Bible quotes vanish from whiteboard
The Clinton County School District in Plattsburg, Mo., ordered removal of bible quotes from a middle school administrator’s whiteboard.
In an Oct. 8 letter of complaint, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott informed the district, “Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools.”
The school district’s attorney responded Oct. 10 to say that the bible verse had been removed.
Joel Osteen trip trips FFRF trigger
Botetourt County, Fincastle, Va., ceased sponsorship and website promotion of a trip to see megachurch pastor and televangelist Joel Osteen trip after getting a Sept. 26 letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.
“We respect the importance of government coordination of community events and trips, but holding religious events specifically for a Christian subset of citizens is inappropriate and unconstitutional,” wrote Elliott.
The county removed the event posting, and County Administrator Kathleen Guzi said in a response letter that the county was not hosting or organizing the trip and would seek legal advice regarding FFRF’s concerns.
Better ‘BELIEVE’ it: Yearbook cleansed
Gallia County (Ohio) Local Schools will no longer endorse religion on the cover of its yearbooks. The PTO of Addaville Elementary School printed and distributed yearbooks with a large cross bearing the word “BELIEVE” on the cover. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the school district Sept. 26.
A school district attorney forwarded Markert a letter from the superintendent to parents, explaining that the religious message was inappropriate. The superintendent also wrote to the PTO, saying that in the future, the group “must refrain from displaying any religious message or symbol in publications that are or appear to be sponsored by or associated with the Gallia County Local School District.”
Courthouse protest brings arrest
Eliot Kalman, 69, Athens, Ohio, was arrested Oct. 28 and charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief for his protest of the church directory sign on the Athens County Courthouse. Kalman admitted putting stickers advocating state/church separation on the directory, reported the Athens News. The sign lists 40 different churches and religious groups in the county.
County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said it’s his “understanding that the county has no influence or authority over what goes up or how it goes up, and that by going through the [private] group who controls it, anyone can post any group organizational information they want.”
Kalman said if something is on county property, it’s under the county’s authority. He said he’s upset about being handcuffed, searched and “perp walked” after what he considers an appropriate public protest. “They put me in handcuffs for exercising my First Amendment rights as if I were a dangerous person.”
Atheist settles suit for $2 million
Barry Hazle Jr. and the state of California settled Hazle’s six-year-old civil rights suit on Oct. 14 for almost $2 million. Hazle was imprisoned for just over 100 days after contesting a “higher power” drug treatment program while he was on parole, the Redding Record Searchlight reported.
Hazle asked for a secular treatment program, was told none was available and was eventually sent back to prison, where he’d already spent a year on drug possession charges that were overturned by an appeals court.
An appeals judge ruled in August 2013 that compensatory damages are mandatory in cases of unconstitutional imprisonment and said the trial jury had been misinstructed, resulting in the settlement. The state will pay Hazle $1 million and $925,000 will come from Westcare California Inc., the contractor that offered only a religious rehabilitation program.
Election results are mixed bag
Daniel Moran, a Democrat and atheist running for the Texas House of Representatives, lost his race Nov. 4, as did James Woods, an Arizona Democrat and atheist running for the U.S. House. Woods was the only open atheist running for Congress.
Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, defeated Moran by getting 77.3% of the vote. Incumbent Republican Rep. Matt Salmon won 68% of the vote against Woods.
Arizona Democratic state Rep. Juan Mendez, an atheist who gave a secular invocation from the floor of the House (for which he was honored at FFRF’s 2013 convention), won a second term.
Religion News Service reported that voters rejected two Rhode Island politicians who criticized teen atheist activist Jessica Ahlquist. Democrat Peter Palumbo, who called her an “evil little thing,” lost his legislative bid, and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who also criticized Ahlquist, lost the gubernatorial race to Democrat Gina Raimondo, who became the state’s first woman governor.
Other religion-related results:
• A state constitutional amendment banning use of “foreign law” in Alabama courts passed 72%-28%. It was first put forth by people worried that Islamic sharia could someday influence court cases.
• “Fetal personhood” amendments lost in Colorado (65%-35%) and North Dakota (64%-36%).
• Tennessee voters by 52.6% approved a state constitutional amendment saying this: “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.” It gives legislators more power to restrict abortions. The amendment received much more support in rural areas.
• Illinois voters approved by 67%-33% a nonbinding referendum requiring health insurers to include prescription birth control as part of drug coverage.
Humanist denied chaplaincy sues
Atheist Navy chaplain candidate Jason Heap filed suit Nov. 5 in U.S. District Court in Virginia to challenge the rejection in June of his chaplain application. Defendants are Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and several other Defense Department and Navy personnel.
Heap has a doctorate in religion and has studied at Oxford and Texas Christian University and is a former youth minister. The suit asks for his instatement as a Navy chaplain and the designation of the Humanist Society as the official endorsing agent for humanist chaplains.
