religious liberty

What comes next for religious liberty, after the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision?

What comes next for religious liberty, after the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision?

The Pulitzer Prize winning "Angels in America" has long been a touchstone for gay spirituality, so it wasn't surprising that actor Andrew Garfield celebrated winning a Tony Award in the play's revival with remarks mixing faith and politics.

It's crucial, he said, to celebrate the play's "spirit that says 'no' to oppression. It is a spirit that says 'no' to bigotry. … It is a spirit that says we are all made perfectly."

Garfield concluded: "We are all sacred. … So let's just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked!"

The baker behind the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Masterpiece Cakeshop decision has heard pronouncements of this kind many times since that fateful day in 2012 when he declined to create one of his handcrafted, personalized cakes to celebrate the same-sex marriage of Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

"The biggest myth I hear all the time, pretty much, is that I turned away a gay couple. But the truth is, I never turn away any customers. I do, sometimes, have to decline to create cakes that violate my faith, and that was the case here," said Phillips, in a Lutheran Public Radio interview soon after the June 4 decision.

"The two gentlemen that sued me were welcome in my shop that day. I told them, I'll sell you cookies, brownies, birthday cakes, anything else, custom cakes -- it's just that I can't create this one, because this was a cake that goes against the core of my faith."

While this was a 7-2 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion (.pdf) focused on evidence that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had demonstrated open hostility to Phillips and his Christian faith. Thus, he avoided a broader ruling on First Amendment protections of free speech and the "free exercise" of religion.

Naturally, church-state activists have argued about the significance of this much-anticipated decision. At least four camps have emerged so far.

The long, tense dance between Donald Trump and the old-guard evangelicals

The long, tense dance between Donald Trump and the old-guard evangelicals

It's impossible to win the GOP presidential nomination without making peace with millions of evangelical Protestants.

Thus, Donald Trump traveled to Liberty University in 2012. If he ever got serious about winning the White House, team Trump knew he would need a solid faith story.

The New York billionaire told students to "work hard" and "love what they do," but raised eyebrows by urging them to "get even" when wronged, and to "get a prenuptial" before marriage. He joked about saying naughty things at Liberty.

"That remarkable speech showed what he did and didn't know" about evangelicals, said Stephen Mansfield, author of the new book "Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope and Why Conservative Christians Supported Him."

"Trump basically told Liberty students, 'Follow Jesus' and 'Shoot your enemies between the eyes.' ... He sees no conflict between those two messages."

That 2012 presentation also showed an image of young Donald on the day of his baptism, then a picture of his baptism certificate. Trump seemed to think this flash of faith would buy evangelical credibility, canceling out his Playboy appearances and interviews in which, as Mansfield wrote, his sexual conquests were "tallied like wild game bagged on safari."

The candidate who kept returning to Liberty was, of course, a grown-up edition of the boy who punched his second-grade teacher in the face, the lad whose real-estate magnate father nicknamed "killer." As a teen-ager, Trump was shaped by "The Power of Positive Thinking" sermons of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the cultural tastes of Hugh Hefner and the strict disciplines of a military academy.

But Mansfield noted Trump was also the man who couldn't bear to throw away stacks of Bibles given to him by fans, creating a Trump Tower storage room for them.

Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

When it comes to fine cuisine, few gourmands would fight to be served peanut butter, sardines, beans and some other canned goods -- often cold.

While these foods are not very appealing, they are kosher. Thus, they are common items on the menu the Florida Department of Corrections has offered prisoners requesting kosher meals.

First Amendment activists have repeatedly clashed in federal courts with Florida officials who insist a kosher-food option would be too expensive.

"These aren't prisoners who have made up some kind of religion that requires them to eat lobster every day, claiming they're members of the Church of the Lobster," noted attorney Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket team filed an amicus brief backing the prisoners' rights, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

"No one goes to a lot of trouble to eat bread and beans," he added. "The prisoners are making these requests because this is what they believe God wants them to do. … The 'religious' diet these prisoners are being served is, frankly, unpalatable."

