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Groups Turning to State Law to Make Claims Against Use of "Under God" E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Federal courts have consistently ruled constitutional the use of "Under God" in public school recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. In 2010, for example, the 9th Circuit held that the phrase is not a prayer, but instead an acknowledgement of our "founders' political philosophy."

In response, groups opposed to the use of "under God" are now employing a new legal tactic, relying on state law rather than the U.S Constitution to make their case. First in Massachusetts, and more recently in New Jersey, families have sued school districts challenging the mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, arguing the practice violates Equal Protection provisions of the state's constitution.

The Christian Science Monitor explains:

In the Massachusetts and New Jersey cases . . . atheists are claiming minority status and basing their arguments on guarantees of equal protection under the law.

“This approach, thinking of atheists as decent Americans who should not be discriminated against, is quite frankly long overdue,” says David Niose, legal director at the American Humanist Association. “It's almost as if the Establishment Clause has distracted from the fact that this is a minority group that deserves to be treated with respect.”
...
“The states have different standards with regard to equality, as well as a lot of other different constitutional rights,” says Mr. Niose. “So if you're an atheist who happens to feel that you're being discriminated against, it only makes sense to consider all of the alternatives.”

The American Humanist Association announced the filing of the New Jersey suit earlier this week.

 

 
Louisiana Legislator Pulls State Book Bill E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Tuesday, 22 April 2014

On second thought, Louisiana State Representative Thomas Carmody has decided to end his bid to make the Holy Bible the official state book, just ahead of a scheduled vote of the House yesterday. The Times-Picayune has more:

The bill had become a distraction, he said.
...
Initially, Carmody had just been intending to designate a specific, historic copy of the Bible, which he thought could be found in the Louisiana State Museum, as the official state book. But lawmakers amended Carmody's legislation two weeks ago to propose making any copy of the "Holy Bible" the official state book.

Whether or not the law would have been deemed a church-state violation by courts, the move was a bad idea, sure to alienate Louisiana residents whose faith follows a different text. Nice to see good sense prevail here.

 
Details will Determine Propriety of New Public School Bible Curriculum Offering E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Monday, 21 April 2014

Hobby Lobby founder Steve Green has already made a name for himself in the world of constitutional law by bringing the contraception coverage lawsuit the U.S. Supreme Court will decide later this year. But if he has his way, he may have an even bigger impact through his public school Bible curriculum project.

Church-state expert Charles Haynes says Green's proposal, recently adopted by an Oklahoma school district is "like nothing we've seen before." Religion News Service has the story:

[T]he Museum of the Bible Curriculum [is] an ambitious four-year public school elective on the narrative, history and impact of the Good Book.
...
It divides its topic into three areas—the Bible’s narrative, the history of its composition and reception, and its impact on human civilization. The spine of the first-year program—the only text completed so far—is a 400-plus-page book, currently spiral-bound, featuring 108 chapters divided into five-day-a-week lessons.

Supreme Court decisions indicate public schools may offer elective courses *about* religion, provided they do not cross over into religious favoritism, indoctrination or proselytizing. Does Green's curriculum stay on the proper side of that church-state line? As Professor Maark Chancey says in the RNS piece, "the devil is in the details." Stay tuned.

 
New Hampshire Supreme Court Debates Aid to Religious Schools Program E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Saturday, 19 April 2014

The New Hampshire Supreme Court last week heard oral arguments in a challenge to the state's tuition tax credit program. Businesses in the state are receiving tax credits for paying private school tuition through a scholarship incentive program. Because many of those funds are going to religious schools, plaintiffs argue the scheme violates the provision in New Hampshire's Constitution barring public aid for religious education.

Are tax credits for religious education the same as tax money flowing to religious schools? That was a focus of the debate. The Concord Monitor (via Religion Clause) has more.

Justice Carol Ann Conboy seemed skeptical yesterday that the cash was anything but public. “The factual reality is,” she said, “without the credit, those taxpaying businesses would be obligated to pay the taxes to the state.”

