Apache Stronghold v. United States

Video: Oak Flat is a holy land worth fighting for

A sacred site since time immemorial

Since before recorded history, Western Apaches have lived, worshipped on, and cared for Oak Flat and surrounding lands. Apaches believe that the Creator gives life to all things, including air, water, and the earth itself. Their religious and cultural identity is inextricably tied to the land, and Oak Flat has paramount significance for prayer and sacred ceremonies. Many of their most important religious practices must take place there, such as the coming-of-age Sunrise Ceremony for Apache women; sweat lodge ceremonies; gathering of sacred medicine plants, animals, and minerals; and the use of sacred waters. It is considered the direct corridor to Apache religion—recognized in the National Register of Historic Places and sometimes compared to Mount Sinai for Jews.

Broken promises

Unfortunately, the U.S. government has a sordid history of destroying Apaches’ lives and land for the sake of mining interests. In the 1870s, the federal government forced the Apache people onto the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation and authorized miners to take Apache land. And although Oak Flat has been expressly protected from mining since the Eisenhower administration, mining companies still covet Oak Flat for a large copper deposit 7,000 feet below the surface.

Mining companies have long lobbied Congress to give them control of the land. One sponsor of a land-transfer bill was even convicted of soliciting a bribe from a mining company in exchange for his support. For many years, Congress refused, protecting the site from exploitation the same way it would preserve a historic, centuries-old church, mosque or synagogue. But in 2014, a last-minute rider was attached to a must-pass defense bill, ordering the land to be transferred to a foreign-owned mining company, Resolution Copper. The government admits the mine will destroy Oak Flat forever—obliterating the sacred ground in a nearly 2-mile-wide, 1,100-foot-deep crater, and making the Apaches’ religious practices impossible.

Seeking Justice

Apache Stronghold—a coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples, and non-Native allies dedicated to preserving Oak Flat—sued the government in federal court. They argued that the destruction of their sacred site violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and an 1852 treaty promising that the United States would protect their land and “secure the permanent prosperity and happiness” of the Apaches. After the trial court declined to halt the land transfer, Becket filed an emergency appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Just six hours before the government’s response was due, the government announced that it would withdraw the environmental impact statement that triggered the land transfer, delaying the transfer for several months. On June 24, 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to protect Oak Flat, saying that the land transfer to Resolution Copper did not substantially burden the Apaches’ religious exercise. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Marsha Berzon called the ruling “absurd,” “illogical,” “disingenuous,” and “incoheren[t].”  Apache Stronghold plans to appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court in Fall 2022.

In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael Nixon and Bill Carpenter.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual Freedom: The government cannot take actions that prevent or burden the expression or pursuit of religious beliefs. Because each human has an individual right to follow the unique dictates of his conscience, religious freedom cannot be confined to the four walls of a church building. Individuals should be free to pursue their faith at all times without fear of government discrimination or penalty.
  • Religious liberty for Native Americans: Whether they are directly targeted or indirectly affected by government actions, minority religious groups are particularly vulnerable to government violations of their religious liberty. Actively defending religious liberty for Native Americans strengthens religious liberty for people of all faiths.
  • Religious Freedom Restoration Act: Passed by a bipartisan coalition in 1993, this legislation protects religious groups by requiring the government to show a compelling interest and use the least restrictive means possible when its actions would pose a substantial burden on religious exercise.
Photo © Robin Silver Photography

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University

Community and service for 75 years

The InterVarsity student group on Wayne State campus began in the 1940s as one of the first InterVarsity chapters in the United States, instituted as a place for students to come together and share their faith. Over the years, it has hosted campus discussions on issues like human trafficking, helped clean up blighted neighborhoods in Detroit, and volunteered at the campus food pantry. Most of all, InterVarsity has created a thriving community of students who come together for Bible study, worship, friendship and support during their college careers. This is particularly important at Wayne State, since it is a commuter campus and many students can struggle to find a place where they belong.

Kicked off campus for their religious beliefs

In 2017, InterVarsity applied to renew its student organization status, a renewal the students thought would be automatic. Instead, the Dean of Students’ office told them that their chapter constitution was unacceptable. According to Wayne State, InterVarsity did not meet the necessary requirements because its expectation that its leaders embrace its faith was “discriminatory.” But asking leaders to share its faith was a matter of basic integrity and was an absolute necessity to remaining a Christian group. And it had never been an issue in the prior 75 years on campus. Further, student membership is open to all, and all are invited to group events. Yet in October 2017, Wayne State abruptly derecognized the group and canceled all its existing meeting reservations.

Meanwhile, the university recognizes more than 400 student groups, and allows them to select their leaders. The Secular Student Alliance can require leaders to be secularists, Students for Life can require its members to be pro-life, and more than a dozen fraternities and sororities can limit membership to one sex. These requirements are normal and acceptable, yet the school blatantly discriminated against InterVarsity by barring it from having the same ability to select leaders who share and live by its mission.

InterVarsity stands up to religious discrimination

With Becket’s help, on March 6, 2018, the student group sued Wayne State University to protect their right to be treated like other groups and select leaders who share its faith and mission. By specifically targeting religious groups, Wayne State is violating its own policy against religious discrimination—in addition to the First Amendment.

After Becket took Wayne State, as well as Michigan Governor Richard Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette, to court, the school relented and reinstated InterVarsity on campus. Now, the university is asking a federal court to give it the power to kick the group off campus at a later time. In June 2018, Becket filed two briefs seeking a permanent fix to the school’s discriminatory policy, which allows more than 90 student groups to choose leaders who agree with them – but not InterVarsity. In July 2018, InterVarsity dropped its lawsuit against Michigan Governor Richard Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette after they acknowledged that Michigan universities must respect the rights of religious student groups to choose their own leaders.

The parties filed motions for summary judgment in October 2020. Becket filed its reply brief, asking the court to permanently forbid Wayne State from kicking IVCF off campus and award IVCF proper damages, on December 3, 2020. Oral argument in the case was heard in March of 2021, and on April 5, 2021, a federal court ruled in favor of InterVarsity, protecting its status as a campus club and holding Wayne State University officials responsible for violating InterVarsity’s First Amendment Rights.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Education: There is a nation-wide trend of curbing free speech—especially religious speech—on college campuses. But students do not forfeit their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religious exercise, and freedom of association when studying at a public university.
  • Public square: Religion is a natural part of human culture and should not be scrubbed from the public square. This includes public university campuses, which are reflections of the students who attend them, including students with religious beliefs.
  • Religious communities: Becket’s 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor guarantees the right of religious groups to select their own leaders without government interference or entanglement.

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Trump

The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that keeping government officials out of internal church decisions is vital to protecting a separation of church and state. That includes allowing houses of worship to choose what to teach during their worship services. But now an atheist group is trying to force the IRS into the business of editing sermons and punishing church beliefs. Becket is fighting back.  

Leaders should be free to preach about issues that matter 

Throughout American history, religious leaders of different faiths have helped speak up for those who could not speak for themselves. They encouraged their congregations to throw off British oppression, to support the abolition of slavery, and to protect civil rights. That tradition continues today. 

In 2012, the Reverend Charles Moodie and his family left New York to settle in Englewood, a Chicago neighborhood plagued with violence, drugs, and poverty. In his mission to help the underprivileged and drug addicted find redemption and the fellowship of a community, Reverend Moodie pastors Chicago City Life Center. Reverend Moodie preaches about social and political issues that affect the people of his congregation, including protecting the most vulnerable in society. 

In Wisconsin, two more pastors also assert their freedom to lead their congregations in the faith. Pastor Koua Vang preaches about political issues that impact his Hmong community, a group of people that has historically experienced injustice and oppression under communist regimes in Laos and Vietnam. Father Patrick Malone likewise preaches about the need for his congregation, Holy Cross Anglican Church, to seek justice in every aspect of life, including politics.  

But now their right to freely preach is facing a dangerous threat.  

Atheists demand the tax man’s censorship of sermons 

In 1954, Congress passed a law—popularly known as the Johnson Amendment—that bans certain nonprofits from teaching about politics or candidates. There’s no evidence that Congress intended to limit the historical tradition of pastors preaching from the pulpit, but the IRS claims that it can ban such preaching. While the IRS talks tough, it has never attempted to actually prevent a pastor from preaching during religious services. 

But now the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wants to change that. It wants the IRS to punish pastors for their sermons by asking the court to enforce regulations that would revoke the churches’ tax-exempt status, involve the IRS in the churches’ finances, and levy fines against both the churches and their individual leaders. This is FFRF’s second attempt to enforce the Johnson Amendment; it tried three years ago, but then threw in the towel after Becket got involved. Now FFRF is back in court trying its same old arguments again.  

If enforced, the rule could silence Reverend Moodie and countless other ministers like him, restricting their ability to lead their churches. 

Defending religious leaders’ right to free speech 

In June 2017, Becket sought to intervene on behalf of Reverend Moodie, Pastor Vang, Father Malone, and Holy Cross Anglican to protect their right to preach free from IRS entanglement. Religious leaders – not the IRS or FFRF – should decide what to preach. In August 2017, Becket asked the court to reject FFRF’s suit outright as a violation of the separation of church and state.

In December 2017, FFRF dismissed their own lawsuit, giving up before the court had a chance to rule against them. By law, because this is now the second time that FFRF has given up on the same claim, FFRF’s dismissal means they have lost on the merits—and the pastors have permanently fended off FFRF.

Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore

An honest commitment to care for women 

The Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, which operates on Catholic Church-owned property, helps more than 1,200 women each year. The Center provides women with basic services like pregnancy tests, baby and maternity clothes, parenting books, diapers, bottles and formula, and sonograms—all free of charge. The Center also counsels more than 8,000 local women per year through its 24-hour helpline.

The Center’s staff and volunteers are motivated by their faith to help women and children during a vulnerable time in their lives. Displayed in each waiting room is a “Commitment of Care,” a document that explains the Center’s promises of nondiscrimination, honesty, and confidentiality, and also states that the Center “does not offer, recommend, or refer for abortion or birth control, but we are committed to offering accurate information about abortion procedures and risks.”

The government’s discriminatory double standard

In 2009, the City of Baltimore targeted the Center, demanding they display government signs about the services they do not offer. The city mandated that the Center display signs on the walls of their church-owned property stating that they “do not provide or make referrals for abortion or birth control services.” Yet, the only centers targeted by this discriminatory law were pro-life centers. The city of Baltimore did not require abortion clinics to display signs about services they do not offer, such as adoption or prenatal care.

The city claimed that the government-mandated abortion message did not alter the Center’s speech, because the Commitment of Care already notified women that the Center did not offer referrals for abortion. But this reasoning completely missed a crucial part of the First Amendment promise of free speech: that people, not the government, know best what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Defending free speech for all

In March 2010, the Center sued the mayor and city counsel of Baltimore in district court for the right to continue to serve and communicate with women who come to them for help, in a way that respects each woman’s choice and circumstances as well as the Center’s mission. The Center already accurately informs women about the help they provide in a way that is in line with their mission; that should be enough.

In January 2011, the Center won. But the government wouldn’t take no for an answer. On appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the city again lost in January 2018. In its opinion, the Fourth Circuit explained that the city’s law essentially forced the Center to portray “abortion as one among a menu of morally equivalent choices”—a message “antithetical to the very moral, religious, and ideological reasons the Center exists.” The law therefore violated the First Amendment.

In March 2018, the city made a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 21, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the city’s appeal, definitively protecting the Center’s free speech rights.

The Center was represented by Becket, by David Kinkopf and Steve Metzger from Gallagher, Evelius, and Jones LLP, and by Peter Basile from Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew, P.A.


Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Free speech: The government cannot control the way an individual or organization speaks about its own beliefs. People, not the government, know best what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Catholic school goes to court to defend its right to choose its religious leaders

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A group of lawyers is trying to roll back the clock, ignoring  U.S. Supreme Court precedent in the process and attempting to insert government in a church school’s right to choose their faith leaders.

On Tuesday, March 7, Becket will defend St. Anthony’s School, a Catholic school, and the Archdiocese of New York from a group of attorneys arguing that the school had no right to choose another principal they felt would best promote the church’s teachings. But religious schools have already won this fight: just five years ago the Supreme Court unanimously protected a Lutheran school’s right to choose teachers free from government intrusion, and that ruling applies even more clearly in this case involving a Catholic school principal. The attorney suing the school has publicly accused the Catholic Church in court of being “dangerous to society,” alleged Russian Orthodox churches were “indoctrinating children with Stalinist communism,” and attacked the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision as an aid to “potential jihadists.”

 What:
Oral Argument for Fratello v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York

Who:
Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at Becket

When:
Tuesday, March 7, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. Eastern

Where:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
40 Foley Square, New York, NY 10007

Becket attorneys will be available for comment immediately following the hearing.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becketis a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more).

Matal v. Tam

What do a Jewish-owned clothing line called “Heeb,” an Asian American rock band called “The Slants,” and the Washington Redskins have in common? The U.S. government says they are too “disparaging” to receive trademark protection.

In 2011 Simon Tam tried to register the name of his rock band, The Slants. The government rejected his application because “Slant” disparages Asian-Americans (watch his TedTalk, “Give Racism a Chance”). Tam, who is Asian-American, challenged the decision in court and won. The government then appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard oral argument in January 2017.

For more than a decade, Becket and the federal government have fought laws banning “insulting” and “defaming” religious speech at the United Nations and in places like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Australia. These laws are widely abused to target religious minorities like Asia Bibi, the Pakistani woman sitting on death row for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Becket filed a brief in the Supreme Court urging the government to stop excluding allegedly “disparaging” names from the federal trademark system. In December 2016, Becket told the Supreme Court that the U.S. government should practice at home what it preaches abroad: free speech for all, even speech that offends.

In June 2017 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously 8-0 championing the band’s free speech.

Tam was represented by Eugene Volokh and Stuart Banner of the UCLA School of Law Supreme Court Clinic, and John Connell of Archer & Grenier, P.C.

Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers

Meet Barronelle Stutzman, a floral artist and faithful Christian

For nearly forty years, Barronelle Stutzman has run Arlene’s Flowers, creating custom floral arrangements in the small town of Richland, Washington. As a Christian, she believes her creativity is a gift, and she uses that gift to honor God in her life’s work. As an artist, she enjoys helping her customers celebrate their life events and over the years has come to know many of them as friends.

For nine years Barronelle joyfully served long-time customer and friend Rob Ingersoll, designing custom arrangements for birthdays, Valentine’s Day and other holidays that he celebrated with his partner Curt Freed. In 2013 Rob asked Barronelle to do the flowers for his wedding. Although Barronelle has hired and served gay customers in the past with arrangements for other celebrations, she could not create something for a ceremony that violated her beliefs. She took Rob’s hands and told him with tears in her eyes that she values his friendship but could not participate in his wedding because of her faith. He told her he understood, and another florist quickly provided their wedding’s floral arrangements for free.

Washington Attorney General and ACLU sue Barronelle because of her beliefs

Barronelle was soon sued by the state’s Attorney General and the ACLU. In 2015, a state court ruled that Barronelle was personally liable for Rob Ingersoll’s $8 dollars in damages as well as his attorney’s fees, which means that she could lose her business, her home, and her life savings.

The Washington Supreme Court heard oral argument in Barronelle’s case in November 2016. Becket filed an amicus brief in February 2016 supporting Barronelle, who is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. Other groups supporting Barronelle include the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the Coalition of African American Pastors USA, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Cato Institute, 27 law professors, and 13 states. In February 2017, the Washington Supreme Court ruled against Barronelle.

Becket defends people of faith from government hostility 

In August 2017, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the Supreme Court to hear the case in tandem with the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, and remanded Barronelle’s case back to the Washington Supreme Court. In March 5, 2019, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Washington Supreme Court, arguing that state acted with religious hostility against Barronelle, in violation of her First Amendment rights, and that the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision requires the government to allow religious individuals to freely practice their faith.

On June 6, 2019, the Washington Supreme Court ruled against Barronelle Stutzman. On September 11, 2019, Barronelle appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times, including in the workplace. In this case, the government is forcing Barronelle to choose between her deeply held religious convictions and her livelihood.
  • Free speech: The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when, and especially when, that view is unpopular. In this case, Barronelle’s artistic expressions were a form of speech, and the government should not force her to create something that violates her religious beliefs.

Dermody v. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)

Churches must have the right to follow their own religious rules, even if some church members disagree with how those rules apply to them. In this case, a disgruntled minister who had failed a church financial audit, threatened that right by asking the court to override the church’s enforcement of its internal financial guidelines against him.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s “1001” movement” is a mission project aimed at creating 1,001 new worshiping communities. Under watch of the project executive, a church minister, two employees violated church financial policy when they transferred $100,000 from the church’s accounts into a private entity they had set up. Although the employees did not intend to misuse the money and the money was ultimately recovered, the minister was cited by the church for his failed oversight. The Presbyterian Church immediately published the audit findings on its website and detailed the corrective measures it was taking. Although the church initially never published the minister’s name, he publicly admitted responsibility and then sued the church for defamation.

The minister’s lawsuit was filed in May 2015, and sought monetary compensation for the church’s allegedly defamatory statements. Last September, the trial court denied relief because the church’s statements appeared to be true and the First Amendment barred the court from second-guessing the church’s decision to enforce its standards of ethical conduct for religious leaders. The minister then appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in June 2016 on behalf of the church, arguing that, under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, courts cannot interfere with churches’ statements to their members about the conduct of their religious leaders. In July 2017, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), protecting the right of churches to operate their internal affairs without government intrusion. The church was represented by Stoll Keenan Ogden PLLC.

Congregation Jeshuat Israel v. Congregation Shearith Israel

Centuries ago, the famous Jewish silversmith Myer Myers crafted sacred rimonim, finials that ornament the Torah scroll in a Jewish synagogue. Today these ancient religious artifacts remain safe under their rightful ownership according to Jewish law, thanks to a court victory protecting the right of houses of worship to make property contracts, just like all Americans.

A tale of two congregations

The case involves both the nation’s oldest Jewish synagogue—Congregation Shearith Israel—and the oldest Jewish synagogue building in the U.S., the Touro Synagogue building in Newport, Rhode Island. Shearith Israel was founded in 1654, and the Touro Synagogue building was built in 1763.

When Newport’s Jews faced persecution during the American Revolutionary War, they fled Newport and the synagogue building, many for New York. Without a congregation in Newport, Shearith Israel took over ownership of the synagogue, along with sacred ritual items such as the rimonim. When Jews returned to Rhode Island in the late 19th Century, Shearith Israel began leasing the synagogue and its sacred artifacts to a new congregation, Jeshuat Israel, under the agreement that they follow Shearith Israel’s religious practices.

In 2011, Jeshuat Israel wanted to sell the rimonim to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which Shearith Israel believed violated Jewish law and their longstanding lease agreement.

A property battle over the nation’s oldest synagogue

Jeshuat Israel went to court and in 2016 a federal district court judge ruled against Shearith Israel, saying that they were not the owners of the synagogue or the rimonim, and gave control of both to Jeshuat Israel. Instead of reviewing the two congregations’ legal agreements, the district court put its own spin on the relationship between the two congregations, ignoring the First Amendment principles that guarantee religious groups the right to make legally binding agreements.

Shearith Israel appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, and in October 2016, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Shearith Israel. Becket argued that the lower court should not have tried to decide issues concerning Jewish religious practice and instead should use secular legal documents to determine religious property disputes just as it would for any other organization. Houses of worship have the right to establish enforceable contracts, just like any other property owner.

The court heard oral argument in the case in March 2017, and in August, the court adopted the arguments in Becket’s brief and ruled in favor of Shearith Israel. Written by retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Judge Lynch, and Judge Baldock, the opinion ruled that Shearith Israel’s ownership of the colonial-era building and centuries-old artifacts should be enforced. In June 2018, the First Circuit let stand its decision in favor of Shearith Israel.

In March 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving in place Shearith Israel’s victory.

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton
St. Peter’s Healthcare v. Kaplan
Dignity Health v. Rollins
Overall v. Ascension Health

Status: On June 5, 2017, U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously 8-0 protecting religious hospitals.

Faith-based hospitals draw inspiration from their religious heritage. Driven by their faith to provide compassionate care, these hospitals treat people of all faiths and backgrounds, and their wellness services go beyond just providing medical care. For example, Saint Peter’s Family Health Center also serves juvenile victims of abuse, economically disadvantaged families and mentally disabled or violence-prone youth. And Catholic Health Initiatives provides millions annually to benefit programs and services for the poor, such as free clinics.

These faith-driven hospitals also provide generous benefits to their employees, including pensions through the hospitals’ comprehensive church pension plans. Yet their beliefs and the charitable work they do are being threatened for no reason: a group of plaintiffs’ lawyers are targeting these hospitals for a payoff, dragging them to court and demanding that they pay their attorney fees. Their argument? That hospital ministries are not religious enough to have a tax-exempt church pension plan under The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). However, it is not the job of lawyers to decide that hospitals can’t be part of a church, and the IRS has rightly viewed these ministries as part of a larger church for over 30 years.

The legal campaign against faith-based hospitals began in 2013. In 2015, the case Overall v. Ascension Health was settled. In 2016 three other cases were appealed to the Supreme Court, while almost a hundred more are waiting in lower courts across the country. On August 15, 2016, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court supporting the hospitals and their right to freely exercise their religious-based mission to provide compassionate and excellent healthcare according to their faith.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in March 2017. On June 5, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously 8-0 to protect religious hospitals founded and run by nuns, allowing them to continue providing generous benefits for their employees as well as free health services to their inner-city communities.

Supreme Court hears case of the banned band

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, an Asian American rock band called The Slants argued for their right to free speech before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court will decide whether the First Amendment allows the government to reject the band’s trademark application because their name was deemed “too offensive” to be protected. Becket, which on behalf of the band, emphasized that this case will have a lasting impact, including for religious freedom.

Simon Tam is a political activist and musician from Portland, Oregon. In 2011, Tam tried to register the name of his rock band, The Slants, in the federal trademark system but the government rejected his application because “Slant” was deemed to disparage Asian-Americans. Tam, who is Asian-American, challenged the decision in court and won. The government then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide his case before the end of June.

“Around the world we see that when free speech is threatened, it is minorities who suffer,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at the non-profit religious liberty law firm Becket. “No government should have the power to punish speech to protect beliefs, institutions, or people from criticism.”

For more than a decade, Becket and the federal government have fought laws banning “insulting” and “defaming” religious speech at the United Nations and in places like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Australia, where minority groups are silenced and marginalized for expressing their beliefs. These laws are widely abused to target religious minorities like Asia Bibi, the Pakistani woman currently sitting on death row for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. The government has long opposed blasphemy laws that ban offensive speech against beliefs and institutions abroad, yet the same U.S. government is blocking allegedly “disparaging” names from the federal trademark system.

“The government should practice what it preaches. When it comes to religious speech, one person’s blasphemy is often another person’s belief. The government does not get to decide whose speech is too ‘disparaging’ to be protected,” said Smith.

Tam is represented by Eugene Volokh and Stuart Banner of the UCLA School of Law Supreme Court Clinic, and John Connell of Archer & Grenier, P.C. Last month, Becket told the Supreme Court that the U.S. government should practice at home what it preaches abroad: free speech for all, even speech that offends.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224.  Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.  For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

Banned band fights for free speech at Supreme Court

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An Asian American rock band called The Slants will be defending their right to free speech before the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow morning. The case began in 2011, when the government rejected the band’s trademark application because their name was deemed “too disparaging” to be protected. Tam is represented by Eugene Volokh and Stuart Banner of the UCLA School of Law Supreme Court Clinic, and John Connell of Archer & Grenier, P.C.

For more than a decade, Becket and the federal government have fought laws banning “insulting” and “defaming” religious speech at the United Nations and in places like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Australia, where minority groups are silenced and marginalized for expressing their beliefs. Last month, Becket told the Supreme Court that the U.S. government should practice at home what it preaches abroad: free speech for all, even speech that offends.

What:
Oral Argument for Lee v. Tam

Who:
Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket

When:
Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. Eastern

Where:
U.S. Supreme Court
1 First Street, Northeast
Washington, DC 20543

Becket attorneys will be available for comment immediately following the hearing.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.  For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more here).

Waukesha pastor fights discriminatory lawsuit

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Waukesha-based Father Patrick Malone, an Anglican minister, filed in court to protect ministers and churches against a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist organization trying to prevent churches from providing housing benefits available to other non-profit organizations and businesses.

For much of the past century, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders – whose job requires them to live close to their church or in an underserved community – have been eligible for a tax-exempt housing allowance under the same principle that allows businesses to reimburse travel and overseas housing costs tax free and provides housing to teachers and police who live in the communities they serve. America has a long and proud tradition of incentivizing service. When pastors can live near the congregations and communities they serve, it is proven that everyone benefits.

“My life is dedicated to serving the church and my community,” said Father Patrick Malone of Holy Cross Anglican Church. “I spend my days praying with my congregation, talking with them and helping members of the community who have nowhere else to turn.”

A minister for over twenty-five years, Father Malone’s work is possible because the church supports him through a small housing allowance, permitting him to focus on and live minutes from his congregation and surrounding communities in need.

A federal tax law known as the parsonage allowance lets churches provide tax-exempt housing or housing allowances for their ministers to live near their congregations. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) argues that unless the IRS explicitly bars faith organizations from accessing this benefit, it will be in violation of the Establishment Clause. But churches shouldn’t be treated differently than other secular organizations who receive the same kind of tax treatment.

“The same tax-exempt housing allowances exist for various employees like hotel managers, those transferred overseas and military personnel whose jobs require them to live in a certain proximity to their workplace,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at the Becket, who represents Father Malone and two other congregations. “Ministers who live in the communities they serve shouldn’t be left out in the cold.”

Becket filed a motion to intervene on behalf of Father Patrick Malone of Holy Cross Anglican Church, Bishop Edward Peecher of Chicago Embassy Church, and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. In 2014, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a diverse group of Southern Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, and Muslim organizations that have been able to thrive and effectively serve their communities because of the parsonage allowance.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda Skea  at  media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

Atheist group demand kids stop packing Christmas boxes for needy kids

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In an almost unbelievable act of Christmas time stinginess, this holiday season the American Humanist Association went to court in Colorado in an effort to stop public school children from volunteering for a program that sends care packages to children in need. AHA wants to stop the distribution of these shoe boxes packed with items such as toothbrushes because the boxes also contain religious messages about the meaning of Christmas.

The non-profit that coordinates the volunteers and sends the boxes, Operation Christmas Child, has been offending the AHA for years.  The perpetrator of good deeds asks volunteers to pack shoe boxes for children of various age groups with items including stuffed animals, small toys, school supplies, and basic hygiene items like toothpaste and soap. Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has provided more than 100 million shoebox gifts to children in more than 130 countries.

“These boxes are filled with school supplies and basic hygiene items,” said Kristina Arriaga, executive director of Becket. “It’s heartbreaking enough that there are children who will receive nothing but a toothbrush for Christmas. The American Humanist Association would deny them even that?”

AHA has been on a crusade to stop public school children from volunteering for such programs since 2013, when they sent “letters of warning” to school districts in Colorado and South Carolina where Operation Christmas Child was invited into public schools.

Every December Becket gives a lump of coal to a person or organization attempting to take religion out the holidays, fittingly titled “The Ebenezer Award.” Congratulations to this year’s Ebenezer: The American Humanist Association!

“We’re talking about school children putting together care packages for other children who are in need. If we can’t support that at Christmas, we are truly living in Scrooge’s world,” said Arriaga.

Perhaps the AHA could give it a rest during the season of giving. For our part, Becket wishes a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a Happy New Year to all! In the words of Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one!”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Ryan Colby at  media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket  is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.  For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here). 

Becket to Government: Practice what you preach

WASHINGTON, D.C. – What do a Jewish-owned clothing line called “Heeb,” an Asian American rock band called “The Slants,” and the Washington Redskins have in common? The U.S. government says they are too “disparaging” to receive trademark protection. Today, Becket told the Supreme Court that the U.S. government should practice at home what it preaches abroad: free speech for all, even speech that offends.

For more than a decade, Becket and the federal government have fought laws banning “insulting” and “defaming” religious speech at the United Nations and in places like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Australia. These laws are widely abused to target religious minorities like Asia Bibi, the Pakistani woman sitting on death row for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Today Becket filed a brief in the Supreme Court urging the government to stop excluding allegedly “disparaging” names from the federal trademark system.

“The U.S. government tells other countries that they need to protect all speech – even when it’s offensive,” said Adèle Keim, counsel at Becket, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case. “The government should practice what it preaches. When it comes to religious speech, one person’s blasphemy is often another person’s article of faith. The government shouldn’t get to decide whose beliefs are too ‘disparaging’ to be protected.”

In 2011 Simon Tam tried to register the name of his rock band, The Slants. The government rejected his application because “slant” disparages Asian-Americans (watch his TedTalk, “Give Racism a Chance”). Tam, who is Asian-American, challenged the decision in court and won. However, the government appealed and the case will be heard at the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2017.

“Free speech, even speech that is not popular, is a fundamental right that the United States must protect,” said Keim. “Around the world we see that when people are not allowed to speak freely — especially about their religious beliefs—human rights suffer.”  Tam is represented by Eugene Volokh and Stuart Banner of the UCLA School of Law Supreme Court Clinic, and John Connell of Archer & Grenier, P.C. On December 16, 2016, Becket filed an amicus brief supporting Tam’s right to free expression.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Additional Information:

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.  For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more here). 

Becket’s Kristina Arriaga to receive Newseum’s 2017 Free Expression Award

WASHINGTON, D.C. –Kristina Arriaga, executive director of Becket and member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, will be honored at the Newseum’s 2017 Free Expression Awards. Arriaga was chosen for the Religious Freedom Award for her lifelong work protecting the free expression of all religious traditions in the United States and around the world. The awards, given by the Newseum annually, recognize those who exhibit passion for and dedication to free expression.

“My late father would be very proud to know I am being honored for having spent my professional life defending the same right that was stripped away from him and precisely the reason he fled Cuba–religious liberty,” said Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, executive director of Becket. “I thank my parents for living their entire life with a passion for freedom.”

Arriaga’s career began in D.C. working for U.S. Ambassador José Sorzano at the Cuban American National Foundation. She went on to become an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission where she worked on raising awareness of the plight of Cuban political prisoners with former political prisoner, Ambassador Armando Valladares.

