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Know Your Neighbor Campaign: Share Your Story this Week

Written by Don Byrd

If you haven’t already participated in the Know Your Neighbor campaign, this is a great week to learn more about it and get involved. The short version is: Know Your Neighbor is a multi-faith effort to encourage dialogue and understanding across religious, ethnic, and cultural divides.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is a participant in this campaign because “hate rhetoric and violence targeting religious minorities is as much a threat to religious liberty as any law or public policy.” As citizens charged with maintaining our democracy, we can help increase empathy and break down stereotypes by simply opening lines of communication. That’s where you come in.

Make a personal video or share a story using social media. Even in 140 characters, you can share something about yourself and invite interfaith dialogue in a tweet. When you post, use the hashtag #KnowYourNeighbor. And tag the BJC (@BJContheHill)!

What do you want your neighbors to know about you? What personal experience changed the way you think about your neighbors or the way they think about you? Why is interfaith work and dialogue important to you? Let people know in a short video or social media post.

For more inspiration, check out …read more

House Narrowly Defeats Proposal Requiring Pentagon to Investigate Islam

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Written by Don Byrd

Last week, the U.S. House debated and narrowly defeated a proposal to require the Pentagon to investigate “Islamic religious doctrines” that may contribute to terrorism. The measure, offered by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, was defeated 217-208, led by a sharp critique of the idea from Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN).

Politico reports:

“If you have an amendment that says we’re going to study one religion and only one, we’re going to look at their leaders and put them on a list — only them — and you are going to talk about what’s orthodox practice and what’s unorthodox, then you are putting extra scrutiny on that religion,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who is Muslim.

Ellison, who met with Franks to try to persuade him to withdraw the proposal, added: “You are abridging the free exercise of that religion. This is the wrong way to do what he’s trying to do.”

Franks defended his idea during an interview Thursday evening and said Friday he would work with his colleagues to try to modify it so it will pass eventually.

The Nation’s John Nichols has more of …read more

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Montana to Appeal Ruling Mandating Religious School Inclusion in Tax Credit Program

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Written by Don Byrd

Last month, a Montana judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs challenging the state’s exclusion of religious schools from a tax credit scholarship program. Now state officials have announced their intention to appeal to the state’s supreme court.

The program, which grants tax credits in return for private school scholarship contributions, prohibited religious schools from participating out of concern for church-state separation. The Montana Constitution specifically forbids the use of public money to fund sectarian education, but the judge ruled that tax credits are not public expenditures barred by the no-aid to religion provision.

Several state constitutions include no-aid to religion provisions (so-called Blaine Amendments) that have been central in the legal disputes over school vouchers in those states. These provisions are a state’s expression of the desire not to financially entangle church and state.

Voucher advocates, however, sound hopeful that rulings in favor of a tax credit approach like Montana’s will undermine the effectiveness of no-aid provisions generally. The Heartland Institute’s Ashley Batemen has this troubling quote, for example, from David Herbst, Director of the Montana chapter of Americans for Prosperity: “We would like to lay this question to rest of whether the Blaine …read more

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Minnesota City Ends Religious Monument Dispute by Removing Free Speech Zone

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Written by Don Byrd

A controversy in Belle Plaine, Minnesota over a religious monument placed in a city park has apparently ended after the city council chose to remove the free speech zone it placed in the park rather than face a proposed satanic monument and the potential for church-state litigation. The original monument, depicting a soldier kneeling before a cross, was placed in the park by a local veteran’s organization. A free speech zone was created there, which seemingly insulated the city against church-state claims by clarifying that the monument was privately owned and thus did not represent government speech. But as they learned, a free speech zone is just that. The move inspired other proposed monuments on the space including one from the Satanic Temple.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins explains what happened next:

Belle Plaine, Minn., tried just about everything it could short of understanding every U.S. Supreme Court ruling on religious displays in the country’s history. But today it threw in the towel and banned privately-owned displays in a city park.

The legal issues and court decisions surrounding religious monuments on government property are indeed complicated. Church-state concerns overlap with free speech issues, which overlap with …read more

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Watch the House Committee Debate Over Defunding IRS Enforcement of the Johnson Amendment

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Written by Don Byrd

Late last week, as I posted here, the House Appropriations Committee narrowly voted to keep a provision of the government funding bill that would defund the IRS’ enforcement of regulations prohibiting, as a condition of tax-exempt status, religious organizations from engaging in electoral politics for or against a candidate for office. The Baptist Joint Committee sent a letter to committee members and joined other religious and nonprofit groups in urging the committee to strike that provision (Section 116) of the bill. An amendment designed to do just that, however, failed on a 28-24 vote, leaving the defunding provision in place. (The BJC’s Amanda Tyler issued a strong statement criticizing the vote.)

Video of the 22-minute committee debate over that amendment is now available online. I encourage everyone who cares about this issue to watch. Several members gave impassioned and well-reasoned speeches reflecting an understanding of how the current law protects houses of worship from politicization.

