September 11, 2013
By Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund of Religious Liberty
Pretty much every time blasphemy laws are in the news, one gets more evidence of how bad they are for society. The latest example, as reported by Eugene Volokh, comes in Bangladesh, where atheists are being prosecuted for blogging as atheists. Sending someone to jail for expressing an opinion on a religious question is a gross violation of religious liberty, regardless of whether that person expresses an underlying religious belief. Bangladesh will not be able to develop unless it can rid itself of the albatross of blasphemy laws.
August 28, 2013
Last week our case defending the Big Mountain Jesus war memorial in Montana was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Since then we’ve released a new video which tells the inspiring story of two of the co-defendants in the case, Ray Leopold and Gene Thomas, who drive to the top of the mountain every year to make repairs to the statue. In the video, Ray explains that the statue means many things to many different people. He says,
“I see this as a war memorial, some people see this as a historical figure, some people see it as a religious figure, some people see it as just a statue at a nice location where they like to come up and have a picnic…. It’s almost as if this statue has become a citizen of Whitefish, Montana.”
Indeed, local residents of Montana overwhelmingly support the current home of the statue. We hope you will too, after watching this video.
August 27, 2013
By: Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
The Elane Photography decision handed down by the New Mexico Supreme Court last week is notable for many things. Chief among them is a concurrence by Justice Bosson, which chillingly describes the sacrifice of free speech and religious freedom as “the price of citizenship.”
Others will doubtless critique the majority opinion and the concurrence at length. I’ll leave the major points to them and instead focus on a comparison that might be overlooked. The concurrence distinguishes Elane Photography from the flag salutes at issue in West Virginia v. Barnette, and tramples on both law and history in the process.
In Barnette, the Supreme Court held that the government could not coerce schoolchildren to salute the flag. The children in question were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believed that patriotic exercises were tantamount to idolatry. The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected them from mandatory patriotic exercises.
After citing Barnette, the concurrence compares the owners of Elane Photography not to the Barnette children, but to the Virginia judge who upheld anti-miscegenation statutes in Loving v. Virginia. The comparison is laughable: the photographers are not conscripting the powers of the state to imprison same-sex couples. Nor were they, as the court would have it, discriminating according to status—they did not refuse to photograph people simply because of their sexual orientation. They were merely asking not to use their artistic expression to celebrate a religious ceremony with which they disagreed. Like the children in Barnette, whose religion forbade them from saluting the flag, the photographers’ religion forbids them from profiting from or participating in a same-sex wedding. As in Barnette, the First Amendment should have prevailed.
August 26, 2013
By: Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Last week, the self-styled “paper of record” finally took notice of a phenomenon we at the Becket Fund have been talking about (see Blog: Fear, Loathing, and Demographics) for a long time: the New York City government’s conflicts with its growing population of Orthodox Jews. New York Times reporter Joe Berger penned a well-researched article describing conflicts ranging from attempts to prosecute Orthodox store owners for requiring some modesty of their customers, to refusals to accommodate Hasidic women’s requests for a female lifeguard, to targeted regulation of the ancient circumcision ritual of metzitzah b’peh.
The article is revealing of government officials’ ignorance of the law of religious accommodation. For example, a City parks official stated regarding the Hasidic women’s request, “We don’t have a formal policy, but we can’t commit to providing a female lifeguard because it would run against the establishment clause of providing a service on the basis of a religious belief.” The City takes this position despite unanimous Supreme Court precedent dating to 1987 holding that government accommodations of private religious practices does not violate the Establishment Clause. The bad legal advice City officials are apparently getting, when combined with the growing Orthodox population in the City, practically guarantees further litigation over religious liberty for Orthodox Jews.
And the stakes in that litigation will be high. Although government disfavor towards religious minorities takes many forms across the United States and is hardly a new feature of our body politic, this set of conflicts is especially important because of New York’s religious diversity, its prominence in the American imagination, and the example its policies set for other municipalities. In short, if religious liberty can make it in New York, it can make it anywhere. Friends of religious liberty should work to make sure it does.
Photo Credit: WikiCommons
August 22, 2013
By: Kyle Duncan, General Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
The American legal system doesn’t do theology. Thank heavens. No one wants judges telling us whether the Nicene Creed is correct, whether the Red Sea really parted, or whether reincarnation happens. Yes, religious believers sometimes go to court when their rights are violated, but they typically argue that theology is none of the government’s business. And the government almost always agrees.
Strange, then, that the Department of Justice recently went out of its way to inject theology into a nationwide religious liberty dispute. Conestoga Wood Specialties is one of over thirty challenges by business owners to the HHS mandate, a regulation requiring health insurance to cover contraception and sterilization. During oral argument last May, Circuit Judge Kent Jordan stressed that the Conestoga plaintiffs object only to covering specific “abortifacient” drugs and devices, triggering this exchange with the DOJ attorney (italics mine):
DOJ: If I may just interrupt with… abortifacients… just to make clear… the Court is using a theological term. If the Court wants to refer to IUDs and Plan B and Ella, that’s [sic] neutral terms. For federal law purposes, a device that prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus is not an abortifacient. Abortifacient would be a drug like RU-486, that has an effect only after the woman is pregnant. So if, if the court wants a neutral description, we’re talking about drugs and devices that could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.
JORDAN: I’m not, I’m not sure… I’m not sure where you’re…
August 12, 2013
Today, The Becket Fund’s Mark Rienzi published commentary in USA Today that explains why people should be allowed to run a business according to their values. The article says,
“We regularly encounter businesses making decisions of conscience. Chipotle recently decided not to sponsor a Boy Scout event because the company disagreed with the Scouts’ policy on openly gay scoutmasters. It was ‘the right thing to do,’ Chipotle said.
“Starbucks has ethical standards for the coffee beans it buys. Vegan stores refuse to sell animal products because they believe doing so is immoral. Some businesses refuse to invest in sweatshops or pornography companies or polluters.
“You can agree or disagree with the decisions of these businesses, but they are manifestly acts of conscience, both for the companies and the people who operate them. Our society is better because people and organizations remain free to have other values while earning a living. Does anyone really want a society filled with organizations that can only focus on profits and are barred from thinking of the greater good?”
Read the full text of the USA Today op-ed here.
July 26, 2013
By Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel
In case you missed it, Becket Fund board member and Princeton Professor Robert George was elected chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom this week. Today, together with vice chairwoman Katrina Lantos Swett, Professor George has a great op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explaining why religious freedom is an essential element of human dignity. Check it out here.