Arriaga has been the Executive Director of Becket since 2010 where she has led a team of lawyers and communications professionals to victory in groundbreaking Supreme Court religious liberty cases including the recent case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns who take care of the elderly dying poor, Holt v. Hobbs, a case about the rights of prisoners, Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC, a case involving separation of Church and State, and Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, a case regarding the rights of believers who start a business. Arriaga was also recently appointed to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF.)

“I can honestly say that I would never have expected to be honored alongside civil rights champion Congressman John Lewis, Martha Raddatz, or Playboy founder Hugh Hefner,” added Arriaga. “But as unlikely a connection with Mr. Hefner is, it’s characteristic of religious liberty and free expression to make strange bedfellows (no pun intended). Different as we are, we all share the right to these fundamental liberties.”The Award ceremony will take place April 18, 2017 at the Newseum.

For more information, visit www.newseum.org/freeexpressionawards.com.For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224.  Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.  For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

South Side, Chicago pastor fights discriminatory lawsuit

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Chicago-based Bishop Ed Peecher filed in court today to protect ministers and churches against a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist organization trying to prevent churches from providing housing benefits available to other non-profit organizations and businesses.

For much of the past century, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders – whose job requires them to live close to their church or in an underserved community – have been eligible for a tax-exempt housing allowance under the same tax principle that allows businesses to reimburse travel and overseas housing costs and provides tax-free housing to teachers and police who live in the communities they serve. America has a long and proud tradition of incentivizing service. When pastors can live near the congregations and communities they serve, it is proven that everyone benefits.

“My church and the community are my lifeblood,” said Bishop Ed Peecher of the Chicago Embassy Church. “The hungry, the lost, the lonely – they are my family. I spend my days serving them, praying, talking and offering hope and an alternative to violence. This is my job, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

The founder of a predominantly African American congregation, Bishop Peecher devotes his life to his community through outreach to decrease gang violence, mentor at-risk youth, and feed and clothe the homeless in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. This work is possible because the church supports Bishop Peecher through a small housing allowance, permitting him to focus on and live minutes from his congregation and surrounding communities in need.

A federal tax law known as the parsonage allowance lets churches provide tax-exempt housing or housing allowances for their ministers to live near their congregations. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) argues that unless the IRS explicitly bars faith organizations from accessing this benefit, it will be in violation of the Establishment Clause. But churches shouldn’t be treated differently than other secular organizations who receive the same kind of tax treatment.

“The same tax-exempt housing allowances exist for various employees like hotel managers, those transferred overseas and military personnel whose jobs require them to live in a certain proximity to their workplace,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket. “Ministers who live in the communities they serve shouldn’t be left out in the cold.”

Becket filed a motion to intervene today on behalf of Bishop Edward Peecher of Chicago Embassy Church, Father Patrick Malone of Holy Cross Anglican Church, and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. In 2014, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a diverse group of Southern Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, and Muslim organizations that have been able to thrive and effectively serve their communities because of the parsonage allowance.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becketattorney, please contact MelindaSkeaat  media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).   “

Double-crossed: Veterans’ memorial on activist hit list

WASHINGTON, D.C. –For 90 years, a war memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland has reminded passersby of the ultimate sacrifice made by local soldiers in World War I. Yet today the ironically-named American Humanist Association argued in federal court in Richmond, Virginia, that the memorial honoring fallen soldiers must be torn down because it includes a cross.

Known locally as the Peace Cross, the memorial was erected in 1925 on private land with funds raised by the American Legion. It was designed by mothers of local soldiers who died in the war. They modeled the cross after those memorialized in the celebrated poem “In Flanders Fields” that stood “row on row” to “mark [the] place” where their sons lay. The memorial was intended to serve as a memorial gravesite for all families who would never see their sons again. Today the Peace Cross stands among a number of other World War I memorials and is owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as a historic site.

“Talk about ingratitude,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel of Becket, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief with Sidley Austin LLP defending the memorial. “The American Humanist Association wants to scrub the names of these men and the blood that they spilled in defense of our freedoms out of the historical record. What’s next? Airbrushing the word “God” out of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address? The American Humanist Association’s position is anti-historical, anti-veteran, and anti-humanist.”

The Association claims that the Peace Cross violates the First Amendment as an establishment of religion, but mere disagreement with something one sees should not be confused with forbidden religious coercion. The cross is an internationally recognized symbol of sacrifice and loss, especially associated with World War I. And while some Americans may attribute religious meaning to any cross they see, the Constitution does not demand that the government agree. More importantly, church-state separation does not require religion to be stripped from our nation’s history and culture.

“It is said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” said Rassbach. “The American Humanist Association’s crusade against war memorials will leave future generations ignorant of the profound human cost of war. It is a discredit to patriotic humanists.”

The American Legion is represented in the case by First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas and the Jones Day law firm.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becketattorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more  here).

Let there be light: University allows menorah display, embraces diversity

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For the first time in its almost 200-year history, the University of Alabama will allow a Jewish student group to display a menorah on campus during the Chanukah season, December 24 through January 1. This new seasonal display demonstrates the University’s desire to create a campus life that embodies collaboration, collegiality, respect, and a culture of inclusivity.

For years, the University has displayed a large Christmas tree on campus in celebration of the holiday season. Last year, a Jewish student group requested to display a menorah as a complement to the Christmas tree and to draw attention to the variety of faith traditions that are represented on campus. The University didn’t grant the request, but this year has allowed a menorah display outside the Ferguson Student Center at the Tuscaloosa campus.

I am proud to be part of the Tide and proud of my Jewish faith,” says Zach Greenberg, president of the University of Alabama Chabad Student Group. “We are excited to share this important part of our religious and cultural heritage with the rest of campus this Chanukah season.”

The Chabad Student Group is an invaluable resource for Jewish students and faculty on campus. Hosting meals, Shabbat services, and study opportunities, Chabad is one of the hundreds of active student groups enriching campus life and offering students the chance to learn from and experience different cultures and faith traditions.

“Allowing students to share their holiday traditions sends a powerful message to all faith groups on the Alabama campus that deeply held faith traditions and cultures should be embraced and celebrated,”  said  Diana Verm, counsel at Becket.“There’s no reason the University of Alabama shouldn’t help its students have a happy Chanukah.”

The Chabad Student Group invites students and community members to enjoy the Menorah light display with homemade latkes and donuts on December 29, at 6:30 p.m. at the Crimson Promenade on University of Alabama campus.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becketattorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket  is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more here).

Is #FidelCastro really, really dead?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As Cuban officials prepare to bury Fidel Castro’s ashes, his secret police continue to detain dissidents. Danilo Maldonado, a performance artist, was detained for spray painting the words: “He is gone.” Blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted her husband journalist Reinaldo Escobar was also detained and later released.  Escobar reported police said the reason for the detention was “prevention.”

Following the death of Fidel Castro last week, the regime announced a nine-day period of mourning that included a ban on all public activities, alcohol, celebrations, alternate television or radio programming, as well as four days of parading his cremated remains around the country. And earlier this week the U.S. announced it would send diplomats to the funeral.

“Fidel Castro executed, incarcerated and tortured tens of thousands of Cubans. It is a travesty that we are paying our respects by sending diplomats to his funeral,” said Cuban American Kristina Arriaga, the executive director of Becket, a law firm that defends religious liberty domestically and abroad. “The only person we needed to send to Cuba was someone to confirm he is really dead.”

The U.S. decision to send diplomats angered many Cuban Americans who are in exile because Castro was a ruthless dictator who, for the past 50 years, regularly tortured, beat, and killed anyone who opposed him, including people of all faiths.

“It doesn’t matter who supports Fidel today, history will condemn him for his crimes just as history condemns Hitler and Stalin,” said former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares, a New York Times bestselling author, poet and Becket’s 2015 Canterbury Medal winner, who spent 22 years in Castro’s gulags for refusing to place a sign on his desk that read: “I am with Fidel” (watch a video of his experience).

“Cuban dissidents live the life Marti describes in his famous verses, ‘Day and night I always dream with open eyes,’ except they instead ‘nightmare’ with open eyes,” added Arriaga, who was also a former adviser to the U.S. delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission.“Fidel Castro was a real-life Freddy Krueger to the Cuban people.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

 

Congress turns back on religious freedom protections

WASHINGTON, D.C. –  Less than a month after voters overwhelmingly rejected politics-as-usual in Washington, Senate Republicans agreed to a deal cutting an amendment protecting religious charities from the National Defense Authorization Act.

The Russell Amendment was designed to protect the hiring practices of faith-based organizations that provide critical services to soldiers in war zones, refugees, victims of human and sex trafficking, and veterans, among others. These religious charities are often the best—sometimes the only—groups willing to provide these services.

“Americans are fed up with Washington bureaucrats.  The leadership of the 115th Congress must double down against, not concede to, ridiculous, fact-free accusations meant to derail legitimate lawmaking,” said Kristina Arriaga, executive director of Becket Law.

The Russell Amendment protects religious providers who partner with the government from being forced to hire those who do not share their religious beliefs, a right that other religious employers have enjoyed without controversy for more than half a century. Religious organizations that partner with the government are entitled to the same protection. They are awarded government contracts and grants because they are the best and most cost-efficient at meeting the needs of vulnerable populations, and they do not discriminate in providing services.

Most of the Democrats who signed a letter calling the Russell Amendment “discriminatory” voted for nearly identical language in 2013. Yet the Senate’s Republican leadership caved to Democrats’ attacks and to pressure from the White House, simply so they could get a quick spending deal signed.

“Now, because Congress ducked this important issue, more service providers will be unable to continue offering their critical services, services that are sometimes only offered by religious groups,” added Arriaga. “It is the refugees, homeless, trafficking victims, veterans, and other vulnerable populations who will suffer the most from Congress’s choice to prioritize political expediency over principled governance.”

To learn more, read Professor Douglas Laycock’s piece in The Hill. And to hear the perspective of a military chaplain, please read this Op-ed.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becketattorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket  Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more here).

Baltimore women’s charity wins big in free speech case

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Baltimore women’s charity won a six-year legal battle against the City of Baltimore’s attempt to regulate its speech. The court’s protection will allow them to continue their mission of serving low income women, ensuring they get the services they need to provide for themselves and their families.

Late Wednesday a federal judge protected the Center for Pregnancy Concerns’ right to free speech regarding the language it chooses to educate the women it serves. The charity was challenging a Baltimore law that would dictate how the Center discusses abortion with the women that come to them for help. The court found the law unconstitutional and ruled that the City of Baltimore had no evidence to support its claim that the charity was not fully informing women of the services it provides and therefore had no reason to regulate its speech.

“We dedicate our lives to helping the thousands of women who come to us wanting a safe, welcoming place to get support as they bring their child into the world,” said Carol Clews, Executive Director of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns.  “We are so grateful that we can continue helping women and treating them with love, respect, and dignity.”

The Center for Pregnancy Concerns was founded in 1980 with a mission to protect the physical, emotional and spiritual lives of women and their children. They provide low-income women with free pregnancy testing, parenting classes, work training, counseling and more. In 2010, the City of Baltimore passed a law requiring only pro-life pregnancy counselors to post statements about services they do not provide, claiming that these centers might be “tricking women.” But the court ruled that the Center already informs women they do not provide abortions in many ways: via telephone, in person and in its “Commitment of Care” sign posted in the lobby.

After six years, the Court ruled that the Center does enough to inform women and can do so in the language that it feels is best, saying there simply was “no evidence that women were coming to the Center under false pretenses and suffering harmful health consequences because of it.”

“We spend our time giving loving help to women in need,” continued Clews. “That’s work the City should be supporting, not attacking. I hope that after six years of wasted time and money the City will realize that it would actually be harming women by continuing to attack our work.”

The case represents the second time a Maryland federal court has upheld the free speech rights of pregnancy counselors. In 2014, Judge Deborah Chasanow entered a similar ruling finding that Montgomery County’s similar speech restriction was also unconstitutional. The Center was represented by David Kinkopf and Steve Metzger from Gallagher, Evelius, and Jones LLP in Baltimore, Mark Rienzi from Becket and the Catholic University of America, and Peter Basile from Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew, P.A.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224.  Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.  For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

California’s SB 1146 still discriminates

Although the author of notorious California bill SB 1146 recently backed down and announced amendments to remove the parts of the bill that would have meant that thousands of low-income minority students would be unable to attend college, SB 1146 still includes controversial anti-privacy and “scarlet letter” provisions that would be both bad policy and unconstitutional to boot:

  • The anti-privacy provisions would force California’s religiously-affiliated colleges and universities to report four times a year on every expulsion and suspension of a student, and the reasons for the discipline. This language makes no provision for preserving the privacy of disciplined students, and may violate federal privacy laws that protect students’ privacy. California students don’t need every disciplinary infraction they’ve ever committed reported to the government or posted on the Internet forever.
  • The anti-privacy provisions are also discriminatory, as they target only religious colleges and ignore many other kinds of related institutions, such as military schools, some public schools, and fraternities and sororities. Singling out religious institutions solely because they are religious violates the principle that the government should stay neutral on religious matters.
  • Similarly, the “scarlet letter” provisions would also force religious schools under a cloud of governmental suspicion by requiring religious colleges to use government-dictated language to communicate their religious beliefs to their students, faculty, and communities. Schools like Fresno Pacific University have no objection to sharing their religious beliefs—in fact, that is part of why they exist—but object to having the government dictate how they express their religious beliefs. If the government cannot even have schoolchildren wear t-shirts that say “Tomorrow’s Leaders,” it certainly cannot tell religious schools how to share sensitive religious beliefs to their own religious communities and to the public they want to serve.
  • The scarlet letter provisions also violate constitutional guarantees of equality and freedom of speech because they target only religiously-affiliated colleges and universities.

These notions are just as wrongheaded as the outrageous idea that California should force poor minority students to give up on their dream of a college education. California legislators should finish the job and let SB 1146 die.

UPDATE 8/29/16: Under severe pressure, Senator Lara has retreated even further. He has taken out the anti-privacy provisions (presumably because they violated federal law protecting student privacy) and created a one-year delay before the “scarlet letter” provisions would take affect. After these further amendments, the bill passed the Assembly on August 23, and is now being considered by the California Senate.

Despite Senator Lara’s retreat, he still has not gone far enough. The Senate should still reject SB 1146 because the scarlet letter provisions continue to illegally target religious colleges and universities for special scrutiny, just because of who they are. If the bill comes before him for signature, Governor Brown should veto it.

Minority Students make their case and win

Washington, D.C. – Low-income African-American and Latino students seeking higher education in California won big today: state legislators backed down from pushing a discriminatory bill that would have cut them off from crucial state aid.

A new website (also available en Español) and a series of videos helped turn the tide against SB 1146, explaining how the bill victimizes poor African-American and Latino students – many of whom are the first in their families to attend college – by forcing them to drop out of college or into failing state schools with dismal graduation rates for minorities. The website was circulated to over 15 million California voters, and over 100,000 immediately responded by signing a petition opposing SB 1146.

“Minority students have spoken, and the politicians have listened. This is a huge win for progress and diversity in higher education,” said Montserrat Alvarado at Becket. “Now students from disadvantaged backgrounds can continue to have equal opportunity for success and equal freedom to choose schools that meet their needs.”

A large coalition of state and national religious leaders joined legal experts in condemning the bill’s plan to “cut a program that exists to help low-income students, and which is overwhelmingly used by racial minorities.” They also questioned why lawmakers would want to “make it harder for Latinos and other minorities to receive an education[.]” A new report from the legislature raised similar concerns, noting that Cal Grant students could be forced to “discontinue their education” and that the blow to the minority community would come at “significant” cost to state taxpayers. The increased public understanding of SB 1146 quickly led one legislative co-author to rush to drop his name from the bill late last week, and made the primary author gut the bill today.

The case against SB 1146 was simple. Three out of four Cal Grant recipients at religious colleges are low-income minorities. By cutting off their ability to use Cal Grants at religious colleges, SB 1146 would push minorities out of religious schools that do a better job of graduating minorities and into failing state schools. For instance, Fresno Pacific graduates over 70 percent of Latinos within 4 years, compared to the California State University system that graduates only about 10 percent. And because state schools are heavily subsidized, taxpayers would end up paying about $100 million more per year for lower quality education.

“Today’s victory is evidence that politicians do not have free reign to discriminate and silence minority voices,” said Alvarado.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

Minority college students speak out against SB 1146

Washington, D.C.

Videos featuring the personal stories of minority college students who would be harmed if California politicians pass SB 1146 were shared with over 15 million California voters yesterday. In the videos, the students explain how SB 1146 will take Cal Grants from lower-income students who, like themselves, attend California colleges with religious affiliations.

The videos are featured on a website launched last week that explains how SB 1146 victimizes poor African-American and Latino students. Over 100,000 California voters have already added their names to a petition opposing SB 1146 for its unfair harm to minority students.

Three out of four Cal Grant recipients at religious colleges are low-income minorities. By cutting off their ability to use Cal Grants at religious colleges, SB 1146 would push minorities out of religious schools that do a better job of graduating minorities and into failing state schools. For example, Fresno Pacific University graduates over 70 percent of Latinos within 4 years, compared to the California State University system that graduates only 10 percent. And because state schools are heavily subsidized, taxpayers would end up paying about $100 million more per year for less quality education.

The new videos share the stories of Deja Alewine, Jorge Cubillos, and Leonel Loera, three Fresno Pacific University students from low-income minority backgrounds:

  • “”The people considering SB 1146 really need to understand the impact this bill will have on people’s education,” says Deja Alewine, an African-American student who comes from a single-parent household. “This impacts our lives. It impacts our future. ”
  • “My parents originally came here because they were farm workers. It was only because I received a Cal Grant … that school became an option for me,” says Jorge Cubillos, who was the first in his family to attend college. “SB 1146, if it passes, it’s going to hold back a lot of students. It’s going to hold back a lot of potential. Future leaders, future inventors, future teachers. It’s going to hold back progress.”
  • “There are a lot of students out there like me who are heavily supported by the Cal Grant,” says Leonel Loera, a journalism student at Fresno Pacific University. “Without it, we won’t be able to accomplish our dreams.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

Little Sisters of the Poor Receive Knights of Columbus’ Highest Award

WASHINGTON, D.C.– For the Little Sisters of the Poor’s  service to the elderly poor and commitment to their Catholic beliefs, the Knights of Columbus awarded its highest honor the Gaudium et Spes Award. Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight, Carl Anderson, presented the award to Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, Superior of the Sisters’ Baltimore Province on August 2 at the Allsteam Centre in Toronto, host city of the Knights’ yearly convention.

“It is a privilege for us to care for the most vulnerable members of our society; serving them, comforting them, being a loving and healing presence in their lives,” said  Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “Just being a ‘Little Sister to them’ is our joy.”

Founded in 1852 to serve the elderly poor, the Sisters are a “truly inspiring community of religious sisters for their wholehearted response to the Gospel, [and] for recognizing Jesus in the face of the poor,” noted the award citation, read by Knights of Columbus Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore.

The Little Sisters became a household name when they were ordered to take actions that would have triggered coverage of drugs and devices, such as the week after pill, in their employee health plan. They stood firm in their refusal to do so in spite of the threat of $70 million per year in government fines. They appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, represented by Becket and supported by the generosity of the Knights. Last spring the Supreme Court told the government they could not fine the Sisters, vacated all lower court decisions against them, and instructed the government to work on a solution that respected the Sisters’ religious beliefs.

While in Washington, D.C. last year, Pope Francis visited the Little Sisters to show his solidarity. He later wrote: “Precisely for the sake of this dignity of conscience, the Church strongly rejects the forced state intervention in favor of contraception, sterilization, and even abortion.”

Named for the landmark Second Vatican Council document, the Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) Award is the highest honor bestowed by the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal benefit organization, which has more than 1.9 million members.

Awarded only in special circumstances to individuals of exceptional merit, the first recipient was Blessed Mother Teresa, in 1992, and the last recipient was the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, in 2015.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224. 

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here)

Iniciativa de ley en California daña a estudiantes latinos pobres

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Algunos políticos del estado de California están considerando lanzar una medida que cortaría una ayuda del estado que es crucial para apoyar a estudiantes minoritarios de bajos ingresos.

En esta oportunidad, el ajuste afectaría de manera discriminatoria especialmente a estudiantes latinos y afroamericanos que escogen estudiar en universidades religiosas privadas. Un nuevo sitio web explica cómo la iniciativa SB 1146 victimiza a estudiantes minoritarios pobres, muchos de los cuales son los primeros en asistir a la universidad en su familia y los deja con dos opciones: dejar la universidad o inscribirse en escuelas con tasas de graduación decepcionantes en el caso de las minorías.

La legislatura del estado de California ha propuesto recientemente, de manera repetitiva, recortes al añejo programa de becas Cal Grant. Ese programa provee fondos a estudiantes de bajos ingresos, y tres de cada cuatro pertenecen a las minorías. Después de fracasar el año pasado en un intento por recortar las becas Cal Grants para todas las universidades privadas, la legislatura está considerando una nueva iniciativa para recortar el apoyo para los estudiantes que asisten a ciertas universidades privadas religiosas. Pero esas universidades tienen una tasa de graduación de cuatro años alto, que casi duplica al de las universidades estatales. Y debido a que las escuelas estatales reciben subsidios muy altos, los contribuyentes terminarían pagando cientos de millones de dólares más en costos, si los estudiantes se ven forzados a dejar las escuelas privadas religiosas de su elección para ingresar a las universidades del estado.

“La SB 1146 representa lo peor de la política”, dijo Montserrat Alvarado, del Becket. “Cualquiera que sea el giro político, la realidad es que la SB 1146 daña directamente a los estudiantes de California más vulnerables –muchos de los cuales son los primeros en asistir a la universidad en sus familias—y le costará cientos de millones de dólares a los contribuyentes de California”.

La SB 1146 dañará más severamente a los estudiantes afroamericanos y latinos de California. Esos estudiantes provienen de manera desproporcionada de comunidades que son profundamente religiosas y tienen desventajas financieras. Esos estudiantes tienen tasas de graduación muy exitosas, como en la Universidad de Fresno Pacific, que gradúa en 4 años al 60 por ciento de los afroamericanos, y al 70 por ciento de los Latinos. En comparación, el sistema universitario del estado de California, a donde irían a parar los estudiantes minoritarios si se aprueba la SB 1146, gradúa tan sólo al 9 por ciento de los afroamericanos y latinos en cuatro años. Hace tan solo unos días, el Arzobispo José H. Gomez, de la Arquidiócesis Católica Romana de Los Ángeles, y el Obispo Charles E. Blake, de la Iglesia de Dios en Cristo, publicaron una declaración conjunta histórica condenando la SB 1146 y “cuestionando por qué los legisladores quieren hacer las cosas más difíciles para que los latinos y otras minorías reciban una educación(.)”

“La SB 1146 discrimina a las minorías pobres”, dijo Alvarado. “Le permite a los políticos exprimir a las minorías por unos cuantos dólares de corto plazo, y acarrea un costo de largo plazo en sueños truncados e impuestos más altos”.

La SB 1146 está programada para ser votada en un comité el 11 de agosto, y podría recibir el voto de la legislatura en pleno el 19 de agosto. Si pasa, el gobernador tiene hasta finales de septiembre para decidir si la veta o no.

Para más información o para obtener una entrevista con un abogado del Becket, por favor comuníquese con Melinda Skea en media@becketlaw.org o llamando al 202.349.7224. Las entrevistas pueden ser en inglés, chino, francés, alemán, portugués, ruso y español.

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Becket es una firma legal de interés público sin fines de lucro dedicada a proteger la libre expresión de todas las tradiciones religiosas con una taza de victorias del 100% ante la Corte Suprema de Justicia de Estados Unidos. Durante más de 20 años ha defendido a clientes de todas las creencias, incluyendo a budistas, cristianos, judíos, hinduistas, musulmanes, indios nativos en Estados Unidos, sikhs y zoroastras (leer más aquí).

Spanish website: California bill harms poor Latino students

WASHINGTON, D.C.–  California politicians are considering a measure that cuts off crucial state aid for low-income minority students this time by discriminatorily cutting it for students, particularly Latinos and African Americans, who choose to attend private religious colleges. A  new website, available in Spanish and English explains how SB 1146 victimizes poor minority students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college and would either have to drop out of college or be pushed into failing state schools with dismal graduation rates for minorities.

California’s legislature has recently repeatedly proposed cuts to the long-standing Cal Grant program. Cal Grants provide funding for low-income students, three out of four of whom are minorities. After failing in a bid to cut Cal Grants for all private colleges last year, the legislature is considering a new move to cut aid for students attending certain private religious colleges. But religious schools have high 4-year graduation rates,  roughly double the rate  of state schools. And because state schools come with high state subsidies, taxpayers could end up footing  hundreds of millions of dollars more in costs if students get forced out of the private religious schools of their choice and into state schools.

“SB 1146 represents politics at its worst,” says Montserrat Alvarado of Becket. “Whatever the political spin, the reality is that SB 1146 directly harms California’s most vulnerable students—many of whom are the first in their families to go to college—and will cost California taxpayers hundreds of millions.”

SB 1146 will most severely harm California’s African-American and Latino students. Such students disproportionately come from communities that are both deeply religious and financially disadvantaged. They enjoy very high rates of success at religious colleges like Fresno Pacific University, which graduates 60 percent of African-Americans and 70 percent of Latinos within 4 years. But by comparison, the California State University system—where most poor minorities would be funneled if SB 1146 passes—manages to graduate only about 9 percent of African Americans and Latinos in 4 years. Just last week, Archbishop José H. Gomez of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Bishop Charles E. Blake of the Church of God in Christ issued a historic joint statement  condemning SB 1146 and “question[ing] why lawmakers would want to make it harder for Latinos and other minorities to receive an education[.]”

“SB 1146 discriminates against poor minorities,” says  Alvarado. “It lets politicians squeeze minorities for a few short-term dollars, and comes at the long-term cost of wrecked dreams and higher taxes.”

SB 1146 is  scheduled  to receive a vote in committee by Aug. 11, and could end up before the legislature for a vote by Aug. 19. If it passed, the governor would then have until the end of September to decide whether to veto it.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

3 of 4 students harmed by new Calif. bill are poor minorities

WASHINGTON, D.C. – California politicians are considering a measure today that cuts off crucial state aid for low-income minority students, this time by discriminatorily cutting it for students who choose to attend private religious colleges. A new website explains how SB 1146 victimizes poor minority students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college and would either have to drop out of college or be pushed into failing state schools with dismal graduation rates for minorities.

California’s legislature has recently repeatedly proposed cuts to the long-standing Cal Grant program. Cal Grants provide funding for low-income students, three out of four whom are minorities. After failing in a bid to cut Cal Grants for all private colleges last year, the legislature is now considering a move to cut aid for students attending certain private religious colleges. But religious schools have high 4-year graduation rates, roughly double the rate of state schools. And because state schools come with high state subsidies, taxpayers could end up footing hundreds of millions of dollars more in costs if students get forced out of the private religious schools of their choice and into state schools.

“SB 1146 represents politics at its worst,” says Montserrat Alvarado of Becket. “Whatever the political spin, the reality is that SB 1146 directly harms California’s most vulnerable students—many of whom are the first in their families to go to college—and will cost California taxpayers hundreds of millions.”

SB 1146 will most severely harm California’s African-American and Latino students. Such students disproportionately come from communities that are both deeply religious and financially disadvantaged. They enjoy very high rates of success at religious colleges like Fresno Pacific University, which graduates 60 percent of African-Americans and 70 percent of Latinos within 4 years. But by comparison, the California State University system—where most poor minorities would be funneled if SB 1146 passes—manages to graduate only about 9 percent of African Americans and Latinos in 4 years.

“SB 1146 discriminates against poor minorities,” says Alvarado. “It lets politicians squeeze minorities for a few short-term dollars, and comes at the long-term cost of wrecked dreams and higher taxes.”

SB 1146 is scheduled to be heard by a legislative committee today at 9 a.m. PST, to receive a vote in committee by Aug. 12, and could end up before the legislature for a vote by Aug. 19. If it passed, the governor would then have until the end of September to decide whether to veto it.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

Cuban prisoner of conscience Oscar Biscet welcomes Cuban-American to global religious liberty fight

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Bible on which Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, executive director of Becket, rested her hand while she took the oath of office as Commissioner to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) today was held by Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and Afro-Cuban dissident, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet.

“Dr. Biscet has been arrested multiple times, and severely tortured and beaten for living according to his deeply held religious convictions while advocating for peaceful change in Cuba,” said Arriaga. “I hope that in my position at USCIRF I am able to raise awareness of his plight and the plight of so many others around the world who want to live according to their conscience.”

Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, a Cuban American herself, was appointed to the Commission earlier this year by the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Congressman Chris Smith, Chairman of Commission of Security and Cooperation in Europe, officiated the swearing-in which took place immediately before a House Committee of Foreign Affairs hearing on human rights violations in Cuba.

“The Bible on which I took the oath has its own remarkable story, originating from Ghana, where as many as 600,000 African slaves were taken and sent to Cuba,” said Arriaga. “I picked this Bible to remind myself that we are each called to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again. Every man and woman is born with dignity and should be treated accordingly.”

USCIRF, a bipartisan U.S. federal government commission was created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) and signed by President Clinton. Other USCIRF Commissioners include Chair Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Vice Chairs Dr. Daniel Mark and Dr. James J. Zogby, Sandra Jolley, Dr. John Ruskay, and Ambassador Jackie Wolcott.

Arriaga is sought out as an expert on religious liberty issues. She has written numerous articles on the topic, has spoken at several conferences and has appeared on multiple television and radio programs including MSNBCC-SpanFOX and NPR. She is happily married to a retired Marine-turned-businessman, Matthew Bucholz. They have three teenagers.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

Presbyterian Church defends financial transparency

WASHINGTON, D.C. Churches must have the right to be transparent and accountable when it comes to finances. Yet a Kentucky lawsuit, brought by a disgruntled minister who failed a church financial audit, is threatening the right of churches to correct improper actions taken by their own ministers, a right previously upheld 9-0 by the U.S. Supreme Court. After the Presbyterian Church published the audit findings and corrective measures on its website, the minister sued the church for defamation even though the Church had not initially published his name. Becket filed a brief supporting the Presbyterian Church’s right to hold its ministers accountable to church members, especially when it comes to parishioners’ donations.

“Believers should be able to trust that their own churches—where they worship every Sunday, bring their families for Sunday school, and then open their wallets to donate hard earned dollars—are responsible and accountable with the funds they collect,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, which is supporting the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s defense of the lawsuit. “Churches must be able to hold their own pastors to basic tenets of accounting and responsibility.”