Federal and Florida officials have been haggling over these dietary details since 2011, leading to six federal-court decisions backing the prisoners. The state says a kosher-foods program costs about $12.3 million a year, compared to a U.S. government estimate of roughly $384,000.

Americans willing to talk about politics, but few anxious to discuss religion

Americans willing to talk about politics, but few anxious to discuss religion

While it's hard to pinpoint the precise moment it happened, it's clear that most American discussions of religious liberty have turned into shouting matches about "religious liberty," a term now commonly framed in "scare quotes."

The recent U.S. Commission on Civil Rights "Peaceful Coexistence" report made this clear, claiming the First Amendment's defense of the free exercise of religion is not as important as some people think. Thus, "civil rights" now trump "religious liberty."

The commission stressed: "Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights."

In a quote that went viral online, commission chair Martin Castro added: "The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia or any form of intolerance."

This creates a major problem for Americans who are worried about civil public discourse or even the odds of having friendly conversations with friends, family and neighbors, noted Scott McConnell, head of LifeWay Research.

"What did our parents tell us when we were growing up? They warned us not to talk about politics, not to talk about religion and not to talk about sex," he said, reached by telephone.

"Well, it's hard to talk about anything that matters these days -- like religious liberty -- without talking about all three of those things and usually at the same time. ... No wonder people are tense."

Just how tense are Americans, when it comes to talking about religion?

Religion news 2014: The pope, ISIS, persecution and the rest of the Top 10 stories

Soon after his elevation to the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Francis warned that the world was entering a time when Satan would increasingly show his power, especially in lands in which believers were being crushed.

Looking toward a rising storm in the Middle East, he warned that the persecution of religious minorities is a sign of the end times.

"It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world," said Pope Francis. "Religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no?"

A year later, the pope was even more specific in a letter to churches in the ancient lands of the Bible.

"I write to you just before Christmas, knowing that for many of you the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs. Nonetheless, the birth of the Son of God in our human flesh is an indescribable mystery of consolation," said Pope Francis.

British rabbi stands to defend America's first freedom

When Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks arrived in America recently representatives of the United States government did not greet him with a demand that Great Britain's former chief rabbi remove his yarmulke while in public. That's a good thing. But there are places -- France leaps to mind -- where this would not be the case. In fact, religious liberty is under siege in many corners of Europe, said Sacks, a member of the House of Lords.

"In Britain we have seen a worker banned from wearing a small crucifix at work," he said, after receiving the Becket Fund's 2014 Canterbury Medal for his work defending religious freedom. "A nurse was censored for offering to utter a prayer on behalf of one of her patients. Catholic adoption agencies were forced to close because they were unwilling to place children for to same-sex parents."

Elsewhere, Denmark has banned "shechitah," the kosher method of slaughtering animals by slitting their throats. A German court has banned infant circumcision. France has banned -- in public places -- Christians from wearing crucifixes, Jews from wearing yarmulkes and Muslim women from wearing hijabs.

"This is, for me, the empirical proof that ... the secular societies of Europe are much less tolerant than the religions that they accuse of intolerance," he said.

President Obama defends religious freedom -- overseas

From the moment he rose to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast, it was clear President Barack Obama intended to respond to critics who accuse him of being weak in his defense of religious freedom. "As Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion," noted Obama, early in the recent address. "Yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too -- because religion strengthens America. Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals. ...

"We believe that each of us is 'wonderfully made' in the image of God. We, therefore, believe in the inherent dignity of every human being -- dignity that no earthly power can take away. And central to that dignity is freedom of religion -- the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear."

In the days after this blunt address, critics across the spectrum of American religious life -- including on the left -- affirmed what the president said, but also marveled at what he left unsaid.

The bottom line: Where were the Little Sisters of the Poor?

In other words, what about the religious-liberty conflicts currently unfolding here in the United States, as opposed to those in distant lands?

The Little Sisters -- a Catholic order that ministers to the elderly poor -- are among the many religious schools, parachurch groups and nonprofit ministries that continue to clash with the White House. One bitter conflict centers on the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer employees, and even students, health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills." Similar clashes on gay marriage and other issues of moral theology have affected groups linked to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and other religious networks.

