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Reminder: School Voucher Programs Undermine Religious Liberty E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Monday, 27 January 2014
Many school voucher advocates are promoting their cause by designating this week "school choice week." It seems like a good time for a reminder of how detrimental voucher schemes are to religion and to the separation of church and state. Back in 2011, the Baptist Joint Committee's Holly Hollman explained why the BJC has long opposed school vouchers.

While we affirm the right of parents to choose a religious education for their children, we oppose using public funds to support religion. Religious teachings should be funded by voluntary contributions, not through compulsory taxation. Voucher programs that provide tuition to religious schools violate the freedom of conscience of taxpayers who have the right to insist that the government remain neutral in matters of religion. In addition, government funding of religious education tends to jeopardize the autonomy of religious schools, bringing regulations or political pressures that threaten the schools’ religious character.
Religious liberty requires both protecting the right of individuals to pursue a religious education and keeping the government from advancing religion. As in many religious liberty debates, some advocates fail to distinguish between an individual’s right to freely exercise religion and the government’s responsibility not to advance it.

It's worth repeating: religious liberty isn't just about protecting the rights of those who prefer a religious education. It's also about protecting the public from funding a program of religious indoctrination with tax dollars. This week may be school choice week, but we shouldn't let voucher advocates claim the mantle of religious liberty. By entangling government budgets and regulations with religious education, school vouchers schemes are poor public policy, for both the church and the state.

Does Change in Military Policy Go Far Enough? E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Friday, 24 January 2014

Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced a change in policy to make more difficult the denial of a servicemember's request for a religious accommodation from the military's strict grooming standards. The change has been hailed as a step forward in religious freedom rights for many faiths previously restricted from service due to the prohibition on long hair, turbans, head coverings and beards. But many now argue the change does not go far enough to ensure that a person whose faith requires an accommodation will receive one.

The NYTimes reports on the Sikh community's ongoing efforts to make this change.

Though the new policy explicitly states that defense officials will try to accommodate religious beliefs, it still requires that a service member who wants to wear a beard or turban or other article of clothing for religious reasons first get permission from the military. Sikh representatives say that does not go far enough, pointing to the small number of exceptions given to Sikhs in the past. And, they say, it still leaves the judgment in the hands of commanders who could, at any time, decide that an offending beard must be shorn.

“There is still a presumptive ban, which would discourage any recruit,” said Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy with the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group. “If I sign up to join the Army for example, and wear a turban, there’s no guarantee my accommodation request will be granted.”

The new policy is no doubt a step forward in being more inclusive of diverse faiths and more understanding of religious needs. It raises the standard military officials must meet before denying a request for religious accommodation, but it does still allows such a request to be rejected if it is outweighed by the demands of the mission, its impact on military readiness, or unit cohesion. Accommodations can also be revisited when a sericemember transfers to a new unit or is deployed. 

You can see the policy amendments here.

Maine Judiciary Committee Rejects RFRA Proposal E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Thursday, 23 January 2014
Late last year, I posted about a proposal by a Maine legislator to adopt a state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as many other states have done. Earlier today, however, the state legislature's Judiciary Committee rejected the proposal with an 8-4 vote. The Bangor Daily News has more:

Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, Senate chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, voted against the bill.

“It’s premature to necessarily throw a blanket over everything right now,” said Valentino. “If we have problems, I think we should deal with them on an individual basis. I just feel that the Maine statutes are already protecting the people of the state of Maine.”

Notably, the Maine RFRA would have significantly differed from the federal version by requiring the government to justify any burden on a person's religious exercise (the federal version and most state versions require this only when a person's religious exercise is "substantially" burdened. You can read the post for more about why this difference matters).

Lawsuit Alleges Proselytization, Harassment at Louisiana Public School E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Thursday, 23 January 2014

Via Religion Clause, the ACLU of Louisiana announced a new lawsuit yesterday alleging widespread proselytization and promotion of Christianity in a public school. The Thai plaintiff and her son, a 6th-grade student at the school, are Buddhists. Their claims depict a brazen disregard for the separation of church and state and a general culture of harassment, in which prayers are regularly delivered at school functions, Bible verses and pictures of Christ are displayed in the hallways, and those who complain are invited to convert or to find another school.