The lawsuit is being brought by a minister and former executive of the Presbyterian Church (USA)s’ “1001” movement, a mission project aimed at creating 1,001 new worshiping communities. Under his watch, two employees transferred $100,000 from the Church’s accounts into a private entity they had set up. Although the employees did not intend to misuse the money and the funds were recovered, the minister was cited by the Church for failing to ensure that established financial policies were being followed. After the minister publicly agreed that the incidents “should not have occurred” and admitted that they “occurred on [his] watch,” the Church published a report on its website detailing what happened and what corrective steps were being taken. Although the Church initially never published the minister’s name, he has now sued the Church for defamation.

“Teaching standards and accountability is what churches do,” said Baxter. “If the Presbyterian Church chooses to be transparent with its members, the courts should not facilitate attempts to hush it.”

The minister’s lawsuit was filed in May 2015 and seeks monetary compensation for the Church’s alleged defamation. Last September, the trial court denied his accusations, finding that the Church’s statements were true and that the First Amendment barred the court from second-guessing the Church’s decision to enforce its standards of ethical conduct for religious leaders. The minister’s appeal is now pending in the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Becket has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Church, arguing that, under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, courts cannot interfere with Churches’ statements to their members about the conduct of their religious leaders.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda  Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

Speaker Ryan Names Cuban-American Freedom Fighter to Commission on International Religious Freedom

WASHINGTON D.C. —The Speaker of the House today announced he is appointing Becket’s Executive Director, Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“My late father would be very proud to know I will serve on a Commission that defends the same right that was stripped away from him and precisely the reason he fled Cuba–religious liberty.” said Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, executive director of Becket. “I thank my parents for their life example and I am honored to be appointed to this important Commission.”

Below is the press release sent by Speaker Ryan this morning:

WASHINGTON—House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) today announced that he has reappointed Daniel I. Mark of Villanova University and appointed Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz of Becket to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The Commission is an independent body made up of nine commissioners from outside the government who review religious freedom violations abroad and make policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress. This will be Dr. Mark’s second term on the commission. Ms. Arriaga will succeed Dr. Robert P. George of Princeton University, who has completed two terms on the commission.

“In a time when so many around the world are being oppressed for their faith, the Commission’s work is as indispensable as ever,” Speaker Ryan said. “I want to thank Dr. George, whose service to the Commission is only the latest chapter in an extraordinary career defending our first principles. Beyond a wealth of insight, Dr. Mark has brought great moral courage to the Commission, and I am proud to reappoint him. The daughter of parents who fled Castro’s Cuba, Kristina Arriaga has dedicated her life to the liberty of others. Her voice and experiences as a freedom fighter make Kristina a great addition to the Commission.”

About Daniel Mark. Dr. Daniel Mark is an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. He teaches political theory, philosophy of law, American government, and politics and religion. At Villanova, he is a faculty associate of the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good. He holds the rank of battalion professor in Villanova’s Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps unit. Daniel holds a BA, MA, and PhD from the Department of Politics at Princeton University.

About Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz. Kristina Arriaga is the Executive Director of Becket for Religious Liberty, an organization she first joined in 1995. After starting her career in Washington working for US Ambassador José Sorzano at the Cuban American National Foundation, she became an advisor to the US delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) working directly for Ambassador Armando Valladares. Splitting her time between the seat of the UNHRC in Geneva and Washington, D.C., Kristina worked on raising awareness of the plight of political prisoners in Cuba. Kristina obtained her undergraduate degree at Marquette University and her Master’s Degree at Georgetown University.

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Becket   is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more).

Former Cuban political prisoner receives 2016 Canterbury Medal

New York City, NY – Armando Valladares, a Cuban poet and artist, spent 22 years in Castro’s gulags for refusing to surrender his beliefs. Last night he was honored with the Canterbury medal, Becket’s highest honor, at the 21st annual Canterbury Medal Gala for his unfailing defense of the freedom of conscience (watch video here).

“Armando personifies the goals, the ideals of what this medal represents. He believes in the word conscience,” said Nobel laureate Holocaust survivor and fellow Medalist Elie Wiesel, who presented Valladares with the Canterbury Medal at The Pierre in New York City. “Conscience embodies what we want for humanity. Whatever is good, whatever is noble is linked to conscience.”

“My story is proof that a seemingly small act of defiance can mean everything to the enemies of freedom. They did not keep me in jail for 22 years because my refusal to say three words meant nothing. They kept me there that long because it meant everything,” said Armando Valladares in his speech (full transcript here). “Though my body was in prison and abused, my soul was free and flourished. My jailers took everything from me, but they could not rob me of my conscience.”

Valladares was arrested and imprisoned at the age of 23 for refusing to display a placard on his desk that said: “I am with Fidel.” Because of this simple act of dissent, he was imprisoned for 22 years, where he suffered tortures, labor camps, hunger strikes and spent eight years naked in a solitary confinement cell where he was regularly doused with human excrement.

While in prison, Valladares painted and wrote poetry using any materials available to him, such as medicines, burnt nylon, and even his own blood. The Canterbury Medal Dinner showcased these original, never before seen paintings – some the size of postage stamps — and writings that were smuggled out of prison, and later out of Cuba, by his wife Martha who published them to critical acclaim. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of his New York Times bestselling memoir, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag, which has been translated to 18 different languages.

Becket’s annual gala is a black-tie event held at the Pierre Hotel in New York and is attended by the most distinguished religious leaders and religious liberty advocates throughout the world. This year’s gala chairs were Anthony and Christie DeNicola. Notable guests included Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Elder Gary E. Stevenson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, New York Times bestselling author and New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt, and 2011 Canterbury Medalist and New York Times bestselling author Eric Metaxas.

The Canterbury Medal recognizes courage in the defense of religious liberty and is given to a leading figure who champions a robust role for religion in society. Past Canterbury Medalists include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks,  Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson, LDS Elder Dallin H. Oaks, financier Foster Friess, Barbara Green of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Archbishop Charles Chaput and the former Ambassador to the Vatican, James R. Nicholson, among others.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

Never before seen writings, art from Castro’s gulags

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Thursday an art exhibit of over 30 never before seen paintings and writings by Cuban artist and poet Armando Valladares will be displayed at the Canterbury Medal Dinner in New York City. Valladares, this year’s recipient of Becket’s highest honor, spent 22 years imprisoned in Castro’s gulags for refusing to put up a placard on his desk that said “I am with Fidel.” (watch video here).

“There’s nothing dictators fear more than artists, especially poets,” said Armando Valladares. “Poetry had become a weapon to transcend, to leave prison to the external world and denounce the crimes and violations of human rights committed in the jails of Cuba.”

While in prison, Valladares painted using any materials available to him, such as medicines, burnt nylon, and even his own blood. The Canterbury Medal Dinner art exhibit will include these original paintings – some the size of postage stamps — as well as writings that were smuggled out of prison, and later out of Cuba, by his wife Martha who published them to critical acclaim. This year marks the 30th anniversary of his New York Times bestselling memoir, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag, which has been translated to 18 languages. 

Valladares was arrested and imprisoned at the age of 23 for refusing to display a placard on his desk that said: “I am with Fidel.” He spent 22 years in prison for that simple act of dissent. Eight of those years he spent naked in solitary confinement cell. He was tortured with relentless beatings, endured 16 hunger strikes, one of which left him wheelchair bound for years, and lived in constant fear of being randomly shot. Martha led an international campaign for his release, and Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. He was released in 1982.

“While in prison, Valladares hand wrote his book of poetry over 20 times. Only one copy survived the smuggling process. Those writings were published in France igniting an international campaign on behalf of the human rights of thousands of political prisoners in Cuba,” said Kristina Arriaga, executive director of Becket. “His work is an inspiring testament to the power of the human spirit.”

The Canterbury Medal Dinner is attended by the most distinguished religious leaders and advocates of religious liberty throughout the world. Notable guests this year include Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Elder Gary E. Stevenson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The black-tie gala will be held this Thursday, May 12, 2016 at the Pierre Hotel on 2 East 61st Street at 5th Avenue, New York City hosted by this year’s gala chairs Anthony and Christie DeNicola. For more information visit  www.becketlaw.org/canterbury2016.

Past Canterbury Medalists  include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks,  Prison Fellowship founder – the late Charles Colson, LDS Elder Dallin H. Oaks, financier Foster Friess, Barbara Green of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Archbishop Charles Chaput and the former Ambassador to the Vatican, James R. Nicholson, among others. Medalists all share a common devotion to liberty and freedom of conscience for people of all faiths.

Member of the press interested in covering the art exhibit or dinner, contact Ryan Colby at rcolby@becketlaw.org 0r 202-349-7219 for press credentials and a complimentary ticket.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket Fund attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more).

Never before seen writings, art by Cuban political prisoner

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In two weeks, an art exhibit of over 30 never before seen paintings and writings by Cuban artist and poet Armando Valladares will be displayed at the Canterbury Medal Dinner in New York City. Valladares spent 22 years imprisoned in Castro’s gulags for refusing to put up a placard on his desk that said “I am with Fidel.” (watch video here).

“There’s nothing dictators fear more than artists, especially poets,” said Armando Valladares. “Poetry had become a weapon to transcend, to leave prison to the external world and denounce the crimes and violations of human rights committed in the jails of Cuba.”

While in prison, Valladares painted using any materials available to him, such as medicines and burnt nylon. The Canterbury Medal Dinner art exhibit will include these original paintings – some the size of postage stamps — as well as writings that were smuggled out of prison, and later out of Cuba, by his wife Martha who published them to critical acclaim. This year marks the 30th anniversary of his New York Times bestselling memoir, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag, which has been translated to 18 languages (available here). 

Valladares was arrested and imprisoned at the age of 23 for refusing to display a placard on his desk that said: “I am with Fidel.” He spent 22 years in prison for that simple act of dissent. Eight of those years he spent naked in solitary confinement in a windowless and mosquito-infested cell, where guards regularly doused him with buckets of human excrement. He was tortured with relentless beatings and endured several hunger strikes, one of which left him wheelchair bound for years. Martha led an international campaign for his release, and Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. He was released in 1982 thanks to the intercession of French President Francois Mitterrand.

He  recently wrote: “America, perhaps more than any other nation in the world, understands and defends the sanctity of the human mind and the beliefs that flourish and guide it. We are still a beacon to the men and women that languish in their jail cells for holding steadfast to their beliefs and for refusing to violate them despite intimidation in places where tyrannical thugs or ISIS zealots reign with terror.”

“While in prison, Valladares hand wrote his book of poetry over 20 times. Only one copy survived the smuggling process. Those writings were published in France igniting an international campaign on behalf of the human rights of thousands of political prisoners in Cuba,” said Kristina Arriaga, executive director of Becket. “His work is an inspiring testament to the power of the human spirit.”

The Canterbury Medal Dinner boasts the most distinguished religious leaders and advocates of religious liberty throughout the world. Notable guests include Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Elder Gary E. Steveson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This year’s black-tie gala will be held on Thursday, May 12, 2016 at the Pierre Hotel on 2 East 61st Street at 5th Avenue, New York City hosted by this year’s gala chairs Anthony and Christie DeNicola. Reserve your ticket online at  www.becketfund.org/canterbury2016.

Past Canterbury Medalists  include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks,  Prison Fellowship founder – the late Charles Colson, LDS Elder Dallin H. Oaks, financier Foster Friess, Barbara Green of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Archbishop Charles Chaput and the former Ambassador to the Vatican, James R. Nicholson, among others. Medalists all share a common devotion to liberty and freedom of conscience for people of all faiths.

If you are a member of the press interested in covering the exhibit or Gala, contact Ryan Colby at rcolby@becketlaw.org for a complimentary ticket.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more).

Supreme Court says police officer wrongly demoted

WASHINGTON, D.C. Moments ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made an important First Amendment decision that will affect government employees nationwide.

This case involves a New Jersey police officer who was demoted for picking up a political campaign sign for his bedridden mother. Becket asked the Court to protect the officer’s right of free speech and his right to freely assemble. The Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in favor of the police officer.

“Even Snooki knows that picking up a campaign sign is protected by the First Amendment,” said Stephanie Barclay, counsel for Becket. “It’s sad that this case had to go all the way to the Supreme Court for the City of Paterson, New Jersey to learn that freedom of speech and the right to assemble are core rights of American citizens.”

Police Officer Jeffrey Heffernan went to the city of Paterson to pick up a political campaign sign supporting the mayor’s challenger for his ill mother. While doing this, he was spotted by the incumbent mayor’s security detail which wrongly reported Officer Heffernan was supporting the incumbent’s challenger. The very next day the Paterson Police Department demoted Mr. Heffernan from detective to patrol officer. Mr. Heffernan sued the city, the mayor, and the police chief of the city of Paterson for violating his rights to free speech and freedom of association.

“Especially in an election year it is crucial that the rights of speech and assembly are protected,” added Barclay. “All Americans have to be able to participate in the political process without fear of retribution.”

For more information or to arrange a follow-up interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

 

The new face of $20 is a religious liberty icon

WASHINGTON, D.C.– Today the US Treasury announced Harriet Tubman would be the new face of the $20 bill. A former slave herself, Tubman said that her faith had inspired her to save hundreds of fugitive slaves and lead them out of the pre-Civil War South to freedom in Canada. Tubman was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

“Harriet Tubman was a woman of faith who acted on her beliefs to fight for justice,” said Kristina Arriaga, executive director of Becket. “The courage with which she followed her faith for the sake of so many others is an example to all Americans. She is an icon of religious liberty.”

Becket has represented many women of faith, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who dedicate their life to serving the elderly poor and whose case is currently before the United States Supreme Court.

For more information or to arrange a follow-up interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more).

Former Cuban political prisoner to receive Becket’s Canterbury Medal

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Cuban poet and artist Armando Valladares will receive Becket’s highest honor, the Canterbury Medal, in New York City next month. Valladares spent 22 years in Castro’s gulags for refusing to put up a placard on his desk that said “I am with Fidel” (watch video here). This year marks the 30th anniversary of his New York Times bestselling memoir, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag, which has been translated to 18 languages (available here).

“I have known Armando Valladares for many, many years. And he is a very good person, an honest fighter for peace and for justice,” said Nobel laureate Holocaust survivor and fellow Medalist Elie Wiesel, who will be presenting the tribute to Valladares at the Canterbury Medal Dinner. “I think he has something heroic about him.”

Valladares was arrested and imprisoned at the age of 23 for refusing to display a placard on his desk that said: “I am with Fidel.” He spent 22 years in prison for that simple act of dissent. Eight of those years he spent naked in solitary confinement in a windowless and mosquito-infested cell, where guards regularly doused him with buckets of human excrement. He was tortured with relentless beatings and endured several hunger strikes, one of which left him wheelchair bound for years. During this time he wrote poetry, which his wife Martha smuggled out of Cuba and published to critical acclaim. She led an international campaign for his release, and Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. He was released in 1982 thanks to the intercession of French President Francois Mitterrand.

He  recently wrote: “America, perhaps more than any other nation in the world, understands and defends the sanctity of the human mind and the beliefs that flourish and guide it. We are still a beacon to the men and women that languish in their jail cells for holding steadfast to their beliefs and for refusing to violate them despite intimidation in places where tyrannical thugs or ISIS zealots reign with terror.”

“Armando Valladares has often told me that during his imprisonment every inch of his body was tortured and imprisoned but he was still a free man because no one could touch his faith,” said Kristina Arriaga, executive director of Becket. “He personifies courage and strength and has devoted his life to the defense of human rights around the world.”

The Canterbury Medal Dinner boasts the most distinguished religious leaders and advocates of religious liberty throughout the world. Notable guests include Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Elder Gary E. Stevenson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This year’s black-tie gala will be held on Thursday, May 12, 2016 at the Pierre Hotel on 2 East 61st Street at 5th Avenue, New York City hosted by this year’s gala chairs Anthony and Christie DeNicola. Reserve your ticket online at  www.becketfund.org/canterbury2016.

Past Canterbury Medalists  include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks,  Prison Fellowship founder – the late Charles Colson, LDS Elder Dallin H. Oaks, financier Foster Friess, Barbara Green of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Archbishop Charles Chaput and the former Ambassador to the Vatican, James R. Nicholson, among others. Medalists all share a common devotion to liberty and freedom of conscience for people of all faiths.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more).

Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York

A school dedicated to teaching Catholic values

For over 200 years, Catholic schools in New York have provided top-notch elementary schools for ethnically and economically diverse students. And for over 60 years, St. Anthony’s Parish has run a school that is an integral part of that community of schools. Like other Catholic schools, St. Anthony’s is dedicated to create a Christ-centered, academically excellent and welcoming communities by teaching students to pursue knowledge in keeping with their Catholic faith. Every day at St. Anthony’s is infused with Catholic values.

Choosing the leaders of its faith

We all know schools don’t run themselves. For St. Anthony’s to be true to its Catholic teachings, it must have leaders who will respect and protect its Catholic identity. At St. Anthony’s, this all starts with the principal. The principal guides the religious mission of the school, ensuring that the school teaches its faith to its students on a daily basis. The principal exercises her leadership in many ways, including by offering daily prayer, attending the School’s monthly mass and annual feasts, encouraging students and faculty to participate in religious observances, and ensuring that the school curriculum embraces Catholic tradition.

The Supreme Court upholds the ministerial exception 

For decades, courts have ruled that religious schools can require their teachers to share their faith. In fact, in 2012 the Supreme Court unanimously agreed in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor that a 4th grade teacher at a Lutheran religious school is a minister for their faith, and a school has a right to select their ministers without permission from a government bureaucrat.

That right clearly applies to St. Anthony’s. As a Catholic school, St. Anthony’s has the right to choose its religious leaders free from government interference. But a former principal of the school, Joan Fratello, recently challenged that right after St. Anthony’s declined to renew her contract because of insubordination. She thinks that allowing St. Anthony’s to select its own leaders will aid “malevolent organizations and potential terrorists” and contribute to the “destruction of our future” as a country. Sadly, she’s supported by a group of trial lawyers who make money off of litigation and by an anti-religious academic who has long opposed what every justice on the Supreme Court supported in 2012.

Ms. Fratello not only personally provided religious prayer, guidance, and instruction, she also supervised all the teachers with the same duties. Under the law, that means she was a minister. A religious leader who supervises a religious school’s ministries is herself a minister.

Becket stepped in to represent St. Anthony’s. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard oral argument in the case in March 2017. In July 2017, the court protected the right of St. Anthony School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York to choose their own leaders.

In August 2017, Fratello’s lawyer filed a frivolous request for the full Second Circuit to reverse its unanimous ruling, which he compared to the infamous Dred Scott decision while comparing the church to “slave owners.” Becket opposed his attempt to prolong the lawsuit and urged the court to put an end to his abusive attacks on the church and the court. The Court denied Fratello’s petition shortly after Becket filed its opposition.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Freedom of religious groups to choose their own leaders: This case set an important precedent, confirming the principle of “ministerial exception” that ensures religious groups have the right to choose their own leaders.
  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Both church and state are better off when the government isn’t meddling in the internal religious affairs of a religious ministry, including a religious school.

State Department calls killing of Christians in Iraq genocide

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today Secretary of State John Kerry officially determined that the massacre of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq constitutes genocide under international law. The move comes after many religious leaders called for Secretary Kerry to recognize the atrocities and after Becket submitted a legal analysis explaining that Daesh’s attacks on religious minorities constitute genocide under international law.

In Iraq, since the takeover of ISIS in 2013, the Christian population has dwindled from 1.5 million to less than 200,000. Daesh (also known as ISIS, ISIL and the Islamic State) has murdered, crucified, sawed in half, enslaved and systematically raped hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities in effort to establish a Sunni Caliphate. Prior to today’s declaration, many religious leaders and human rights advocates had called for Secretary Kerry to recognize the plight of religious minorities including Christians in this area.

“Often the first step in solving a problem is recognizing it for what it is,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel of Becket Fund. “Daesh has murdered and enslaved thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. Officially declaring these acts of mass evil to be genocide won’t immediately solve the problem, but they will put us on the road to stopping this evil.”

Becket submitted a legal memorandum to Secretary Kerry documenting the massacre of Christians and asking him to declare genocide.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more here).

Final score for Big Mountain Jesus: A 61-year-old war memorial to remain on Montana ski slope

February 23, 2016, The Washington Times

Championed by the Knights of Columbus, the 61-year-old statue honors soldiers – many from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division – who fought the Nazis in the Italian Alps. The Becket Fund defended the memorial in a five-year battle against The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based secular group that demanded the statue be removed, claiming that its mere presence violated the First Amendment.

Big Mountain  Jesus  prevails on Montana slopes

WASHINGTON, D.C.– A beloved World War II memorial, dubbed Big Mountain Jesus by locals, will remain standing on a popular Montana ski slope. The 60-year-old statue honors soldiers who fought against the Nazis in the Alps of Italy. Becket defended the memorial in a five-year battle against The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin-based militant atheist group, that demanded the statue’s removal, claiming that its mere presence violated the First Amendment. After a lower court protected the memorial, the deadline for asking the nation’s top court to remove it passed on Thursday with nary a peep from FFRF. The statue now stands as a reminder that government cannot rewrite history or censor culture to strip the religious elements (see video).

“FFRF should slink away with its tail between its legs,” says  Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket, and lead attorney in this case.“The First Amendment prohibits religious coercion, not religious culture. Picking a fight with a sixty-year-old war memorial makes FFRF look petty.”

Erected after World War II to honor soldiers who died fighting Hitler’s forces in the Alps of Italy, the statue is a replica of the many statues soldiers saw across Italy and stands on public land in the middle of a commercial ski resort, accessible only to individuals who pay to use the private lift. An August 2015 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, in this setting, no one could reasonably believe the six-foot statue of Jesus was a government effort to impose Christianity. Instead, as a “local landmark” and “important aspect of the mountain’s history” the statue enjoys a rightful place on the mountain.

When the Big Mountain resort hosted the U.S. Ski Championships in 1949, many of the top competitors were World War II veterans from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. They teamed up with the local Knights of Columbus to commission the statue in memory of their comrades who never came home. The Forest Service permitted the statue and for 60 years, the statute stood undisturbed until FFRF in Wisconsin decided that something was amiss in Montana. After six months trying to find a local resident who would complain, FFRF filed suit claiming the statue violated the First Amendment.

Of course militant atheists have rights, but not the right to dictate history and culture for everyone else,” says  Baxter. “Religion is part of the human condition. It’s no surprise—and certainly no violation of the Constitution—that it sometimes manifests in public life.”

Becket congratulates the Knights of Columbus for standing up against efforts to push religion out of public life.

For more information or to arrange an interview with an attorney contact Melinda Skea,director of communications, 202-349-7224,  media@becketlaw.org.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

Becket’s Hannah Smith to Receive 2016 Women-in-Law Leadership Award

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This Friday, Becket’s Senior Counsel Hannah Smith will receive the 2016 J. Reuben Clark Law Society Women-in-Law Leadership Award. The annual award recognizes Smith for her national leadership in defending religious liberty and advancing the contributions of Mormon women to the law. Smith will receive the award at the J. Reuben Clark Law Society’s annual conference, this year held at the University of San Diego.

A life-long member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith has championed religious freedom for two decades and on two continents – in courts, at universities, on national media, with government officials, and within her own faith community. Following two clerkships at the Supreme Court, first with Justice Clarence Thomas and then Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and law firm litigation practice, she was on the Becket legal team that won three landmark victories at the Court – Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and Holt v. Hobbs.

During her career, Smith has served the Law Society, an international association of Mormon lawyers, in different capacities on its international board. Starting in 2007, Smith was a founding member of the Women-in-Law Committee. Since 2010, she has been a founding member of the Religious Freedom Committee.

Smith is featured in videos produced by the LDS Church and the Law Society about religious freedom. She explained current concerns with the legal landscape in “Preserving Religious Freedom,” a video launched in 2013 as part the Mormon Newsroom’s resources on freedom of religion. Smith also appeared in the Law Society’s video “Religious Freedom – Making a Difference.” Smith has spoken at over a dozen Law Society conferences around the country in the last decade at Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, SMU, and Pepperdine, and in Washington DC, Dallas, Detroit, San Diego, San Francisco, and Orange County, California.

The Law Society’s mission statement embraces the influence of religious conviction on the practice of law: “We affirm the strength brought to the law by a lawyer’s personal religious conviction. We strive through public service and professional excellence to promote fairness and virtue founded upon the rule of law.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with an attorney contact Melinda Skea, director of communications, at 202-349-7224 or at media@becketlaw.org.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States  Supreme Court.  For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more here).

Media Advisory: Supreme Court to decide whether New Jersey police officer has right to pick-up campaign sign

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this Tuesday, January 19, 2016, in Heffernan v. City of Paterson, a case involving Jeffrey Heffernan, a New Jersey police officer. Officer Heffernan was demoted for picking up a political campaign sign for his bedridden mother. An assistant to Paterson’s mayor saw Officer Heffernan with the sign —which was for the mayor’s political opponent— leading to Officer Heffernan’s demotion.

The City freely admits it demoted Officer Paterson for picking up the sign. However it says that because City officials wrongly thought the sign was for Officer Heffernan rather than his mother, no First Amendment rights are involved. Surprisingly, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals accepted this ignorant defense, leading the Supreme Court to take up the case.

Becket filed a friend of the court brief supporting Heffernan, urging the Court to restore and uphold important First Amendment assembly and speech freedoms.

What:

Oral arguments in Heffernan v. City of Paterson, New Jersey

Who:

Adèle Keim and Stephanie Barclay
Counsel for Becket

When:

January 19, 2016, 11.15 a.m. EST (after oral argument concludes)

Where:

U.S. Supreme Court, 1 First St NE, Washington, DC 20543

Becket attorneys will be available for comment immediately following the argument.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.

Veteran’s hospital bans holiday cheer *facepalm*

WASHINGTON, DC Heroic veterans and their families are apparently too sensitive to hear the words “Merry Christmas,” at least according to the bureaucrats at a Veterans Administration hospital in Salem, Virginia. The government hospital banned Christmas greetings, “religious” carols, and Christmas trees from all public areas. For that, the hospital leaders earn this year’s Ebenezer Award — Becket’s lowest (dis)honor, awarded for the most ridiculous affront to the Christmas and Hanukah season. (The hospital beat out a number of other strong contenders.)

“Our veterans stare down the most hostile threats to freedom the world has ever known. But I’m pretty sure the words ‘Merry Christmas’ is not one of them,” said Kristina Arriaga, Executive Director of Becket. “Hospital leaders should have a Christmas cookie and lighten up; a little Christmas cheer never hurt anyone.”

After resistance from hospital employees, the management of the Veterans Administration Medical Center caved on the Christmas tree ban — saying that trees are allowed as long they are accompanied by a Menorah for Hanukkah and a Mkeka for Kwanzaa. Good for them. But hospital employees are still banned from wishing veterans a “Merry Christmas” or playing “religious” Christmas music—even in their own personal work space. Other VA hospitals in the past have reportedly banned wrapping paper that said “Merry Christmas,” rejected “Christmas” cards from local schoolchildren, and ordered carolers to sing only government-approved secular songs.

“I like ‘Jingle Bells’ as much as the next person, but the government can’t ban ‘religious’ Christmas carols any more than it can ban ugly sweaters or eggnog,” said Arriaga

On that note, we salute with an eggnog toast the employees of the VA Medical Center that resisted the Christmas tree ban. We wish them and our veterans around the country a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukah, and a Happy New Year! In the words of Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one!”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda  Skea  at  mskea@becketlaw.org  or 202.349.7224.  Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and  Zoroastrians.  Its  recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in  Holt v. Hobbs  and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

 

Top 7 Scroogiest Scrooges of the Holiday Season

Ebenezer Blog BannerWho deserves a lump of coal this holiday season? Each year Becket names the most absurd affronts to Christmas and Hanukkah, listing the most outrageous offenders of holiday cheer until we reach the top bah-humbugging, grinchiest transgressor. Not only do they deserve a lump of coal, they are crowned with the great (dis)honorable Ebenezer Award.

7. Portland Public School choirs gagged from singing in a venue deemed “too religious.”

Christmas and choirs go together like Han Solo and Chewbacca. But this year, the choirs from Jackson Middle School and Wilson and Lincoln High Schools in Portland, Oregon, had a change of plans. They’ve been banned from singing at the annual “Festival of Lights” concert, held at the Grotto Catholic shrine, because their oh-so-close neighbor, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, raised a stink. FFRF, A.K.A. Krampus, said the venue is too Catholic-y for their taste. No Grotto, no Christmas celebrations, and certainly no religion! The schools were instead forced to move to a “non-religious” venue—ironically named “The Old Church”—in downtown Portland. The title of this year’s program? “Let us Sing!” Troll level: Expert

6. Court bans Indiana high school from performing Nativity scene in school pageant.

A federal judge banned the 45-year-old tradition of having a nativity scene in Concord High School’s Christmas Spectacular after the ACLU and FFRF complained.

But it gets better.

Prior to the ruling, Concord High School added other symbols from both Hanukkah and Kwanza. But like the Grinch, who didn’t just suck the Christmas spirit from one house in Whoville, the judge said the Nativity scene received more time in the pageant than the other holidays so it had to go.

5. Soldiers Blocked from Helping Christmas Charity

Samaritan’s Purse is an international Christian ministry that helps impoverished children around the world. Every year their charity event, Operation Christmas Child, send toys, soap, socks, and school supplies in shoeboxes to disadvantages kids overseas. A military member at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware asked his fellow soldiers to help Samaritan Purse. Well, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation had some choice words for the charity’s request, calling it a “manifestly dangerous tool.” Yes, a charity program for needy children is a daaaangerous tool! Even better, it’s a “radioactive wrecking-ball of surpassing hazard” (Come again?)

The Airman retracted his request to help support Operation Christmas Child after mounting pressure by the MRFF. Grinch wrecking ball:

4. New Mexico town gets letter demanding the removal of historical nativity sculpture

A nativity scene in Belen, New Mexico has been a long standing fixture in the small town but the anti-religion group, Freedom from Religion Foundation, 1,300 miles away was offended by the display and demanded its removal.

Belen, by the way is Spanish for BETHLEHEM, the birthplace of Jesus. The FFRF is not only trying to remove Christmas from the holiday season, but ignore the deep religious heritage of the town. But take heart! A number of pastors in the area organized a Christmas event in the parking lot of City Hall where not only did they have a nativity scene but a few dozen barnyard animals, a camel and a zebra. We call that #winning.