. . . Associate Attorney General Richard Head argued that even if Conboy’s point is true, the state does not consciously direct money to religious schools.
...
But Alex Luchenitser, an attorney arguing against the law . . . said it shouldn’t matter whether the money is generated directly from taxes.

“This court’s decisions have repeatedly held that the state should not be permitted to circumvent the state Constitution by doing indirectly what it cannot do directly,” Luchenitser said.

You can watch the oral arguments here.

 
New Police Commissioner Abandons NYPD Muslim Surveillance Program E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Thursday, 17 April 2014

A new police commissioner in New York has brought new policies. William Bratton put an end to the Demographics Unit, an undercover surveillance operation controversial for targeting Muslim communities, including maintaining files on individual houses of worship. (The BJC and others last year called on the Department of Justice to open an investigation into the program's potential abuses of religious liberty).

The NYTimes reports on the change in attitude under new NYPD leadership, indicating the end of the program has eased fears and tension.

“The Demographics Unit created psychological warfare in our community,” said Linda Sarsour, of the Arab American Association of New York. “Those documents, they showed where we live. That’s the cafe where I eat. That’s where I pray. That’s where I buy my groceries. They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community.”
...
Mr. Bratton has said that he intends to try to heal rifts between the Police Department and minority communities that have felt alienated as a result of policies pursued during the Bloomberg administration. The meeting last week put Mr. Bratton in the room with some of his department’s harshest critics.

“This is the first time we’ve felt that comfort sitting with them,” said Ahmad Jaber, who resigned from the Police Department’s Muslim advisory board last year to protest the surveillance tactics. “It’s a new administration, and they are willing to sit with the community and listen to their concerns.”

Among the horrible damage to America done by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, was the creation of a new willingness in this country to engage in religious profiling and other intrusions into religious liberty in the name of security. The healing from that injury continues.

 
Louisiana Considers Holy Bible as State Book E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Over the years writing this blog, I have seen several state and local governments memorialize the Ten Commandments through monuments, posters and other government displays. But a recent effort in Louisiana is a new (misguided) way to promote Scripture through government: legislators there are pushing to name the Holy Bible as the state's official book.

Louisiana's Advocate has more:

The House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee voted 8-5 to recommend the legislation to the full House.

State Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, countered [church-state concerns, claiming] that naming an official state book doesn’t equate to establishing a state religion, which is specifically prohibited in the U.S. Constitution.

“The Holy Bible would be appropriate for the state of Louisiana,” he said, particularly given the state’s strong religious ties.

 Should legislatures be uplifting Holy Scripture the same way they name a state bird or song?

 
Religious Groups File Brief in Clergy Housing Exemption Appeal E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Last year, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled unconstitutional the tax exemption for clergy's housing costs. The parsonage allowance, Judge Barbara Crabb held, favors religion over non-religion in violation of the First Amendment.  Her surprising decision is being appealed to the 7th Circuit. Religious organizations and advocates are making their views known to the court.

A brief filed by the Church Alliance makes the central case this way, according to Associated Baptist Press:

“The United States Supreme Court has long distinguished between affirmative assistance to religious organizations and merely lifting government‐imposed burdens so as to allow those organizations to exercise their religious mission more freely,” claimed groups including the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., Board of Retirement and Insurance of the National Association of Free Will Baptists and Converge Worldwide, formerly the Baptist General Conference.

“When Congress chooses not to impose a burden on religious organizations — whether by means of tax exemption or regulatory exception — it honors, rather than transgresses, this nation’s long tradition of separation between church and state.”

The BJC's Brent Walker also criticized the decision in a statement following the ruling, arguing the exemption is constitutional.

 
President Obama: Religious Hatred Has No Place in Society E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Monday, 14 April 2014
At the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast today, President Obama discussed the recent tragic shootings at a Jewish Synagogue and Community Center in Kansas City. Here is an excerpt from his remarks:

That this occurred now -- as Jews were preparing to celebrate Passover, as Christians were observing Palm Sunday --makes this tragedy all the more painful.  And today, as Passover begins, we’re seeing a number of synagogues and Jewish community centers take added security precautions.  Nobody should have to worry about their security when gathering with their fellow believers.  No one should ever have to fear for their safety when they go to pray.  

