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Top Ten Religious Liberty Stories of 2009 E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Monday, 14 December 2009

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As the year draws to a close, the Baptist Joint Committee asked me to take a look back at 2009 and recap the most important church-state stories of the year. I’ve had the good fortune to survey religious liberty Web sites and news items daily here at the BJC’s Blog From the Capital. Here's a look back at the Top Ten (and more):

Honorable Mention - There were clearly more than 10 important stories in the year. How's a person to decide? Some of the candidates that did not make the final cut but that could and maybe should have include debates over faith healing, the Texas Education Board's fight over science and social studies curricula, the delay of Judge David Hamilton's nomination to the 7th Circuit over his legislative prayer decision, and Liberty University's rejection of the student Democrats organization.

Another that may belong is a very recent development: the Supreme Court's decision to hear a case involving a Christian Legal Society chapter denied official recognition by the UC-Hastings Law School because the religious group refuses the school's non-discrimination policy. It could turn out to be one of the more important church-state cases the Court has heard in a few years, just accepted this month, and a sure bet to make next year's top 10 list (arguments in CLS v. Martinez will be heard in the Spring).

I know what you're thinking: with these left out, the actual top 10 must be pretty impressive. It is! See below for the top 10 stories of the year. E-mail me at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it to let me know what I missed! 

10. Christian-themed license plates in South Carolina declared unconstitutionalsouth-carolina-license-plat

As highlighted in the November/December 2009 issue of Report From the Capital, a court in South Carolina ruled that state-initiated license plates featuring a cross, stained glass windows and the phrase “I Believe” are a violation of the separation of church and state. It may still be that residents of the Palmetto State can drive around sporting their faith on their tags, but they will have to do so through the same specialty plate process that every other organization and interest group follows. An effort is already under way to do just that.

9. Ten Commandments displays in Oklahoma

While the state legislature was voting to place a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capitol, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Decalogue monument in Haskell County was unconstitutional. That ruling has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry signed legislation that paves the way for a Ten Commandments monument to be placed on the state capitol grounds, despite the urging of the BJC and other religious liberty groups to veto it.

 8. Sikh community makes gains

The breakthrough religious minority voice of the year? 2009 saw a string of stories that had advocates for the Sikh faith strongly speaking out and winning victories against religious discrimination. The Department of Homeland Security changed a policy to accommodate the religious requirements of Sikh employees, and the Pentagon received strong urging from Congress to update military codes to allow Americans of the Sikh faith to serve in the armed forces, to name a few.

7. Muslim headscarves make headlines

If there was a Religious Garb of the Year award, it surely would go to the niqab, a head covering worn by many Muslim women that was the subject of intense controversy all over the world. France made headlines by banning women from wearing it in public, and in the United States, some judges required witnesses to remove head coverings in court. In Michigan, the issue rose to the state’s high court which eventually enacted a rule change that gave judges broad discretion to require the removal of headscarves, over the objections of the BJC and others.

 6. Supreme Court’s Summum decision avoids direct church-state question

In a case involving a permanent religious display in a public park (Pleasant Grove City v. Summum), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment did not require a Utah town to allow members of the Summum faith to construct a religious monument next to a Ten Commandments monument, because, they argued, the permanent displays in the park are government speech and not private speech. Left unresolved is the way this determination relates to the separation of church and state. Justice Antonin Scalia assured local governments that this ruling does not “propel (them) from the Free Speech Clause frying pan into the Establishment Clause fire.” The Baptist Joint Committee statement on the decision is here.

5. Local governments under fire for prayers at meetings 

What do Lodi, Calif., Chesapeake, Va., Cleveland, Ohio, Memphis, Tenn., Independence, Mo., North Richland Hills, Texas, Tehapachi, Calif., Turlock, Calif., Philadelphia, Pa., Toledo, Ohio, and the Wisconsin State Assembly all have in common? They have all been the subject of complaints regarding the practice of opening government meetings with Christian prayer. This growing scuffle is not between conflicting judicial opinions so much as between fairly clear law and the local governments that prefer not to acknowledge or adapt to jurisprudence in this area. (adding, some of the more creative solutions have yet to be adjudicated, but the law is clear - contrary to the responses of many of the cities listed above - that it is a problem!) The nonsectarian compromise is certainly gaining political, if not yet legal, pressure.

4. U.S. foreign affairs and the role of religion

The misperception, among some in the United States and around the world, that ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect a singular conflict between religious viewpoints continued to be an issue for American foreign policy in 2009. It was revealed that, in the past, Pentagon war reports had been adorned with biblical imagery and Scripture references on cover pages. Reports of Bible distribution and proselytizing by some military personnel undermined clear statements that the mission is not a religious one. Meanwhile, in his first year as president, Barack Obama delivered a historic speech in Cairo, Egypt, reaching out to the Muslim community and assuring others that our conflict is not with Islam.

3. Supreme Court hears Mojave cross case

brent-microphones-group-salIn yet another dispute involving religious monuments on government-owned property, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Salazar v. Buono. Once again, the High Court seems poised to rule on legal questions that do not get to the heart of the church-state conflict. The BJC urged the court to reject the government’s contention that the plaintiff does not have standing to challenge the memorial cross in question because he is a Christian. This theory would radically alter Establishment Clause law, and it offensively suggests that Christianity is not injured by the government’s promotion of it. So, too, is the argument put forward by Justice Scalia and others that the cross has, over time, effectively become a generic symbol as opposed to a uniquely Christian symbol. Some time next year, we will see which of these levels of engagement the current court is willing to tackle.

2. Justice Souter replaced by Justice Sotomayor

A champion of religious liberty and the separation of church and state, Supreme Court Associate Justice David Souter announced his retirement and was replaced by Sonia Sotomayor. As has become customary, confirmation hearings revealed little to nothing about her views on church-state law. The full extent to which she may change the court’s views on the religious freedoms enshrined in the Constitution remains unknown. One thing seems certain: it would be hard to improve on the determined balance that marked the career of her predecessor.

1. New President brings change, but delays some tough decisions

The year 2009 saw the inauguration of a new administration, but the continuation of an office devoted to faith-based partnerships. Re-named the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, President Obama’s version sees itself less as a conduit for government grants and more as a broad partnership on a handful of policy issues of shared concern. To that end, President Obama created an unprecedented Faith Advisory Council, made up of religious leaders of many faiths and political perspectives, to advise the White House on ways to improve government interaction with faith-based communities. One important task force worth watching is charged with reviewing the policies of the faith-based office itself to ensure stronger constitutional safeguards.

Despite nods in the right direction, several issues remain unresolved. As a candidate, Obama assured that taxpayer money would not be used for faith-specific employment. As president, however, he has not explicitly addressed the issue, leaving questions about hiring discrimination to be determined on a case-by-case basis by the Justice Department and the Office of the White House Counsel. He also kept this controversial issue out of the hands of the Faith Advisory Council.

Whether the Obama administration delivers on its pledge to shore up the separation of church and state with safeguards protecting religious liberty remains a key question going forward. Either way, if the inauguration of 2009 tells us anything about the state of relations between church and state, it is that funding and official partnerships are a political reality, embraced to some degree by both parties. We will have to work that much harder to keep the wall intact.

 
 
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