The Little Sisters have refused to bow to a government-enforced doctrine that columnist Kathleen Parker recently described as, "Thou shalt not protect unborn life." The order has escaped punishment, so far, due to a reprieve granted by liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The Obama speech would have made perfect sense, noted progressive Catholic commentator Michael Sean Winters, if he had only added: "Therefore, I am instructing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to stop obstructing the awarding of contracts to combat human trafficking to the USCCB which does such great work in that field. I am also instructing Secretary Sebelius to devise a better means of delivering the free contraceptive care to women who want, finding a way that does not infringe on the religious liberty of those religious institutions that object to contraception and, further, I am instructing the Attorney General to let the University of Notre Dame alone."

Meanwhile, Obama received lots of praise for mentioning the plight of specific individuals and religious minorities, including the Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, Baha'i in Iran and Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt. He requested prayers for missionary Kenneth Bae, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, and the Rev. Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen held in Iran for more than 18 months, apparently for his public ministry to orphans. The president openly opposed "blasphemy and defamation of religion measures, which are promoted ... as an expression of religion, but, in fact, all too often can be used to suppress religious minorities."

But the president's testimony also contained the seeds of future conflicts. After recounting his own conversion -- "I was broke and the church fed me. ... It led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior" -- the president proceeded to attack what he considers extreme forms of faith, such as the beliefs of traditionalists who continue to oppose gay rights.

"Yet even as our faith sustains us, it's also clear that around the world freedom of religion is under threat," he said. "We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, or how they pray or who they love. ...

"Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don't understand the faiths they claim to profess."

What would Pope Francis pick as top 2013 news story?

Popes come and popes go, with a new pope elected every few years or decades. Thus, when viewed through the lens of history, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was a stunning event in the history of Roman Catholicism and, thus, all of Western Christianity. He was the first man to resign St. Peter's throne in 600 years. Surely this was the most important religion-news story of 2013?

But when seen through the lens of the mainstream press, the bookish Benedict's exit was a mere ripple in the news flow compared to the tsunami of headlines inspired by the rise of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as the first Latin American pope. During his remarkable media honeymoon, Pope Francis has been humble and savvy, pragmatic and charismatic.

Most of all, this pope has shown that he wants a mission-minded church that balances a defense of Catholic doctrine with a renewed commitment to offering mercy and pastoral care to the poor, the powerless and those of little or no faith. He wants to build a church defined by its actions, not just by words.

To no one's surprise, the election of Pope Francis was selected as the year's No. 1 religion story by the journalists in the Religion Newswriters Association, with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI the No. 2 story. Pope Francis was also named Religion Newsmaker of the Year.

But here is an interesting question to ponder: Based on his own words and actions, what 2013 event or trend would Pope Francis have selected as the most important?

As the year came to a close, it appeared the pope's attention was increasingly focused on the persecution of believers around the world, especially endangered Christian minorities in Egypt, Syria and throughout the Middle East. In a sermon on Nov. 28, he even urged his listeners to recall that when people are forbidden to worship, and faith is driven from public life, the end times could be near.

"What does this mean? It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world," he said, in remarks that drew little commentary from world media.

When this happens, explained Pope Francis, "religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no? Publicly it is not spoken about. The religious signs are taken down. The laws that come from the worldly powers must be obeyed. You can do so many beautiful things except adore God."

The rest of the RNA Top 10 list included these events and trends:

(3) In another 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriage in California and voided the ban on federal benefits to same-sex couples. Supporters of gay marriage celebrated victories in other states as well, with Illinois and Hawaii becoming the 15th and 16th states to legalize same-sex marriage.

(4) Legal battles continued in courts nationwide over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most non-profit ministries to offer health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills." The U.S. Supreme Court accepted a case brought by Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation led by conservative Christians who claim that the mandate violates their freedom of religious expression.

(5) Battles continued in the Middle East over the political role of Islam, with violence escalating in Syria and continuing in Egypt -- where the military ousted the freely elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government and violently cracked down on its Islamist supporters.

