,000 foster homes were lost. In Philadelphia, the home of a “Foster Parent of the Year” award winner who had been serving needy youth for decades was forcibly closed to foster youth, as were others. After the City ended its contract with CSS, siblings of children who had already been placed by the agency faced the daunting prospective of being forced into separate homes.  

Pennsylvania is not the only state to witness the targeting of religious foster care agencies. In Michigan, an activist couple targeted St. Vincent Catholic Charities, passing four other agencies they could have worked with as they traveled from their home to St. Vincent. Here, referrals had been made. Children in St. Vincent’s care had been transferred to other agencies working with LGBT-identified couples who were interested in adopting children in St. Vincent’s care. And in New York, New Hope Family Services, which has been serving needy children for over 50 years, was informed by the state that it must either change its policy of referring LGBT-identified couples to other agencies or cease its adoption services. A New York District Court judge recently issued an injunction on behalf of the church, preventing the state “from revoking New Hope Family Services’ authorization to place children for adoption.”

In Fulton, the Court stands poised to issue a decision that will have a lasting impact on the religious liberty of foster care agencies and perhaps that of all Americans. While we watch and wait for the Court’s decision, we should pray that God would give the justices wisdom to make the right decision.

Kaitlyn Shepherd is a legal intern with the Policy & Government Affairs Department at Family Research Council.

Senate Democrats: Tone-Deaf on Religious Freedom

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.

October 14, 2020

Throughout the last several days of Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats using Amy Coney Barrett as a political prop for their re-election campaigns (and antagonism toward President Trump), Senator Mazie Hirono from Hawaii turned in one of the worst performances on day three of the confirmation hearing—exhibiting a tone-deafness to religious freedom that was almost bizarre.

Among her list of cases on a giant poster-board supposedly showing that the sky would fall if Barrett is confirmed, Hirono included South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, which she claimed is putting “COVID safety measures” at risk.

Yet, South Bay is a case in which the Supreme Court refused to step in and protect a church from being discriminated against under coronavirus restrictions, after California continued to treat religious worship gatherings less equally than “factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops, bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries” under its approach to the coronavirus.

Why is Hirono using a case in which a church is being shut down to claim that coronavirus restrictions are at risk? Either she devalues religious freedom that much, or is blind to the needs of such churches.

But that church’s pastor, Amada Huizar, is not. He has had to face the very real and serious consequences of what has happened because churches have been unconstitutionally shuttered around the country: harm to communities and the people who live in them. Pastor Huizar recently joined FRC President Tony Perkins on Washington Watch to share the incredible life-and-death story of his decision to reopen his church, and spoke at Freedom Sunday, an event held to call on churches to reopen in the face of unconstitutional restrictions on them around the country.

Senator Hirono may simply be tone-deaf to the religious freedom rights of Pastor Huizar and others like him. The alternative is that she thinks so little of the First Amendment that she’s willing to use a case suppressing a church’s rights in her bid to block Judge Barrett’s confirmation. Either possibility is dismal in terms of respect for our First Amendment and the Constitution.

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