The overarching message from the town of Belen to the grinchy FFRF:

3. School district tells veteran to leave out the word “Christmas” in “Christmas tree lighting”

A persnickety individual at the local school district in Marlborough, New Hampshire, told John Fletcher, the commander of the American Legion, to remove the word “Christmas” from flyers advertising the town’s annual Christmas tree lighting event.

However, while no mention of Christmas could be made, the school district said Fletcher and his wife could still dress up as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus to give out gifts to children attending the event. It looks and smells like a Christmas event, to us. A half-hearted eggnog toast for not taking gifts away from children.

2. University publishes its 10-point ban on Christmas

The Office of Scroogeness posted 10 “best practices” in scrubbing Christmas out of ugly sweater parties and the “Secret Santa” gift exchange across the University of Tennessee’s campus this Christmas season.

They warned, don’t try any speak easy-type parties either. Christmas parties in “disguise” are absolutely off-limits.

 

1. And the 2015 Ebenezer Award goes to…..

The Department of Veteran Affairs For banning employees at its Salem, Virginia facility from saying “Merry Christmas” to veterans

Senior staff at the Salem VA Medical Center could have had an eggnog toast. Instead they receive our lump of coal.

First they tried to ban Christmas trees from the facility, but, after employee resistance, they backed down. Instead, they have banned employees from wishing Veterans and visitors a “Merry Christmas” and singing Christmas carols in public spaces.

Three cheers for taking the Christmas spirit from those who have fought for our freedoms – including {cough} religious freedom.

The Medical Center’s employees’ private religious expression can only be given in a whisper in “personal work areas” and all music played must be “be non-religious.” Tran Siberian orchestra on repeat?

Employees have been threatened with penalties if they do not comply with the senior staff’s demands.

Home Alone gif

Supreme Court to consider a small town case with huge repercussions on the First Amendment rights of all Americans

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The High Court will hear the case of a New Jersey police officer who was demoted for picking up a mayoral campaign sign for his bedridden mother. The case, which involves a bizarre story of small town politics, will affect fundamental First Amendment rights such as freedom of assembly. Becket asked the Court to protect the officer’s rights.

“The First Amendment guarantees the right of all Americans to freely assemble with others without fear of retaliation—even in New Jersey,” said Stephanie Barclay, Counsel of Becket. “A lower court’s stingy reading of Officer Heffernan’s rights could have a serious impact on the rights of all Americans.”

Police Officer Jeffrey Heffernan went to nearby Paterson to pick up a campaign sign supporting the mayor’s challenger after his bedridden mother asked him to help her get a sign. While doing this, he was spotted by the incumbent mayor’s security detail, which reported Officer Heffernan was supporting the incumbent’s challenger. The very next day the Paterson Police Department demoted Mr. Heffernan from detective to patrol officer. Mr. Heffernan sued the city, the mayor, and the police chief of the city of Paterson for violating his rights to free speech and freedom of association.

“In a strange twist, a lower court ruled that because Officer Heffernan’s boss acted on a misperception, he was not really retaliating,” added Barclay. “The government shouldn’t be able to discriminate against you just because it misunderstands your speech, any more than it should be allowed to discriminate against you because it guesses your religion incorrectly.”

Becket’s friend of the court brief relies on scholarship from Washington University School of Law, Professor John Inazu, who argues that freedom of assembly should be given the protection both the text and the history of the constitution require, rather than the crabbed and warped reading of the First Amendment a lower court took in this case.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in  Holt v. Hobbs  and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

 

Christian student group finally allowed back on Cal State campus

WASHINGTON, D.C. – After over a year of being kept off campus for its Christian beliefs, the student group Chi Alpha has finally been reinstated at the California State University Stanislaus campus. Chi Alpha, a Christian organization for college students, was kicked off campus at Stanislaus and ordered to change its policies at three other California State campuses after the California State University system adopted a new policy banning students in religious clubs from requiring their leaders to share their faith. As of Thursday, all four Chi Alpha chapters are back on campus.

“For religious students, groups like Chi Alpha are a place of refuge. It’s just common sense – and basic liberty – for religious groups to be led by students who share their faith,” said Adèle Auxier Keim, Legal Counsel of Becket.

Chi Alpha was founded in 1953 as a place where college students could gather to worship God, study scripture, and pray together. Its members give back to the community through programs like feedONE, which provides food for over 140,000 hungry children worldwide.

Chi Alpha has been serving Cal State Stanislaus for almost 40 years. Chi Alpha’s students have always asked their leaders to believe and live what Chi Alpha teaches. But in August 2014, the Chancellor of the Cal State University system banned policies like Chi Alpha’s. Under California State’s new policy, fraternities and sororities can require their leaders to be men or women, the environmental club can require its leaders to believe in climate change, but religious groups can’t require their leaders to believe what they teach.

In September 2014, Cal State Stanislaus administrators derecognized the Chi Alpha chapter and locked Chi Alpha’s students out of the meeting space they had reserved for their fall kickoff meeting. In 2015, after months of negotiations, the Cal State Chancellor’s Office agreed that while religious student groups couldn’t require all leadership candidates to share their faith, students were free to select leaders whose lives and beliefs reflected their group’s message. As of last Thursday all four Chi Alpha chapters – at Cal State Stanislaus, Cal State Sacramento, San Diego State, and Cal State Fresno—are back on campus as recognized student groups. Chi Alpha still has fewer rights than fraternities and faces an unfair burden on its ministry, but its students can once again take their place as a recognized part of campus.

“Cal State has adopted a halfway solution that still gives fraternities more rights than campus religious groups. But they’ve acknowledged that students can vote for a candidate who shares their beliefs, and that’s a step in the right direction,” said Keim.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

 

Cuban poet who spent 22 years in Castro’s gulags for defending his beliefs receives Becket’s Canterbury Medal

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Armando Valladares, whose New York Times bestselling memoir of 22 years in Castro’s gulags has been translated to 18 languages, is the 2016 recipient of Becket’s highest honor, the Canterbury Medal (see video.)

Valladares, who has been hailed as “heroic” by Nobel laureate Holocaust survivor and fellow Medalist Elie Wiesel, was arrested and imprisoned at 23 years of age for refusing to put up a placard that said: “I am with Fidel.” He spent 22 years in prison for that simple act of dissent. Eight of those years he spent naked in solitary confinement in a windowless and mosquito-infested cell, where guards regularly doused him with buckets of human excrement.

He was tortured with relentless beatings and endured several hunger strikes, one of which left him wheelchair bound for years. Despite all this, he began to write poetry, which his wife smuggled out and published to critical acclaim. She led an international campaign for his release, and Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. He was released in 1982 thanks to the intercession of French President Francois Mitterrand.

Valladares, who devoted his life to the defense of human rights, going on to serve as a human rights ambassador to the United Nations, recently wrote: “America, perhaps more than any other nation in the world, understands and defends the sanctity of the human mind and the beliefs that flourish and guide it. We are still a beacon to the men and women that languish in their jail cells for holding steadfast to their beliefs and for refusing to violate them despite intimidation in places where tyrannical thugs or ISIS zealots reign with terror.”

The Canterbury Medal Dinner boasts the most distinguished religious leaders and advocates of religious liberty throughout the world. This year’s black-tie gala will be held on Thursday, May 12, 2016 at the Pierre Hotel on 2 East 61st Street at 5th Avenue, New York City hosted by this year’s gala chairs Anthony and Christie DeNicola.

Past Canterbury Medalists include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks,  Prison Fellowship founder – the late Charles Colson, LDS Elder Dallin H. Oaks, financier Foster Friess, Barbara Green of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Archbishop Charles Chaput and the former Ambassador to the Vatican, James R. Nicholson, among others. Medalists all share a common devotion to liberty and freedom of conscience for people of all faiths.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. 

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in  Holt v. Hobbs  and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

City Officials threaten to fine African American Church for singing Gospel Music too loudly

Washington, D.C. – After receiving bizarre reports that a 57-year old African American church was being threatened with fines of $500 per day for singing Gospel music too loudly, Becket filed a Public Records Act request to ensure that the city isn’t unfairly targeting the Church. The Becket Fund calls on the city to withdraw its threat and to proceed in a manner that respects the rights of the Church.

“Don’t the enforcement bureaucrats in Oakland have better things to do than to sic the police on a church choir?” stated Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel at Becket. “This church contributes to a community that is already suffering enough. This kind of government overreach is precisely why we need strong religious liberty protections for minority groups.”

For over six decades, the Gospel Choir at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church has been making a joyful noise. This week, the City of Oakland threatened the choir with thousands of dollars in fines for being too joyful during their worship services. Unless the choir goes silent, the city warned that it may start levying daily fines of $500.

Becket strongly condemns this kind of heavy-handed censorship, and is very concerned that this may be unfairly discriminatory. Some commentators have already raised concerns that this may be an example of punishing “singing while black.”  Given the typical noise of a city—from airplanes to trucks to motorcycles—it’s beyond strange to single out a church’s vibrant singing for silencing.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7226. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in  Holt v. Hobbs and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Religious Communities in College: A Home Away from Home

by Adèle Keim, Legal Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

This week was special for three different religious communities – Catholics welcoming Pope Francis to U.S. soil, Jews celebrating Yom Kippur, and Muslims observing Eid Al-Adha. For many, these events could only be fully experienced in community with others. Although far from home, religious college students share this longing.

Continue reading “Religious Communities in College: A Home Away from Home”

To tax and destroy.

by Adèle Keim, Legal Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

To tax and destroy. The Washington Post is running a fascinating series of essays on whether to roll back two centuries of history and impose state and federal taxes on religious organizations. This is not a new debate; in 1970 the ACLU and others challenged New York’s church property tax exemption and lost. The Supreme Court pointed out that “[f]ew concepts are more deeply embedded in the fabric of our national life, beginning with pre-Revolutionary colonial times, than for the government to exercise at the very least this kind of benevolent neutrality [i.e., tax exemptions] toward churches … .” Walz v. Tax Comm’n of City of New York, 397 US 664, 666-67 (1970). In the latest round of this debate, constitutional law professor Rick Garnett weighs in: Continue reading “To tax and destroy.”

Court Agrees with Becket— Protects World War II Memorial From Atheist Attack

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, a Court agreed with Becket that a historical World War II memorial affectionately called “Big Mountain Jesus” by locals can remain standing in the ski slopes near Kalispell, Montana. The 60-year-old statue, located in the Flathead National Forest, honors soldiers who fought against the Nazis in the Alps of Italy.  Lawyers at Becket defended the memorial against a Wisconsin-based militant atheist group demanding its removal and claiming that the mere presence of the statue violated the First Amendment.

“Today’s decision rejects the idea that history and the First Amendment ought to be enemies,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket. “Freedom From Religion Foundation wanted to use the First Amendment to erase Big Mountain Jesus from memory, even though it is, as the Court recognized, a crucial part of the history of Montana. Thank goodness for common sense.”

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the popular memorial can remain atop a Montana ski slope where it has stood without controversy for more than 60 years (see video). The monument, modeled after the statues soldiers encountered in the Alps during World War II, was erected in 1954 by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization that worked with veterans from the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division to commemorate their comrades who died fighting for our freedom.

“Does a statue standing alone in the forest establish an official state religion? Today the Ninth Circuit emphatically said no.” said Senior Counsel Eric Baxter. “The Court rightly rejected Freedom From Religion Foundation’s radical idea that a privately-owned memorial standing in the middle of a ski resort violates the Constitution.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in  Holt v. Hobbs  and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Remembering Whitney Ball, Defender of Liberty

Like all those who knew Whitney Ball, I was so sad to hear of her passing on August 17th; it was too soon and she was too young. Despite contracting cancer at a young age, Whitney lived her life looking forward.

In every encounter I had with Whitney I was astonished by her strength, lack of fear, sense of humor and her ardent optimism. Whitney’s driving force was her faith in God and she was fearless in her mission to defend our liberty. She always asked what she could do to help the cause of religious freedom.

Throughout her disease Whitney never complained or felt sorry for herself, even while enduring the most unpleasant effects of her treatments. Instead, Whitney is a role model to all of us on how to live and make the most of the time we’ve been given. She is also a role model on the work one person can do in defending our rights as individuals. Thank you Whitney for helping me, as you did so many others, advance the cause of liberty!

Julie Riggs
The Becket Fund for Religous Liberty

Future of World War II Memorial in Court’s Hands

Washington, D.C. – Moments ago, Becket defended “Big Mountain Jesus,” a World War II statue in Montana honoring soldiers who lost their lives fighting in the Alps of Italy.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will determine whether the popular memorial can remain atop a Montana ski slope where it has stood without controversy for more than 60 years (see video). The monument was installed in 1954 by the Knights of Columbus, who worked with veterans from the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division to commemorate their comrades who died fighting for our freedom.  The statue’s fate is now in question after an atheist group from Wisconsin sued the government for its removal.

“The statue is an important, cherished part of local history at Big Mountain,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel of Becket. “Intentionally modeled after the statues soldiers encountered in the Alps during World War II, the monument honors those who lost their lives far from home. You can’t censor history just because it includes religious meaning to some.”

Becket represents the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, and in 2013 won the case in the trial court. Local support for the monument is overwhelming, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation continues to insist from its perch in Wisconsin that the Montana statue must be removed, claiming it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the Forest Service.

“The statue stands in the middle of the ski resort and is just one of many examples of private speech permitted by the Forest Service on public land. The Forest Service is no more endorsing religion than it is endorsing the speech by the ski resort on the same public land.” said Senior Counsel Eric Baxter.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket Fund attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in  Holt v. Hobbs  and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Religious Groups Ask Supreme Court to Bring Olympian Jim Thorpe Home

Washington, D.C. – Today Becket led a coalition of Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Santero religious groups to the Supreme Court in a fight to honor the religious beliefs of Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe, members of his Native American Sac and Fox tribe, and his two remaining sons. Previously, a Pennsylvania court rejected their Native American beliefs, saying they were “absurd.”

“Since when does a court get to decide that someone’s religious beliefs are absurd?” said Stephanie Barclay, Counsel at Becket. “No American’s faith should be mocked by our courts. Jim Thorpe said he wanted to be buried with his family and his tribe, and that should have been the end of it. Especially given the government’s history of mistreating Native Americans, there should be particular care taken to protect their religious practices.”

Since Thorpe’s death in 1953, his sons have sought to honor their father’s wishes to be buried on traditional Sac and Fox tribal lands in Oklahoma. However, as a result of a family dispute at the time of his death, Thorpe’s body was auctioned off to the highest bidder—which was a small Pennsylvania town he’d never even visited. Now his only remaining children—themselves now elderly—want to bring him home to bury him near his parents and other family members in Oklahoma. The town’s refusal to return Thorpe’s remains is not only a clear violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), but it also tramples on the tribe’s religious beliefs that Thorpe’s spirit will not be able to complete its spiritual journey until the proper burial ceremony is completed.

“By ruling that NAGPRA’s protections for religious beliefs in the case were absurd, the Third Circuit opened the door for judges across the country to decide, like Goldilocks, what religious beliefs are ‘just right,’” added Barclay. “Judges have no business making those determinations in our diverse American society.”

After the Third Circuit federal appeals court in Pennsylvania said that their request was “absurd,” the Thorpe brothers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up their case. The Becket-led coalition filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court supporting the Thorpe brothers and the Sac and Fox Nation. The brief urges the Court to return the sports hero – dubbed the “greatest athlete in American history” – to Oklahoma in accordance with the tribe’s religious customs.

Members of the coalition include Becket, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the National Council of Churches, and the Queens Federation of Churches. The coalition is represented at the Supreme Court by Becket, along with attorneys Troy Eid and Harriet McConnell of prominent international law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, which has a nationally-renowned Indian Law practice.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Supreme Court Hands Big Win to Small Church

Washington, D.C. – Today the United States Supreme Court issued a decision that is a major victory for religious speech and for houses of worship across the country.

Moments ago, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling protecting the Good News Community Church and Pastor Clyde Reed from the town of Gilbert, Arizona’s unfair sign ordinance, which allowed large political sidewalk signs to be displayed for months but restricted houses of worship to tiny signs that could only be displayed for less than 14 hours. The Justices voted 9-0 to strike down Gilbert’s sign ordinance.

“Gilbert had taken a page from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, saying that all citizens were equal, but that politicians were ‘more equal’ than everyone else,”said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “The Supreme Court rightly decided that churches and other religious speakers should not be treated like second-class citizens.”

Small houses of worship such as Good News Community Church rely on signs to invite community members to their services because they often do not have a permanent meeting location and have limited means to share their message.

In Gilbert, the controversial sign regulations struck down today allowed large political signs to stand for months, but demanded that houses of worship, like Good News Community Church, use signs less than half that size and pull them down after only fourteen hours. Church or synagogue signs could be no larger than 6 square feet – about 81% smaller than political signs (32 sq. ft).

Alliance Defending Freedom represents Good News Community Church and Pastor Clyde Reed from this unfair ordinance. In September 2014, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case. Becket attorneys are available now to comment on the case and the Supreme Court’s decision.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in  Holt v. Hobbs  and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Navy Fights to Preserve Chaplaincy’s Religious Identity

Washington, D.C. – Moments ago, a Virginia district court heard arguments regarding the Navy’s decision not to admit secular atheists into its religious chaplaincy. The Humanist Society and its parent organization, the American Humanist Association (AHA), wage an aggressive anti-religion campaign arguing that religion is superstition and should be stripped from the public square. Yet now, in the matter of Heap v. Hagel, theHumanist Society is suing the Navy to be recognized as a religious organization so it can appoint AHA’s members as chaplains. Becket supports the Navy in preserving the right of service members to have chaplains who will respect their religious beliefs, not reject and ridicule them.

 “These organizations mock religious teens for having so-called ‘imaginary friends,’ have sued to tear down war memorials that have religious symbols, and have even teamed up with organizations that call chaplains ‘spiritual rapists,’” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “They can’t attack religion with one hand, and then claim to be able to provide sincere religious ministry with the other.”

The entire purpose of military chaplains is to provide religious ministry to service members who need it. Even before the founding of this country, General George Washington requested a chaplain corps that could minister to the religious needs of the troops. The courts have held that the chaplaincy is necessary to ensure service members’ First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion, since they are often ordered to leave their family and community to serve their country. Secular atheist organizations such as the Humanist Society that reject and mock religion cannot serve that purpose.

“Militant atheists have the right to serve in the military, just like all other patriotic Americans,” said Senior Counsel Eric Baxter, “but that doesn’t mean they’re qualified for every position. You wouldn’t ask a shipman to fly a jet, and you shouldn’t ask an anti-religion atheist to provide religious ministry.”

A court decision is expected on the matter in the next several months.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224. 

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

 

Becket Expresses Condolences in South Carolina Church Shooting

Last night, a coward walked into services at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest AME churches in the country, and murdered nine people gathered together to worship. The church’s pastor was among those killed.

“Our prayers are with the people whose lives were stolen, with their families, and with their church,” said Daniel Blomberg, Director of Becket’s South Carolina office. “Emanuel AME Church has stood strong for two centuries through the injustice of slavery and discrimination—so strong that their doors were still open to all last night. We honor the church for its resilience. And we stand with the church and its families, hoping and praying for their healing and restoration.”

“House of worship should be places of peace,” Mr. Blomberg continued. “This was a despicable attack on African-Americans. It was also an attack on every American who attends a house of worship, including me, my wife, and my children. As George Washington promised colonial-era Jews: in America, there should be none to make worshipers afraid. Becket condemns the murders and urges that the coward be brought to justice swiftly.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in  Holt v. Hobbs  and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Media Advisory: Court to Decide – Must Navy Recognize Atheists as Religious?

Washington, D.C. – Tomorrow, June 18, the U.S. Navy will fight in a Virginia federal court to protect the religious chaplaincy against atheist groups that mock and ridicule religion. For years, the Humanist Society and its parent organization, the American Humanist Association, have argued that religion is superstition, should be stripped from the public square, and join with groups who refer to chaplains as ‘spiritual rapists’. Yet now in Heap v. Hagel the organization is suing the Navy to be recognized as a religious organization. Why? To get itself appointed to the chaplaincy. The core purpose of military chaplains is to provide religious ministry to service members. Atheist groups, such as the Humanist Society, who reject religion cannot serve that purpose.There are many roles for atheists in the military but the chaplaincy is not one of them.

 What:
Oral Argument in Heap v. Hagel

 Who:
Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel for Becket*

 When:
June 18, 2015 at 10 a.m.

 Where:
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia
Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse
401 Courthouse Square Alexandria, VA 22314
Courtroom 1000

 *Becket attorneys will be available for comment immediately following the hearing, which will be argued by the Department of Justice.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs  and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Honoring Becket Friend and Religious Liberty Ally: Elder L. Tom Perry

Picture of Elder L. Tom Perry with a quote about religious freedom

“A good character is something you must make for yourself. It is the reward that comes from living good principles and manifesting a virtuous and honorable life.”

Today we remember a dear friend of the Becket Fund and a staunch defender of religious liberty, L. Tom Perry, a member of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bill Mumma, president of the Becket Fund recalls Elder Perry: “He really was a giant of man – full of good-natured zeal. He believed the fight for religious liberty was worthwhile and he insisted on action right away!”

At nearly 6-foot-five, Elder Perry’s commanding physical presence combined with his enthusiasm and optimistic style made him a powerful force for good. He spoke frequently about the importance of religion in society, the family and preserving religious freedom, emphasizing that the “essential freedoms of conscience, embedded in religious liberty, must be diligently preserved and protected.” He worked closely with leaders of other faith and religious institutions to promote the cause of religious freedom.

His support of faith started long before he was called as a member of the Twelve Apostles. Elder Perry often recounted the devastation of WWII in Nagasaki, Japan as one of the saddest experiences of his life. The loss of life and lack of food left many Japanese children to fend for themselves. He and his friends organized an orphanage with sisters from the Catholic Church and rebuilt local chapels during their off-duty time.

The cause for religious liberty lost a great advocate and he will be greatly missed by all who knew him. Elder Perry’s life is an example of how all of us should live: always willing to lend a listening ear, diligently seeking opportunities to serve and lift others, and ever optimistic in the face of adversity.

Remembering Dr. John Templeton

by Maria Montserrat Alvarado, Director of Operations of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 

There are few more uplifting moments in life than realizing, that in some small way, you have truly made a difference.” – Dr. John M. Templeton

Today we remember Dr. John M. Templeton Jr., former pediatric surgeon and president and chairman of the Templeton Foundation who dedicated much of his life to answering humanity’s “Big Questions” through the rigorous study of science, religion, and human understanding.

Continue reading “Remembering Dr. John Templeton”

Barbara Green Awarded Canterbury Medal For Her Defense of Religious Liberty

Washington, D.C. – Barbara Green received the highest honor awarded by Becket, the premier religious liberty law firm, at tonight’s 20th anniversary Canterbury Medal Dinner for her courageous defense of religious liberty during Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. (see video)

“I am humbled to be recognized on behalf of my family for our efforts,” said Barbara Green of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and recipient of the 2015 Canterbury Medal.We thank Becket for its hard work that brought our long, two-year journey to a joyous Supreme Court victory. We are also grateful for the many who stood with us and prayed for us. I believe there is no greater cause to defend than one’s religious freedom.” (see transcript here)

The Canterbury Medal recognizes courage in the defense of religious liberty and is given annually to a leading figure who champions a robust role for religion in society. This year Becket honors Barbara Green for her courage in standing up for her religious beliefs and her strength as the public face of the family throughout two years of litigation, which ultimately resulted in Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court victory securing the religious liberty of closely held American family businesses.

“Barbara Green is a true example of the power of one person, of one family, in the cause of religious liberty,” said Bill Mumma, president of Becket.” Advocates of religious freedom can take heart from what  the Green family has accomplished on our behalf.”

This year’s gala was a lively black-tie event at the Pierre Hotel in New York attended by more than 500 guests including religious leaders of all faiths, as well as a wide variety of public figures, members of the press, and supporters of religious liberty. Program highlights included an invocation by Yossi Prager, executive director for North America of the AVI CHAI Foundation, a blessing by Elder Von G. Keetch, First Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a tribute by New York Times bestselling author Eric Metaxas, and a benediction by Mother Loraine, Little Sisters of the Poor.

Past Canterbury Medalists include  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Nobel laureate  Elie  Wiesel, Prison Fellowship founder the late Charles Colson, financier Foster  Friess, Archbishop Charles  Chaput and the former Ambassador to the Vatican, James R. Nicholson, among others. Medalists share a common devotion to liberty and freedom of conscience for people of all faiths.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224. 

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in  Holt v. Hobbs  and  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Media Advisory: Barbara Green to Receive Becket’s Highest Award at Annual Canterbury Medal Dinner

Washington, D.C. – Becket is pleased to announce Barbara Green as the recipient of its 20th annual Canterbury Medal for her courageous defense of religious liberty. The Gala will be held in her honor, tomorrow May 7 at the Pierre in New York City. Prior to the event there will also be a special exhibit for all attendees featuring select pieces from the Museum of the Bible.

What:
The 20th Anniversary Canterbury Medal Dinner

Who:
Honoring the 2015 Canterbury Medalist, Barbara Green, Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
Program highlights include: Yossi Prager, Elder Von G. Keetch, Eric Metaxas,
and The Little Sisters of the Poor

When:
May 7, 2015
Reception at 6:00 p.m.
Dinner at 7:00 p.m.

Where:
The Pierre Hotel
2 East 61st Street at Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10065

The Canterbury Medal recognizes courage in the defense of religious liberty and is given annually to a leading figure who champions a robust role for religion in society. This year we honor Barbara Green for her courage in standing up for her religious beliefs and her strength as the public face of the family throughout two years of litigation, which ultimately resulted in Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court victory securing the religious liberty of closely held American family businesses.

To attend the event as a guest, tickets can be purchase online at www.becketfund.org/dinner2015. A free press area for media coverage will also be available. To arrange space, please RSVP to Melinda Skea.

Past Canterbury Medalists include Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Prison Fellowship founder the late Charles Colson, financier Foster Friess, Archbishop Charles Chaput and the former Ambassador to the Vatican, James R. Nicholson, among others. Medalists share a common devotion to liberty and freedom of conscience for people of all faiths.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224. 

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The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

High School Student Defeats Atheist Activists: Pledge of Allegiance can stay in N.J. Schools

Washington, D.C. – The atheist activist group American Humanist Association has thrown in the towel, deciding not to appeal New Jersey high school student Samantha Jonesvictory in state trial court protecting the Pledge of Allegiance. The decision to give up the case marks Becket‘s fifth victory in a row defending the words “one nation under God.”

“I’m so grateful to know that I will be able to continue reciting the Pledge in peace,” said Samantha Jones, a senior at Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, N.J. “Ever since I was little, I’ve recited the Pledge of Allegiance because it sums up the values that make our country great. The phrase ‘under God’ protects all Americans—including atheists—because it reminds the government that it can’t take away basic human rights because it didn’t create them.”

This is the second time in two years that a state court has stopped the American Humanist Association from outlawing the federal Pledge. Their first state-level suit, raising identical claims, was  unanimously rejected  by Massachusetts’ highest court last year, in a case also defended by Becket.

The Jones family intervened in the case to defend their children’s right to say the Pledge in 2014. They, along with the  Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization, are represented by  Becket. Historic defenders of the Pledge, the American Legion also intervened in the case. Becket attorney Diana Verm argued the case to Judge David F. Bauman in November 2014. Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at Becket, and James Paone of Freehold, New Jersey, acted as co-counsel.

“The American Humanist Association’s challenge turned out to be all bark and no bite,” said  Diana Verm, Legal Counsel at Becket. “This is why it is so crucial for brave citizens like Samantha to stand up for their rights in court—sometimes all it takes to stop a bully is for one person to stand up. The Court was right that the Pledge doesn’t exclude anyone, but dissenters have the right to sit it out. That’s how we’ve always dealt with disagreements in our society.”

This is the fifth time in a row that Becket has  successfully defended  the Pledge of Allegiance. Courts have explained that the Pledge is a voluntary patriotic exercise that teaches American history and civics, and that no schoolchild is required to recite the Pledge against his or her conscience.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Students Challenge Cal State: Let Us Back on Campus

Washington, D.C. – Today the Chi Alpha student group sent a letter to California State University administrators insisting that it allow Chi Alpha’s local student chapter back on the Cal State Stanislaus campus.

The student group was originally kicked off because of “religious discrimination” at the start of the 2014 academic year. Unlike other non-religious student groups such as the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance or Greek fraternities, the Cal State system now refuses to recognize any religious group that requires that its leaders share the group’s mission and beliefs.

Chi Alpha was founded in 1953 as a place where college students could gather to worship God, study scripture, pray, and give back to the community through programs like feedONE, which provides food for over 140,000 hungry children worldwide. The membership of Chi Alpha’s Stanislaus chapter is open to any student, however it asks that its leaders, who lead worship services and Bible Studies, affirm the group’s Christian beliefs. Yet because of this requirement, Cal State Stanislaus has pulled Chi Alpha chapter’s recognized status and expelled it from the official campus community and forcing it to cancel 15 previously-approved events.

“How can someone lead us if they don’t share our mission?” Bianca Travis, president of the Chi Alpha chapter at Cal State Stanislaus, Cal State cheerleader and a senior. “It’s impossible to genuinely lead a worship service or Bible study unless you believe what you’re teaching.”

In the letter it is sending today, Chi Alpha points out that it submitted a new constitution that met Cal State’s new standards in November 2014. The constitution also stated Chi Alpha’s belief that the University’s policies are unconstitutional. But Cal State administrators insisted Chi Alpha remove this protest clause. When Chi Alpha appealed to the university president, Cal State changed its mind and agreed to allow the protest clause. Yet Cal State is still keeping Chi Alpha off campus.

“Chi Alpha did everything Cal State asked four months ago. But Cal State officials keep moving the goal posts,” said Adèle Keim, Legal Counsel of Becket, who is representing Chi Alpha. “Cal State Stanislaus allows fraternities to limit their leaders and members to men. So why can’t a religious group require its student religious leaders to practice what they preach? We call on Cal State to reinstate the Chi Alpha chapter immediately.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Chi Alpha v. Cal State

For 40 years, a group of Christian students have been gathering at Cal State Stanislaus in California’s Central Valley. They call themselves Chi Alpha (Greek letters standing for “Christ’s Ambassadors”) and they were long a recognized part of student life. All that changed this fall when the university yanked their charter and locked them out of their meeting space.

