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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).

 
Bill O'Reilly: Government Should Bring Religion to Children E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Thursday, 10 April 2014
A key feature of America's tradition of religious freedom is the idea that government should neither advance nor inhibit religion. As BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said recently in a speech at Baylor University, "government must be neutral toward religion, turning it loose to flourish or flounder on its own."

That is not, apparently, the view of one Bill O'Reilly, the host, I'm told, of a program on Fox News, and author of a new book about the life of Jesus. In an interview with Matt Lauer promoting the book, O'Reilly explained why he thinks public school children should be taught about the life and death of Christ.

Here is a bit of the interview (my emphasis added):

LAUER: You say people are fed up with secularism. You feel that the story of the life and the death of Jesus Christ are essential to understanding our very country. And you want this story taught in public schools. Make your case for me.

O'REILLY: Okay. Kids, if they live in a secular home and go to public school, don't know anything about Jesus. In fact, the only time they hear the word "Jesus" is when somebody's yelling at them. "Jesus!" Okay? So they don't know anything. Our constitution was forged on Judeo-Christian philosophy and tradition. You don't believe that? Go to the Supreme Court. What's outside of the Supreme Court? Moses holding the Ten Commandments, a sculpture.

LAUER: Alright, but does that mean we teach the story of Jesus in public schools?
...
LAUER: I went to New York public schools, so I didn't get it there. But I found a way to fill the void in other ways in my life.

O'REILLY: You shouldn't have to go seek it, it's part of our history and it's a part of our heritage. Kids need to know what Judeo-Christian tradition is. Because that's what all of our laws are based on. That's what the country's philosophy is based on.

You shouldn't have to seek faith, according to O'Reilly, nor should the Christian faith have to reach out to you on its own. Government should bring it to you.

Why? Because there is a statue of Moses at the Supreme Court?

O'Reilly's argument is nonsense. Yes, of course, most Americans at the time of the founding were some variety of Christian. And yet, the Founders had the good sense to leave God and Christ out of the Constitution, and to emphasize instead the freedom of Americans to choose our own brand of faith, without the government choosing for us.

Schools are free to teach *about* religion as part of history and literature classes to the extent that it's relevant to the field, and taught in a way that is mindful of diverse faiths and avoids proselytizing. But that is very different from public schools teaching religion, or indoctrinating children into a religious tradition. That is the role of parents and clergy.

O'Reilly thinks we can teach kids about Christ in public school (presumably through his book) without crossing that line by making sure that teachers are "professional" about it. But his response to a question about teaching Christ while being sensitive to children of non-Christian faiths, he says, "That's what forged the Constitution. If they don't like it, that's too bad." Some professionalism.

Most importantly, Christianity is strong enough to thrive on the power of its message of love, hope, grace and redemption. That message is delivered successfully only when it is freely received.

All of that to say, Christians should not seek the government's aid in spreading the Word. If we do anyway, (perhaps in a moment of O'Reillian weakness) the Constitution, thankfully, is there to say no.

 
Virginia Governor Vetoes Religion in Schools Bill E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Wednesday, 09 April 2014

As promised, the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, vetoed legislation last week that sought to authorize student religious expression in public schools. The Washington Post has more:

Proponents of the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Charles W. Carrico, Sr. (R-Grayson County), said it would protect students’ freedom of religious expression. But McAuliffe said in a statement Friday that students already have this freedom.
...
He said the bill could subject schools to litigation by creating the potential for school-sponsored religious activities.

Student religious expression bills like Virginia's (and the one passed in Tennessee, and others) offer to solve problems that don't exist, and in the process create new headaches for administrators and new threats to religious liberty. Students are already free to pray in public schools as long as they don't disrupt the educational mission of the school. Likewise, students are free to meet together and discuss religious views to the same extent they can discuss non-religious views.

What they can't do is exploit opportunities as official speakers at school functions to promote religion to a captive audience of students. Instead of clarifying these rules, the current fad of student expression legislation muddies these important distinctions, invites constitutional violations, and reinforces the misconception that students are forced to abandon their religion at the schoolhouse door.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

 
Mississippi RFRA Debate Shows Hyperbole on Both Sides E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Tuesday, 08 April 2014

Writing at the ABPNews/Herald blog, Aaron Weaver calls out the extreme rhetoric from the left regarding state RFRA legislation like the law that recently passed in Mississippi, requiring the government to refrain from substantially burdening a person's religious exercise unless it is necessary to achieve a compelling interest. He correctly points out that while earlier versions of the bill were troubling and lacked appropriate safeguards, the bill that ultimately passed was amended to rectify those problems.

Since the original bill included a specific provision protecting health care providers, opponents feared that Senate Bill 2681 would offer a religious liberty defense to a doctor or nurse who refused to treat a LGBT patient in violation of the state’s nondiscrimination statute.

Fortunately, the original version of Mississippi’s Senate Bill 2681 was not the version that passed. . . .

The bill that emerged from the House-Senate conference committee and passed Tuesday by the Mississippi legislature was a literal mirror image of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the bipartisan landmark legislation adopted by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton 20 years ago.

He goes on to note that despite these improvements in the bill, many advocates unfortunately continue to mischaracterize the law for political purpose.

Read the whole thing.

 
Supreme Court Declines Review of Controversial New Mexico Case E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Monday, 07 April 2014

While we wait for the Supreme Court's ruling on the question of government invocations in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, today's Orders included notice that the Court denied the petition in the case of Elane Photography v. Willock. In that case, a photographer was found to have violated the civil rights laws of New Mexico by refusing to provide services for a same-sex wedding. Elane Photography argued the application of non-discrimination laws in such a case violated religious freedom rights of conscience, but was unsuccessful in the New Mexico Supreme Court. 

The Court's denial today leaves that decision intact.

Elane Photography is the case largely credited with setting off a firestorm over the issue of rights of conscience. Many state legislators pushing religious freedom acts in recent months  cited the case as a central rationale.

 
BJC and Other Religious Liberty Advocates Urge Pentagon to Improve Accommodation Policy E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Saturday, 05 April 2014

When the Pentagon announced new rules for religious accommodation, it was a positive step toward respecting the needs of Americans who wish to serve in the military but face the prospect of violating tenets of their religious faith in the process. The new rules developed a procedure for requesting accommodation and emphasized that requests should only be denied when outweighed by the needs of the mission.

On close inspection, however, many religious liberty advocates argue the policy doesn't go far enough to protect service members' rights. In a letter to the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, the Baptist Joint Committee - alongside the ACLU, the Becket Fund, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and others - requested the Pentagon revise the policy further in light of those concerns.

Here is a snippet:

As currently drafted, section 4(g) of the revised Instruction would require religiously observant service members and prospective service members to remove their head coverings, cut their hair, or shave their beards–a violation of their religious obligations–while their request to accommodate these same religious practices is pending. This is so, even if they are otherwise qualified to serve and an accommodation is unlikely to undermine safety or other necessary objectives. . . .
 
Further, under Section 4(j) of the revised Instruction, even if an original accommodation request is approved, religiously observant service members would be required to submit a new request for the same accommodation every time they receive a new assignment, “transfer of duty station, or other significant change in circumstances.” The uncertainty associated with this requirement to repeatedly request an accommodation for the very same religious practices is stifling, and may needlessly limit career opportunities-or, in some cases, end careers.
 
Without further revisions, Instruction 1300.17 will have an unwelcome and unnecessary chilling effect on religious liberty–and will limit opportunities for talented individuals of faith to serve in our nation’s military.
 
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Louisiana Considers Holy Bible as State Book
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...
 
Religious Groups File Brief in Clergy Housing Exemption Appeal
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 7t...