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Federal Lawsuit Challenges Michigan’s Religious Exemption for Adoption Agencies

Written by Don Byrd

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against Michigan officials targets the state’s practice of allowing child-placement agencies that receive taxpayer funds to refuse on religious grounds to serve same-sex couples seeking to adopt a child. The complaint alleges the exemption violates the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs, the lawsuit asserts, object to their taxpayer dollars subsidizing religious views, and argue that the publicly funded adoption services should be bound by the same requirements as the state in placing children.

Here is an excerpt from the complaint:

All plaintiffs are Michigan taxpayers who object to their taxpayer dollars being used to pay for public child welfare services that are provided based on religious standards rather than professional child welfare standards. And all Plaintiffs object to the use of taxpayer funds to underwrite and endorse religious beliefs to which they do not subscribe.

DHHS itself could not deny children in the foster care system access to qualified prospective foster and adoptive parents based on religious criteria. For example, DHHS could not reject applicants on the basis of a religious objection to placing children with non-Christian, single-parent or same-sex parent …read more

Judge Orders Michigan City to Accept Farmer’s Market Vendor

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Written by Don Byrd

I posted this summer about a federal lawsuit brought by a business owner challenging East Lansing, Michigan’s rejection of his application to be a vendor at the Farmer’s Market. The city denied Stephen Tennes’ application because he refuses to host same-sex weddings on his Charlotte, Michigan farm, despite hosting other weddings there. Vendor guidelines for the Farmer’s Market require businesses to comply with East Lansing’s nondiscrimination ordinance in their general practice.

In a ruling Friday, the trial court judge in the case agreed with Tennes’ argument that the application denial unconstitutionally targeted his religion and granted his request for an injunction allowing him access to the market as a vendor. The judge pointed to the fact that the vendor guidelines the city relied on had been changed after officials became aware of Tennes’ refusal to host same-sex weddings.

Here is an excerpt from the Order:

The context in which the Vendor Guidelines were amended and then applied to Country Mill supports Plaintiffs’ claim that their religious beliefs or their religiously-motivated conduct was the target of the City’s actions….

A factfinder could infer that the change in the Vendor Guidelines was motivated by Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs or …read more

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Boston Mayor Faces Threat of Legal Action for Disallowing Christian Flag at City Hall

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Written by Don Byrd

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is refusing to grant a request to fly a religious flag at City Hall, citing rules designed to safeguard the separation of church and state. A group called Camp Constitution is threatening legal action over the mayor’s decision to disallow the Christian flag on a pole that frequently features different flags alongside the Massachusetts and American flags.

The Boston Herald reports:

[Camp Constitution founder Hal] Shurtleff and his attorneys said he envisioned holding an event with local clergy to raise the Christian flag and discuss the city’s history as well as “our nation’s heritage.”

Walsh said that was not enough to sway him.

“I’m a Catholic and I’m proud of that, I don’t think you do that by putting a flag at City Hall Plaza,” Walsh said. “That’s not the way you do that.”

In a letter to Mayor Walsh, attorneys reportedly claimed his actions are unconstitutional and called for a response by September 27. Stay tuned.

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On Constitution Day, Remember our Fundamental Religious Liberty Principles

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Written by Don Byrd

Today is Constitution Day, the day we celebrate the September 17 anniversary of the signing of America’s governing document. The Constitution as amended serves as the foundation of our individual rights, including of course our rights of religious freedom, enshrined in 16 words of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The Constitution also guarantees that the right to serve the public as a government official will not depend on adherence to any religious belief. Article VI forbids the requirement of a religious test for public office (a prohibition in the law that some officials have needed to be reminded of recently).

The constitutional guarantees of religious freedom have led to a society of unprecedented religious diversity and robust religious expression. For more on Constitution Day and the role of religious liberty in our Constitution, see the excellent resource page of the Baptist Joint Committee, which continues to educate and advocate on behalf of religious liberty for all.

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Air Force Chaplain is Wrong to Oppose Religious Liberty Rights for All

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Written by Don Byrd

A chaplain in the Air Force Reserves has published a troubling column expressing his view that those who support the rights of all Americans to practice their faith are “counterfeit Christians” who “appeal to the Constitution and not to Christ.”

Chaplain Sonny Hernandez writes:

[I]s it wrong for a professing Christian service member to say, “I support the rights of all Americans to practice their faith since the Constitution protects their rights?” Absolutely!

This idea, particularly coming from a military chaplain, is outrageous on its face for many reasons. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind in response.