Heap and his supporters say that humanist beliefs “are constitutionally equal to religious faith and that chaplains are key contacts for troops on a variety of personnel and quality-of-life matters, ranging from recreational activities to suicide prevention programs,” reported Stars and Stripes.
Wis. judge rules church must pay
St. Raphael Cathedral property was properly taxed in 2013 by the city of Madison, Wis., because the Catholic parish missed a deadline to seek a religious exemption, Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess ruled Nov. 4. The cathedral suffered severe fire damage in 2005. The property was unused for years until 2013 when a 14-station Way of the Cross display was installed.
If not for missing the deadline, Niess said the property could have been given a $101,125 tax exemption because the Way of the Cross served a religious purpose.
“You may all go on to the Court of Appeals to see if I’m right,” Niess told the parties. City Assessor Mark Hanson said the city denied St. Raphael’s Congregation’s 2014 tax exemption request. “We didn’t feel the current use qualified for an exemption.” The congregation will have to pay the tax and then file in January for a refund as it did for 2013, Hanson said.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a formal letter to the assessor and addressed the Madison Common Council in opposition to the exemption.
Calif. city council prayers appealed
Carole Beaton, a Eureka, Calif., activist and FFRF member, is appealing to the state Court of Appeal a December 2013 ruling that said nonsectarian prayers at Eureka City Council meetings are constitutional.
The city and Beaton settled part of the suit in October in an agreement prohibiting the city from using its resources, city seal and the title of mayor to promote or support prayer breakfasts.
The city agreed to pay Beaton $16,500 for attorney’s fees.
“Prayer is religion in action, so prayer and government don’t mix either,” plaintiff’s attorney Peter Martin said. “We would like the Court of Appeal to draw a bright line.” The point is to keep religion out of government, not out of people’s lives, Beaton said in an email to the Eureka Times-Standard. “The separation of church and state is a precious American principle which protects us all, both religious and nonbelievers.”
Florida judge removed from bench
The Florida Supreme Court on Oct. 30 removed Judith Hawkins from her position as a Leon County judge for selling religious books from her office as part of her for-profit Christian ministry, The Associated Press reported.
The court said Hawkins was deceitful and dishonest at her disciplinary hearing before the Judicial Qualifications Commission. She was also accused of using her county email account, judicial assistant and her office spaces and equipment to create, edit and promote Gaza Road Ministry products “to the detriment of the prompt and efficient administration of justice.”
Her annual judge’s salary was $142,000.
Devil blamed for commandments crash
Michael Tate Reed Jr., 29, allegedly told federal authorities that Satan told him to drive his car into a Ten Commandments monument Oct. 23 at the Oklahoma Capitol. Reed was charged with destruction of state property/improvements, indecent exposure, making threatening statements, reckless driving and operating a vehicle with a revoked license. The monument was toppled about 9 p.m.
An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit challenging the monument, donated by state Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, was dismissed in September. but the ACLU is appealing to the state Supreme Court.
Wall of separation in danger of crumbling
FFRF awarded Jared $400 for his essay.
By Jared Plotkin
In 2014, the principle of separation of church and state has been challenged in a variety of disturbing ways. Using code words like “religious liberty,” Christian conservatives have tried through the legal system to impose their beliefs on everyone. Hundreds of public schools across the country were shown to be teaching creationism, in defiance of federal rulings. Numerous bills were proposed allowing businesses to turn away gay customers based on the owner’s religious beliefs, with one so far, in Mississippi, signed into law.
Most recently, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court declared that not only are corporations people, they can be religious people, and that their “freedom of religion” trumps the rights of the actual people who work for the company. Each of these issues is an egregious constitutional violation. I wish, however, to discuss another development that is in many ways the clearest example of the way “religious liberty” has been misused to force one Christianity on the entire nation. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court ruled that not only could a city council meeting begin with a prayer, but the prayer could be explicitly Christian. The case is notable for several reasons.
The New York town had a history of selecting only Christians to lead the opening prayer. Justice Elena Kagan noted in her dissent: “In arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, the town never sought (except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions.” The 5-4 decision was also notable for the breakdown among justices. All the justices appointed by Republican presidents (and all Catholic) favored sectarian prayer, while all appointed by Democrats opposed it. The court’s split mirrors that of the town’s prayer-givers — the Christian majority imposing its views on everyone. The decision runs afoul of judicial precedent, which is increasingly becoming typical for this court. E.J. Dionne notes that “the court’s conservative majority is operating as a political faction” and is willing to embrace an activist role in order to achieve ideological goals.
Precedent like the “Lemon” test, which prohibits government entanglement with religion and ensures that policies involving religion serve a secular purpose, has been swept aside. Even more startling is how the “originalist” conservative justices have ignored the founders’ views on state/church separation.