(6) Nelson Mandela died at age 95 and was remembered as a prophet of non-violence and reconciliation in South Africa.

(7) Attacks on religious minorities continued around the world, including bloody attacks on Christians in Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Kenya.

(8) A Pew Research Center survey found that more than 1 in 5 American Jews now claim no ties to Judaism as a faith. The number of professing Jewish adults is now less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, although Jewish identity remains strong.

(9) Leaders of the Boy Scouts of America voted to accept openly gay Scouts but not Scoutmasters. While most evangelicals opposed this change, Catholic and Mormon leaders were divided.

(10) Muslims joined others in condemning the Boston Marathon bombing committed by two young Muslim men who attended colleges in the area.

Guess the winner: Woodstock vs. religious liberty

Blame it on Woodstock.

Cultural changes unleashed by the sexual revolution are affecting how millions of Americans understand religious liberty, according to University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, speaking at a recent Newseum symposium marking the 20th anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It doesn't help that disputes about the free exercise of religion have increasingly turned into bitter partisan battles pitting Republicans against the majority of mainstream Democrats.

What is happening? It helps to remember that churches were on the winning side of the American Revolution, he stressed, and that fact has shaped America ever since.

"What if we had a new revolution in our time? The sexual revolution that began in earnest in the '60s carries on with the current front about same-sex marriage" and contraception, said Laycock.

Religious groups have consistently "been on the losing side of this revolution. … In each of the remaining sexual issues -- abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, sterilization, emergency contraception -- every one of those issues has this fundamental structure: What one side views as a grave evil, the other side views as a fundamental human right. ... And for tens of millions of Americans, what religious liberty now does is empower their enemies."

Only 20 years ago, it was possible for left and right to find common ground on key religious liberty issues. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed unanimously in the House and by a 97-3 vote in the Senate, backed by a coalition that ranged from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Christian Legal Society.

Only five years later, another similar effort failed.

"We had gone from 97-3 to partisan gridlock ... and disagreement over religious liberty has only gotten worse since that time," Laycock told the Newseum audience. He was speaking the day after addressing the U.S. Supreme Court on yet another tense case about public prayer.

The key change, he said, is that there has been a violent legal and political clash between gay rights and the rights of religious conscientious objectors. At this point, it may be too late to find a compromise that would protect citizens on both sides of this constitutional firefight.

One crucial problem, he explained, is that conservative religious leaders have been "so focused on entirely defeating" same-sex marriage bills that they have paid little attention to religious-liberty exemptions "until they have been totally defeated and then, of course, it is too late. They have no leverage. They have nothing to bargain with."

Meanwhile, as the gay-rights cause has gained momentum, its leaders have grown increasingly bold. More than a few liberals, said Laycock, not only want to seize sexual freedoms, but to force religious objectors to affirm their choices and even to pay for them. Some on the left, he said, are now "making arguments calculated to destroy religious liberty."

Consider, Laycock said, language used by state Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver, as he fought for a civil unions bill in the Colorado Senate last February. What should liberals say to those who claim that their religious liberties are being violated?

"I'll tell you what I'd say -- get thee to a nunnery," he said, in debate recorded on the Senate floor. "Go live a monastic life, away from modern society, away from the people you can't see as equals to yourself. Away from the stream of commerce where you might have to serve them, or employ them, or rent banquet halls to them. Go someplace and be as judgmental as you like. Go inside your church, establish separate water fountains, if you want."

This was provocative language, but this gay leader was using arguments now common in American politics, said Laycock. "No living in peace and equality and diversity for him. If you are a religious dissenter you have to conform or withdraw. For many people this hostility to religious liberty is a growing and intuitive reaction."

It's too soon to predict the death of religious liberty in America, as it has been known and defended for generations, he said. But the current trends are sobering.

"Maybe compromise will prevail yet," he concluded. "Maybe the judges will do their jobs and protect the liberty of both sides. But the tendency of both sides to insist on a total win -- liberty for them and not liberty for the other side -- is a very bad thing for religious liberty."