And as a government, we’re going to provide whatever assistance is needed to support the investigation.  As Americans, we not only need to open our hearts to the families of the victims, we’ve got to stand united against this kind of terrible violence, which has no place in our society.  And we have to keep coming together across faiths to combat the ignorance and intolerance, including anti-Semitism that can lead to hatred and to violence, because we’re all children of God.  We’re all made in His image, all worthy of his love and dignity.  And we see what happens around the world when this kind of religious-based or tinged violence can rear its ugly head.  It’s got no place in our society.

You can watch video of the speech here.

 
SBC's Russell Moore: Southern Baptist View of Religious Liberty Too Narrow E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Monday, 14 April 2014

The Southern Baptist Convention's Russell Moore, who took over for Richard Land as the head of the Ethics and Liberty Commission, says Southern Baptists have strayed from the historic Baptist principles and have gotten religious liberty wrong the last several years. ABP's Bob Allen reports on the remarks, made in a recent podcast.

“You have some people who haven’t thought through that what our Baptist forebears were saying is right — that religious liberty is an image-of-God issue; it’s not a who-has-the-most-votes issue,” he said.

“That means we’re the people who ought to be saying the loudest: ‘We don’t want the mayor and the city council to say that a mosque can’t be in our town,’” he said. “The mayor and the city council that can say that is a mayor and a city council ... that has too much power.”

He goes on to say that too often Southern Baptists "cry wolf" over problems that don't rise to the level of religious persecution, or even government action. And then there is this: "Moore said most of the religious liberty battles Baptists fought in previous years were against efforts by the government to establish a state religion. Today, he said, most are about sex."

He is wrong about one thing. Many Baptists have continued to fight against the state establishment of religion. The Baptist Joint Committee is supported by 15 national and state bodies of Baptists, from American Baptist Churches to Seventh-Day Baptists to the National Baptist Conventions and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

So....where, oh where could Southern Baptist laypersons have ever gotten the idea that Christians in America are under the constant threat of religious persecution? Where could they have heard that they should abandon those Baptist battles of previous years? Whatever could have inspired Southern Baptists to believe that the cause of religious liberty is best served by seeking political influence rather than making is an "image-of-God issue"?

 
Judge Allows Jewish Congregation to Continue Home Meeting Pending Lawsuit in Texas E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Friday, 11 April 2014
Residents in a North Dallas neighborhood are unhappy that one home is being used for services of an Orthodox Jewish congregation. A lawsuit challenging the use as a violation of the homeowners' covenant, however, has encountered arguments that disallowing the congregation's meeting place would violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The judge in the case declined yesterday to issue an injunction halting the services.

The Dallas Morning News has more:

District Judge Jill Willis said she was denying the temporary injunction based on the law and the brief evidence heard Thursday. The lawsuit in Collin County, which was first reported in March, will proceed.

“I’m overfilled with appreciation to the judge,” Rabbi Yaakov Rich said after the hearing, citing the congregation’s need to have a place to meet for Passover, which begins Monday.

You can read a brief in opposition to the lawsuit, explaining the religious freedom implications here (via Religion Clause).

 
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Groups Turning to State Law to Make Claims Against Use of "Under God"
Federal courts have consistently ruled constitutional the use of "Under God" in public school recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. In 2010, for example, the 9th Circuit held that the phrase is not a prayer, but instead an acknowledgement of our "founders' political philos...
 
Louisiana Legislator Pulls State Book Bill
On second thought, Louisiana State Representative Thomas Carmody has decided to end his bid to make the Holy Bible the official state book, just ahead of a scheduled vote of the House yesterday. The Times-Picayune has more: The bill had become a distraction, he said. ... Initially, ...