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Federal Judge Addresses Religious Concerns in Same-Sex Marriage Ruling E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Today, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled unconstitutional the state's amendment barring recognition of same-sex marriages conducted in other states that allow them. Equal Protection guarantees in the U.S. Constitution, he said, forbid such laws that deny benefits to an entire class of people when no rational reason exists to do so.

The plaintiffs argued the laws are also invalid because they improperly impose a religious view of marriage in violation of the separation of church and state. The judge did not address that argument, and did not need to, since he found it invalid on Equal Protection grounds.

So why include mention of this decision in a church-state blog, when the judge declined to comment on the church-state argument? Because he concluded his opinion with some interesting observations and explanations, aimed at those Kentuckians who feel that such a ruling - essentially requiring the state to recognize same-sex marriages conducted in other states - is an affront to their own religious beliefs.

Here is snippet:

Many Kentuckians believe in “traditional marriage.” Many believe what their ministers and scriptures tell them: that a marriage is a sacrament instituted between God and a man and a woman for society’s benefit. They may be confused — even angry — when a decision such as this one seems to call into question that view. These concerns are understandable and deserve an answer.

Our religious beliefs and societal traditions are vital to the fabric of society. Though each faith, minister, and individual can define marriage for themselves, at issue here are laws that act outside that protected sphere. Once the government defines marriage and attaches benefits to that definition, it must do so constitutionally. It cannot impose a traditional or faith-based limitation upon a public right without a sufficient justification for it. Assigning a religious or traditional rationale for a law, does not make it constitutional when that law discriminates against a class of people without other reasons.

The beauty of our Constitution is that it accommodates our individual faith’s definition of marriage while preventing the government from unlawfully treating us differently. This is hardly surprising since it was written by people who came to America to find both freedom of religion and freedom from it.

Many others may wonder about the future of marriages generally and the right of a religion or an individual church to set its own rules governing it. For instance...[m]ust churches now marry same-sex couples?
[N]o court can require churches or other religious institutions to marry same-sex couples or any other couple, for that matter. This is part of our constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. That decision will always be based on religious doctrine.

Alabama Bill Would Require School Prayer, Disguised as Civic Education E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Wednesday, 12 February 2014

I have to hand it to Alabama State Representative Steve Hurst. Despite clearly established First Amendment law prohibiting school-sponsored prayer in public schools, he is still trying to find some way to make it a reality. Via Religion Clause, House Bill 318 would require schools to open the day with a 15-minute session that includes a prayer. How does he try to sidestep that pesky thing called the Constitution? Well, according to Hurst, it's not really prayer as a religious exercise. It is instead an education in civic history because schools will be merely reading prayers that have been delivered in Congress and the state legislature to open their days.

Sneaky, huh? He just wants to expose the students to those great prayers of congressional and state capitol history.

The Anniston Star brings us the quote of the day, from Hurst:

"If Congress can open with a prayer, and the state of Alabama Legislature can, I don't see why schools can't," said Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, the bill's sponsor.

Really? Don't see why?

Rep. Hurst may not see it, but there are significant and obvious differences between Congress and state legislatures on the one hand and public schools on the other that make his proposal especially outrageous. First, public school attendees are *children.* Courts consistently emphasize the importance of safeguarding children from the coercive effects of state-sponsored prayers in school and at school events. Parents should be the ones to make decisions regarding the religious indoctrination of their children, not principals and certainly not state legislators. 

Second, students are a captive audience. They are required to be at school. If you have ever watched an opening prayer in Congress, you know that hardly anyone is there. And the gallery that is there plays just an observer's role, not a participant in the congressional session. 

So, I award points for ingenuity to Rep. Hurst, but his proposal still falls short. School-sponsored prayer, no matter how you package it, runs afoul of the religious freedom rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Why are President Obama's Detractors Criticizing his Religious Freedom Speech? E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Tuesday, 11 February 2014

President Obama's National Prayer Breakfast Speech last week continues to generate discussion and controversy this week. His address focused on the threats to religious freedom around the world, a stark reminder of the very real persecution faced by religious minorities in other countries. So, why the controversy? Not because his detractors disagree with him, but because they believe the address was hypocritical in light of current religious liberty disputes here in the United States where they believe the President is on the wrong side.

