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4th Circuit Upholds Decision Halting Revised Executive Order

Written by Don Byrd

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 10-3 ruling earlier today in favor of plaintiffs challenging the Trump Administration’s revised executive order, which among other things bars immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries. Finding the primary purpose of the order to be religious rather than secular, the decision leaves in place a lower court’s injunction halting the enforcement of that section of the order nationwide.

The court relied on President Trump’s controversial statements as a candidate calling for a ban on Muslim immigration, as well as statements made by his aides, to conclude that the true purpose of the order was to limit the ability of Muslims to enter the United States, rather than the national security rationale offered by the administration.

In the opening paragraph of the chief judge’s majority opinion, he describes Trump’s Executive Order as one which:

…in text speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination. Surely the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment yet stands as an untiring sentinel for the protection of one of our most cherished founding principles—that government shall not establish any religious orthodoxy, or favor or disfavor …read more

Religious Liberty Updates from Texas, Indiana, Florida, West Virginia

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Written by Don Byrd

Across the country today there are lot of updates to religious liberty stories I have been following here on the blog. Here is a quick roundup:

Texas: The Texas legislature gave final approval this week to HB 3859, a bill that allows child placement agencies to refuse service that conflicts with their religious beliefs, even if they receive government funds to provide that service. As I explained in an earlier post, opponents argue this legislation opens the door to state-funded discrimination of all kinds. More and more of these religious refusal bills are appearing in the area of adoption services, a development worth watching.

Also in Texas, the Governor signed a bill into law protecting sermons from subpoena in litigation or administrative proceedings. You can read SB 24 here. The legislation seems designed to respond to a 2014 controversy in which the City of Houston subpoenaed sermons of certain area pastors. The Baptist Joint Committee joined several other religious liberty advocates in denouncing the action, which was later dropped.

Indiana: Unsurprisingly, the Indiana Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling …read more

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Young minister tickets available for the RLC Luncheon

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Siblings Adam McDuffie and Lauren McDuffie

Siblings Adam and Lauren McDuffie at the 2016 Religious Liberty Council Luncheon

If you are a young minister who wants to attend the annual Religious Liberty Council Luncheon, the BJC offers tickets at half price. Ministers with less than 5 years of experience can purchase tickets for the discounted rate of $20 for this year’s event on June 30 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Siblings Lauren and Adam McDuffie, who are both young ministers, talk about why attending the RLC Luncheon is important to them.

Lauren McDuffie
I grew up in churches where I learned about the impact of religious liberty advocacy in our Baptist story. As a student, attending the Religious Liberty Council Luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly gave me the chance to connect with others who care about these issues, to hear compelling speakers address contemporary issues of religious liberty, and to connect with the work of the BJC as a young Baptist. The BJC Fellows program and the availability of discounted tickets for young ministers to the RLC Luncheon are just a couple of the ways I have been able to build connections between …read more

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President Trump Speaks About Terrorism and Religion in Saudi Arabia

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Written by Don Byrd

During his trip to the Middle East, President Trump spoke to the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia. Among other things, he discussed the ongoing effort to combat terrorism, and its relationship to religion.

Somewhat in contrast to his rhetoric as a candidate, the President called Islam “one of the world’s great faiths” and reminded that the threat of terrorism is “not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations.” He did not refer to terrorism as “Islamic terrorism” or discuss is as an expression of religious belief, except as a false one.

Here is an excerpt:

Every time a terrorist murders an innocent person, and falsely invokes the name of God, it should be an insult to every person of faith.

Terrorists do not worship God, they worship death.

If we do not stand in uniform condemnation of this killing—then not only will we be judged by our people, not only will we be judged by history, but we will be judged by God.

This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations.

This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect …read more

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U.S. Religious Freedom Commission Adds Russia to its 2017 List of Countries of Particular Concern

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Written by Don Byrd

I am a little late to this but a few weeks ago the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world. The USCIRF report identifies countries of concern with regard to religious freedom policies and conditions, dividing them into 1) countries recommended for State Department designation as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), a category reserved for nations in which residents face the most egregious religious freedom violations; 2) Tier 2 countries, and 3) other countries and regions being closely monitored.

This year, the report names Russia as a new country recommended for CPC designation. A press release explains:

This year’s report calls on the Secretary of State to designate Russia as a CPC partly due to its continued use of its “anti-extremism” law as a tool to repeatedly curtail religious freedoms for various faiths, most recently the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to religious freedom is being eliminated through a flawed application of this law,” commented USCIRF’s Chair, Thomas Reese, S.J. “The recent Russian Supreme Court ruling bans the legal existence …read more

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Bill Leonard: Government Support Will Only Further Church Decline

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Written by Don Byrd

In a new column for Baptist News Global, Bill Leonard connects the dots between the financial and membership declines confronting many religious denominations on one hand, and the temptation to seek government support on the other. Whether in the form of direct aid to churches, like the dispute in Trinity Lutheran, or the push to politicize houses of worship, or the never ending call for expanded school vouchers that send taxpayer money to fund religious education, Leonard argues that these appeals to the government for support of religion may ultimately push people away.