The words of the majority opinion confirm this stunning departure from our roots. Justice Anthony Kennedy opined that the overwhelming majority of prayers were explicitly Christian was because town residents were “nearly all” Christian. Kennedy’s solution for those who object: Ignore the prayer or leave the room.
The agenda of conservatives who claim they want to expand “religious liberty” is revealed. They do not want religious liberty; they want its antithesis. They want to use the government’s authority to spread their beliefs to the exclusion of all others at taxpayer expense.
It’s no wonder that Justice Clarence Thomas filed a separate opinion with the majority stating that there’s nothing in the Constitution barring state and local governments from establishing an official religion.
Prayer at city council meetings might be a small issue, but the logic behind the majority’s view is not. Assuming that the court’s ideological makeup isn’t altered in the near future, this decision could open the floodgates to letting the religious majority force its views on the minority.
Those of us who believe that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion should be outraged.
Jared Plotkin, 28, Sacramento, is pursuing a master’s in political science at California State University-Los Angeles, where he’s the founding president of the Atheist, Agnostic and Non-Religious Student Alliance. He previously earned a B.A. in political science from UCLA-Irvine.
A haven from oppression
By Ashley Reynolds
FFRF awarded Ashley $400 for her essay.
United States Constitution, Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” The reverence given to both aspects of religious liberty by our nation’s founders comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with our colonial history, as the New World served as a haven for the many who sought to escape the oppressive Church of England.
Today it would seem that history does repeat itself, as liberty-minded Americans once again find themselves as underdogs in a battle for freedom from religious oppression. A legislative battle is under way to radically redefine “religious liberty.” By definition, liberty means to have the greatest degree of freedom possible without infringing on another’s rights. Yet the purported religious liberties of some are clashing with the basic rights of others, and these clashes are being legally sanctioned, defying the spirit of the Establishment Clause.
Many states have almost no legal consequences for parents who decline medical treatment for their children in favor of faith-based healing. Similarly, despite the 109-year-old ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, all but three states grant parents vaccine exemptions on the basis of religion.
Gays and women are subject to ever-increasing discrimination despite constitutional protections. Nine states have what some disrespectfully call “no promo homo” laws denouncing homosexuality. Contradicting Lawrence v. Texas, some even criminalize consensual sex between adults.
And, after Arizona’s failed attempt to let business owners refuse service to same-sex couples for religious reasons, at least five more states are looking at similar legislation.
Perhaps one recent case stands above the rest as a red flag: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. In the fall of 2012, Hobby Lobby’s owners filed a lawsuit alleging that the Affordable Care Act forced the Green family to act in violation of their beliefs. The Greens falsely claimed that emergency contraceptives like Plan B and Ella, as well as copper and hormonal intrauterine devices, are abortifacients.
On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court sided 5-4 with Hobby Lobby. In the words of dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the majority ventured into a “minefield” by radically expanding the interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to include corporate personhood.
Within 24 hours, the court issued orders on six similar cases that extended the Hobby Lobby exception to all drugs classified as contraceptives. Within 48 hours, the court issued a procedural ruling in Wheaton College v. Burwell that the employer couldn’t even be compelled to submit a form to the government stating religious objections to contraceptives, as the mere act of doing so might trigger a third party to provide coverage.
Religious liberty no longer just means a woman has the freedom to choose whether or not to use contraception; it now means a company can choose whether or not to even give her the option.
Burwell is another chip off the decaying façades of Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade, which have been weakened by a string of state laws and court rulings making contraception and abortion less accessible. The Religious Right is successfully launching attacks on women from a new strategic position. If they can’t deny reproductive rights entirely, they will circumvent them by cutting off insurance funding. America is an idea as much as a nation, the idea being that people are endowed with a basic human right to as much freedom as possible without infringing on others. Our founding documents reflect this desire for liberty, and we are governed by a Constitution that, in no uncertain terms, especially recognizes the importance of religious freedom. America can return to her roots as a haven from oppression, but we must take this clear stand: One’s freedom ends where another’s begins.
Ashley Reynolds, 28, Perkins, Okla., is pursuing an M.S. in teaching, learning and leadership with an option in secondary social studies education at Oklahoma State University, where she earned a B.A. in political science in 2010.
Hobby Lobby ruling is vat of worms
By Benjamin van Loon
FFRF awarded Benjamin $500 for his essay.
The First Amendment recognizes freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. The amendment opens with the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses that state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Thomas Jefferson summed up the clauses’ implication in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, that they erect “a wall of separation between Church & State.” On paper, the separation seems like it should work, but two centuries later, the 1791 amendment is still contentious.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby originated in 2010 in reaction to the Affordable Care Act and its redefinition of employer-based health plans. Under the ACA, the Health Resources and Services Administration determined that FDA-approved contraceptives should be included in these health plans.