The most heartbreaking allegations, however, involve the plaintiff student's science class.

Associated Press reports:

The lawsuit said [Science teacher Rita] Roark has “repeatedly taught students that the earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, that evolution is ‘impossible’ and that the Bible is ‘100 percent true.’

“She also regularly features religious questions on her tests such as “Isn’t it amazing what the ______ has made!!!!”

When the Lanes’ son “did not write in Roark’s expected answer (LORD), she belittled him in front of the rest of the class.”

Importantly, these are only allegations, and the School Board has yet to respond, so stay tuned for the other side of the story. You can read the complaint (pdf) here.

Department of Defense Announces New Policy to Accommodate Religious Grooming Requests E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Today the Defense Department announced historic changes in its policy of religious accommodation reflecting a new willingness to make exceptions to military grooming standards when based on a servicemember's sincere religious beliefs. Requests for such accommodations will now be weighed against the demands of the mission.

Stars and Stripes has more on the new policy:

The policy has its limits, but is designed to allow troops free expression of their religion, as required by Congress in the 2013 National Defense Authorization act, a spokesman said. Jews, Sikhs and Muslims in the military are among those who in recent years have sought greater latitude in order to comply with their religions.

“When requests for accommodation are made, the needs of the requesting servicemember are balanced against the needs of mission accomplishment,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen wrote in an email. “Only if it is determined that the needs of mission accomplishment outweigh the needs of the servicemember may the request be denied.”

Previously, accommodations were extremely rare for those who wished to serve in the military, but whose religious beliefs required beards, head coverings, or long hair in violation of military policy. Indeed, when Army Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a Sikh American, was granted a religious exemption in 2009, it was reported to be the first such accommodation in 30 years.

Countless Americans with a desire to serve their country in the Armed Forces have declined to do so because the terms of service conflicted with mandates of their faith. That may all be about to change.

You can read the amended directive (pdf) here.

Virginia Senate Passes Religious Expression in Schools Bill E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Wednesday, 22 January 2014

By a narrow 20-18 vote, the Virginia State Senate yesterday passed a bill (SB 236 - see previous post here) that seeks to expand the religious expression rights of students in public schools. The bill would require school districts to implement policies allowing students with any speaking role at school events the right to express religious views. The principal would offer a disclaimer clarifying that the student is not expressing the views of the school.

Proponents of the bill argue this approach will lessen the likelihood of litigation over religious expression because the school is protected by the disclaimer and the student is protected by the explicit right to express his or her views. But is that true? 

The Roanoke Times coverage includes some counter-arguments of the bill's opponents:

Edwards argued that the bill “could be coercive to students.”

“It could easily be construed, in a certain context, as providing an opportunity for one group of students or one student to have a captive audience of other students and to proselytize those students,” Edwards said.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said the bill would inevitably put one faith above another.

“It’s about who is called to speak and who is not called on to speak … and who is forced to listen,” Ebbin said.

Students expressive rights are well-protected under current law. Allowing school administrators the discretion to control the content of official school events not only protects the school from charges of promoting religion, it helps school's protect students from being subjected to unwanted proselytizing from their peers. Is there a sufficient reason to upset that balance?

Are Jewish Inmates (and others) Entitled to Kosher Meals in Prison? E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Tuesday, 21 January 2014

In December, a federal court in Florida issued an injunction requiring the state's Department of Corrections to begin providing kosher meals (again) to inmates whose sincere religious beliefs require them. The court rejected the state's contention that avoiding the higher cost of kosher meals is a "compelling government interest" that overcomes the requirement that inmates' religious needs should be accommodated.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) places a purposefully high standard on government to deny an inmate's religious exercise. Courts have routinely held that avoiding increased costs in not in itself a compelling interest that meets that high standard. Nonetheless, Florida maintains the high price of kosher meals is too great a burden.

The NYTimes profiles the issue on the front page today.

