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Gurwin Ahuja of the National Sikh Campaign and Know Your Neighbor

gurwin podcast strip graphic

Gurwin Ahuja of the National Sikh Campaign shares how his desire to combat cultural ignorance led him to create the Know Your Neighbor coalition. The coalition, which includes the BJC and several other religious and humanist groups, is working to create dialogue to reduce religious tensions and maximize the strength of our nation’s diverse heritage. Learn more in this podcast, and sign the pledge to get to know your “fellow Americans of all traditions and systems of belief” at knowyourneighbor.us.

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Ten Commandments Monument Removed from Pennsylvania Public School Grounds to Settle Lawsuit

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Written by Don Byrd

The grounds of a public high school is no place for a religious monument. In New Kensington, Pennsylvania, a Ten Commandments monument is being removed as part of a settlement to a lawsuit charging the display violates the separation of church and state.

After fighting for years, the school district finally ended the dispute after finding a more suitable spot for it: a religious school. Trib Total Media reports:

“It’s with mixed emotions that the district, as you know, conceded and agreed to move the monument for a number of reasons,” [school board President Robert] Pallone said. “But I’m proud to tell you today that the monument will be relocated. … It will remain in the community and it will be highly visible.

“For those of us who acknowledge the worth of the Ten Commandments, they will be present. For those that don’t see the value in the Ten Commandments, they can turn the other cheek, as we learn in the Bible.”

Bishop Edward Malesic, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, has already agreed to the transfer of the monument, Pallone said.

“You will see that monument will be on display forever,” Robert Pallone, school board president said.

The …read more

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More State Legislation Addresses Religious Liberty Themes

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States map 2015 for blog

Written by Don Byrd

State legislatures around the country continue to introduce legislation aimed at religious liberty themes. Here is a rundown of recent developments that caught my eye.

In Georgia, where RFRA-like bills have failed in recent years, lawmakers sound determined to make it work this year. This year’s Senate Bill 233, introduced this week, is simple. It says that the provisions of the federal RFRA law will apply to the State of Georgia. RFRA bars the government from imposing a substantial burden on one’s religious exercise unless it is necessary to further a compelling state interest. Some attempts to codify RFRA into state law have gone astray by changing it in a way that weakens the balance achieved by the federal law. See the Atlanta Journal-Constitution report for more.

In Texas, lawmakers have introduced a series of bills related to religious liberty. These include: 1) a FADA bill (which bars the state from penalizing people for acting in accordance with their religious beliefs about marriage.), 2) a bill allowing clerks to refuse on religious grounds to issue marriage licenses, provided another official can be found to provide the service; 3) a bill allowing religious foster-care …read more

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Supreme Court, Senate Committee, Set Important Hearing Dates for Spring

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Written by Don Byrd

The Supreme Court has finally scheduled oral arguments in the case of Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley for April 19. That case involves government funding grant that was denied to a church out of concern for Missouri law barring taxpayer aid to religion. The case was taken up more than one year ago, but has not yet been set for hearing. Some have speculated that the Court feared a 4-4 tie following the death of Justice Scalia, hence the delay.

The Baptist Joint Committee filed a brief opposing state funding of churches. See the BJC’s Trinity Lutheran resource page for more info.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced that it would begin hearings on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch on March 20. Politico reports that the hearings are expected to last three to four days.

You can read the BJC’s statement following the nomination of Judge Gorsuch here.

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WA Supreme Court Rejects Florist’s Religious Freedom Defense of Same-Sex Wedding Refusal

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Courtroom interior_new

Written by Don Byrd

In a closely watched case involving a florist’s refusal to provide services for a same-sex wedding, the Washington State Supreme Court has rejected her claim of a religious exemption from state law. The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), which prohibits public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Charged with violating that law, the proprietor of Arlene’s Flowers, Barronelle Stutzman, claimed that her refusal to provide service is protected by provisions of federal and state law including the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and the religious free exercise guarantee in the Washington Constitution (Article 1, Section 11).

The state constitutional provision arguably provides even greater religious liberty protection (strict scrutiny) than the First Amendment, but the Washington Supreme Court determined that it need not decide that question because Stutzman’s claim, they held, would fail either way. The Court seemed to particularly take issue with her argument that enforcing the law against her religious beliefs is unnecessary because plenty of other vendors are available to serve the customer (Robert Ingersoll).

Here is an excerpt from that portion of the opinion (citations removed):

To be sure, none of our previous article I, section 11 cases addressed …read more

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President Trump’s Responses to Questions About Anti-Semitism Raise Concerns

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White House

Written by Don Byrd

In his White House press conference yesterday, President Trump was asked to respond to the recent upswing in incidents of anti-Semitism. It marked the second straight day that he was asked a similar question. In both cases, his response has been met with criticism.