Big-box craft chain Hobby Lobby — owned by founder, billionaire and evangelical Christian David Green and his family — has 28,000 employees and objected to coverage for emergency and other contraception which the company has, in the tradition of corporate myopia, erroneously declared to be abortifacients.
This is less like a can and more like a vat of worms. How can a corporation have religious beliefs? Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott addressed the issue in their 2003 documentary “The Corporation,” which investigates corporate personhood through a DSM-IV lens. The movie concludes that corporations are largely psychopathic (socially inept, lacking empathy, deceitful, etc.).
This is not revelatory but it is provocative. We’re led to ask how corporations achieved their personhood. They can merge, acquiesce and sue, but can they go to church? Hobby Lobby cites the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, suggesting that the government has substantially burdened the company’s exercise of religion. The “win” in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is a liberating benefit to corporations, which can leverage “religious” rationale for commercial gain and a detriment to the real persons affected by corporate decisions.
We must also consider how the case fallaciously conflates religious conviction with ethical opinion. Hobby Lobby’s argument reflects the Christian position about conception and contraceptives in general, where the logic is hermeneutically weak and the reasoning duplicitous.
If Burwell v. Hobby Lobby were truly about religious freedom, the $2.28 billion company would swallow the $100 a month tax for failing to meet HRSA requirements and we’d hear no more of it. But instead, federal notions of religious liberty get dragged into the muck as Jefferson’s wall gets ever more porous.
Finally, in typical psychopathological fashion, Hobby Lobby fails to recognize that what it does in pursuit of its religious liberty doubles as a religious (ethical and ideological) imposition, beginning with its 28,000 employees and extending to the rest of the conscious public.
If Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, it should recognize that religion ends where it begins: in the head, the only place one can be truly free.
Benjamin van Loon, 29, Chicago, is pursuing a master’s in communication and media at Northeastern Illinois University after graduating magna cum laude from North Park University with degrees in both philosophy and English.
Corporate personhood’s oppression by religion
By Zachary Tuck
FFRF awarded Zachary $750 for his essay.
The First Amendment states in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The amendment expressed the Enlightenment-era philosophy of reason espoused by many of the Constitution’s framers. The Establishment Clause also appealed to people who had faced religious persecution in Europe. The ongoing clash between science and religion and the growth of corporate personhood complicate the issue of religious freedom in a way not anticipated 200 years ago. Corporate religious expression has devastating consequences for women, LGBTQ persons and other minorities. The concomitant erosion of the separation of church and state lets corporations legislate from the board room, circumventing legal precedent to create biased hiring practices and control their employees’ and customers’ access to health, safety and freedom from persecution under the guise of religious expression. The exercise of free speech has been the battleground for corporate personhood. Corporations have a vested interest in removing any limits to political donations, which gives them greater clout than any human person, paving the way for decisions like Citizens United and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
The social movements of the 20th century, most notably the civil rights and women’s rights movements, created a fairer and broader definition of what it is to be human. One such source of power is the idea of bodily autonomy, which was advanced by the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby carries with it the implication that a corporation can use a religion to make a medical definition, which thus becomes not only a public health concern, but a threat to women’s rights. In “The Hobby Lobby Decision: A Summary & Explanation,” the blogger known as Carmen breaks down one of the most insidious aspects of the majority decision by exploring a quote from Justice Samuel Alito: “The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.”
Note how carefully Alito words it: “according to their religious beliefs.” He had to do so because the four contraceptives at issue (Mirena, Paragard, Plan B and Ella) are not, in fact, abortifacients according to the FDA. This is really crucial. The court majority wrongly allowed Hobby Lobby to define what causes an abortion. The court is not solely culpable in this, given that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress, mandates additional safeguards against laws placing an alleged undue burden on the expression of religion, effectively paving the way for the Hobby Lobby case and others like it.
The 21st century has also witnessed the growth of the LGBTQ rights movement, which faces strong religious opposition. Michelle Chen at The Nation has reported on Hobby Lobby’s unwillingness to let a transgender employee of 16 years use her store’s bathroom, despite having legally transitioned. George Fox University, a Christian university in Oregon, applied for and was granted a religious exemption to Title IX requirements to provide appropriate accommodations for one of its transgender students. As the student himself points out in a report by Daniel Borgen:
“I deserve to be treated like the other men on campus. Apparently, the university disagrees, as they have made clear by forcing me to live off-campus. The university is operating under the doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ and the religious exemption they received now gives the government’s stamp of approval to what they are doing. My own tax dollars will fund the university’s discrimination against me. I don’t understand it and I don’t think it is fair.”
The Supreme Court and the prevailing political climate are strongly biased toward a very loose interpretation of the free exercise of religion. Each such law passed nationally or locally and supported judicially threatens the Establishment Clause — in word and spirit — and the freedom and safety of individuals and groups. Those of us who fear the imposition of religion, or impositions in the guise of religion, must fight the symptoms of this problem and face up to the problem itself: That no freedom is safe when corporate interests erode representative government.