One of my favorite was from Representative David Price (D-NC), which begins about 14:50 of the video below. Here is my rough transcript of his remarks:

I suggest that we all consult our …read more

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House committee action opens door to candidate endorsement by churches

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By Ken Camp // The Baptist Standard

Below is an abbreviated version of the original article

WASHINGTON—The U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that includes a provision weakening the Johnson Amendment—the law that bars churches and other nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

Advocates for separation of church and state, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, insisted the committee’s July 13 action exposes churches to political pressure from candidates.

“In the name of protecting the church from the IRS and without any evidence of an overreaching bureaucracy, the appropriations committee acted today to expose the garden of the church to the woolly wilderness of partisan campaigning,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee soon after the July 13 committee action.

Committee rejects amendment

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., proposed an amendment that would have deleted the section of the funding bill that included the provision regarding enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. The committee rejected the amendment by a 24-28 vote.

“Gutting potential enforcement of the law gives candidates and campaign donors a green light to press churches for their endorsements and possibly their tax-deductible offerings, too,” Tyler …read more

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4th Circuit Rules Rowan County Commission Prayer Practice Unconstitutional

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Written by Don Byrd

The full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (en banc) on Friday affirmed a lower court ruling that the Rowan County (NC) Commission’s practice of opening its meetings with exclusively Christian prayers, led only by the lawmakers themselves, violates the U.S. Constitution. A 3-judge panel of the 4th Circuit previously reached the opposite conclusion, but now on appeal to the full appeals court, the plaintiffs prevailed, 10-5.

This case (Lund v. Rowan County) is one of the first major tests of the meaning and limits of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most recent legislative prayer ruling, which upheld a prayer practice in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014). In finding the Rowan County Commission’s invocation practice unconstitutional, the Fourth Circuit emphasized key differences from the Town of Greece case. Most importantly, as opposed to the prayers given by community clergy in Town of Greece, in Rowan County, the commissioners themselves, and only the commissioners, delivered the invocations.

The Court here is careful to note that “legislator-led prayer is not inherently unconstitutional,” but it does “heighten[] the constitutional risks” and “alters the constitutional significance” of the other facts surrounding the practice. Viewed as a whole, the entire circumstances “served to …read more

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House Committee Votes to Keep Provision Defunding Key Church Protection

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Written by Don Byrd

The House Appropriations Committee tonight took up a government funding bill that includes a troubling section (Section 116) de-funding IRS enforcement of a regulation important to church autonomy. The so-called “Johnson Amendment” prohibits tax-exempt 501(c)(3) from engaging in political campaigning for or against particular candidates. While the funding bill would not repeal the Johnson Amendment, it would remove enforcement capability, effectively crippling the regulation.

An amendment offered by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) to remove that section of the bill failed in committee on a 28-24 vote. BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler issued a statement criticizing the vote, saying in part,

Gutting potential enforcement of the law gives candidates and campaign donors a green light to press churches for their endorsements and possibly their tax-deductible offerings, too. Vast majorities of clergy and churchgoers oppose endorsing candidates from their houses of worship, knowing it would divide their congregations and distract from their mission.

As the Baptist Joint Committee has long argued, the Johnson Amendment protects houses of worship and should be preserved. In a letter to the committee opposing the defunding section, Tyler explained how current law helps churches and pastors:

For more than 60 years, all 501(c)(3) organizations have …read more

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BJC says funding bill will expose houses of worship to political pressure

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For Immediate Release
July 13, 2017
Media contact: Cherilyn Crowe / ccrowe@BJConline.org / Cell: 202-670-5877 / Office: 202-544-4226


Approval of Section 116 of the 2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill gives green light for candidates to pressure churches for endorsements

WASHINGTON –Tonight, the House Appropriations Committee voted to keep language in a funding bill that undermines the protections of the “Johnson Amendment” for houses of worship and denominations. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, offered an amendment to remove Section 116, but it was defeated 24-28.

The following statement is from Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty:

“In the name of protecting the church from the IRS and without any evidence of an overreaching bureaucracy, the Appropriations Committee acted today to expose the garden of the church to the woolly wilderness of partisan campaigning.

Gutting potential enforcement of the law gives candidates and campaign donors a green light to press churches for their endorsements and possibly their tax-deductible offerings, too. Vast majorities of clergy and churchgoers oppose endorsing candidates from their houses of worship, knowing it would divide their congregations and distract from their mission.”

The Baptist …read more

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Ten Commandment Monuments Continue to Generate Controversy

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Written by Don Byrd

What is it about the Ten Commandments? It seems like hardly a month goes by without some courthouse, state capitol, city municipal building, or public school building becoming the site of an effort to display – or to remove a display – featuring the Ten Commandments on government property. Whether on a poster, a banner, or a heavy granite slab, the Decalogue has become a consistent lightning rod for church-state controversy.

Still, I haven’t seen anything quite like the scene at the Arkansas State Capitol, where a few weeks ago a 6-ft granite Ten Commandments display was destroyed, one day after installation, when a man purposefully drove his vehicle into it. As it happens, the same man similarly buildozed a Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma a few years ago. Now, that is a strange hobby, (For some insight into Michael Reed’s motivations and mental state, see the Arkansas Times’ piece on him).

A replacement monument is reportedly in the works, though it will apparently face a more traditional and lawful effort at removal through the court system. The ACLU previously announced its plans to file a …read more

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