Chi Alpha’s sin? Asking their student religious leaders—who lead worship and Bible study—to share Christian beliefs. Cal State accused Chi Alpha of “religious discrimination” and told the students that, after 40 years, their Christian group was not welcome on campus.

Chi Alpha exists to help college students live out their faith in worship, prayer, and service.

The Chi Alpha group at Cal State Stanislaus is a chapter of Chi Alpha National, the student arm of the Assemblies of God, one of the ten largest churches in the U.S. Chi Alpha was founded in 1953 as a place where college students could learn about Christianity and live out their faith together.

Today, more than 28,000 students gather in Chi Alpha groups across the country. They gather to worship God, study the Bible, pray, and to give back through programs like feedONE, which provides food for over 140,000 hungry children worldwide. Their Christian faith is what unites them and motivates them to serve. And while Chi Alpha membership is open to any student, Chi Alpha asks that the students that lead its worship services and teach its Bible studies actually believe its Christian message.

Cal State’s selective “all-comers” policy

Believe what you teach – most places, that’s called integrity. But not at Cal State.

California State University (Cal State) is the largest public university system in the nation. Chi Alpha has been a recognized part of the Cal State community for over 40 years. That changed this fall, when Cal State Stanislaus told Chi Alpha students that they were guilty of “religious discrimination” for asking that their student religious leaders be Christian.

Within twenty-four hours of being branded as “discriminators,” Chi Alpha’s students found themselves locked out of their reserved meeting space and shut out of the other parts of campus life open to all other student groups.

Today at Cal State, the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance can (and should be allowed to) require its leaders to be feminists. The Young Democrats can (and should be allowed to) require their president to be a Democrat. And frats can require their leaders to be men. But neither Chi Alpha—nor any other religious group—can require its leaders to believe in the message the group exists to teach.

If a religious student group stands its ground, Cal State will brand it a “religious discriminator,” pull its charter, and shut it out of the campus community of recognized student groups. Because these consequences are so severe, many of the students leading these groups feel they have no option but to give in.

Chi Alpha fights back

On March 17, 2015, Chi Alpha wrote a letter to Cal State insisting that the Chi Alpha group at Cal State Stanislaus be reinstated immediately. Religious students shouldn’t be branded “discriminators” and have their groups excluded from the campus community for asking their leaders to have integrity.

After over a year of having various chapters kept off campus, Chi Alpha was finally reinstated at all campuses within the California State University system on November 19, 2015. The decision affirmed Chi Alpha’s right to choose leaders who lived by their standards and their Christian faith.

 

UCLA debate over bias of believers

by Adèle Keim, Legal Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Chi Alpha students from Cal State Stanislaus in a group photo
In a similar case targeting religious student groups, Chi Alpha was kicked off its Cal State campus for asking its leaders to share its beliefs.

“Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” That sentence, uttered last month by a UCLA undergraduate evaluating a Jewish student-government candidate, has ignited a firestorm. The New York Times reports that the Jewish student was asked to leave the room while the rest of the group spent 40 minutes discussing whether her participation in on-campus Jewish student groups meant she would be biased as a member of student government. In response, UCLA’s chancellor said it was “intellectually and morally unacceptable” to “assume that every member of a group can’t be impartial or is motivated by hatred.” He was, of course, correct: It is straightforward discrimination to assume that because someone is religious, they will be biased. My law firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, exists to combat discrimination like this.
Continue reading “UCLA debate over bias of believers”

Becket Attorney to Speak on Religious Freedom Laws at Congressional Hearing

Washington, D.C. – On Friday, February 13, an attorney of Becket will be testifying at a congressional hearing on two federal laws enacted to protect religious freedom.  Senior Counsel Lori Windham will be a witness at the House Judiciary Committee’s Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee hearing on the “Oversight of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).”  The hearing will focus on the history and importance of these two laws, emphasizing the bi-partisan effort to pass them.

Who:
Senior Counsel Lori Windham, Becket
Senior Counsel Gregory S. Baylor, Alliance Defending Freedom
Professor of Law Nelson Tebbe, Brooklyn Law School
Special Counsel Craig Parshall, American Center for Law and Justice

What:
The Judiciary Committee’s Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee hearing on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)

When:
February 13, 2015 at 9:30 a.m.

Where:
2141 Rayburn House Office Building
45 Independence Ave. SW
Washington, D.C. 20515

For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

 

VICTORY: High School Senior Wins Case To Keep “Under God” in Pledge

Washington D.C. – Samantha Jones, a high school student in New Jersey, successfully protected the right of all her fellow students to continue reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in its entirety. After hearing Samantha and her family’s case for the words ‘one nation under God,’ a state judge has decided to dismiss the American Humanist Association’s latest effort to take “under God” out of the Pledge.

“I’m so grateful the court decided that kids like me shouldn’t be silenced just because some people object to timeless American values,” said Samantha Jones a senior at Highland Regional High School. “Ever since I was little, I’ve recited the Pledge of Allegiance because it sums up the values that make our country great. The phrase ‘under God’ protects all Americans—including atheists—because it reminds the government that it can’t take away basic human rights because it didn’t create them.”

This is the second time a state court has stopped the American Humanist Association from outlawing the federal Pledge. Their first state-level suit, raising identical claims, was  unanimously rejected  by Massachusetts’ highest court last year.

When the Jones family found out about the lawsuit against the Pledge, they intervened to defend their children’s rights. They are represented by  Becket.  Historic defenders  of the Pledge like  the  Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization,  and  the American Legion  also intervened in the case.

“The message today is loud and clear: “God” is not a dirty word,” said  Eric  Rassbach,  Deputy General Counsel for Becket. “The Pledge of Allegiance isn’t a prayer, and reciting it doesn’t magically create an official state religion. The Pledge—in the tradition of Washington’s Farewell Address or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—is not a prayer to God, but a statement about who we are as a nation. Dissenters have every right to sit out the Pledge, but they can’t silence everyone else.”

This is the fifth time Becket has  successfully defended  the Pledge of Allegiance. Courts have pointed out that the Pledge is a voluntary patriotic exercise that teaches American history and civics, and that no schoolchild is required to recite the Pledge against his or her conscience. Becket attorney Diana Verm argued the case to Judge Bauman, and James Paone of Freehold, New Jersey, acted as co-counsel.

 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Supreme Court hears religious speech case

Washington, D.C.The U.S. Supreme Court’s first oral argument of 2015 was the First Amendment case regarding an Arizona town’s arbitrary discrimination against religious speech.

In Gilbert, Arizona, controversial sign regulations allow large political, ideological, and other signs to stand for months, but demand that pastors, like Clyde Reed of Good News Community Church, stick to signs less than half that size and pull them down after fourteen hours. Small houses of worship such as Good News Community Church rely on signs to invite people in the community to their service, since they have often do not have a permanent location and have limited means to share their message. Now they face fines and possible jail time for practicing their freedom of speech.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians would give their signs special privileges,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel of Becket. “But that doesn’t make it right: What churches say should not be treated as second-class speech.”

Under the town’s ordinance, signs placed by houses of worship must be 60% smaller than ideological signs (20 sq. ft.) and about 81% smaller than political signs (32 sq. ft). Church or synagogue signs can be displayed for only fourteen hours, while political signs can stand for months, and ideological signs indefinitely.

“The Court should not let Gilbert away with the excuse that it was ‘just chance’ that it treated churches much worse than political or commercial advertisers,” said Rassbach. “Gilbert’s rules don’t treat people equally, and that violates the First Amendment.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is representing Good News Community Church and Pastor Clyde Reed from this unfair ordinance. On September 2014,  Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief  in this case. Becket attorneys are available now to comment on the case and the oral argument.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has  defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Media Advisory: Supreme Court to hear religious speech case on January 12th

Washington, D.C.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s first oral argument of 2015 will be the First Amendment case regarding an Arizona town’s arbitrary discrimination toward religious speech. The town of Gilbert imposes strict regulations on the size and duration of church sidewalk signs, yet not on political, ideological, or other noncommercial signs. Small houses of worship rely on signs to invite people in the community to their services, but face fines and possible jail time for practicing their freedom of speech. Alliance Defending Freedom is representing Good News Community Church and Pastor Clyde Reed from this unfair ordinance. On September 2014, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case and will be available for comment immediately after the hearing.

Who:
Alliance Defending Freedom, Representing Good New Community at the US Supreme Court Becket, filed friend-of-the-court brief, and will be available for comment outside the court and following the hearing

What:             
Oral Argument in Reed v. Town of Gilbert

When: 
Monday, January 12, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

Where:
Supreme Court of the United States
1 First Street Northeast
Washington, DC 20543

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Becket to POTUS: U.S.-Cuba Negotiations Must Protect People of Faith

The following statement can be attributed to Kristina Arriaga, Executive Director at Becket.

Many received with great hope the news that a ‘new chapter’ in US-Cuba relations is beginning.

Becket hopes that the upcoming negotiations include robust protections for religious people who have suffered tremendous oppression, incarceration, torture and a 30-year ban on religious holidays—including Christmas—which was only lifted before Pope John Paul II’s visit.

If there is one Dickens-like story that truly needs a redemptive ending it is the story of the Castro brothers and their chokehold on free expression.

 

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or call 202.349.7224.

And the 2014 Ebenezer Award & Eggnog toast goes to….

And the 2014 Ebenezer Award & Eggnog toast goes to….

The city and the mayor of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, respectively, for having an Ebenezer-like change of heart

UPDATE: O’Reilly cheers on City’s Ebenezer-like change of heart (watch video here) and Mayor Mike Huethner issues statement

Washington, D.C.For more than 15 years, Becket has awarded the Ebenezer award, its lowest honor, to the government official that makes the most egregious affront to the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays. We have also followed up with an eggnog toast to government officials who got it right (see 2014’s top contenders here).

This year, inspired by the good cheer and common sense of the Mayor Mike Huether of Sioux Falls, we are bestowing the city of Sioux Falls the (momentary) Ebenezer award but promptly toasting the mayor.

Sioux Falls was our #1 contender for the Ebenezer award after it notified a private school that the city snowplow blades its young students had labored over and decorated would be repainted and censored. Why? Because the students had decided to celebrate the season with—gasp!—artwork celebrating the religious nature of Christmas.

The city, which had previously accepted religious art, momentarily lost its way when one lone atheist claiming to be part of the Siouxland Freethinkers filed an informal complaint.

According to multiple press reports, city officials offered the Christian school kids a simple choice: repaint the plows, or city staff will come repaint them for you.

Take a look at the offending messages here:

But, much like Ebenezer Scrooge, the City of Sioux Falls was visited by the ghost of Supreme Court decisions past and present. According to the local paper, the mayor then boldly stepped forward proclaiming: “We are not going to be painting over those plows; those plow blades […] Unless, I guess, I get some Supreme Court case (that) says that I have to.”

It is the first time we have awarded the Ebenezer and a toast at the same time—but we hope it won’t be the last. In the future, we hope that we can continue to celebrate the season by toasting the victory of both religious expression and common sense.

In the words of Charles Dickens himself, like the Ebenezer, the mayor of Sioux Falls “became as good a friend…as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

So, three cheers for Sioux Falls! Oh, and while it’s still legal, join us in wishing the fine people of Sioux Falls, South Dakota a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukah, and a Happy New Year!

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including: Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

 

Abercrombie claims that job applicants must explain their religious beliefs before the law can protect them

Washington, D.C. – In the closely watched Supreme Court case, EEOC v. Abercrombie, Becket filed a brief debunking Abercrombie’s claim that a Muslim job applicant should have explained during her job interview she was wearing a headscarf for religious reasons in order to be protected by antidiscrimination laws.

“Abercrombie’s claim is both an absurd and dangerous precedent for all people of faith seeking employment,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket. “Justice may be blind, but that doesn’t mean employers can cover their eyes.  A job applicant does not have to bring a ‘Look at me – I am religious’ sign to an interview just to keep her civil rights.”

The case deals with the employment application of Samantha Elauf, a Muslim girl who was 17 years old when she applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch. She knew the company dress code prohibited hats but had previously hired a Jewish employee who wore a yarmulke, so she never imagined that her headscarf might be an issue. The store manager who interviewed Samantha scored her high enough to be hired, but when the district manager learned about Samantha’s headscarf, he told the store manager to lower her score so it would appear she was unqualified for the job.  Abercrombie is claiming that Samantha was not protected by Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination because she never explicitly stated that her headscarf was worn for religious reasons.

“The law may not assume that people are irreligious unless proven otherwise, and it should not assume that the workplace is a religion-free zone,” added Baxter.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Samantha and prevailed on her behalf in the district court in July 2011, but then lost on appeal in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals on October 2013. In October of this year, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Samantha’s case.

Becket  is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including: Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or call 202.349.7224.

High School Senior Stands Up for “Under God” in Pledge

Washington, D.C. –  Samantha Jones, a high school student in New Jersey, is standing up for her right to recite Pledge of Allegiance in full. Samantha and her family asked a state judge Wednesday to dismiss the American Humanist Association’s latest attempt to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge.

“I’ve been reciting the Pledge since preschool, and to me the phrase ‘one nation under God’ sums up the history and values that have made our country great,” said Samantha Jones, a senior at Highland Regional High School. “I think it’s empowering to know that, no matter what happens, I have some rights the government can never take away. No student should be silenced just because some people disagree with timeless American values.”

This is the second time the atheist group, the American Humanist Association (AHA), has asked a state court to declare the federal Pledge illegal. Their first state-level suit, raising identical claims, was unanimously rejected by Massachusetts’ highest court earlier this year.

When the Jones family found out about the lawsuit against the Pledge, they intervened to defend their children’s rights. They are represented by Becket. Historic defenders of the Pledge like the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization, and the American Legion also intervened in the case.

“The American Humanist Association may be allergic to the word “God” but that doesn’t mean everyone else has to sneeze,” said Eric RassbachDeputy General Counsel for Becket. “The Pledge of Allegiance summarizes our nation’s political philosophy; it’s not a prayer or a religious creed and it doesn’t magically create an official state religion. We’re confident that New Jersey’s courts will stand against this blatant attempt to censor American values.”

Becket has successfully defended the Pledge of Allegiance at the federal and state level, over and over again. Courts have pointed out that the Pledge is a voluntary patriotic exercise that teaches American history and civics, and that no schoolchild is required to recite the Pledge.

Acting as local counsel on the case is James A. Paone of Lomurro, Davison, Eastman & Muñoz in Freehold, New Jersey.

Becket  is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”  

Samantha Jones and Becket attorneys will be available for comment immediately following the hearing at Monmouth County Superior Court, 71 Monument Park, Freehold, NJ 07728. For more information or to arrange an interview with an attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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VICTORY: Court Rejects Atheist Attack on 60-Year-Old Housing Allowance for Ministers

Washington, D.C.  Today a federal court of appeals rejected an atheist group’s lawsuit seeking to strike down a 60-year-old tax provision protecting ministers. The ruling allows ministers of all faiths to continue receiving housing allowances on the same terms as thousands of secular employees.

“This is a great victory for fair treatment of churches,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of Becket. “When a group of atheists tries to cajole the IRS into raising taxes on churches, it’s bound to raise some eyebrows. The court was right to send them packing.”

For centuries, houses of worship have provided homes—called “parsonages”—for their ministers to ensure ministers can serve their congregation. These parsonages have been tax-free ever since Congress enacted the federal income tax in 1913. In 1954, Congress extended this tax exemption to cash housing allowances, much like it exempts cash housing allowances for thousands of nonreligious employees whose housing is controlled by their employer. This “parsonage allowance” serves three purposes: It ensures that ministers are treated the same as similar nonreligious employees; it reduces tax discrimination among ministers from wealthy and poor denominations; and it keeps the government from making intrusive judgments about how ministers use their homes. Without the allowance, many minority or poor faith groups would have difficulty providing for their ministers.

In 2011, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued to end this tradition of religious accommodation. The Foundation did not seek a housing allowance for itself; instead, it sought to strike down the allowances for ministers across the country. Today, the Seventh Circuit rejected the lawsuit, concluding that the Foundation lacked “standing”—or a legal right to sue—because the Foundation was not seeking an allowance for itself. As the Court explained: “[A]bsent any personal denial of a benefit, the plaintiffs’ claim amounts to nothing more than a generalized grievance about [the parsonage allowance’s] unconstitutionality, which does not support standing.”

“For 60 years, the parsonage allowance has kept the Taxman from mucking around in complex religious questions,” said Goodrich. “Nobody wants the IRS taxing churches at the whim of atheists with no skin in the game.”

Becket filed an amicus brief on behalf of a diverse group of Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, Muslim, and Protestant religious organizations that would be harmed without the parsonage allowance. The brief explains how the parsonage allowance is just one of many tax-free housing benefits in the tax code, so it merely places ministers on the same footing as a wide variety of secular employees. In fact, the parsonage allowance makes up only a tiny percentage of housing allowances throughout the tax code.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including: Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea, at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

 

Message to Sixth Circuit: Keep IRS Away from Church Pension Plans

Washington, DC – Can class action lawyers squeeze millions of dollars out of non-profit hospitals trying to live out their faith and serve the poor? Not if we can help it. That’s why Becket and counsel from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP, urged the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday to reject novel attacks on an almost 300-year-old tradition of keeping government officials—including the IRS—out of church pension plans.

“It takes a particularly Scroogelike view of the law to think that millions of dollars meant to help the sick and the poor ought to line the pockets of class action lawyers instead,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for Becket. “Federal pension law is meant to protect the weak, not enrich the strong.”

For almost three centuries, churches and their agencies—like Ascension Health, the Catholic hospital system that has been sued in this appeal—have been free to provide employee retirement benefits without government interference. In past years, Congress strengthened that tradition by exempting church pension plans from certain federal pension laws; that exemption, which shields churches from the burdens of costly federal pension requirements designed for for-profit businesses, are now under attack.

If the lawyers seeking to upend church-plan exemptions succeed, non-profit Catholic, Lutheran, and United Church of Christ hospitals will have to pay out millions to lawyers that would otherwise go to treat the sick, the dying, and the poor. Worse still, those same attorneys have launched a carefully coordinated nation-wide campaign to convince courts of the absurd position that the Constitution’s ban on government-run churches requires the government to decide whether religious hospitals treating the sick and poor are really engaged in religious activity.

“Religious organizations founded the first hospitals in this country and religious organizations also started the first pension plans for workers, more than a century before business did,” said Rassbach. “Lawyers looking to cash in should not be allowed to penalize religious hospitals that are trying to live out their faith.”

Becket was represented pro bono on the amicus brief by Helgi Walker, Robert Dunn, and Rebekah Ricketts of prominent global law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP. Walker stated, “We were happy to help by making the case that church pension plans have operated free from government interference for centuries, and that legislative protections for those plans do not offend the Constitution.”

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

 

Media Advisory: Hearing in New Jersey Pledge Challenge, November 19

Washington, D.C. — On November 19, 2014, a state court in New Jersey will consider dismissing the American Humanist Association’s attempt to stop New Jersey school children like Samantha Jones from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in full. This is the second time the atheist group has sued at the state level to cut the words “under God” out of the Pledge. Their first suit, raising identical claims, was unanimously rejected by Massachusetts’ highest court earlier this year.

Who:      
Samantha Jones, student defending the Pledge, and
Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at Becket will both be available for comment immediately after the hearing.

What:      
Hearing in American Humanist Association v. Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District                       

When:
9am (EST), November 19, 2014

Where:
Monmouth County Superior Court, 71 Monument Park, Freehold, NJ 07728

Samantha Jones and Becket attorneys will be available for comment immediately following the hearing. For more information or to arrange an interview with an attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

New Mexico Court: Students can’t be barred because of faith

Washington, D.C.Students can’t be barred from receiving generally-available educational benefits just because their schools are religiously affiliated, according to a ruling issued Tuesday by the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

In a blow to anti-religious Blaine Amendments found in many State constitutions, Becket for Religious Liberty prevailed in defending a textbook lending program in New Mexico that is open to students in both public and private schools. The statue was challenged on the ground that it violates New Mexico’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits using state funds to support “sectarian, denominational, or private schools.” Blaine Amendments like New Mexico’s, which are found in many state constitutions, had their origins in anti-Catholicism and today are frequently used to discriminate against persons and institutions of faith.

“Today’s ruling allows state legislatures to focus on educating children, regardless of where they go to school,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket, which along with New Mexico firm Modrall Sperling represented students and the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools in defending the law. “Religious freedom is protected, not threatened, when individuals of faith can participate in state programs on equal footing with everyone else.”

The Court’s ruling noted that the program was designed “to educate all children regardless of where they attend school” and that the textbooks were non-religious and used in a secular manner. Because the “legislature’s purpose” did “not focus on support of parochial or private schools,” the Court found that the Blaine Amendment did not prohibit any “indirect or incidental benefit” they did receive under the lending program.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it hasdefended clients of all faiths,including: Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in  Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea, media@becketlaw.org, 202.349.7224.

God’s Rottweilers

Politico Magazine October 5, 2014

“The Becket Fund is an extraordinarily ecumenical organization,” says Michael McConnell, a prominent religious liberty legal scholar at Stanford Law School. “It’s happenstance, of course, that a case is coming right on the heels of Hobby Lobby that will remind everyone that religious freedom is important and not—in most contexts—a culture war issue. But that’s been the Becket Fund’s position all along.”

Read the full article here.

What’s in Wisconsin’s water?

By Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

The Debbie Downers of Madison are at it again – the Freedom From Religion Foundation (“FFRF,” pronounced “furf”) has sent a nasty letter to a high school band in Ohio. What sin is FFRF complaining about this time? Members of the Licking Valley High School Marching Band are wearing t-shirts that have the word “Salvation” printed on them. Continue reading “What’s in Wisconsin’s water?”

Becket Fund Applauds Lift on Headscarf Ban

By Asma Uddin, Legal Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Last week, Turkey lifted its ban on the Muslim headscarf for girls in middle and high school. While girls in primary school are still not permitted to wear headscarves, they have the choice to do so starting in fifth grade (this is also usually the time when many girls reach puberty and the religious dress code requirements become applicable). Continue reading “Becket Fund Applauds Lift on Headscarf Ban”

High school student in New Jersey defends Pledge of Allegiance from atheist group’s attack

Washington, D.C. – Samantha Jones, a high school student in New Jersey, is going to court to defend her right to say the Pledge of Allegiance, including the words “one nation under God.”  Samantha and her family filed a response to a lawsuit from an atheist association which seeks to prevent public school students from reciting the Pledge in its entirety.

“When I stand up, put my hand over my heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance, I am recognizing that my rights come from God, not from the government,” said Samantha Jones, a senior at Highland Regional High School. “If anyone wants to remain silent, that is their right. But it is not their right to silence me.”

This is the second time the atheist group, the American Humanist Association (AHA), has sued at the state level. Their first suit, raising identical claims, was unanimously rejected by Massachusetts’ highest court earlier this year.

When the Jones family found out about the lawsuit against the Pledge, they sought to intervene to defend their children’s rights. A New Jersey state court recently allowed them to join the case. They are represented by Becket. Also allowed to intervene in the case are the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization and one of the Pledge’s historic defenders, along with the American Legion.

“The Pledge is not a religious creed or a prayer. It is a statement of our nation’s political philosophy that rights come not from the state but from something higher—as our Declaration of Independence puts it, ‘Nature’s God.’” said Kristina Arriaga, Executive Director of Becket. “We are confident that the court will uphold the right to say the Pledge in its entirety.”

Becket has successfully defended the Pledge of Allegiance at the federal and state level. Courts have pointed out that the Pledge is a voluntary patriotic exercise that teaches American history and civics, and that no schoolchild is required to recite the Pledge.

Acting as local counsel on the case is James A. Paone of Lomurro, Davison, Eastman & Muñoz in Freehold, New Jersey.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org  or call 202.349.7224.

Becket Fund Congratulates Rabbi Saperstein on Nomination

Today President Obama announced his intent to nominate Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein to the position of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, a position within the U.S. State Department.The Becket Fund congratulates Rabbi Saperstein on his pending nomination. In his role as Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Saperstein has frequently supported religious liberty in general and clients of the Becket Fund in particular, both through amicus briefs and public statements. For example, Rabbi Saperstein and the Religious Action Center supported the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, a Becket Fund client in Tennessee, in its struggle to build a new mosque in the face of opposition from neighbors. At the time Rabbi Saperstein explained, “An attack on one religion is an attack on all religions.”

Continue reading “Becket Fund Congratulates Rabbi Saperstein on Nomination”

Defending Ramadan and Religious Freedom

By Asma Uddin, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

http://www.becketfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/512px-Marsh_Arab_girl-e1404764710806.jpgIt’s almost midnight, and my day has just started. While I was immersed in my daily work throughout the day, I moved among my tasks without breaking to eat or drink—for all 17 hours of my Washington, DC July fast. Now that the sun has set and my kids have gone to bed, I can turn to reflecting and meditating: the stuff Ramadan is all about. Ramadan, especially Ramadan at night, is about putting your worldly concerns behind as you turn inward, and toward God. The experience is deepened by the day’s fast, which gives you an intimate look inside the daily suffering of people all over the world whose hunger is never satiated.

This Ramadan, there’s an added layer of spiritual sorrow. News broke last week that Muslim teachers, students, and civil servants in the northwestern Xinjiang province of China have been forbidden from fasting or taking part in any religious activity during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Continue reading “Defending Ramadan and Religious Freedom”

How the Becket Fund became the leading advocate for religious freedom for all

A Response to the American Prospect

By Luke W. Goodrich

On June 18, the American Prospect published an article about the Becket Fund and its role in the Hobby Lobby litigation. Much of the article is fair and balanced. But one of its core claims—that the Becket Fund has been drifting from its founding principles—misses the mark and misunderstands religious liberty.

First, the fair and balanced part. The article does a fine job of describing the Becket Fund’s founding principles. As the article notes, the Becket Fund’s founder, Seamus Hasson, “insisted that [the Becket Fund] would be different.” It was never designed “to restore a version of Christian hegemony.” Rather, it was based on “the notion that ‘religious expression is natural to human culture,’” that religious liberty is a “natural right,” and that therefore religious freedom belongs to everyone—including those with whom we disagree.

The article rightly notes that, from the beginning, “Becket’s ecumenical commitments set it apart.” The firm was “beholden to neither party”; it freely “offered its services to aggrieved believers of all stripes”; and it “took cases that gratified and vexed advocates on both sides of the political aisle.” As examples, the article cites Becket’s defense of a Catholic organization that sought to display a crèche on city property, and its defense of Muslim police officers who sought the right to grow a beard. It could have cited many more.

But then comes the questionable claim. Citing cases involving the HHS mandate and gay rights, the article suggests that there has been “a shift in the fund’s strategy.” According to unnamed “critics,” the Becket Fund “has become ideological” and is “tacking right.” It is drifting away from nonpartisan defense of religious liberty for all, and is instead becoming conservative.

This is an interesting claim, and it is worth examining the evidence offered in support of it. The first piece of evidence is a quote from Douglas Laycock, a distinguished scholar of religious freedom who has frequently partnered with the Becket Fund. According to the article’s characterization, he “has noticed a troubling change.” He is quoted as saying, “They’ve bought into some of that culture-war, anti-Obama rhetoric from the right. . . . The legal work is still very good. The political statements are much more heavy-handed.”

I asked Professor Laycock about this quote, because we’re currently working together on a prominent Supreme Court case about the religious freedom of Muslim prisoners. He said: “The quote is accurate. The way it is used is not. It was about the press releases; it was not about the legal advocacy. I was quite clear that Becket remains unusual in its commitment to free exercise for all.”

The second piece of evidence is an assertion about the “balance” of the Becket Fund’s cases, which the article says is “shifting.” It cites cases on behalf of Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and Belmont Abbey College challenging the HHS mandate; a case on behalf of a pharmacist who declines to sell emergency contraception; and a case on behalf of a Mennonite couple who declines to host same-sex weddings in their church-turned-art-gallery. It also cites a seven-year-old law review article and a nine-year-old conference in which Becket attorneys predicted (correctly) that the legalization of same-sex marriage would produce additional religious freedom litigation.

But this is hardly a complete picture of the Becket Fund’s cases. As the article concedes, “Even in the midst of its contraception-mandate litigation, the Becket Fund has maintained its old commitments.” It gives two examples: a suit in Florida seeking a kosher diet for Jewish prison inmates, and a suit in Tennessee protecting a Muslim mosque—both of which were supported by the ACLU and the Obama Administration. But even these are only a small fraction of the story.

Notably, the Becket Fund currently represents a Muslim prison inmate in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that he has a right to grow a half-inch beard, contrary to rules imposed by the State of Arkansas. This is the biggest religious freedom case scheduled for the Supreme Court’s next term, but the author ignores it. That is likely because the case doesn’t fit the article’s narrative—especially since both the ACLU and the Obama Administration are also supporting the Becket Fund’s client.

The article also omits many other Becket Fund actions, including current cases, that don’t fit its narrative. A few examples include:

  • A suit on behalf of Native Americans challenging the destruction of sacred lands under the George W. Bush Administration;
  • A suit on behalf of a Sikh woman challenging a ban on the wearing of her kirpan in a federal building under the George W. Bush Administration.
  • A suit on behalf of a Brazilian religious group challenging the enforcement of federal drug laws under the George W. Bush Administration;
  • A suit on behalf of Montana Hutterites challenging a law enacted by a Republican legislature;
  • Suits in Texas, Indiana, and Georgia on behalf of a Jewish prison inmates challenging the denial of a kosher diet by Republican administrations;
  • A suit on behalf of Native American prison inmates in Alabama challenging hair-length restrictions imposed by a Republican administration;
  • A suit on behalf of a Santeria priest challenging a ban on animal sacrifice in a heavily Republican Texas county;
  • A suit on behalf of a Muslim prison inmate in Louisiana challenging restrictions on religious literature imposed by a Republican administration.

Of course, these cases may not attract the attention of reporters eager to write about the “culture wars.” But they remain a major part of the Becket Fund’s work—as they always have been.

So what’s really going on here? The article reflects two important mistakes.

First, it adopts a cramped view of religious liberty, dividing the world into two types of cases. The first are the true religious liberty cases, which involve “protecting religious minorities from discrimination.” In the author’s view, that was the purpose of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and it is exemplified by cases like Muslim police officers challenging a ban on beards, or Jewish prison inmates challenging the denial of a kosher diet.