Zachary Tuck, 30, Austin, Texas, is a student in the writing and literature program at California College of the Arts in the San Francisco area, working toward a bachelor’s degree.
Disquieting decision: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby
FFRF awarded Justin $1,000 for his essay.
By Justin Clark
The Supreme Court made a decision on June 30 that will be remembered for its uneven handling of justice and as a serious challenge to the secular institutions that have sustained the U.S. for over 230 years: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. For-profit corporations now have a “religious privilege” to not conform to the contraceptive coverage mandate as outlined in the Affordable Care Act. For the first time, personal religious rights have been conferred on for-profit corporations. Owners of “closely held” companies can impose their religious beliefs on their employees. As New York Times reporter Adam Liptak noted, the decision has “opened the door to many challenges from corporations over laws that they claim violate their religious liberty.” That understates the case. Over 90% of all U.S. businesses are “closely held,” which means that while the majority opinion sees this as a narrow ruling, it actually applies the challenges to the ACA to corporate law as a whole. In effect, a private company can now challenge almost any law on “religious liberty” grounds. This terrible decision is not at all what the framers envisioned with the Establishment Clause. The decision stems from the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which, in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision, has been appropriated to serve the ends of religious business owners who run entities such as Hobby Lobby. Equally troubling is that at no time in the majority opinion does Justice Samuel Alito even remotely define what “deeply held religious beliefs” are or how they allow corporations to discriminate against workers. He only intimates that “it is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.” While the explicit remark of the majority is certainly logical, based on the Establishment Clause, it is the implicit meaning that is deeply unsettling. The court has indirectly decided that the religious beliefs of the majority shareholders of a company trump employees’ rights. Picking and choosing who’s burdened or helped by RFRA sets an awful precedent, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent elucidates this beautifully:
No doubt the Greens . . . and all who share their beliefs may decline to acquire for themselves the contraceptives in question. But that choice may not be imposed on employees who hold other beliefs. Working for Hobby Lobby or Conestoga, in other words, should not deprive employees of the preventive care available to workers at the shop next door, at least in the absence of directions from the Legislature or Administration to do so.
That outlines perfectly the problematic aspect of this decision. The Establishment Clause mandates strict neutrality in religious matters, but because of the ruling’s broadening of RFRA, the government is now effectively picking winners and losers based on “deeply held religious beliefs.” This is corporate encroachment on individual liberties and protections, done in the name of religious liberty. It opens the floodgates for cases all over the country.
Secularism requires a position of neutrality, because the complications of defining a deeply held religious belief are astounding. RFRA should be amended or repealed altogether. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties should not have even been allowed to pursue a claim against forms of contraception in the first place. Calling contraception such as intrauterine devices the moral equivalent of abortion is not a position that the Supreme Court should decide, but it has done so at the expense of individual rights. This decision is dangerous, and future cases will make it only more so.
Justin Clark, 24, Peru, Ind., is pursing a master’s in public history at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis. He previously earned a bachelor’s in history/political science with a minor in philosophy from Indiana University-Kokomo.
SCOTUS: All freedom not created equal
By Kat Heiden
FFRF awarded Kat $2,000 for her essay.
The New York Times headline sums it up nicely: “Supreme Court Rejects Contraceptive Mandate for Some Corporations.” Within this straightforward statement lies an important key word: “Some” suggests that the court’s decision applies to certain companies with certain characteristics.
In this case that defining characteristic is the business owners’ religious beliefs. The court’s decision ensures that these individuals’ religious preferences are maintained. In doing so, it violates the freedom of countless female employees by preventing them from accessing the contraception that, per the Affordable Care Act, they have a legal right to obtain.
The Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision suggests that religious freedom is somehow more valuable than workers’ freedom to make decisions about their own health and futures. That alone is a fatal flaw in the decision, but there are several others. In a country where we pride ourselves on “liberty and justice for all,” the decision applies that liberty selectively, with religious business owners as its “chosen” people.
If religious employers refuse to include contraception as part of employee health plans, many women can no longer make a choice about whether or not to obtain it. They are stripped of this freedom because without insurance, contraception can be prohibitively expensive. For example, according to Planned Parenthood, an intrauterine device (one of the most effective forms of birth control) can cost $500 to $900 if paid for entirely out of pocket. For a woman making minimum wage, as many workers at retail stores such as Hobby Lobby earn, this could mean nearly a month’s wages.
A woman’s choice to obtain birth control does not infringe on anyone else’s freedom. No one will be forced to use birth control. Before, during and after the woman’s choice, the freedom to practice religion will remain intact. Disturbingly, the decision suggests that the imposition of one’s religious beliefs on others is a freedom to be protected. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby not only applies the concept of freedom unequally, it relies heavily on the idea of corporate personhood to underscore its religious favoritism. As Justice Ruth Ginsburg noted in her dissent, “the court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.”