First, Capt. Hernandez is of course free to believe according to his conscience and faith, including his belief that American Jews and Muslims, for example, are “unbelievers” who “worship false gods that will lead them to hell.” The controversial issue of salvation for non-Christians is a question of Christian theology, not public policy. As i have discussed in recent posts (here and here), personal theological beliefs do not disqualify an individual from public service. However, Hernandez’s post goes well beyond questions of theology. He encourages Christian service members to refuse support …read more

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Constitution Day Podcast: Holly Hollman on foundations of religious liberty

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On September 17, 1787, the final draft of the Constitution was signed by 39 delegates. This year, Constitution Day is being observed on Monday, September 18, and we are sharing this presentation from BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman to mark the celebration of our country’s founding document. During the 2017 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, Hollman delivered a lecture on the foundations of religious liberty, including how the Constitution protects our first freedom.

For more podcasts, subscribe to our iTunes channel.

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House-Passed Appropriations Bill Includes Provisions Weakening Protections for Houses of Worship

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Written by Don Byrd

Despite the urging of advocates including the Baptist Joint Committee, and the efforts of some lawmakers to amend the bill, the U.S. House of Representatives today passed an appropriations bill that left intact language severely weakening protections against politicizing our houses of worship. The so-called Johnson Amendment prohibits tax-exempt non-profit organizations including houses of worship from engaging in electoral politics. The troublesome provision, Section 116 in the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill, while falling short of repealing the Johnson Amendment entirely, would make its enforcement by the IRS significantly more difficult, to the point of gutting its effectiveness.

The Baptist Joint Committee has long supported the law barring churches from political activity as an effective tool to protect church autonomy, and to avoid needless division within congregations. The Johnson Amendment also serves to safeguard the integrity of our campaign finance system by prohibiting the exploitation of houses of worship by candidates and political parties.

BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler spoke powerfully about the importance of the Johnson Amendment in testimony to Congress earlier this year. Here is an excerpt:

Changing the law would expose …read more

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State Dept Plan to End Religion and Global Affairs Office Critiqued by Former Director

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Written by Don Byrd

In 2013, then-Secretary of State John Kerry announced the creation of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA) within the State Department to advise him on matters related to religion and to interact with religious leaders on behalf of the Department. Kerry asked Shaun Casey to head the new office, and implement his belief that understanding religion is key to U.S. diplomacy around the world.

Following a reorganization under new Secretary Rex Tillerson, however, the duties and staff of the RGA are being absorbed into the International Religious Freedom office. Casey critiques the change in a stinging new column for Religion & Politics. He explains the work of the office under his leadership:

While I cannot summarize every line of work the RGA office pursued, let me give some highlights. We drew on the academic and diplomatic expertise of our staff, government partners in and outside the State Department, and academic resources around the globe to be able to understand lived religion, in geographical context. There is no such thing as religion in the abstract, no essence of religion to be isolated abstractly and then applied to the world. Religion needs to …read more

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Justice Dept Announces Settlement of Mosque Denial Lawsuit in PA

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Written by Don Byrd

The Justice Department has announced a settlement in lawsuits brought against Bensalem Township alleging religious discrimination under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) after denying an Islamic group’s request for a zoning variance to allow the construction of a mosque.

A DOJ press release has more:

“Federal law protects the rights of all religious communities to build places of worship free from discrimination,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “This agreement ensures that all citizens of Bensalem Township may freely exercise this important civil right.”

As part of the agreement, the Bensalem Masjid will be permitted to use the three adjoining properties for the purpose of building a mosque. The Township has also agreed to review and amend its zoning ordinance to comply with the requirements of RLUIPA. Additionally, the Township has agreed that it will advise its officials and employees about the requirements of RLUIPA, among other remedial measures.

Without a sufficient worship space the group has been forced to meet in a fire hall, according to law360. The settlement, which a township official insisted was …read more

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Senators Under Scrutiny For Questioning Judicial Nominee on Role of Faith

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Written by Don Byrd

An exchange during the Senate confirmation hearing of Notre Dame law professor, Amy Cone Barrett, who is President Trump’s nominee for federal appellate court judge in the 7th Circuit, has stirred anew important questions about the role of personal faith in public service, and a reminder that there is no religious test for office in the United States.

Barrett, who is Catholic, was asked about her personal religious convictions about abortion, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty, and her ability to apply the law even when it conflicts with those views. The questions seemed driven in part by a paper co-written by Barrett in law school nearly 20 years ago. Emma Green of The Atlantic reports the paper argues that “[i]n certain, limited circumstances … federal judges should step back from involvement in cases that might raise conflicts of conscience.”

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked, “Do you consider yourself an Orthodox Catholic?” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), sounding a bit like a mystical character out of Star Wars, remarked, “The dogma lives loudly within you.” I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound like a compliment, …read more

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