All other cases are labeled “conservative causes that ha[ve] little to do with religious minorities’ rights.” These cases “almost always [involve] Christians,” who claim the right to live in accordance with “traditional sexual values”—usually in the areas of abortion, contraception, or gay rights. According to the article, these cases are “ideological.”

But this simply reflects the author’s own narrow-minded disdain for opposing views. The same criticism is often made by conservatives who disdain Becket’s defense of Muslims. Both accusations are essentially the same: “The Becket Fund is [controversial/ideological/conservative/liberal] because it defends [groups I disagree with].”

At its core, however, religious liberty is, as Becket’s founder put it, “The Right to Be Wrong.” It is the right to live according to religious truth as you understand it, even when other segments of society think you’re wrong. That applies to Christians, even when some liberals might think they’re an oppressive majority. And it applies to Muslims, even when some conservatives might think they’re conspiring to “impose sharia law.” Supporting religious freedom only when it aligns with your own personal beliefs—whether they’re “liberal” beliefs in favor of contraception and gay rights, or “conservative” beliefs in favor of “Christian hegemony”—is no support for religious freedom at all. The Becket Fund has always defended every faith’s “right to be wrong,” and it always will.

The article’s other important mistake is to misunderstand the unprecedented sweep of the HHS mandate. Never in the Nation’s history has the federal government imposed a rule on the entire country that conflicts with the religious practices of hundreds of religious organizations. That rule has now prompted 100 lawsuits on behalf of over 300 religious groups, representing tens of thousands of religious believers.

The fact that the Becket Fund is involved in a fraction of those cases—less than ten percent—hardly marks “a shift in the fund’s strategy.” It simply marks the fact that the Becket Fund is always involved in the important religious freedom issues of the day—whether they are high-profile “culture war” issues that reporters pay attention to, or low-profile conflicts between stubborn bureaucrats and religious minorities.

We would like nothing more than for the controversy over the HHS mandate to vanish, just as we would like nothing more than for stubborn bureaucrats (in Republican and Democratic administrations alike) to stop trampling on the rights of religious minorities. Until that day comes, the Becket Fund will keep defending “the right to be wrong” for all faiths—no matter which segment of society dislikes them.

Luke Goodrich is Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, where his clients in cases right now include Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, Protestants, and Sikhs.

Canterbury Medalist Rabbi Sacks’ Stirring Defense of Freedom

http://www.becketfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/RabbiSacks.jpg-e1400701699336.jpgBy Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

“In America, the tree of liberty has religious roots. Don’t believe you can sever those roots and have the tree of liberty survive.”

Those words came from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, this year’s Canterbury Medalist. Sitting in the room Thursday night, I watched Catholics, Sikhs, Mormons, Jews and Evangelicals stand together to applaud Rabbi Sacks, who gave an impassioned defense of religious freedom. The entire speech is here, and it is well worth your time. Continue reading “Canterbury Medalist Rabbi Sacks’ Stirring Defense of Freedom”

US atheists’ group sues over inclusion of ‘Ground Zero Cross’ in new 9/11 museum

The Telegraph – May 9, 2014

“It was the towering charred steel beam shaped like a Christian cross that became a symbol of solace and hope after it was found jutting out of the smouldering debirs of the World Trade Centre. But the so-called Ground Zero Cross is now at the centre of a church-state row as a leading US atheists’ group sues over its inclusion as centrepiece in the new National Sept 11 Memorial and Museum.”

Election Ends Threat from Québec “Charter of Values”

By Adèle Keim, Legal Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Valeurs_depliant_version_longue-7.jpgIn November we reported on the Québec “Charter of Values”, a proposal by the government of Québec to ban state employees–from doctors to daycare workers–from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols. The Charter of Values, which was criticized across Canada and around the world, would have required Jewish employees to remove their kippahs, Sikhs to remove their turbans, and Muslims to remove their headscarves.

Continue reading “Election Ends Threat from Québec “Charter of Values””

2013 Canterbury Medal recipient Elder Dallin H. Oaks delivers “message of hope” for religious freedom

Elder Dallin Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and recipient of the 2013 Canterbury Medal, delivered the keynote address at Utah Valley University’s Constitutional Symposium on Religious Freedom two days ago. Offering mutual understanding, accommodation, and goodwill among neighbors of all faiths as the solution to conflict, Elder Oaks conveyed an encouraging optimism for the future of religious freedom. He also gave a welcome shout out to the Becket Fund.

Continue reading “2013 Canterbury Medal recipient Elder Dallin H. Oaks delivers “message of hope” for religious freedom”

American Humanist Association v. Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District

On March 31, 2014, the American Humanist Association (AHA), a group of hypersecularist atheists, partnered with New Jersey atheists to rip the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. The complaint marks their second state level assault on the Pledge. The first suit—a Massachusetts based challenge that raised identical claims—was unanimously rejected by Massachusetts’ highest court.

Becket vindicated the Pledge in Massachusetts, and is committed to doing the same in New Jersey. On July 28th, 2014, Becket intervened on behalf of three New Jersey public school students, their parents Frank and Michele Jones, and a fraternal organization called the Knights of Columbus.

Each argument offered by the atheists has been overwhelmingly rejected in every state and federal challenge leveled against the Pledge to date. At root, the AHA’s suit is based on one critically flawed assumption: that the phrase “under God” is a theologically charged religious statement.

For over a decade, Becket has demonstrated the fallacious nature of that assumption. The phrase “under God” encapsulates America’s unique political philosophy that grounds human dignity and fundamental rights in an authority higher than the State. Consequently, historic appeals to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farwell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are not primarily religious. By adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 (reaffirmed in 2002), Congress sought to contrast the mutually exclusive conceptions of human rights envisioned by the United States and the U.S.S.R.

Courts have recognized that the Pledge is constitutionally permissible because it uses the phrase “under God” as a statement of political philosophy, not theology. So far, Becket has successfully defended the Pledge of Allegiance in the First Circuit, the Ninth Circuit, the Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court, and the United States Supreme Court.

Removing the words “under God” would prevent the Pledge from reminding children that citizens have inalienable rights; rights that the State cannot trample because “a power greater than the government gives the people their inalienable rights.” That guiding principle protects the rights of every American. Now is hardly the time weaken the philosophy that has guided this Republic since its Founding.

On February 6, 2015, Samantha Jones, a high school student in New Jersey, successfully protected the right of all her fellow students to continue reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in its entirety. A great victory for religious freedom. On April 13, 2015, the American Humanist Association decided not to appeal Samantha’s victory, marking Becket’s fifth victory in a row defending the words “one nation under God.”

Watch footage of Samantha Jones’ statement following the hearing on November 19, 2014:

Dalai Lama leads prayer in Senate – What about Town of Greece?

By Becket Staff

In an historic first, the Dalai Lama gave the opening prayer in the U.S. Senate today. Prayers like these have been taking place in our nation’s legislatures for over 200 years. They showcase our nation’s religious diversity, highlight the fact that religion is a fundamental aspect of human culture, and reinforce the founding idea that our rights come from the Creator—not the legislature.

Continue reading “Dalai Lama leads prayer in Senate – What about Town of Greece?”

Church attacked for ministering to the homeless

By Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

In a shocking attack before this past Sunday’s worship services, Harbor Community Church in Ventura, California had a rock thrown through its church sign and a banner stating “Thou Shalt Not Steal Our Neighborhood” stuck to the sign. Police are investigating.

The church has come under attack from neighbors for running a ministry to the homeless called “Operation Embrace” that provides food, showers, clothing, employee assistance, and religious worship to the needy. The church is seeking a renewed permit to operate its ministry, and is represented in that effort by the Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic headed up by Jim Sonne.

Continue reading “Church attacked for ministering to the homeless”

“A good read on religious law in American courts”

By Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty This week Prof. Eugene Volokh of UCLA Law School is serializing his recently published article in the Oklahoma Law Review regarding the use and application of religious law – especially Islamic law – in American courts.  Prof. Volokh points out as the Becket Fund did a few years ago that American courts have long enforced religious contracts or the judgments of religious tribunals, as long as they are treated on the same basis as other “foreign” contracts or tribunals. Prof. Volokh does a great job of explaining why “creeping sharia” is a wrong-headed way to view this longstanding American practice – the series is well worth a read for anyone interested in this issue.

Remembering our First Freedom

By Adèle Auxier Keim, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Today is Religious Freedom Day – observed each year on the anniversary of the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. After a misstep last year, this year President Obama issued a proclamation calling religious freedom a “critical foundation of our Nation’s liberty,” and quoting Thomas Jefferson, who “declared religious liberty a natural right and any attempt to subvert it ‘a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either.’”

Continue reading “Remembering our First Freedom”

Religion, Work, and Ducks

490px-Duck_(3665835190)By Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

One of the many interesting things about the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby case now pending at the Supreme Court is the government’s position that once a group of people organized as a corporation decides to seek a profit, it is impossible for them to engage in religious activity. In the government’s view, once you earn a dollar, you can’t be religious anymore. Religion and work are like oil and water — they can’t mix. Continue reading “Religion, Work, and Ducks”

Québec Charter of Values: Not Neutral

By Adèle Keim, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

The furor over Québec’s proposed “Charter oValeurs_depliant_version_longue-7.jpgf Values” continues to grow: it has been criticised by the Québec Human Rights Commission and linked to a rise in attacks on women wearing the hijab, while on the other side, some Québécoise women have taken to the streets to defend it.

The most controversial aspect of the proposed Charter is the ban on state employees–from doctors to daycare workers–wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols. The Québec government has published a poster to explain what this means: small pendants, rings, and earrings are ok, but turbans, headscarves, kippas, and large crosses are not.

Continue reading “Québec Charter of Values: Not Neutral”

Does the Constitution Require Least-Common-Denominator Prayer?

By Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Today’s oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in Town of Greece v. Galloway revealed a stark choice between allowing government to include diverse religious views and forcing government to exclude all but one governmentally approved religious view. At issue was the centuries-old practice of legislative bodies opening their meetings with prayer. The Founders’ understanding of that practice was the subject of the Becket Fund’s amicus brief, which the Town’s counsel cited at today’s argument. Even though the Supreme Court gave its constitutional blessing to legislative prayer decades ago, advocacy groups have tried to chip away at it by intimidating small municipalities into prayer-less silence. In 2008, though, the Town of Greece called the groups’ bluff, and has vigorously litigated against them ever since.

Continue reading “Does the Constitution Require Least-Common-Denominator Prayer?”

Coming up at the Supreme Court…

By Kyle Duncan, General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

This is an important week in the Supreme Court for religious freedom. This Wednesday, the Justices will hear argument in Town of Greece v. Galloway. The case asks whether a municipal board unconstitutionally “establishes” an official religion merely by allowing volunteer chaplains from a variety of religious faiths to pray before the opening of board meetings. The Court has not considered this issue since its 1982 decision in Marsh v. Chambers, which upheld our nation’s two-centuries-old tradition of such invocatory prayers before federal and state governmental bodies. Town of Greece gives the Court an opportunity to reaffirm Marsh and explain in greater depth why invocations like these violate no one’s rights and bear no resemblance to the religious “establishments” outlawed by the First Amendment. Lyle Denniston at Scotusblog provides an excellent preview of the case here. The Becket Fund’s amicus brief contains a wealth of original historical research supporting the constitutionality of the prayers.

Continue reading “Coming up at the Supreme Court…”

Why the Constitution Demands Government-Paid Priests, Imams, Pastors, and Rabbis

By Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

How can the U.S. Constitution, with its rejection of state-supported religion, permit the existence of military chaplains? After all, chaplains are government-paid employees from specific faith groups who are hired to preach and teach their religious beliefs on the job. At first blush, that seems to be a governmental establishment of religion, which would violate the Establishment Clause. Continue reading “Why the Constitution Demands Government-Paid Priests, Imams, Pastors, and Rabbis”

What do a Baptist and a Mormon have in common?

By Diana Verm, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

On Monday, October 21st, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, addressed the faculty of another school, Brigham Young University, an institution run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This occasion was a sign of a growing relationship between religious groups that have historically been—and remain—at odds theologically. In his speech, Dr. Mohler addressed the moral ground common to Evangelical Christianity and Mormonism in the context of growing societal affirmation of secularism. He pointed out that society has evolved from the Modern Age, where it was “possible not to believe,” to a “Late Modern Age” in which it is, for many, “impossible to believe.”

But what does this have to do with religious liberty? With the growth in popularity of intellectual secularism that is often hostile to belief, Dr. Mohler pointed out that one thing that draws Mormons and Baptists together is religious liberty. Dr. Mohler said: “I do not believe that we are going to heaven together, but I do believe we may go to jail together.” It is because of this common threat that he called on different groups to work together to promote religious liberty. Continue reading “What do a Baptist and a Mormon have in common?”

Christmas Wars, Round 43: More Reason to Fix Our Broken Church-State Jurisprudence

Flickr_-_USCapitol_-_Capitol_Christmas_Tree_2011By Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

This week marks the start of the Supreme Court’s 2013 term. It also marks the return of the Christmas wars, that special time of year when we repeat our nation’s annual argument over the meaning of the First Amendment’s ban on “establishment of religion.”

The Christmas wars got an early start this year. They were kicked off by a news report that a school district in Wisconsin was cancelling Christmas and Hanukkah concerts and requiring that any religious song be paired with four secular songs. That report has created a public firestorm, and provoked a lengthy clarification from the school district. It all began when local bureaucrats, fearful of doing anything that might invite the ire of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, declared that holiday concerts could only occur if religious songs were offset by a number of secular songs—say, a four-to-one ratio. The rules were so onerous that the high school’s Master Singers choir canceled their Christmas concerts entirely. Continue reading “Christmas Wars, Round 43: More Reason to Fix Our Broken Church-State Jurisprudence”

Private: A Shutdown of Military Religious Liberty?

The recent budgetary conflict on Capitol Hill has grabbed headlines nationwide, and many people are feeling the harm of the federal government’s shutdown. While the facts are still fluid, some reports indicate that the shutdown is starting to affect the ability of our men and women in uniform to exercise their faith. The Archdiocese for the Military Services released a statement that the shutdown could force priests who are serving as government contractors (as opposed to those who are serving on active duty) to stay at home. Even priests that are willing to volunteer to provide religious support are apparently being told that they can’t. According to the Archdiocese, this means that some Masses have been cancelled for this Sunday. By contrast, military bases are still finding ways to keep base movie theaters running on schedule.

The reason these reports are troubling goes to the core of why our country has military chaplains in the first place: to provide for the free exercise rights of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Because service members face unique burdens on their religious exercise—such as being sent into armed conflict or moved to remote countries far from their faith communities—a restriction on chaplains is a restriction on the ability of service members to exercise their faith.

Thus, it is crucial that the government make provision for service members’ religious needs. To protect these fundamental human rights, the military chaplaincy was established even before our Nation’s founding. Chaplains go wherever service members go. They serve on military bases in the U.S. and around the world. They serve during peace at home, and during war on the front lines. They nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. Among Army chaplains alone, nearly 300 have lost their lives in service to God and country.

Our Nation’s effort to accommodate service members’ religious needs has been remarkably successful and “follows the best of our traditions.” Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 314 (1952) (praising the State’s efforts to accommodate the “spiritual needs” of citizens). The Becket Fund has defended this fine tradition in the past, and stands ready to do so today.

If the recent reports are accurate, and if the Department of Defense is treating movie theaters as essential, but chaplains as superfluous, that is a problem. It suggests that certain sectors of the military may be devaluing service members’ constitutionally protected religious needs. Service members are risking their lives to protect our freedoms. The least we can do is protect theirs.

Je me souviens

By Adèle Auxier Keim, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Hôtel-Dieu_de_Québec
Founded by three Augustine nuns, L’Hôtel-Dieu was the first hospital in North America.

In 1639, Québec’s famous Hôtel-Dieu hospital was founded by three Augustine nuns who came from France to provide medical care for the colonists and the First Nations communities who lived near them. L’Hôtel-Dieu, which still operates as a teaching hospital, was not only the first hospital in Canada, it was the first in North America.

Continue reading “Je me souviens”

Crossing the West-Muslim Divide with Religious Freedom

By Asma Uddin, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

My work on religious freedom, especially international religious freedom, provides much fodder for academic and op-ed pieces alike. One thing that has bothered me for some time—and which I write about often—is the seeming impasses in communication across the West-Muslim world divide when it comes to religious freedom and free speech issues. Continue reading “Crossing the West-Muslim Divide with Religious Freedom”

Yoga is an Exercise of Physique – Not Religion

By: Diana Verm, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Remember when we said that the government promoting yoga as a physical exercise doesn’t set up an official religion in violation of the Establishment Clause? It turns out that we were right, at least according to one California judge. Judge John S. Meyer of the Superior Court of California in San Diego considered a challenge to a yoga-based physical education program in one public school district last month. He held that the yoga program does NOT violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Continue reading “Yoga is an Exercise of Physique – Not Religion”

Protecting Religious Diversity, Even at the Mall

By Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

It is hard to name a more commercial environment than a shopping mall. Hundreds of stores deliberately grouped together to offer their goods and services. Hundreds of employees getting paid money to sell them. Thousands of customers paying money to buy them. The federal government has lately been arguing that religious freedom is incompatible with making money, at least in the HHS Mandate context. On that view, one would expect a shopping mall to be a black hole for religious liberty. That is why it is such a pleasant surprise to see the Obama Administration’s EEOC fighting for the right to religious accommodations—even in a shopping mall, and even in a job that is all about getting paid to buy and sell products that have nothing to do with religion. Continue reading “Protecting Religious Diversity, Even at the Mall”

Exhibit A showing why blasphemy laws are such a bad idea

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.

 

Big Mountain Jesus: A Monumental Case

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, Continue reading “Big Mountain Jesus: A Monumental Case”

Echoes of 1940: New Mexico Supreme Court turns back the clock on free expression

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.” Continue reading “Echoes of 1940: New Mexico Supreme Court turns back the clock on free expression”

New York Times notices religious liberty for Orthodox Jews

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. Continue reading “New York Times notices religious liberty for Orthodox Jews”

Law, Not Theology

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. Continue reading “Law, Not Theology”

Supreme Court urged to uphold prayer at town council meetings

Washington, DC – On Friday, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the United States Supreme Court urging the Court to reverse a lower court decision that forbade the Town of Greece, New York, from starting council meetings with prayers led by a volunteer member of the public. Volunteers hail from many different religious traditions, including Christian, Jewish, Bahá’í, and Wiccan. Becket’s brief asks the Supreme Court both to uphold the ubiquitous practice of legislative prayer and to repair Establishment Clause law by bringing it back to its origins in the Bill of Rights. According to the brief, the Founders did not see legislative prayer as a forbidden “establishment of religion” because it did not share the features of an established state church such as the Church of England.

“The Founders knew what it meant to have a government church and legislative prayer doesn’t come close,” says Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel with Becket. “The Founders had been colonists in an empire with an established church and most of the colonies also had established churches. Legislative prayer just wasn’t part of what it meant to have an official government church.”

The brief states that the Founders understood an establishment of religion to consist of four key elements:  (1) government financial support of the church, (2) government control of the doctrine and personnel of the church, (3) government coercion of religious beliefs and practices, and (4) government assignment of important civil functions to the church – all linked by an underlying concern about state coercion to participate in religious activity. The brief argues that because legislative-prayer does not fall within any of these categories, it is not an establishment of religion.

The brief also explains how the Founders “viewed legislative prayer as a natural outflow of their political philosophy of limited government and inalienable, God-given rights.” By hearing prayer before a government meeting, elected officials are reminded of the limits of their powers, as well as the source of the inalienable rights which belong to the public they are elected to serve.

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, which will be heard and decided in October, the Court will address the constitutionality of legislative prayers for the first time in decades. In recent years appellate courts have split over the correct interpretation of the Establishment Clause. Town of Greece could be an opportunity for the Supreme Court to clarify interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause for the lower courts.

“This case is a good opportunity for the Supreme Court to put Establishment Clause law onto a firmer foundation by rooting the law in the Clause’s history rather than the amateur psychoanalysis too often indulged in by the lower courts,” said Rassbach.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. In 2011, Becket won a 9-0 Supreme Court victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Religious Freedom and Human Dignity

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. Continue reading “Religious Freedom and Human Dignity”

Religious Freedom and U.S. Foreign Policy

By Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel

Can Islam embrace religious freedom? If so, should the United States be working for religious freedom in Muslim-majority countries?

Yes, says Georgetown University professor Tom Farr, in an interesting series of posts on National Review Online.

First, Professor Farr argues that “there is a practical concept of religious freedom . . . that can be adapted by Muslim societies” — a concept that is “similar to what the American Founders meant by religious freedom.”

Second, he argues that fostering religious freedom in Muslim-majority countries is in the United States’ interest, because doing so can “help struggling democracies such as Egypt and Pakistan attain a measure of stability that will undermine the kinds of extremist Islamist ideas that fuel terrorism.”

Third, he argues that the Department of State is failing “miserably” at doing so.

Read the whole thing.

Indiana should not criminalize religious same-sex wedding ceremonies — even by accident

Religious liberty protects the freedom of religious groups to conduct religious wedding ceremonies without government penalty, and that includes same-sex wedding ceremonies.

wedding_cakeby: Eric Rassbach

There was a recent blogstorm about what was by some billed as a new legislative attempt to criminalize religious–but not civil–gay marriage in Indiana. It turned out that the purported change in law was related to a recodification of Indiana’s criminal laws rather than an intentional targeting of same-sex wedding ceremonies. And it is possible to interpret the law as only relating to civil marriage, not religious ceremonies.

But there is still a serious religious liberty problem. The Indiana law in question says that “A person who knowingly solemnizes a marriage of individuals who are prohibited from marrying by [Indiana’s law prohibiting same-sex marriage] commits a Class B misdemeanor.” The plain text of this law appears to criminally prohibit a member of the clergy from conducting a religious same-sex wedding ceremony. That’s because “solemnizes” is not defined in the Indiana statutes, and one of the word’s main dictionary meanings is conducting religious ceremonies. Indeed, many Christian denominations have long used the term “solemnization” to describe their wedding ceremonies. The law may well have borrowed the term from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, which sets forth the liturgy for “Solemnization of Matrimony“.

That interpretation is backed up by the Indiana Supreme Court’s discussion of “solemnization” in the 2008 case of McPeek v. McCardle, in which the Indiana Supreme Court refers to the “solemnization” under Indiana’s marriage laws as the ceremony itself—in that case, a religious ceremony conducted by a minister.

That’s why any friend of religious liberty should be concerned about the Indiana law. Religious liberty protects the freedom of religious groups to conduct religious wedding ceremonies without government penalty, and that includes same-sex wedding ceremonies. It would be flatly unconstitutional for a prosecutor relying on the plain language of the Indiana law to seek a conviction of a minister for conducting a religious same-sex wedding ceremony.

More than that, just having the law on the books in its present form is a problem. Plainly unconstitutional laws that remain technically in force can still have a chilling effect on First Amendment activities. That is a particular danger here, since several different denominations conduct religious same-sex wedding ceremonies, including the United Church of Christ and some Conservative Jewish synagogues. The best way to solve this problem is to change the law—which the Indiana legislature should do by making clear that no one can be criminally punished for solemnizing a religious same-sex wedding.

Thus even though the Indiana law may be a case of criminalization by accident, proponents of same-sex marriage are still right to be concerned about the religious liberty of those who want to participate in same-sex weddings. One hopes that going forward they will also show the same solicitude for the religious liberty of those who cannot in good conscience participate in those same weddings. As many legal scholars from both sides of the debate have pointed out, adopting same-sex marriage without strong protections for religious dissenters will lead to a host of foreseeable conflicts, such as government penalties and private discrimination lawsuits. Ministers and churches should not be punished for solemnizing same-sex marriages, but neither should other ministers and other churches be punished for disagreeing with those same-sex marriages.

The reality is, both sides in the debate over the nature of marriage should support strong religious liberty protections, and they should make a point of supporting those protections for the people they disagree with. A good start would be by amending Indiana’s law.

Eric Rassbach is Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

UPDATE: The word “purported” was added to this post to clarify that the specific provision criminalizing solemnization of same-sex marriages (Indiana Code 31-11-11-7) has not changed since 1997; the misdirected blogstorm referred to in the first paragraph concerned both what many wrongly thought were changes to both the solemnization provision and the fraud provisions concerning the submission of marriage license applications. As is explained in more detail here, only the latter provisions were actually amended as part of the recodification, and those amendments lowered the relevant criminal penalties.

*Photo credit: Thinkstock

Religious Liberty and the “Correct World View”

By Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel

As a recent case working its way through federal courts is bringing to light, Germany has decided it can suppress “the development of religious[ ]” groups by forcing their “integration” into state-controlled institutions. And Germany has chosen a chilling route to enforced cultural conformity—conscripting children. Relying on a law with Nazi-era roots, Germany enforces a public-school mandate for all children and punishes religious minorities that homeschool to avoid their kids being force-fed official orthodoxy. While the original Nazi vision of “training German youth in the spirit of national socialism” has been updated to something more benign-sounding, the goal of state-defined homogeneity remains exactly the same. As does the means: forcing parents to send their children in for state indoctrination, on pain of crippling fines or—in the ultimate threat to parents—loss of child custody.

That Germany is re-enacting a bad scene from its past is not good news. But, one might hope, at least some German religious minorities might escape to a better life in the United States, land of the First Amendment and religious liberty. After all, at the same time that Hitler was enforcing his public-school mandate, the U.S. Supreme Court was upholding the right of “children to exercise their religion, and of parents to give them religious training and to encourage them in the practice of religious belief, as against preponderant sentiment and assertion of state power voicing it.” Prince v. Massachusetts (1944). And that’s what the homeschooling Romeike family thought when they escaped to the U.S. from Germany and sought asylum in 2008, and what the immigration judge thought when he granted said asylum. But in 2010, the Department of Homeland Security disagreed, appealed the Romeike’s case, and convinced immigration officials that Germany’s “prosecution” of religious homeschoolers wasn’t “persecution” of religious homeschoolers. (This is, of course, the same DOJ that argued to the U.S. Supreme Court that churches are the same as bowling clubs when it comes to the First Amendment. Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC (2012).)

As a part of its argument, DOJ actually defended Germany’s thought-policing of its citizens’ children as a “generally applicable” law that the U.S. should respect in the same way that it respects prosecution of tax-dodgers. But the overwhelming majority of individuals who are burdened by the law are religious minorities. Thus, setting aside the offensiveness of the comparison between tax fraud and religious liberty, even if Germany’s law is generally applicable, it is so only in the way that a generally applicable “tax on wearing yarmulkes” is really just a “tax on Jews.” Bray v. Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic (1993).

Germany gave the game away when it admitted that its prohibition on homeschoolers was to limit the “religiously motivated” elements of society that didn’t want to dance to the state’s tune. In fact, the German high court made this discrimination against religious believers explicit when it defended Germany’s decision to allow job-based homeschooling: “[T]he differences between those who are ‘school refusers’ for religious reasons, and children who are exempt from compulsory school attendance because their parents, due to their occupation, do not have a firm residence, are of such a nature and such a weight that they justify unequal treatment.” In other words, if your job makes you homeschool your kids, that’s okay, but if your God makes you homeschool, the government will take your kids, fine you out of existence, and throw you in jail. Yet the Department of Justice is defending that as an appropriate “prosecution” that the state may use to entrench the “correct world view” in its citizens.

A three-judge panel of a federal court of appeals agreed with the DOJ, finding that Germany’s policy was neutral toward religion, applied generally to all German citizens, and thus was not a basis for asylum. While immigration law is notoriously tricky, and while the court clearly indicated that it wasn’t sanctioning Germany’s treatment of homeschoolers, that ruling seems incorrect for two reasons.

First, the federal court’s crucial “neutrality” conclusion simply does not grapple with the German high court ruling; it doesn’t even mention it. Again, Germany’s highest court said that the whole reason that the law exists is to stamp out religious “parallel societies.” To my mind, the German court’s ruling makes it impossible to treat this Nazi-derived law as anything approaching neutral.

Second, the federal court looked at the occupation exemption for other homeschool families and found that the government still exercised some control over those homeschool curriculums. So the court concluded that the Romeikes were asking for something more than what those state-approved homeschoolers got. But again, this ignores the German high court’s open admission that the law does treat secular homeschoolers and religious homeschoolers unequally. And, practically speaking, the German court was right. As any family knows, where children learn, and who they learn from, affects what children learn.

The Romeikes have asked that the full appellate court grant en banc review of the case. Here’s hoping they do. Germany is actively seeking to prevent the Romeikes, and others like them, from exercising their fundamental right to live their faith. And that is precisely why this nation has asylum law in the first place: So that we can serve as a refuge for those who’ve been denied their most fundamental human rights.

Telling It On the Mountain?

By Diana Verm and John Ehrett

On the edge of a remote ski slope in Montana stands a statue of Jesus, popularly nicknamed “Big Mountain Jesus.” It is a war memorial, a relic from the mountain’s rich history, a landmark for skiers, a religious symbol, an object of local curiosity…and the subject of a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

But today, in light of a recent federal court ruling, it is defined by what it is not: an establishment of religion.

Nearly sixty years ago, the Knights of Columbus leased a 25-foot x 25-foot plot of land, situated within a commercial ski resort, from the United States Forest Service on Big Mountain. They planned to erect a monument honoring fallen soldiers from World War II, and “Big Mountain Jesus” was the final result. Their leasing permit was renewed every ten years without incident, until the Freedom from Religion Foundation sued to have the statue permanently removed, claiming that it violates the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.

As U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen correctly ruled, this was not the case. Controversies over similar symbols, however, will persist due to popular misunderstandings surrounding the Establishment Clause.

The Establishment Clause expressly forbids the creation of a state-sponsored religious apparatus, in the vein of the Church of England or Russian Orthodox Church. What it does not do, however, is enforce cultural amnesia about religious aspects of our history. Instead, the Establishment Clause calls the government to viewpoint neutrality in the public sphere. Under such a standard, both commercial enterprises and religious organizations (and by extension, everything in between) are given equal access to the broader public forum, without state suppression of their expressive activity.