The majority opinion justifies corporate personhood by stating:
Congress provided protection for people like the Hahns and Greens by employing a familiar legal fiction: It included corporations within RFRA’s definition of “persons.” But it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings. A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.
The above passage shows selective freedom at work. The majority defines “people” as shareholders, officers and employees and justifies corporate personhood as a way to protect those people’s rights. Yet the employee’s right to contraception is denied. By treating employers differently from employees, the court adheres to only a select portion of its own corporate personhood definition. The Supreme Court is a public body whose purpose is to better define, interpret and apply law in service of all Americans. It cannot select which Americans it serves. In principle, the court makes our country freer by ensuring that all laws are just. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby does not strike down an unjust law or create a new one. It simply chooses the application of one existing law over another. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is favored over the Affordable Care Act. In a more egregious misappropriation of the court’s power to apply the law, RFRA is also essentially chosen over the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. Justice Ginsburg speaks to this point in her dissent:
The Court does not pretend that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause demands religion-based accommodations so extreme, for our decisions leave no doubt on that score. Instead, the Court holds that Congress, in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, dictated the extraordinary religion-based exemptions [to the Free Exercise Clause] today’s decision endorses.
Decisions like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby favor some Americans’ freedoms over others, which is extremely problematic. Freedom is the core belief that unites our United States, and it is too precious to be dispensed unevenly, especially by the highest court in the land.
Kat Heiden, 29, Sherman Oaks, Calif., is pursuing an M.A. in communications and leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. She previously earned a B.A. in screenwriting from Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
Their ‘religious liberty’ infringes on us
By Alex Flitter
FFRF awarded Alex $3,000 for his first-place essay.
I got my first job when I was 13, a camp counselor job, looking after children not much younger than me for far below minimum wage. I thought I had a solid understanding of the employer-employee relationship.
Employees are hired to fulfill tasks that the employer needs completed. In return, the employee receives pay and possibly benefits. That’s where I thought the relationship ended. But since then, a transformation has occurred involving “religious liberty.” What used to mean the right to believe or not to believe in any religion you choose now appears to mean the right to impose what you believe on individuals over whom you have power.
Despite the claim that this is a Christian nation by partisan historians who believe the founders abhorred state/church separation, the Establishment Clause is clear. It prohibits an official state religion, including favoring one religion over others or supporting religion over irreligion. It’s a clear indication of how important religious neutrality was to the founders.
How did we get from the Establishment Clause to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled in Employment Division v. Smith, a case in which two Native Americans in Oregon were fired after consuming peyote, ostensibly for religious reasons. After the court validated the firings, Congress passed RFRA in 1993.
It states that the government can’t “substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” It notes that it can burden religious exercise if it is done to further a “compelling interest” and is done using “the least restrictive means.” This history and legislation came to a head in the recent Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties sought an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that health plans cover all birth control methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, citing the owners’ religious beliefs and RFRA. The court in a 5-4 decision found that closely held corporations could withhold benefits from employees due to religious beliefs.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that the contraceptive mandate was a “substantial burden” to the owners. He interpreted RFRA to pertain to “humans who own and control corporations,” despite the fact that nothing in the Act indicates that it was ever supposed to facilitate the imposition of one’s beliefs on others.
I keep trying to get into the mind of a religious multimillionaire, to feel the “great burden” he’s supposedly feeling. I don’t doubt the sincerity, but the burden is nonexistent, and I can only conclude that these owners are simply trying to impose their beliefs on as many people as they can.
They believe that contraception, including the morning-after pill, is equivalent to abortion (physiology disagrees). Their argument is that providing this benefit substantially burdens their religious exercise without compelling justification, to paraphrase RFRA.
Except providing full health insurance coverage is not burdening them. They can still pray as they choose and abstain from contraception if they morally disagree with it. They don’t even have to offer health plans to their employees, but could instead pay a tax. The most important point is that whether or not a woman chooses to use contraception in no way hinders the employer’s ability to practice their religion. The only hindrance is to a woman’s right to reproductive freedom.
There could be more of the same on the way. With President Obama recently announcing an executive order that bans federal contractors from discriminating against gay people in the hiring process, 14 faith leaders urged Obama in a letter to exempt religious groups. These leaders, some of whom have spiritually advised Obama, cited the need to respect different opinions on sexuality and claimed that the social services they provide will suffer without an exemption.
But of course, this had nothing to do with social services. This was a blatant case of people in a position of power desperately trying to impose their beliefs on the government and the American people. Their religion dictates that homosexuality is a sin, so they asked the president to impose their beliefs and allow workplace discrimination to continue on our dime.