Here is a sample of that kind of argument, from columnist Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post:

[P]ry my jaw from the floorboards.

Without a hint of irony, the president lamented eroding protections of religious liberty around the world.

Just not, apparently, in America.
Missing was any mention of Hobby Lobby or the Little Sisters of the Poor — whose cases have recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court and that reveal the Obama administration’s willingness to challenge, rather than protect, religious liberty in this country.

Ms. Parker's mistake is in assuming all who disagree with her on the Affordable Care Act, as well as the other controversies she mentions, are opponents of religious liberty. She later refers to a single "religious-liberty lobby" as if it is a monolithic cause that agrees on all policy questions. Anyone, then that disagrees must be anti-religious liberty. That is simply not the case.

Many supporters of the contraception mandate are concerned, for example, about the religious liberty rights of employees, whose coverage would be subject to the religious views of the employer. Others argue the sanctity of religious liberty stems from it being a very personal expression of conscience and should not be considered a corporate expression.

These are difficult questions and sincere arguments by folks who on both sides value religion and religious liberty. We should be able to have these discussions as grownups who recognize the cause of religious liberty has several dimensions!  Our constitutional guarantee is a delicate balance, protecting religious exercise and protecting against establishment, all while maintaining other constitutional guarantees at the same time. Americans - including the President - should be able to take sides in that balancing act without being accused of forsaking religion or religious liberty.

President Obama should be praised, not mocked, for highlighting the threats to religious liberty we can all agree violate basic human rights. We are blessed to live in a country with the luxury to argue over the nuances - important as they are - of our religious liberty protections.

Should Voucher Schools Teach Creationism with Public Money? E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Monday, 10 February 2014

The school voucher program in Indiana is growing rapidly, from just under 4,000 2 years ago to just under 20,000 this school year. That's more than $80 million of public funds flowing to private education, including many religious schools. One dispute that has grown right along with it is the content of the science curriculum. Courts have well-established that public schools may not teach creationism or intelligent design as part of the science curriculum, because it improperly promotes religious beliefs that are unrelated to the science curriculum and the scientific method.

Private religious schools, however, are of course free to teach religious doctrine in the manner they see fit. But what about schools that are running on taxpayer money through the school voucher system? An Associated Press report indicates several Christian schools teach creationism and refuse to teach evolution, despite receiving public voucher money.

A second Fort Wayne school, Blackhawk Christian School, received more than $874,000 in vouchers this year for students enrolled at the elementary and junior-senior high school.

Mark Harmon, secondary principal at Blackhawk Christian, said the school teaches concepts of evolution but not as the only truth.

"We are respectful of other's beliefs, but we do always fall back on the foundation of the Bible," Harmon said. "We teach creationism."

Voucher supporters, of course, argue the funds are coming from parents and not directly from the government, but that is money the taxpayer grants to parents specifically for the purpose of selecting a school. For many voucher opponents, including me, this is the kind of problem that counseled against school voucher schemes in the first place.

Once taxpayer money is entangled with a religious institution, it comes - or should come - with strings attached designed to safeguard necessary constitutional guarantees of church-state separation. Without those safeguards, voucher schools seek to have their cake and eat it too, raking in public funds while eschewing the public school mandate to keep religion out of the science curriculum.


Kansas House Committee Passes Bill to Allow Discrimination on Religious Grounds E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Thursday, 06 February 2014

I posted earlier this week about bills winding through state legislatures that create exemptions from nondiscrimination laws for employees that object on religious grounds to serving same-sex couples. In Kansas earlier today, one of those measures came a step closer to becoming law when a House Committee sent the House Bill 2453 to the state House for a vote.

The Wichita Eagle reports:

If the bill becomes law, public and private employees alike could refuse service to same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs concerning marriage. Because religion is a protected status, the employer could not terminate the employee for this refusal. The law would also shield private businesses from discrimination lawsuits.

A provision requires government agencies to still provide the requested service, but individual clerks could object to signing a marriage license, for example. Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, introduced an amendment, which passed, that would exempt private businesses from the same legal obligation.