America has historically thrived through its diversity of thought and discourse, and in keeping with this pluralism, it is entirely acceptable to acknowledge religion as a component of national heritage and tradition. This is precisely what the “Big Mountain Jesus” monument does. Treating all such acknowledgement as an “unconstitutional establishment of religion” compromises the intent of the Constitution and saps the richness of the American experience. Equal access is the linchpin of the matter: the state may not demonstrate preferential treatment of one faith over another, but neither must it purge religious elements from all arenas bearing some relationship to government. In the case of “Big Mountain Jesus,” Judge Christensen observed that the historic and cultural legacy of the monument outweighed any perceived state endorsement of a given faith. Though the statue itself was of religious character, this dimension alone did not constitute an Establishment Clause violation.

In the wake of all this controversy, “Big Mountain Jesus” has taken on two additional significant qualities. Now, the statue is something more than simply a war memorial, ski landmark, or religious display: it is an ongoing testament to the freedom of expression that first forged the American nation, and a sobering reminder of the need for constant vigilance.

True government neutrality in the marketplace of ideas may be a difficult, multifaceted, and ever-elusive goal…but the alternative is unacceptable.

Diana Verm is Legal Counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and John Ehrett is a summer communications intern at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and a rising senior at Patrick Henry College.

Rethinking the “Red Line”

By Asma Uddin, Legal Counsel

From June 8-11, I had the pleasure of convening a working group at the 2013 US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar.

The Forum is part of the Brookings Institute’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. The Project seeks to engage and inform policymakers, practitioners, and the broader public on developments in Muslim countries and communities and on the nature of their relationship with the United States.

Brookings is an extremely well-respected and prestigious think tank with an international presence, and it was an incredible opportunity to be chosen as a convener for the Forum.

My working group was titled “Rethinking the ‘Red Line’: The Intersection of Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Social Change.” I proposed the topic because free speech, particularly freedom to speak about, criticize or even reject religion, continues to be a contentious issue among Muslims, and between Muslims and non-Muslim compatriots, in the United States and in Muslim-majority countries. While I have had opportunities in the past to engage actors from the Muslim-majority world on this issue, the Forum gave me the unique opportunity to do it at a much higher level, with greater potential of actual on-the-ground change.

Several high-level members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) participated in my group, as well as activists and politicians from the US, Europe, and numerous Muslim-majority countries. Together, we explored the reasons why free speech remains a controversial topic with changing contours and disputed boundaries, and how these disputes might be addressed and resolved. Using the OIC’s Defamation of Religions Resolution as a case study, the working group looked at different definitions of free speech, alternative standards governing limits on free speech, and how the gaps among competing standards might be bridged.

In particular, I spent some time exploring the public order justification for speech restrictions. It is an exception that exists in international free speech and religious freedom law, in US law in the form of the incitement to imminent violence standard, and, in much broader form, in the jurisprudence of Muslim-majority countries. The way this exception is defined and interpreted varies considerably across these bodies of law, and I feel strongly that reconciling these interpretations is key to reaching consensus on adequate free speech protections.

Deeply committed to bringing about change on this issue, I am working with Brookings and other actors to continue building on the Doha discussion.

VICTORY: Court Gives Montana Jesus Statue its Blessing

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, a federal district court in Montana dismissed a lawsuit by Freedom From Religion Foundation seeking to force the U.S. Forest Service to remove a privately designed and maintained monument to soldiers who gave their lives in World War II. Freedom From Religion Foundation argued that the 60-year-old monument—which stands in the middle of Big Mountain ski resort in Whitefish, Montana—could not be displayed on government-owned land. District Court Judge Dana Christensen, who was appointed in 2011 by President Obama, rejected these arguments and held that the monument did not violate church-state separation.

“We still don’t know if a tree falling in a forest makes a sound. But we can be sure that a lonely Jesus statue standing in a Montana forest doesn’t create an official state religion for the United States,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for Becket who defended the monument in court. “The Court’s common-sense decision today honors our veterans, preserves our Nation’s history, and rejects the idea that all religious symbols must be banished from public property.”

Judge Christensen held that “Unquestionably, Big Mountain Jesus is a religious symbol commonly associated with one form of religion. But not every religious symbol runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. . . . Big Mountain Jesus is one of the only vestiges that remains of the early days of skiing at Big Mountain, and to many serves as a historical reminder of those bygone days of sack lunches, ungroomed runs, rope tows, t-bars, leather ski boots, and 210 cm. skis.”

Nearly sixty years ago, the Knights of Columbus leased a 25-foot x 25-foot plot of land, which lies within a commercial ski resort, from the United States Forest Service on Big Mountain, to erect a monument honoring fallen soldiers from World War II.

The permit has been renewed every ten years without incident until 2010, when the Freedom from Religion Foundation—a Wisconsin anti-religion organization—threatened the Forest Service claiming the monument violated the United States Constitution. The Forest Service, buckling under pressure from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, initially denied the permit, but reconsidered after significant public outcry. In February, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sued to have the statue permanently removed.

Becket intervened in federal district court case on behalf of several individual Montanans and the Knights of Columbus to defend a monument to fallen soldiers that includes a statute of Jesus and stands on a public land in a ski resort near Whitefish, Montana. The case was filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, who claimed the monument violated the United States Constitution. Becket asked the U.S. District Court in Montana to vindicate the constitutional rights of Knights to honor soldiers who have given their lives for our country.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. The Becket Fund recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Behind the Colors

On June 14, millions of Americans will celebrate Flag Day. Unfortunately, the traditional two-minute ceremony by which Americans profess loyalty to their national colors has come under fire yet again.

By John Ehrett

Over the last several years, repeated challenges have been leveled at one of America’s most revered bastions of patriotism: the Pledge of Allegiance. Lawsuits seeking to strip two simple words – “under God” – from the Pledge have arisen in state and federal courts alike. Those opposed to the Pledge’s current text have continued to press for change, despite losses in the the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (2010) and the 1st Circuit (2010). This persistence may be due to the fact that the Supreme Court has only obliquely weighed in on the issue: in 2002 the Court ruled that Michael Newdow, the atheist minister responsible for many of the challenges, lacked proper standing to proceed with his suit, but issued no majority opinion regarding the Pledge’s constitutional permissibility.

There is no broad political groundswell seeking to toss out “under God”; nearly 90% of Americans favor retaining the phrase. Unfortunately, their views run directly counter to the radical secularism currently seeking to eradicate religion from the public square…even when such “religion” isn’t even rooted in a specific ideology.

Contrary to what many in the secularist camp have asserted, the Pledge of Allegiance is neither a prayer nor a declaration of metaphysical dogma. As historians have noted, the phrase was originally introduced in the 1950s as a political counterweight to the anti-religious antagonism of the Soviet Union. The clause “under God” simply recognizes that individual persons are uniquely valuable, invested with natural rights that transcend their roles as cogs in a social machine; furthermore, by referring to “God,” the government is forced to acknowledge that its authority over citizens is in fact limited. Irrespective of any religious context, those are positive and humanistic ideas – around which both people of faith and nonbelievers can unite.

When Americans unite to speak the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, they are collectively reaffirming their belief in these human rights, whether or not they personally choose to revere a deity. The power of the Pledge is its implicit assumption that human beings are more than means to a given political or economic end; by virtue of their humanity alone, they possess a certain inherent worth that no government may legitimately infringe.

In keeping with this sentiment, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is committed to upholding the intrinsic dignity of all people. Foundational to that dignity, in turn is a recognition of individuals’ right to freely exercise their religious beliefs, in both public and private spheres.

This Flag Day, let’s collectively pause to remember the sacrifices behind the freedoms we take for granted…including religious freedom. Our society, founded on such liberties within a system of democratic pluralism, has dynamically impacted the course of human history. And if a deep-rooted respect for fundamental beliefs – worldview systems that both unite and divide us – is sacrificed on the altar of anti-religious fear, our nation loses one of its most valuable assets.

Americans may not agree about much else, but we should be able to agree on that.

John Ehrett, a senior at Patrick Henry College, is the communications intern at the Becket Fund.

Fear, Loathing, and Demographics

Many of the restrictions and increasingly vicious attacks on people of different religious traditions–especially minority faiths–are motivated by deep fears of the unknown and unfamiliar.

By: Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

If President Roosevelt was right that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, then religious people have a lot to fear these days. Many of the restrictions and increasingly vicious attacks on people of different religious traditions–especially minority faiths–are motivated by deep fears of the unknown and unfamiliar. In this way the suppression of religious identity and ideas in public life creates a danger for the polity–without the ability to discuss beliefs in public, fear of the differently-believing grows silently, only to explode later in times of political instability. One sees this dynamic over and over again in societies that attempt to pretend away religious differences, from the war in Bosnia to the civil war in Syria today. Both of those wars arose in societies where public expression of religious identity had long been suppressed, yet in the end it turned out that religion, and religious liberty, really did matter.

As we have already noted elsewhere, one facet of this fear is rooted in demographics. Those in power or majorities often fear relative demographic growth of those with different religious beliefs. For example, government officials in Burma recently adopted a “two-child policy” that would apply only to Muslims. This even though Muslims are a tiny minority (approx. 4%) of the Burmese population. This population limitation targeting a specific religious minority is a textbook example of demographic panic, as exemplified by this statement from a government official: “This is the best way to control the population explosion which is a threat to our national identity. If no measure is taken to control the population, there is a danger of losing our own identity.”

Similar feelings of fear and loathing towards the religious were recently published in, of all places, The Forward. The author, Jay Michaelson, focused on the demographic trends, saying, “Call them what you will – ultra-Orthodox Jews, ‘fervently Orthodox’ Jews, Haredim, black hats. They will soon become the majority of affiliated Jews in the metropolitan New York area, and the religious majority in Israel. The results will be catastrophic. … [P]retty soon, the hierarchy will overwhelm us. Demographers tell us that 49% of New York’s Jewish children are Haredi (either Hasidic or ‘yeshivish’). Especially in light of non-Orthodox disaffiliation, New York Jewry, within a generation, will be fundamentalist, poor, uneducated and reactionary.” This kind of attacking language is specifically designed to incite demographic panic among non-Orthodox Jews and others, and thus create support for government measures to suppress a certain disfavored religious group.

Aside from its crude and inaccurate description of the Orthodox, this kind of rhetoric and the solutions it offers are self-defeating. Government suppression of religious identity here or in Burma will not make religious identity go away; it will simply drive religious expression underground, and increase the likelihood of an explosion of interreligious strife. The far better course is to publicly respect and honor religious differences among people, not because we seek to approve any one set of religious beliefs or all religions generally, but because because we respect and honor the inherent dignity of each person and therefore the beliefs she holds.

Religious Liberty Leader Elder Dallin H. Oaks Awarded Becket’s Highest Honor

New York City, NY  –  Tonight Elder Dallin H. Oaks received the highest honor awarded by Becket, the nation’s premier religious liberty law firm, at the 18th anniversary Canterbury Medal Dinner at the Pierre in New York City, NY.

The Canterbury Medal, Becket’s award, is given to a person who has “most resolutely refused to render to Caesar that which is God’s.” This year’s medalist, Elder Oaks, Apostle for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, received the award in recognition of his work defending religious liberty, as a Chicago Law professor, Utah Supreme Court Justice, and an Apostle for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Past Canterbury Medalists include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Prison Fellowship founder the late Charles Colson, financier Foster Friess, Archbishop Charles Chaput and the  former Ambassador to the Vatican, James R. Nicholson among others. Though diverse in religious beliefs and background, medalists share a common love of liberty and freedom of conscience for people of all religions.

“Elder Oaks is a most deserving medalist,” said Bill Mumma, President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Beyond stewardship of his own faith, Elder Oaks has actively built partnerships across religions for the sake of freedom. It is a great testament to his work that our dinner this year drew a record number of supporters.”

In the black-tie Gala packed with more than 500 prominent religious leaders and supporters of Becket, Elder Oaks commissioned the diverse group to, “unite to strengthen our freedom to teach what we have in common.”  “We must walk shoulder to shoulder on the same path in order to secure our freedom to pursue our separate ways when that is necessary according to our distinctive beliefs,” he added.

Guests at the dinner, including religious leaders, lay believers, and supporters of religious liberty, expressed their admiration of Elder Oaks and his work.

“I have come to know and to esteem the leadership of Elder Dallin H. Oaks,” said Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, who presented Elder Oaks the Canterbury Medal.

Bill Mumma acted as the lively MC of the event. Remarks were also given by Reverend Eugene Rivers III and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik. 

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law.  The Becket Fund recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Muslims, Monasteries, Jews, Sikhs, and Scholars Urge Supreme Court to Hear Landmark Religious Liberty Appeal

Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, the State of Michigan, twenty-one First Amendment scholars, and eighteen religious organizations representing tens of millions of religious believers filed friend-of-the-court briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the Court to hear a religious liberty appeal on behalf of a Hutterite colony in Montana. The question in the case is whether the Hutterites, who trace their history to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, can be forced to provide workers’ compensation insurance to their members, in violation of almost 500 years of Hutterite religious teaching.

The six amicus briefs were filed on behalf of a diverse array of religious organizations—including Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Santeros, Seventh-day Adventists, Hare Krishnas, Catholics, and Evangelicals. The religious groups were also joined by the State of Michigan and twenty-one First Amendment scholars.

“This incredible show of support from a diverse array of organizations and scholars speaks volumes about the importance of this case and injustice done to the Hutterites,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel for Becket and counsel on the Hutterite case.

Highlights from the briefs include:

  •  “The State here demands something that is not possible, that is, something that is not possible without first destroying what it means to be Hutterite.” – Brief of 21 Constitutional scholarsincluding: Michael McConnell, Robert P. George, Richard Garnett, Thomas Berg, Carl Esbeck, Teresa Stanton Collett, Richard Duncan,  and Michael Stokes Paulsen
  • “The Hutterites, though small in number, raise in their petition a constitutional question that affects millions of religious minorities.” Brief of the American Islamic Congress
  • “[S]tates across the country already recognize that imposing workers’ compensation on religious organizations raises First Amendment issues. For that reason, a number of states have statutes excluding either religious organizations or people working for religious organizations without pay[.]” –  Brief of the State of Michigan
  • “[T]he decision below essentially deprives monasteries of the resources necessary to sustain themselves and support their charitable ministries…In the absence of the financial gain derived from the sale of these goods and services to nonmembers, it would be virtually impossible for a monastery to support itself and freely serve the needy.” Brief of Monasteries Belmont Abbey and the Abbey of New Clairvaux
  •  “[A] religious practice may be just as burdened by a lawmaker who does not care about religious freedom, as by one who exudes conscious religious bias.” – Brief of Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, National Association of Evangelicals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Southern Baptist Convention, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and Christian Legal Society
  • “[The decision] threatens to dismantle the protections for minority religious groups that this Court recognized in Smith and Lukumi. In doing so, it allows majoritarian forces and well-organized special interests to infringe, even if inadvertently, on the basic freedoms of religious minorities.” – Brief of Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, O Centro, and Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Is Religious Proselytization Criminal in the Military?

“The members of our nation’s military give their lives to protect our liberties. But according to a just-released statement from an Air Force spokesman, those warriors don’t get to exercise the first of those freedoms:  religious liberty. Instead of the robust discussion of faith and beliefs that we civilians enjoy every day, service men and women can only share their beliefs when it doesn’t make others “uncomfortable” and may never be able to share their faith. That is unconstitutional and it is wrong. Our brave fighting men and women should not be reduced to whispering fearfully about their faith by their own government.

Today, the Department of Defense retreated from a similar position that it took earlier this week, clarifying that military commanders simply cannot use their position to pressure subordinates to adopt their religious views. And that clarification is right.  Unlike the Department of Defense, though, the Air Force spokesman’s statement sounds like the government can ban servicemen and women from talking to one another about their faith. And that couldn’t be more wrong. The Air Force must follow the Department of Defense’s example to immediately correct its statement to avoid chilling Airmen and women’s religious liberty.”  — Kristina Arriaga, Executive Director for Becket

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Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

The state of California has been forcing religious objectors to speak. Religious groups like the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI) and members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have been forced to either pay trade union dues or pay equivalent fees to one of the three union-approved “nonreligious, nonlabor” charities.

The end result is that religious objectors are forced by the state government to fund either the union or the predetermined set of charities. CEAI has sued the California Teachers Association (CTA) asserting that the state is using its power to coerce religious objectors to support speech they do not agree with.

Becket joined the fight at the Supreme Court with a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that government coercion of religious objectors should not be excused simply because the coercion is taking place through separate avenues such as the collective bargaining agreement. When someone funnels illicit funds through a third party it’s called money laundering, when the government tries to use one person to control another person it’s called coercion laundering. Jones Day and the Center for Individual Rights represented the religious groups.

April Fools’ in North Carolina?

Legally speaking, the firestorm over the North Carolina resolution is much ado about nothing. But this ado should remind us of the lessons, good and bad, we have learned from more than 200 years as one nation under the Establishment Clause.

The latest church-state firestorm is over several North Carolina legislators’ proposed resolution that proclaims North Carolina’s right to establish a state religion. One can only hope that its introduction on April Fools’ Day was not a coincidence.

If you thought we settled the issue of official state-run churches years ago, you were right. The Establishment Clause prohibits the creation of an official state religion. It originally applied only to Congress, and some states famously kept their own established churches into the mid-nineteenth century. (Massachusetts was the last to shut down its state church.) In 1947, the Supreme Court declared the Establishment Clause applicable to the states, which means that North Carolina has no power to set up a state church. While serious scholars have raised questions about whether the Establishment Clause should apply to the states, one thing remains clear: states cannot run their own official churches. History shows us it’s bad for states, and bad for churches.

The good news about the North Carolina law, for all its rhetoric, is that it has no legal effect whatsoever. It is a non-binding resolution, stating the feelings of some in the legislature, but with no power to impact the state’s laws or its citizens. In that way it is the twin of what San Francisco did several years ago, when it passed a resolution condemning the Catholic Church and calling on its priests to disobey Church teachings on same-sex marriage. Both proposals were perfectly obnoxious, and completely toothless.

The stated reason for the proposal is to permit legislatures to open their meetings with prayer. Legislative prayers are an intriguing and important legal issue: the Supreme Court has permitted them in Congress, and lower courts have split over what prayers can be said at city councils, school boards, and other meetings. But this resolution is more likely to hinder than help with that issue–by affirmatively stating that some in government are trying to promote a particular faith, the resolution will make it harder, not easier, to win legislative prayer cases in court.

There are real reasons to be worried about Establishment Clause overreach. It has been used to challenge a South Carolina law that allows private, off-campus religious classes for public school students; a federal law that protects the First Amendment rights of prisoners; and an Arizona scholarship program that helps students attend the schools that are best for them. Happily, the courts beat back each of these challenges. But they demonstrate that extreme readings of the Establishment Clause can do real harm to programs that help real people. The North Carolina resolution merely shows us that bad legal advice is not limited to one side of the Establishment Clause debate.

Legally speaking, the firestorm over the North Carolina resolution is much ado about nothing. But this ado should remind us of the lessons, good and bad, we have learned from more than 200 years as one nation under the Establishment Clause.

 

Doe v. Elmbrook: A Tale of Two Graduations

Which would you choose?

The Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether it is unconstitutional to hold high school graduations in a church auditorium. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the school district’s appeal, it has the potential to become one of the most significant church–state cases in many years.

For years Brookfield East High held their graduation ceremony in their school gymnasium, which was hot, cramped, and uncomfortable–lacking air conditioning, adequate seating, adequate parking, or adequate handicapped facilities. At the students’ request, the school moved graduation to a nearby church auditorium.

Want to see the difference?

You can read our petition to the Supreme Court here, and see more photos of the spaces here. The Supreme Court is expected to announce on April 15 whether it will review the case.

 

 

 

Supreme Court Asked to Weigh in on Religious Group’s Right to Live Communally

Washington, DC. – On Monday, the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on a landmark religious liberty case involving the First Amendment rights of a Christian Hutterite community in Montana. The question in the case is whether the Hutterites, who trace their history to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, can be forced to provide workers’ compensation insurance to their members, in violation of almost 500 years of Hutterite religious teaching.

“The State of Montana is needlessly attacking a group of communal farmers who are simply following 500 years of Hutterite religious tradition,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “The State should be applauding the Hutterites’ thriving, productive, and self-sustaining farming community, not trying to regulate it out of existence at the behest of corporate lobbyists.”

The Big Sky Colony is a Christian community of Hutterites, a religious movement that dates back to the Protestant Reformation in the 1530s. Hutterites came to the United States after suffering years of severe persecution in Europe. All Hutterites take a vow of poverty, renounce private property, and hold all their possessions in common. They live on communal farms, speak a unique German dialect, and have limited contact with the outside world.

The State left the Hutterites alone for over 90 years. But that ended in 2009, when lobbyists from the Montana construction industry complained to local politicians that Hutterites had a supposed “competitive advantage” on construction jobs, because they were not required to provide workers’ compensation insurance to their members. In response, the Montana Legislature passed a new law specifically to require Hutterites to start providing workers’ compensation.

However, because the Hutterites shun politics and were not consulted on the new law, the Legislature was unaware that Hutterites already provide all of their members with comprehensive, no-fault health insurance that is far more generous than workers compensation. So the law does nothing but make it illegal for the community to follow their 500-year-old religious beliefs against owning property or making legal claims against each other.

The law also leaves in place dozens of exemptions from the workers’ compensation law for a variety of for-profit employers. So while the colony must treat its members as if they were employees, the same is not true for firms that, for instance, employ people who sell security or real estate, or for non-religious communes. So the Hutterites are targeted by the law, while many secular organizations go free.

“This law proves the danger of allowing corporate lobbyists to prey on an ancient, peace-loving religious community,” said Goodrich. “If separation of church and state means anything, it means the government cannot rewrite the rules of a 500-year-old church.”

Montana’s Ninth Judicial District Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. But in a sharply divided, 4–3 decision, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the law. The U.S. Supreme Court will vote this fall on whether to hear the case.

Becket’s co-counsel in the appeal is Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia Law School, a veteran of multiple Supreme Court arguments and one of the nation’s leading scholars of religious liberty. Also serving as co-counsel are Ron Nelson and Michael Talia of leading Montana law firm, Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams, who represented the colony in the Montana Supreme Court.

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Becket is a non-profit law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions; most recently, it won a 9-0 Supreme Court victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which the Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.” For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Statement on the Appointment of Melissa Rogers

Becket Law welcomes the appointment of Melissa Rogers as the new Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. President Obama appointed Rogers to the position, which is responsible for overseeing Administration efforts to partner with religious organizations, on March 13, 2013.

“Melissa has been a widely respected voice in the field of religious liberty for many years and we have had a fruitful working relationship with her,” stated Kristina Arriaga, Becket’s Executive Director. “We look forward to working with her in her new role to protect religious liberty for all.”

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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 For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7201.

Becket Outlines FEMA’s Discrimination Against Religious Organizations as Unconstitutional on brink of Congressional Vote

WASHINGTON, DC –  Following more than 200 houses of worship being denied FEMA aid following Superstorm Sandy, Congress plans to vote today on whether FEMA can keep discriminating against houses of worship in disaster relief funding.   In light of this, Becket Law provided Congress with a legal analysis of the proper role of the Establishment Clause in disaster funding.

“The Establishment Clause does not prevent synagogues, mosques, churches, and other disaster relief funds from equal access to disaster relief funds that are available to other affected organizations,” said Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel for Becket Law. “There’s no constitutional reason why houses of worship, which often are the first to provide timely disaster relief to hard-hit communities, should be categorically banned from receiving relief funds to repair buildings. In fact, continuing the practice of allowing zoos and museums to obtain the funds while shutting out churches expresses precisely the kind of hostility toward religion that the Establishment Clause rejects.”

Becket is the leading religious liberty law firm, dedicated to protecting the constitutional rights of all faiths. Becket’s legal analysis explains that:

1) neutral funding is consistent with case law;

2) neutral funding is consistent with the federal government’s past and present practices; and

3) neutral funding is consistent with formal advice given by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel; and

4) discrimination against churches in the provision of a neutral funding program expressed hostility to religion and does raise Establishment Clause problems

“Fixing the local zoo and the local museum, but categorically refusing to help the local synagogue is blatant discrimination,” added Blomberg.

UPDATED Feb. 13, 2013, 2:46pm:  The House of Representatives passed H.R. 592 with a vote of 354-72, to clarify that houses of worship as “eligible for certain disaster relief and emergency assistance on terms equal to other eligible private nonprofit facilities, and for other purposes.”

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

 

 

*Photo Credit: Temple of Israel Long Beach. Used by Permission. 

Supreme Court Asked to Weigh in on Landmark Church-State Controversy

Washington, DC – Today, the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on a landmark religious liberty case involving the use of church property by the government. Becket Law, Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School, the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and the law firm of Axley Brynelson, LLP, filed a petition for certiorari in the United States Supreme Court appealing a court decision that would make it illegal in many circumstances for governments to rent space from churches.“If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the school district’s appeal, it has the potential to become one of the most significant church–state cases in many years,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket Law. The case began in 2009, when a secularist organization sued two Wisconsin high schools for their decade-old practice of holding high school graduations in a rented church auditorium. The schools rented the auditorium at the request of their students, who complained that the alternative facilities—the school gymnasiums—were uncomfortable, lacked air conditioning, and lacked adequate space for friends and family to attend.After several years of litigation, a sharply divided United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that renting the church auditorium was unconstitutional. Although the graduation ceremonies were completely secular, with no prayer or any other religious references, the Court held that the “pervasively religious environment” of the auditorium—which included a large cross, Bibles and hymnals in the pews, and church brochures in the lobby—created the risk that graduating students would “perceive the state as endorsing a set of religious beliefs.” Judges Ripple, Posner, and Easterbrook dissented, arguing that the court’s ruling would expose school districts across the country to liability and showed unnecessary hostility to churches.“Public schools across the country rely on churches to provide a comfortable, cost-effective facility for graduation ceremonies,” said Goodrich. “Religion is not asbestos, and the Constitution does not require the government to treat churches as contaminated buildings that are uniquely unfit for public events.”The lead attorney in the Supreme Court appeal, Michael McConnell, is a former judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, a leading constitutional law scholar, and a veteran of over a dozen Supreme Court arguments. Becket is a non-profit law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions; most recently, it won a 9-0 Supreme Court victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which the Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.” Kirkland & Ellis is an international law firm with one of the premier appellate and Supreme Court practices in the country. Axley Brynelson is a leading Wisconsin law firm that represented the school district in the Seventh Circuit.

 

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. 

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

*Photo used by permission: Elmbrook Church

 

The 2012 Ebenezer Award Goes To…

Becket Law is pleased (well, sort of) to announce the recipient of our lowest honor, the 2012 Ebenezer Award, which is given annually to the public figure responsible for the most ridiculous affront to Christmas and Hanukkah.

DRUM ROLL PLEASE……..The 2012 award goes to Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee. Governor Chafee was embarrassed last year when a flash mob showed up to the lighting of his Holiday Tree and defiantly sang “O Christmas Tree.”  To avoid a repeat this year, he announced the lighting ceremony only 30 minutes before it happened.  Heaven forbid the joyful singing of “O Christmas Tree” would happen again by the tree…at Christmas time. As Wall Street Journal’s Bill McGurn explains:

 “In this time of peace on Earth and good will to men, we give thanks for the little things that help to make the season bright: chestnuts roasting on open fires, tiny tots with their eyes all aglow—and the entertaining progressive pageant that is Lincoln Chafee at Christmastime.”

Notable 2012 dishonors also includes:

  • Our friends in the city of Santa Monica, California, who mothballed a nativity scene that had been displayed in a city park for over a half century. Our own Eric Rassbach was quoted in a Deseret News article about the controversy. In a somewhat happy ending, pro-Christmas folks got around the ban by staging a live nativity in the same park.
  • The Navy in Bahrain, which directed service members to dismantle a “Live Nativity” following an atheist complaint.

However, not all is lost this holiday season. This 2012 Becket Eggnog Toast goes to the State of Pennsylvania for reinstating their Christmas tree after 30 years, and the management of Newhall Senior Home for repenting and rescinding its decision to take down the Christmas tree from the community room because it was a “religious symbol.”  Good decision, Newhall.

Notable previous Ebenezer recipients include: 

  • (2011) U.S. Post Office, for banning Christmas Carolers. Despite Benjamin Franklin’s command, as founder of the Post Office, to “always live jollily; for a good conscience is a continual Christmas,” the carolers fell victim to the ridiculous policy that you are not allowed to sing Christmas carols on government property.
  • (2009) Commissioner Tyler Moore, of Kokomo Indiana, who replaced a traditional display with one featuring the Loch Ness monster, a woodpecker and a fire truck;
  • (2002) the Virginia Beach bureaucrats who tried to ban a local charity’s free turkey giveaway; and
  • (2000) the city manager of Eugene, Oregon, who issued a five-page, single-spaced memo banning Christmas trees from any “public space” in the city.

Becket has continually fought attacks on Christmas and Hanukah, including:  successfully defending a public school in Utah that was sued for including religious songs in its holiday concert; successfully defending two cities in New Jersey when the ACLU sued to have their holiday displays taken down; and successfully defending the federal government’s decision to make Christmas a federal holiday, which resulted in a memorable court opinion opening with an amusing poem.

So, while it is still legal, we wish you: A Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukah and a Happy New Year!

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including: Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or call 202.349.7224.

Quiet Surrender in Precedent-Setting Counselor Conscience Case

Eastern Michigan University quietly threw in the towel on Monday, settling its lawsuitwith its former student Julea Ward. The University had expelled Ward from her graduate counseling degree program when she sought to use a patient referral mechanism that other student counselors were allowed to use. Her sin?  She wanted to refer patients for religious reasons: she did not feel that she could in good faith provide same-sex couples advice on their relationship because she believed those relationships to be sinful. The problem for the University was that it allowed student counselors to refer patients for all sorts of reasons and Ward violated no written University policy; in short, Ward was being targeted. The University’s punishment of Ward earned it a rebuke from the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which held that the University was “permitting secular exemptions but not religious ones and failing to apply the policy in an even-handed, much less a faith-neutral, manner to Ward.” This reasoning followed the Becket Fund’s amicus brief filed in the appeal.

Ward v. Wilbanks is another example of government officials using the power they have to try to force a kind of ideological conformity onto those who dissent from academic pieties. The University’s decision to give up, pay Ward, and issue her a clean academic record indicates that the First Amendment is still a significant bulwark against the bureaucratic urge to squelch diversity of ideas. But it is a bulwark that still requires defenders.

Illinois Cannot Punish Pharmacists with Religious Objections to Abortion-Inducing Drugs

Washington, D.C. – Today, the state of Illinois declined to appeal the recent victory for two pharmacists after the Illinois Court of Appeals ruled the state cannot force pharmacies and pharmacists to sell abortion-inducing drugs in violation of their religion.