As I continue my education in hopes of one day being employed, I wonder what my future employer will ask of me in the name of his or her religion. What if my employers are devout Christian Scientists and I get diagnosed with cancer? Will I be forced to pay for chemotherapy because my employer genuinely believes that relying on modern medicine instead of prayer is a sin?
With the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision and the pervasiveness of this new form of “religious liberty,” I can only guess whose beliefs will be dictating what parts of my life.
Alex Flitter, 25, Cherry Hill N.J., graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University in 2012 with a bachelor’s in psychology and is pursuing a master’s in psychology at Rutgers.
FFRF contests public agency chaplaincies
FFRF’s latest objection in a series of complaints about law enforcement chaplaincies went to the Orlando (Fla.) Police Department on Nov. 3. Orlando chaplains, as is typical, are required to be ordained ministers who counsel employees, their families and crime victims and assist with death notifications and other activities.
So far this year, FFRF has sent 14 letters of complaint about such chaplaincies, surpassing the past two years’ totals combined. Most have gone to public agencies in the South: three to Georgia and four to Florida. Many cities and counties are launching new chaplain programs, said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who has handled the bulk of the complaints. One involved a fire department.
FFRF’s letter explain that courts allow government-employed chaplains only as an accommodation where the government makes it difficult for people to seek out private ministries, as is the case with military service members or prisoners. Since there is no government-imposed religious burden on law enforcement officers or the public, the government does not need to provide chaplains.
“Favoring religious officers with free, on-the-job counseling while ignoring the needs of those of no faith is discriminatory,” Seidel noted. “If chaplains were adept at providing secular therapy, they would be therapists, not chaplains. There is no reason to think a nonbelieving employee would be comfortable dealing with a person who provides comfort from a religious viewpoint.”
There are few court decisions or laws governing law enforcement chaplaincies, which perhaps explains why agencies try to stonewall FFRF. Orlando Police Chief John Mina emailed back the day after receiving FFRF’s letter, saying, “I have no intention of discontinuing our Chaplain Program,” but failed to cite any law or decision permitting it to continue.
FFRF again takes on pulpit politicking
Before the Nov. 4 general election, FFRF provided the Internal Revenue Service with nine complaints about churches improperly endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. FFRF is investigating more complaints that came to light after that.
FFRF in August voluntarily dismissed its high-profile federal lawsuit against the IRS, challenging its failure to enforce its own electioneering restrictions against churches. FFRF dismissed its suit after the IRS indicated that it had resumed flagging churches involved with political intervention. FFRF may refile the suit if there is evidence the IRS has resumed looking the other way when tax-exempt churches violate the law.
Many complaints stem from pastors who purposely violate restrictions as part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual event put on by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian Right law firm. Many pastors, at the urging of ADF, have sent videos of their lawbreaking sermons directly to the IRS, hoping to incite a legal challenge to rescind the 1954 law against politicking by 501c3 churches. According to ADF, more than 1,700 pastors participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday in October.
Pastors reported to the IRS by FFRF include Skyline Church Pastor Jim Garlow of La Mesa, Calif. In a sermon, Garlow described a letter sent by some Christian Right groups to Republican leadership opposing certain Republican candidates across the country, including Carl MeMaio, running for California’s 52nd Congressional District. DeMaio is gay. Garlow encouraged his parishioners to go one step further and vote for DeMaio’s Democratic opponent as part of what he called “defensive tactical voting.” DeMaio lost by about 5,000 votes.
Other flagrant violations have come in the form of “sample ballots” provided by churches with “suggested candidates” filled in or highlighted. Legacy Church in Albuquerque, N.M., handed out such ballots to parishioners along with actual campaign materials for certain candidates. Three candidates were also introduced during the church’s Oct. 11 service.
Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., set out “Conservative Primary Ballots” in August.
The ballots indicated how liberal or conservative each candidate was judged to be, placing stars next to the most conservative candidate in each race. Several other religious groups were reported for posting campaign signs on their property. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert handled those complaints.
Schools get ‘civics lesson’ on prayer
Coaches at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes, Del., and Piedmont High School in Piedmont, Ala., will no longer lead their players in prayer or participate in students’ prayers.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the Cape Henlopen School District on Oct. 8 after receiving a report that the high school football coaches participated in a team prayer circle: “While students may wish to engage in prayer on their own, school staff, including coaches, cannot participate in or encourage such religious activities.”
In an Oct. 17 response, Superintendent Robert Fulton told FFRF he had discussed the matter with the administration and football coach, and said “employees, including coaches, will be reminded of laws involving the Separation of Church and State.”
In a similar violation, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert first wrote to Piedmont City Schools in March about Piedmont High’s unconstitutional practice of starting football games with prayer broadcast over the loudspeaker.
After several follow-up letters, Superintendent Matt Akin emailed Markert last summer: “Beginning immediately, the Piedmont City School District will no longer allow student-led prayer at athletic events.”