Following yesterday’s press conference, Rabbi Jack Moline of the Interfaith Alliance expressed his concerns, “President Trump’s repeated avoidance of addressing the recent and substantial uptick in anti-Semitism in America can no longer be ignored. . . Yesterday with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he used a question about anti-Semitism as an opportunity to highlight his electoral victory and his Jewish family members. Today he chose to be offended by the question rather than address the facts behind it.”

Via Religion Clause, here is the White House transcript of yesterday’s exchange:

Q So, first of all, my name is (inaudible) from (inaudible) Magazine. And (inaudible). I haven’t seen anybody in my community accuse either yourself or any of the — anyone on your staff of being anti-Semitic. We have an understanding of (inaudible).
Q However, what we are concerned about, …read more

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6th Circuit Rules Invocation Practice Unconstitutional in Jackson County, Michigan

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Courtroom interior_new

Written by Don Byrd

The church-state issues surrounding invocations that open official government meetings remain areas of significant dispute, as courts continue to wrestle with the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the Court upheld a policy that allowed sectarian prayers to be delivered by area clergy. In Bormuth v. Jackson County, The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday added to the ongoing legislative prayer conversation, ruling unconstitutional the invocation practice of the Board of Commissioners in Jackson County, Michigan.

This case is an important reminder that in Town of Greece, the Supreme Court did *not* hold that all legislative prayer is lawful. Important constitutional limits remain to protect religious liberty. In its opinion, the 6th Circuit found that in this case those limits had been crossed. The Court emphasized a number of facts that distinguish the Jackson County case from the Town of Greece case, including the fact that the Jackson County Board opens each meeting with a prayer delivered by one of the nine commissioners. The Court found that be a significant difference. From the 2-1 opinion (citations removed):

When the Board of Commissioners opens its monthly meetings with prayers, there …read more

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Honorary and Memorial Gifts to the Baptist Joint Committee

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Open House at the new Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty

The following are recent gifts made to Baptist Joint Committee. Gifts honoring Brent Walker will be published in an upcoming issue of Report from the Capital.

You can honor someone with a gift to the Baptist Joint Committee at any time. Just send a note with your check, or give at BJConline.org/donate and check the box to designate your gift in honor or memory of someone. Contact Taryn Deaton at tdeaton@BJConline.org with any questions.

In honor of Marjorie and Joe Brake
By Richard and Wendy Brake

In honor of W.D. Broadway
By Jim and Jerene Lowder

In honor of Karen and Robert Brown
By Erin and William Brown

In honor of Bert Browning
By Peter Graham

In honor of Hildred Cassel
By Margaret Monroe-Cassel

In honor of Tom and Ann Caulkins
By Rachel Revelle

In honor of Daniel Glaze
By Ed and Peggy Pruden

In honor of Jennifer Hawks
By Bobby and Janet Hawks

In honor of Holly Hollman
By Randi Abramson and Michael Lieberman

In honor of Diane Jordan
By Elizabeth Jackson-Jordan and David Jordan

In honor of June McEwen
By Lynelle Mason

In honor of Jenny Smith
By Ronald Williams

In honor of Enrique Torres
By Gurrola Baptist Foundation

In honor of Amanda Tyler
By Patricia Ingle Gillis
Lou Thelen and Ronald Kemp
Brent and …read more

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A conversation with Walter B. Shurden

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buddy strip graphic

In 2004, Walter and Kay Shurden – longtime professors at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia – made a gift to the Baptist Joint Committee to establish an annual lecture series. A signature event of the BJC, the Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State are still going strong more than a decade later.

On March 27-28, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman will deliver the 2017 lectures, which will be at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. A familiar voice in Report from the Capital, Hollman has been part of the BJC staff since 2001, and she also serves as an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

We asked Dr. Walter Shurden, known to many as “Buddy,” to tell us more about the impetus that led to the lectures and how he and Kay feel about the series that bears their names.

What led you and Kay to establish this lecture series?
I walked out of my first course in church history at seminary almost 60 years …read more

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Protecting religious liberty and preventing discrimination in government-funded partnerships

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Original faith-based sticker strip graphic

By BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman

Years ago, the BJC produced bright blue stickers that said “Religious Liberty! The original faith-based initiative.” People loved them. It was a succinct reminder of our foundational principles prepared in response to confusing and controversial executive action. At the time, President George W. Bush was promising to expand the role of religious organizations in government-funded programs. He was also creating government offices dedicated to promoting what came to be known as the “faith-based initiative.” As the initiative has changed and shifted focus through the Bush and Obama presidencies, it has provided religious liberty lessons and continuing challenges for the future.

The BJC responded with more than stickers, of course. We care about how the institutions of government and religion interact, especially when it comes to financial entanglements, which we know can harm both. Guided by first principles, including guarding church-state separation as an essential means for protecting religious liberty, we warned against “the wrong way to do right.”

Our advocacy during the Bush era was a continuation of efforts the decade before. We were early critics of “charitable choice,” a legislative proposal inserted into a handful of social services laws aimed at increasing participation of religious organizations …read more

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