Here is an excerpt:

Do numerical, financial and cultural declines compel churches to seek expanded assistance from the secular government? As culture-privilege deteriorates, does government-privilege become increasingly essential? Yet increased reliance on government funds and influence may become self-fulfilling prophecy, driving new generations away from religious institutions that promote political candidates, demand fiscal entitlements in the name of religious liberty, or cannot make the gospel case in the public square.

Leonard also recognizes the great work of the Baptist Joint Committee and its continuing “heritage of dissent” in challenging these current “church-state entanglements.” Read the whole thing.

-For more …read more

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Florida School Safety Budget Item Raises Church-State Questions

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Written by Don Byrd

The recently passed Florida budget contains a $654,000 grant for the improved safety of Jewish schools, following a recent increase in targeted threats and incidents of anti-Semitism. The taxpayer funds would be used to protect thousands of Jewish students, but as the Miami Herald reports, some are questioning whether funding for the schools of only one faith is appropriate.

Kara Gross, ACLU of Florida’s legislative counsel, told the Miami Herald that while responding to violent threats made against religious minorities is extremely important, the budget item raises constitutional questions.

“The fact that the funding singles out one religion raises serious concerns about unconstitutional discrimination, whether intentional or not,” she said in a written statement. “Many groups are seeing a spike in violent threats in recent months — not only Jews, but also Muslims, Sikhs and immigrants. If the state sees responding to these threats as a priority public safety issue, funding should be available to all similarly targeted groups.”

Proponents counter that the rise in threats aimed at Jewish schools justifies the faith-specific grant.

Teach Florida’s executive director Mimi Jankovits said the goal in Florida is to expand security money to other private schools in future …read more

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KY Appeals Court Upholds Shop Owner’s Refusal to Print Pride Festival Shirt

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Written by Don Byrd

An appeals court in Kentucky has rejected a bid to reverse a lower court’s ruling that favored Hands on Originals (HOO), a print shop in Lexington. The dispute arose after the store’s owner refused to print t-shirts for a local gay pride festival, citing his religious beliefs. The city’s anti-discrimination law (the “fairness ordinance”) prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Plaintiffs argued that the refusal of service violated the ordinance and was not protected by the state’s religious freedom laws, but the appeals court, echoing the lower court, ruled that the nondiscrimination law does not apply in this case.

The court held that HOO was not in violation of the fairness ordinance because its refusal was based on the message and not the sexual orientation of its customer. In a 2-1 opinion, the chief judge emphasized that the service in question – printing messages on t-shirts – is speech, and that the ordinance does not implicate the right of private businesses to control its own speech.

[T]he “service” HOO offers is the promotion of messages. The “conduct” HOO chose not to promote was pure speech. . . . Nothing …read more

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Tell Congress: Voices of Faith Want Tax-Exempt Protections to Remain in Place

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Written by Don Byrd

On the heels of President Trump’s Executive Order that seeks to politicize houses of worship, a new website created by a coalition of diverse faith-based organizations including the Baptist Joint Committee offers all church leaders – clergy and lay leaders alike – the opportunity to be heard on this important issue. Visit faith-voices.org and sign a letter that will be delivered to members of Congress expressing opposition to any effort to repeal or undermine the so-called “Johnson Amendment.” That law protects houses of worship by prohibiting tax-exempt organizations from campaigning for or against a candidate for office. You can also leave a comment explaining how a change in the law would impact you and your congregation.

The BJC’s executive director, Amanda Tyler, explains in a video below why it is so important that we speak out to let our Senators and Representatives know that this protection is good for religion and for our houses of worship. Visit faith-voices.org now and sign your name to this critical effort!

For more, see Marv Knox’s piece highlighting this campaign …read more

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Idaho Lawsuit Challenges Refusal to Provide Kosher Meals for Jewish Prisoners

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Written by Don Byrd

A new class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Idaho on behalf of Jewish prisoners charges the Idaho Department of Corrections with refusing to provide kosher meals despite repeated requests. The plaintiffs argue the denial violates their religious liberty rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The Spokesman-Review reports:

According to documents filed in the court case, the Idaho Department of Correction requested a report from Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz in 2005 on its religious accommodations for Jewish prison inmates. Lifshitz reported that IDOC could fulfill requirements for kosher meals by providing sealed, pre-prepared certified kosher meals, as do most state prison systems; many also supplement those with fruit or other cold items that already are kosher.

While IDOC’s internal “Handbook of Religious Beliefs and Practices” specifically requires that Jewish inmates be provided a kosher diet upon request, including kosher-for-Passover meals during that holiday, the department instead has taken the position that it doesn’t offer any religion-specific diet, instead offering all inmates a choice between a “mainline” menu or five “selective diet options.”

Some might question, “Is it really that important to provide inmates with kosher meals?” Simply put yourself in the plaintiffs’ …read more

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