The complaint made news again in October after Piedmont High School posted a message on its Facebook page informing the public of its decision. Noting that FFRF had cited numerous Supreme Court cases in its letter, the post said, “While the personal opinions of the administration and employees of the system may differ with the opinions of the Court and the author of the letter sent to the system, the school system’s attorneys advised that we consent since there is established case law regarding this issue.”
“It’s a lesson in civics,” said Principal Adam Clemons, who manages the school Facebook page. “Sometimes the courts make decisions that we may or may not agree with, but we have to abide by those decisions.”
Tamara Woodard told the Anniston Star that she supports the Christian prayer. “I was surprised that anybody even complained about it our community.”
Her husband, Joe Woodard, said he’s also Christian but disagreed with her. “Now there are so many diverse religious groups that go to our school,” he said, adding that no member of any one religious group should be subjected to the prayers of another group. “It would not be right for a Christian in the crowd to be subjected to a Muslim or a Jewish prayer.”
While officially a moment of silence was announced at Piedmont’s Oct. 24 game, many in the crowd broke the silence by reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison.
FFRF employs five staff attorneys and a legal fellow and has sent out more than 800 formal letters of complaint over state/church violations so far in 2014. Public school violations accounted for the greatest majority of letters. FFRF has halted over 150 state/church violations this year, including 13 related to prayer in public school athletics. FFRF stills middle school prayer
Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School in Honolulu will no longer allow a partner organization to pray with students after getting an Oct. 31 FFRF complaint letter.
The school holds “Family Reading for Success” events regularly. An attendee informed FFRF that a recent meeting opened with a sectarian prayer initiated by a nonprofit organization, Kula No Na Poe Hawaii, that partners with the school for the events.
“It is unlawful for any school-sponsored event, such as a meeting dedicated to student literacy, to include prayer,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the state Department of Education.
The school’s principal responded the same day to say that he had followed up with Kula No Na Poe Hawaii and reminded them that all school-sponsored events must remain prayer-free.
Religious assembly canceled in Texas
School administrators at Azle (Texas) ISD canceled an assembly set for Oct. 29 after getting an FFRF complaint letter. The assembly was to be presented by Seven at Schools, which is affiliated with the religious ministry Youth Alive North Texas, a “strategic outreach organization that maintains the vision of reaching every student in every school across the region and beyond with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ,” according to its website.
Although the group claimed that the assembly would have no religious content, a Seven at Schools representative told FFRF’s complainant that the personal stories in the presentation “would include religious themes, including discussion of God.”
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent the district a letter Oct. 28 asking the district to ensure the presentation would be secular.
Acting on the advice of counsel, the district took even stronger action to ensure students would not be proselytized and canceled the assembly entirely, according to local news reports. Seven at Schools representatives gave a religious talk to Azle community members at a church that night.
Good news: Good News Unlinked
Greater Albany Public Schools in Oregon will no longer give preferential treatment to the Good News Club over other after-school groups. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent the district a complaint Sept. 11.
The district partners with community groups for early release day programs, including a community program, Boys and Girls Club and the Good News Club, a Christian organization. Seidel pointed out that the district’s link to the Good News website linked directly to its registration forms but instructed parents to contact other organizations directly to register. The club’s forms were also sent home with students the first week of school and made available at schools and were to be turned in to the school office. Fliers from other groups weren’t distributed.
“By extensively coordinating the Good News Club’s signup, the district is providing a benefit to the club that it does not afford other secular programs,” Seidel wrote. The complaint was forwarded to FFRF from its Portland chapter. Cheryl Kolbe, chapter president, said Oct. 29 that the website had been modified so that parents were instructed to contact the Good News Club directly for registration like the other groups.
Adults warned to back off prayer
Adults will no longer participate in religious activities at Bath High School in Lima, Ohio. Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Oct. 16 to Bath Local Schools after a local complainant forwarded a media profile of the school’s “team chaplain,” who, along with coaches, prayed with students.
Superintendent Dale Lewellen responded Oct. 23: “I recognized that the constitutional line may have been crossed and have taken appropriate steps to ensure it will not recur. Religious proselytization and/or participation by staff in their school capacities are not consistent with my aim to comply with applicable constitutional and statutory requirements.”
Mizzou U. cancels church discount
The University of Missouri agreed that a church bulletin discount offered as part of a volleyball ticket promotion was inappropriate, said the school’s director of athletics in response to an Oct. 16 letter from Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell.
A university employee informed FFRF that free admission was offered to the Sept. 28 game with a church bulletin as part of “Faith and Family Day.”
Cavell noted that the discount violated the federal Civil Rights Act, Missouri statute and raised Establishment Clause concerns.
Director of Athletics Michael Alden responded the next day, agreeing that the discount was “not consistent with our department’s practices and that we stopped the promotion from being carried out as described in the materials.”