Obama: Freedom of Religion is "Under Threat" Around the World E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Thursday, 06 February 2014

President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning. His remarks focused on the threats to religious freedom around the world and emphasized the United States' interests in international religious freedom. You can watch the President's remarks at C-Span's site here. He begins at about the 1 hour, 15 minute mark.

Follow below the fold in the extended post for a rough transcript of some of those remarks. They are worth a read.

"Baby Messiah" Magistrate Removed From Bench E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Wednesday, 05 February 2014

A brief update to a strange story from last year: A Child Support Magistrate in Tennessee, Lu Ann Belew, has been fired by the presiding judge in the state's 4th judicial district. Belew is the magistrate who famously ordered a baby's name changed from "Messiah," because she believed only Jesus Christ had earned that title. Her ruling was later overturned and she was subsequently cited by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct for "religious bias."

Reuters reports that the Board still has jurisdiction over the Magistrate even though she is no longer on the job.

States Considering Religious Conscience Bills E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Tuesday, 04 February 2014
In recent years, a handful of states have wrestled with the rights of vendors like florists, bakeries, and photographers to refuse business for same-sex weddings on religious grounds. In particular, states with strong nondiscrimination statutes forbidding such refusal have seen religious objectors challenge those laws in court. In New Mexico, for example, the state Supreme Court rejected a photographer's argument that a nondiscrimination law should not force her to provide business for a same-sex wedding over her religious objections.

Some state legislators are taking preemptive action.

In Kansas, a legislative committee could vote on a bill this week:

The bill says businesses, individuals and other groups with strong religious beliefs can't be forced to recognize same-sex marriage or provide employment or other services to same-sex couples.
"We think a Christian should be able to start a photography business and run it without having to participate in ceremonies that violate their religious beliefs," [bill proponent Michael] Schuttloffel said.

In Idaho, a bill was just referred to committee.

Legislators in Idaho are looking into the merits of a bill that if enacted would protect licensed professionals from being legally harassed for acting upon their religious beliefs.
"No occupational licensing board or governmental subdivision or entity shall deny, revoke or suspend a person's professional or occupational license, certificate or registration for… Declining to provide or participate in providing any service that violates the person's sincerely held religious beliefs or exercise of religion except where performing emergency response duties for public safety," reads HB 426 in part.

In Oregon, the issue is probably headed to a public referendum.

High School Coach Agrees to Stop Leading Prayer, Proselytizing Team E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Tuesday, 04 February 2014

A high school football coach in North Carolina has agreed to stop leading his team in prayers and baptism, after his superintendent informed him he was violating the constitutional separation of church and state. The Charlotte Observer has more:

[Moorseville High Coach Hal] Capps wasn’t disciplined, the superintendent said, and has written players and their families that he won’t lead the team in any more prayers. Capps didn’t return a request for comment left on his cell phone by the Observer on Thursday.

The foundation wrote the district after it said it received a complaint from a parent of a Mooresville High School student “who objects to religious endorsements” by Capps.

“Students have reported that Coach Capps frequently prays with football players at team events and encourages them to go to church and to become baptized,” the letter says.

Read more here:

Could a coach today not realize that leading his team in prayer and pushing them to accept Christ is an overstep? Either way, good on Capps for hearing and understanding the problem. Too many of these stories end with defiance and lawsuits.

Texas Education Board Adopts New Rules for Textbook Review E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Monday, 03 February 2014

Every year it seems, the Texas Board of Education is embroiled in some dispute over proposed changes to its textbooks. Typically, those seeking changes are not expert in the field, and are attempting to address a perceived slight in the curriculum to their conservative religious viewpoint. 

Associated Press reports:

Among the changes approved Friday was a mandate that teachers or professors be given priority for serving on the textbook review panels for subjects in their areas of expertise. They also enable the board to appoint outside experts to check objections raised by review panels and ensure they are based on fact, not ideology.

"It won't eliminate politics, but it will make it where it's a more informed process," said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member who pushed for the changes, which he said "force us to find qualified people, leave them alone, and let them do their jobs."

This makes sense. Scientists should determine the science curriculum. History experts should review the history books.

Results 57 - 70 of 4166
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...