Kosher food in prisons has long served as fodder for lawsuits around the country, with most courts coming down firmly on the side of inmates. As long as inmates say they hold a sincere belief in Judaism — a deeply forgiving standard — they are entitled to kosher meals, even if it takes a little chutzpah to make the request.
Prison officials began to fret that... the cost of the kosher program could reach $54.1 million statewide. “You are talking about a lot of money,” Mr. Crews said.

But lawyers and chaplains said prison officials were inflating the numbers as a scare tactic, a common move in some states. “They are trying to make the problem bigger than it is,” Mr. Rassbach said.

 Read the whole thing.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Monday, 20 January 2014

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King is perhaps America's premier historic example of social and political activism animated by faith. His Christian beliefs shaped his desire for peace, justice and equality for all. At the same time, he never sought to impose his faith on others, or to use the powers of government to promote his religion.

Indeed, when I think of Dr. King's message and method, I am reminded of Rev. James Dunn's admonition that religious institutions should refrain from getting too close to government. Once the conscience of the church is in a "bear hug" with the state, he likes to say, there is not enough "swinging room" to hold accountable the government.

In his Statement on Endorsing a 1960 Political Candidate, Dr. King declined the call to officially endorse a presidential candidate because he was head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

Moreover, the role that is mine in the emerging social order of the South and America demands that I remain non-partisan. Thus devoid of partisan political attachments, I am free to be critical of both parties when necessary.

He praised political leaders for doing the right thing, and rebuked them for doing wrong. Dr. King never allowed the halls of Washington to become the source of his power or influence. Today, I salute Dr. King not just for his message but for his method, and wish all BJC readers a happy MLK Day!

Virginia Senate Committee Approves Student Religious Expression Bill E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Friday, 17 January 2014

A sharply divided Virginia Senate Health and Education Committee yesterday sent legislation to the full Senate that purports to expand the religious liberty of public school students. SB 236 requires school policies that allow any student speaker at a school event the right to express a religious viewpoint following a disclaimer by the principal that the student's views do not reflect those of the school.

The Roanoke Times has more:

The measure was introduced by Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, a longtime advocate of allowing prayer in public settings. Carrico said his bill is designed to allow students to express religious views while protecting school divisions from lawsuits. Last year, Carrico proposed a state constitutional amendment to protect the rights of individuals and public bodies to pray on public property and protect students from religious discrimination.

“I’ve been trying to do something for 12 years and I just find new ways to do it,” Carrico said.

The state's ACLU says the bill is unnecessary and will create confusion. Newly elected Virginia Governor Terry McAulliffe says he will "review the bill if the General Assembly passes it."

You can review it for yourself here.

National Religious Freedom Day! E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Thursday, 16 January 2014

January 16 is National Religious Freedom Day, commemorating the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted by the state's General Assembly in 1786. The statute became the basis for the Establishment Clause. 

In a blog post today co-written with Eric Treene marking the occasion, White House Director of Neighborhood and Faith-Based Partnerships, Melissa Rogers emphasized the importance of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

One way that the federal government seeks to ensure that these principles are put into practice is through enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).  Passed by unanimous consent in 2000 with the support of a religiously and ideologically diverse coalition of groups, RLUIPA seeks to ensure religious freedom in two important areas:  the ability of religious communities to build places of worship and other religious institutions, and the ability of prisoners and other persons confined to institutions to continue to practice their faiths.
The values embodied in RLUIPA are universal ideals.  Department of Justice attorneys have provided technical assistance on issues involving construction of places of worship to government officials in Spain, Indonesia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other countries wrestling with these same issues.  In 2012, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee won the right to move into its new mosque with the help of a RLUIPA suit brought by the Department of Justice. On the day of the court decision, the mosque’s Imam, Sheikh Ossama Bahloul, remarked that America’s dedication to religious freedom can serve as a model for others around the world, and added:   “I think this is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the freedom and liberty that, in fact, exist in America and to teach our young people to believe even more in the U.S. Constitution.”

President Obama announced that "Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith" in his National Religious Freedom Day proclamation.

Results 71 - 84 of 4165
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...
President Obama: Religious Hatred Has No Place in Society
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 Christian...