“This decision is a great victory for religious freedom,” said Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel for Becket, who has represented the pharmacists since 2005.  “The government shouldn’t kick business owners out of the market just because it dislikes their religious beliefs.”

The case has its roots in former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s April 2005 mandate that all pharmacies and pharmacists sell Plan B (the “morning after pill”).  The Governor argued that pharmacy owners and pharmacists with religious objections should “find another profession” if they did not share his moral views about the drug.

In 2011, the trial court entered an injunction against the rule.  The court found that there was no evidence that a religious objection had ever prevented anyone from getting the drugs.  The court further found that the law was not neutral because it was designed to target religious objectors, and because it allowed pharmacies to refuse to sell drugs for a host of “common sense business reasons” but not for religious reasons.

In affirming the injunction, the court of appeals noted that Illinois law “prohibits discrimination in licensing” against a person or business who cannot provide healthcare services because of a religious objection.  Accordingly, the court prohibited the state from enforcing the mandate against the plaintiffs.

This victory for pharmacist conscience rights comes on the heels of Becket’s victory defending small business owners in Washington State from a similar rule in Stormans v. Selecky.

 

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Supreme Court Says No to Hypersecularist Attack on Religious Freedom

WASHINGTON, DC — Today, the Supreme Court denied Freedom From Religion Foundation’s appeal following a Fourth Circuit’s decision allowing students to gain elective school credit for religion courses taken off-campus during school hours, a program known as “released time.”

“It took three years of litigation for them to figure it out, but Freedom From Religion Foundation now knows what the rest of us have always known – it’s okay for public schools to treat religious off-campus courses on equal terms with non-religious off-campus courses,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at Becket Law, which represented the Defendant School District.

In 2009 Freedom From Religion Foundation sued an urban school district, Spartanburg County School District No. 7, over the program, claiming it was a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. The School District retained the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty along to defend it, along with Spartanburg firm Lyles, Darr & Clark, LLP. The School District won both in the district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.

The unanimous decision of the Fourth Circuit held: “[T]he program properly accommodates religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment.”  The court further stated, “[The program] accommodates the ‘genuine and independent choices’ of parents and students to pursue [religious] instruction.”

“This is a big win for public school students and for religious education,” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel with Becket Law, who successfully argued the case to the Fourth Circuit. “The Supreme Court’s rejection of this case is a blow against anti-religious legal theories that would treat religion with suspicion.”

For more than 50 years, courts have routinely held that off-campus released time programs do not violate the Constitution by promoting religion, but merely accommodate the wishes of students and parents.  Nation-wide, more than 250,000 children in 32 states participate in released time programs each year.  In South Carolina alone, more than 12,000 students attend released time classes each week.

“We are pleased to learn that the Supreme Court denied review of this litigation,” said Dr. Russell W. Booker, Superintendent of Spartanburg County School District No. 7. “After three years of litigation, the courts have confirmed what we knew all along: The School District is acting fully in accordance with the law in carrying out its mission of providing our families with choice options in the education of their children. We are also thankful for the able work of our attorneys, including Becket, which defended this case at no cost to the School District.”

The Court’s decision supports released time programs across South Carolina and throughout the country. It also affirms the constitutionality of the relationship between private schools and public schools.

 

Becket Law  is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. Becket has a 18-year history of defending religious liberty for people of all faiths. Its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. 

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 For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Massachusetts high court agrees to hear Pledge of Allegiance case

Washington, D.C. — Today Massachusetts’ highest court agreed to hear a case that will decide the fate of the Pledge of Allegiance in Massachusetts public schools. The decision comes in a constitutional challenge to the Pledge brought by a secularist group and defended by schoolchildren represented by Becket Law who seek to maintain the Pledge. After receiving briefing on the important constitutional issues and the broad implications for Massachusetts schools that the case raises, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed to hear the case without waiting for a decision from the intermediate Court of Appeals. Oral argument is expected to be early next year.

The case was filed by secularist group American Humanist Association and local atheists, who filed suit last year in Middlesex County Superior Court seeking to have the words ‘under God’ declared unconstitutional and to prohibit recitation of the Pledge in Massachusetts public schools. Local schoolchildren who want to continue saying the Pledge intervened in the lawsuit, joining the Acton-Boxborough school district to defend the words “under God.” The schoolchildren and their parents Daniel and Ingrid Joyce, along with the fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus, are represented by Becket Law, a non-profit law firm that has defended the Pledge for almost a decade.

In a March ruling, Judge Jane Haggerty of the Middlesex County Superior Court held that the Pledge is constitutional. Judge Haggerty agreed with Becket that the Pledge is not a religious statement. It is, instead, a statement of our nation’s political philosophy that rights come not from the state but from something higher than government—what our Declaration of Independence called “Nature’s God.” Judge Haggerty called the Pledge “a voluntary patriotic exercise” that “teach[es] American history and civics.” Judge Haggerty also pointed out that no schoolchild can be required to recite the Pledge.

“Members of the American Humanist Association have the right to remain silent if they want to, but they don’t have the right to silence everyone else,” said Diana Verm, Counsel at Becket. “We are confident that the Supreme Judicial Court will uphold the Pledge just like every other court that has decided this question,” added Verm.

This is the fourth of a series of major lawsuits that have attempted to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge. Becket has thus far successfully defended all four. Acting as co-counsel on the case is J. Patrick Kennedy, of Bulkley Richardson, LLP in Boston.

 

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. Becket has a 18-year history of defending religious liberty for people of all faiths—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. Its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. 

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

 

Hosanna-Tabor: the Gift that Keeps On Giving

Hosanna-Tabor case marked a fundamental shift in First Amendment jurisprudence. Further evidence of that shift came yesterday in an important decision by the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin.

By: Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Many prominent First Amendment scholars have said (see Professor McConnell and Professor Laycock’s law review articles) that the Hosanna-Tabor case marked a fundamental shift in First Amendment jurisprudence. Further evidence of that shift came yesterday in an important decision by the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. In Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, the Fifth Circuit held that a Catholic parish’s music director could not sue the parish for alleged employment discrimination because of the important role he played in organizing the parish’s weekly masses. Writing for the Court, Judge Dennis adopted the reasoning of Justice Alito’s and Justice Kagan’s concurring opinion in Hosanna-Tabor, stating that civil courts could not interfere with Cannata’s firing because he “played an integral role in the celebration of Mass and that by playing the piano during services, Cannata furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants.” This adoption by the Fifth Circuit of the Alito/Kagan approach represents an adoption of an even stronger form of protection for religious autonomy, and is likely to be adopted other Courts of Appeals as well.

The effects will be wide-ranging. This decision by the Fifth Circuit will not be the last to apply Hosanna-Tabor, and indeed it has already been invoked in the 30-plus HHS mandate lawsuits and other contexts. That means that the case’s aftershocks will continue to be felt for many years to come. And because of the strong stand Hosanna-Tabor took for the freedom of religious organizations to govern their internal affairs, the case looks to be the gift that keeps on giving.

Central Rabbinical Congress v. New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene

This case involves an unprecedented government regulation of Jewish religious circumcision practices. Last year the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a new circumcision regulation. It penalizes Jewish rabbinical officials known as mohels who engage in the millennia-old circumcision practice of metzitzah b’peh unless the mohels force the infant boy’s parents to sign a form stating the City’s disapproval of the religious practice. The mohels believe the form to be both factually false and an unwarranted interference in a religious practice that has gone on for literally thousands of years.

Represented by Jones Day, several rabbis who act as mohels, along with several Orthodox Jewish rabbinical and community organizations, sued in Brooklyn federal district court, raising both freedom of speech and freedom of religion claims. The federal district court denied the rabbis’ request for an injunction against the city’s regulation, holding that as long as there was some plausible rational basis for the regulation, it would be valid. The rabbis then appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

Becket filed an amicus brief in the appeal along with Prof. Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School, arguing that because New York City’s regulation targeted a specific religious practice, the highest form of judicial constitutional review — “strict scrutiny” — was required under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. That is especially so because of documented levels of strong hostility towards Orthodox Jews and their religiously motivated practices in New York and surrounding municipalities. Becket did not offer an opinion on whether New York City’s regulation was justified by the health interests it is claiming to protect, only that because of the weighty interests involved, the proper level of constitutional scrutiny should have been applied by the district court judge. The brief has engendered much discussion within New York and elsewhere, particularly because it puts a spotlight on increasing government attacks on Orthodox Jewish practice in New York City and elsewhere.

On August 15, 2014, the Second Circuit ruled in favor of the Orthodox Jewish mohels, largely adopting the arguments made in Becket’s brief. The court sent the case back to the district court for the application of “strict scrutiny.”

What does New York City have against ordained ministers?

By: Eric Rassbach

The long-running Bronx Household of Faith case we previously blogged about here is on another trip to the Second Circuit. The case concerns New York City’s repeated attempts to keep churches–and only churches–from renting public school buildings on the weekends like other community groups. In the latest version of its anti-church policy, the City discriminates against religious groups that ordain their ministers and follow a prescribed order of worship. For the City, meetings that include ordained ministers and an order of worship are “religious worship services” that must be excluded. However, groups that engage in hymn-singing, prayer, and other activities are not–in the City’s definition–worshipping and therefore can get access like other community groups.

Yesterday the Becket Fund, along with Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School, submitted an amicus brief to the Second Circuit arguing that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment do not allow New York City to discriminate against churches based on internal church decisions about whether to ordain ministers or follow an order of worship. Indeed, as the brief argues, New York City should not even care about how churches organize their worship services, much less penalize them for it:

In its efforts to win litigation more than a decade old, the Department has arrived at a Policy that requires it to inquire into and discriminate against religious groups that follow a prescribed order of worship or ordain ministers. But under the Religion Clauses, these are quintessential church decisions that the Department has no business interfering with. True church-state separation demands that the Policy be struck down.

The Becket Fund hopes that the federal courts will tell New York City “fuhgeddaboutit” when it comes to discriminating against churches.

Also assisting on the amicus brief was attorney Deborah J. Dewart.

 

Illinois Appeals Court: State Cannot Punish Pharmacists with Religious Objections to Abortion-Inducing Drugs

Springfield, Illinois – Today, after more than seven years of litigation, an Illinois appellate court agreed that the state cannot force pharmacies and pharmacists to sell abortion-inducing drugs in violation of their religion.

“This decision is a great victory for religious freedom,” said Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel for Becket, who has represented the pharmacists since 2005.  “The government shouldn’t kick business owners out of the market just because it dislikes their religious beliefs.”

The case has its roots in former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s April 2005 mandate that all pharmacies and pharmacists sell Plan B (the “morning after pill”).  The Governor argued that pharmacy owners and pharmacists with religious objections should “find another profession” if they did not share his moral views about the drug.

In 2011, the trial court entered an injunction against the rule.  The court found that there was no evidence that a religious objection had ever prevented anyone from getting the drugs.  The court further found that the law was not neutral because it was designed to target religious objectors, and because it allowed pharmacies to refuse to sell drugs for a host of “common sense business reasons” but not for religious reasons.

In affirming the injunction, the court of appeals noted that Illinois law “prohibits discrimination in licensing” against a person or business who cannot provide healthcare services because of a religious objection.  Accordingly, the court prohibited the state from enforcing the mandate against the plaintiffs.

This victory for pharmacist conscience rights comes on the heels of Becket’s victory defending small business owners in Washington State from a similar rule in Stormans v. Selecky.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

 

Becket Files Interfaith Brief Defending Catholic Bishops Against ACLU Lawsuit

Washington D.C. ­– Becket Law has filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending American Catholic bishops against an ACLU lawsuit now being considered in a federal appeals court in Boston. The brief was filed last Thursday on behalf of an interreligious coalition that includes leading Christian, Jewish, and Hindu groups.

In 2009, The ACLU sued the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the federal government to terminate a contract under which the Bishops had agreed to provide rehabilitation services to victims of human trafficking. The ACLU said the contract constituted establishment of an official state church because it allowed the Bishops to avoid paying for abortions as a part of carrying out their services to the trafficking victims. In a ruling earlier this year, a Massachusetts federal district judge sided with the ACLU, holding that the Bishops’ conscientious refusal to pay for abortions violated the separation of church and state.

“This case is Exhibit A of how church-state law has run off the rails,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for Becket. “For the secular sin of refusing to pay for abortions, Catholic bishops have been hauled in front of a civil court by the ACLU. These ideological plaintiffs shouldn’t have been allowed into court in the first place. What’s worse is if they succeed, millions of the poor and suffering will become victims all over again because religious people won’t be allowed to help them.”

The coalition brief included Becket, the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, and World Relief.

“The diversity of the members of this coalition shows how important this case is to people of all religious backgrounds,” stated Rassbach. “Americans won’t always agree on matters of faith, but they can all agree that religious groups should have an equal right to participate in public life.”

The case, ACLU of Massachusetts v. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, will likely be argued later this year in Boston.

 

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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 For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

 

Federal Court Asked to Dismiss Lawsuit Against Montana Jesus Statue

Washington, DC – Today Becket Law asked the Missoula federal district court to dismiss a case filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), who claimed a war memorial statue of Jesus, in Whitefish Montana, violated the United States Constitution.  Freedom From Religion Foundation claimed that some of its members had seen and taken personal offense at the privately-owned and maintained memorial. However, Freedom from Religion Foundation has failed to allege in its federal complaint who was actually offended by the statue, which has stood in the forest for 65 years without incident.

“The Establishment Clause is not a license to sue anybody, anytime, anywhere,”  said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “Federal court is not a place for idle ideological debates, but instead a place for real disputes involving real people. Freedom Religion Foundation does not get to drag the government or others into court every time it decides it is ideologically offended.”

Two months ago, Becket Law intervened in federal district court case on behalf of several individual Montanans and the Knights of Columbus to defend a monument to fallen soldiers that includes a statute of Jesus and stands on a public land in a ski resort near Whitefish, Montana. The case was filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, who claimed the monument violated the United States Constitution. Becket asked the U.S. District Court in Montana to vindicate the constitutional rights of Knights to honor soldiers who have given their lives for our country.

 

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. Becket has a 17-year history of defending religious liberty for people of all faiths. Its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory against the federal government at the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Court strikes down NYC ban on churches meeting in schools

Washington, DC.- On Friday, a federal court struck down a New York City regulation that bans churches from meeting in public school buildings during non-school hours. The ban has been the subject of significant protests and proposed legislation over the last few months.

“The meaning of this decision is simple: The government can’t treat churches like second-class citizens, and it can’t treat ‘religious worship’ like an obscenity,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket Law. “If it throws open the doors of public school buildings for the Elks, the Lions, and the Rotary Club, it can’t slam it in the face of churches.”

Under the New York City law, thousands of community groups are permitted to use public school buildings after hours—for a fee—for a wide variety of social, civic, and recreational meetings. But the law specifically bans churches from conducting “religious worship services.” The Court held that the ban on “worship” violates the Constitution because it “discriminates against religion on its face” and “causes [city] officials to become excessively entangled with religion by requiring them to make their own bureaucratic determinations as to what constitutes ‘worship.’”

The lawsuit, brought on behalf of a small church called the Bronx Household of Faith, has been winding its way through the courts for seventeen years. In October, Becket filed an amicus brief in support of the church’s request for Supreme Court review. After the Supreme Court declined to take the case, Becket filed another amicus brief in the district court. Today’s decision quoted at length from Becket’s brief, which pointed out that churches have routinely been permitted to meet in public buildings throughout history.

“President Washington permitted religious groups to conduct worship services in the U.S. Capitol building as early as 1795,” said the court, quoting Becket’s Brief. “President Jefferson, whose devotion to church-state separation cannot be questioned, regularly attended services in the Capitol throughout his presidency, and allowed worship services in the Treasury and War Office buildings as well. Even the Supreme Court chamber was occasionally used for worship services.”

Becket’s co-counsel on the brief is Michael McConnell, director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center and one of the leading constitutional law scholars in the country. The Bronx Household of Faith is represented by Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defense Fund.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

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Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

 

 

4th Circuit Rules for Student’s Right to Receive Religious Education

WASHINGTON, DC — Today, a federal appeals court ruled unanimously for student’s right to receive credit for religion courses, signaling a tremendous victory for religious education across the country. The decision, from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, upheld a South Carolina program which allows students to gain elective school credit for religion courses taken off-campus during school hours. In 2009 Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the school district over the program, claiming it was a violation of the establishment clause.

“[T]he program properly accommodates religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment,” the court’s opinion states. “[The program] accommodates the ‘genuine and independent choices’ of parents and students to pursue [religious] instruction.”

“This is a big win for public school students and for religious education,” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel with Becket Law, which represents the school district, along with Spartanburg firm Lyles, Darr & Clark, LLP. “The court’s opinion shows that public schools can make room for student religious exercise.”

For more than 50 years, courts have routinely held that off-campus released time programs do not violate the Constitution by promoting religion, but merely accommodate the wishes of students and parents. Nation-wide, more than 250,000 children in 32 states participate in released time programs each year. In South Carolina alone, more than 12,000 students attend released time classes each week.

“We are very pleased by the outcome,” says Dr. Russell W. Booker, superintendent of Spartanburg County School District No. 7. “We are especially pleased that the Court recognized that the District has conscientiously complied with the Constitution in carrying out its mission of educating Spartanburg’s children.”

The Court’s decision has implications for released time programs across South Carolina and throughout the country. It also affirms the constitutionality of the relationship between private schools and public schools.

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. Becket has a 17-year history of defending religious liberty for people of all faiths. Its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory against the federal government at the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

 

Becket Praises Courageous Institutions for Joining the Fight for Religious Liberty

Washington, D.C. – Today, major Catholic dioceses and charitable organizations across the country—including the University of Notre Dame—filed twelve separate lawsuits against the Obama administration’s abortion-drug mandate and dramatically widened the battle front against this unprecedented assault on religious freedom. Becket Law, who has led this fight by filing the first four lawsuits against the mandate, praised the courage of these Catholic entities.

“The alarm bells are ringing all over our nation,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel for Becket. “With so many voices now joined in chorus against it, the federal government cannot continue to ignore the widespread violations of religious liberty caused by its flagrantly unconstitutional mandate.”

This sweeping new lawsuit joins a growing list of challenges to the HHS mandate that employers must include contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs in their employee health insurance, or risk hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Becket Law played a path-breaking role in this litigation. It filed the first three lawsuits against the mandate, on behalf of Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic liberal arts school; Colorado Christian University, an evangelical school in Denver; and the Eternal Word Television Network, a worldwide Catholic broadcasting network based in Alabama. It then filed the fifth lawsuit on behalf of Ave Maria University, a Catholic university in Florida.

Please visit Becket’s website for the most up-to-date information and resources about the growing number of challenges to the HHS mandate: www.becketlaw.org.

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. Becket has a 17-year history of defending religious liberty for people of all faiths. Its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory against the federal government at the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. Becket Law is the first and leading law firm to legally challenge the Administration’s HHS mandate.

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Sebelius’ Prized Speaking Slot at Georgetown Commencement Weekend Draws Fire

Washington, D.C.– Today, Becket Law launched a petition urging Georgetown University to rescind the invitation to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to address one of the commencement ceremonies of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. The petition blasts the university for giving a platform to Sebelius who was instrumental in imposing the HHS mandate, an affront to religious freedom that represents “the height of religious intolerance.”

Becket filed the first lawsuits challenging the mandate and has played a leading role in publicly denouncing it as an unconstitutional intrusion on Americans’ faith. The petition, which will be sent to Georgetown University President DeGioia, points to the school’s history as the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States. The religious freedom established in 18th century America permitted the founding of Georgetown University. “With that freedom,” it states, “Georgetown University has thrived.”

The mandate requires that all employers provide insurance coverage for free sterilizations, contraception, and abortion-inducing drugs, regardless of their religious beliefs. Additionally, Sebelius recently admitted to drafting the mandate without consulting Supreme Court precedent in religious liberty cases—including the landmark Hosanna-Tabor case won by Becket—and without receiving a legal memo about whether the mandate is even constitutional.

“Secretary Sebelius has declared that she is ‘in a war’ with those whose religious beliefs about abortion and contraception are different from her own,” the petition states, “Georgetown should not associate itself with this attack on religious liberty.”

Becket’s petition can be signed here.

For further information, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or (202) 349-7224.

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Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. Becket has a 17-year history of defending religious liberty for people of all faiths. Its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory against the federal government at the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. Becket Law is the first and leading law firm to legally challenge the Obama Administration’s mandate.


 

Robert P. George Appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Washington, DC – Becket Law is pleased to announce that Princeton University political philosopher, constitutional scholar, and Becket Board of Directors member, Robert P. George has been appointed to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The appointment was made by Speaker of the United States House of Representatives John Boehner on March 22, 2012.

The USCIRF was created by Congress as part of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and reauthorized by Congress in 2011. The nine members of the independent, bipartisan advisory body are appointed by the President of the United States and the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate.

The Commission’s principal responsibilities are to review violations of religious freedom internationally and make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress on actions that should be taken to advance greater protection for this fundamental human right. Becket’s Director of International and Government Relations responded to the announcements, stating “Professor George’s expertise in America’s philosophical basis for and historic commitment to religious freedom will re-invigorate the Commission’s founding purpose.”

Robert George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. He has previously served as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He has also served on UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST).

He is the author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has also written for journals of opinion from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to First Things and the Boston Review.

A graduate of Swarthmore College and Harvard Law School, Professor George also earned a master’s degree in theology from Harvard and a doctorate in philosophy of law fromOxfordUniversity. He holds honorary doctorates of law, letters, science, ethics, humane letters, civil law, and juridical science.

He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a recipient of the United States Presidential Citizens Medal and the Honorific Medal for the Defense of Human Rights of the Republic of Poland.

 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

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Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

 

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Weber (Big Mountain Jesus)

A mountain memorial to honor fallen soldiers

Since 1954, a statue of Jesus has stood atop a Montana ski slope as a monument to soldiers who died in World War II.

After World War II, soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division returning to Montana sought to commemorate their fallen comrades with a monument that evoked memories of the shrines and statues they had seen in their battles through the mountains of Europe. To honor these soldiers who had sacrificed so much for their country, the Knights of Columbus (Kalispell Council No. 1328) commissioned the statue of Jesus and applied to the United States Forest Service for a permit to place it on Big Mountain. Since 1954, the statue has stood on a 25’ x 25’ plot of Forest Service land, near the top of Whitefish Mountain Resort—which also leases the plot and the surrounding land from the Forest Service for its ski slopes.

Atheists seek to scrub religion from our history

The Knights’ permit had been renewed every ten years without incident until 2010. Then, the Wisconsin-based FFRF threatened to sue the Forest Service for offending its supposed right to be free from seeing anything religious—even across the country in Montana. The Forest Service, buckling under pressure, initially denied the permit. Amidst the public outcry that followed, it eventually recognized the statue’s historical and cultural significance to the local community. In February 2012, FFRF sued to have the statue permanently removed.

Becket defends “Big Mountain Jesus”

Just after Memorial Day in May 2012, Becket joined the lawsuit to represent the Knights of Columbus and several individuals who had voluntarily maintained the statue for more than sixty years. Becket argued that religious symbols should be treated on fair grounds with other commercial, historical, and cultural symbols that abound on public land.

In June 2013, the district court ruled in Becket’s favor and dismissed the case. FFRF appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard oral argument in July 2015. In August 2015, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Becket that “Big Mountain Jesus” can remain standing.

FFRF’s deadline to appeal the Ninth Circuit’s decision passed in February 2016, protecting the war memorial in place for good.


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Public SquareBecause religious exercise is natural to human culture, it has a natural place in the public square. Religious symbols should not be treated as dangerous expression, scrubbed from society. Instead, the government can and should recognize the important role of religion in our history and culture.

For the in-depth story, listen to Becket’s Stream of Conscience podcast episode about this case, Slopes and Statues.”

Romeike v. Holder

In January 2010, the Romeikes were presented with a choice no parents should have to make: abandon their religious beliefs, or lose custody of their children.

The Romeike family is from the German state of Baden-Württemberg, and chose to educate their children at home in order to follow their Evangelical Christian beliefs. However, state authorities refused to accept this and sent police to march the Romeike children to the local public school, invoking the Schulpflichtgesetz, or School Duty Law. The family fled from their homeland to Tennessee, and sought asylum in the United States.

In July 2010, Becket submitted an amicus brief to the United States Board of Immigration Appeals. It described the disturbing Nazi-era background of the School Duty Law, and explained that the original purpose of the law was to suppress “the development of religiously and philosophically motivated parallel societies.” The Romeikes were not evading their duty to educate their children, only the state’s attempt to indoctrinate their children against their religious beliefs.

An immigration judge granted the Romeikes’ request for asylum, but the federal government appealed that decision, and in May 2013 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled against the Romeikes.

Watch Becket’s Daniel Blomberg discuss the religious liberty implications of this case at FRC University (starts at 22:00 min).

daniel

 

Watch Becket’s Luke Goodrich debate Does Germany’s Ban on Homeschooling Count as Religious Persecution? at the University of St. Thomas.

http://www.frc.org/eventregistration/should-the-state-raise-your-kids

Massachusetts School Children, Parents Defend ‘Under God’

Washington, DC.-  Round Four in Becket’s campaign to defend ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Today, Massachusetts schoolchildren who want to continue reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in their public school classrooms intervened in Middlesex state court to defend the Pledge. They seek to defeat a lawsuit brought by a hypersecularist group that wants a court order removing the words “under God” from the Pledge. The schoolchildren, their parents, and the Knights of Columbus are represented by Becket, a nonprofit law firm that has defended the Pledge for almost a decade. After losing three times in federal courts, hypersecularists are now challenging the Pledge at the state level.

This case, brought by the American Humanist Association, alleges that the Pledge violates the Massachusetts constitution and demands that the court declares it unconstitutional and allow its recitation at patriotic ceremonies only if it does not refer to God.

“Members of the American Humanist Society have every right not to say the Pledge if they don’t want to, but they don’t have the right to silence everyone else,” said Diana Verm, Legal Counsel at Becket.

This is the fourth of a series of major lawsuits that have attempted to have the words “Under God” removed from the Pledge. Becket successfully defeated all three and is ready to take on the next challenge.

“The education of students everywhere will be significantly altered if ‘under God’ is removed. Removing the words ‘under God’ would deny the source of our rights and show hostility toward religion. The Pledge is appropriate in public schools because it is a statement of political philosophy, not theology,” added Verm.

Becket is working on the case with J. Patrick Kennedy, of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas, LLP in Boston.

 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more). ”

 

Gaylor v. Mnuchin

Pastor Chris Butler serves communities in South Side, Chicago

The leader of a predominantly African-American congregation, Pastor Chris Butler devotes his life to serving communities in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Pastor Chris spends countless hours leading his church’s community ministries, including the Chicago Peace Campaign, which has been successful in bringing peace to areas devastated by violence; the Journeymen program that mentors at-risk youth; and a homeless ministry focused on feeding the hungry and providing blankets and toiletry kits.

The church can’t afford to pay Pastor Chris a salary, but it offers him a small housing allowance so he can afford to live just minutes from his church and the community he serves.

FFRF’s lawsuit harms Pastor Chris’s church and other underserved communities

For over 60 years, federal law has recognized that housing allowances like Pastor Chris’s shouldn’t be taxed as income. This helps ensure that pastors, rabbis, imams, and other faith leaders—who often use their homes for their ministries—are able to live close to the communities they serve. The law is based on the same tax principle that allows employers to reimburse travel and overseas housing costs and provide tax-free housing allowances to teachers, business leaders, military service members, and thousands of other employees who use their homes for their jobs.

But in 2011, the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the IRS to eliminate the tax exemption for housing allowances—putting communities, like the ones Pastor Chris serves, at risk.

Becket defends all faith leaders from discrimination

In 2011, a federal court ruled that the tax exemption for housing allowances was unconstitutional. After the Seventh Circuit threw out that ruling on technical grounds, FFRF sued again in 2016. In January 2017, the court allowed Becket to intervene in the case on behalf of Pastor Chris Butler and Bishop Edward Peecher of Chicago Embassy Church, Father Patrick Malone of Holy Cross Anglican Church, and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. In October 2017, the district court again struck down the tax exemption for housing allowances.

In February 2018, Becket appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on behalf of the churches, which agreed to hear the case. Oral argument took place on October 24, 2018.

On March 15, 2019, the Seventh Circuit unanimously ruled that the parsonage allowance is constitutional, stating it “is simply one of many per se rules” that “allow hundreds of thousands of employees (including ministers) to receive tax-exempt housing every year,” and that it is consistent with the nation’s “lengthy tradition of tax exemptions for religion, particularly for church-owned properties.”

In June 2019, FFRF decided not appeal the Seventh Circuit’s decision, definitively securing a victory for the parsonage allowance and houses of worship across the country.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Establishment Clause: The longstanding tax exemption for housing allowances ensures that ministers are treated the same way as teachers, business leaders, military service members and hundreds of thousands of other workers who receive tax-free housing for their jobs. Equal treatment doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause.

Capitol Hill Luncheon Series, Briefing I: Freedom for Religious Organizations and Persons to Exercise their Faith in Public Life

On Friday August 19th, The Becket Fund hosted the first of five Congressional briefings regarding the state of religious liberty in the United States. Over twenty-five Congressional staffers attended the panel discussion on the freedom of religious organizations and individuals to exercise their faith in public life. Luke

Goodrich, Deputy National Litigation Director for The Becket Fund, moderated the panel following opening remarks from Former Congressman J.C. Watts. The panel consisted of Gregory Baylor, Senior Counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, Rhett Butler, Government Liaison for the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, and Stanley Carlson-Theis, founder and president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. The next Congressional Briefing from the Becket Fund will be held on September 30th on the topic of Maintaining the Freedom of Religious Hiring by Faith-Based Organizations.

American Atheists v. Port Authority of New Jersey and New York

Two days after the September 11 attacks, a recovery worker discovered something in the rubble: a steel cross beam shaped like a Latin cross. It was a comforting sign for many Americans who saw it as a symbol of hope and healing as they cleared debris in search for survivors.

The 17-foot cross was to be displayed as a historical artifact in the National September 11 Museum as part of an exhibit called “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero,” which portrayed how rescue workers at Ground Zero struggled to deal with their harrowing circumstances. But in 2011, angry members of the American Atheists, Inc. sued the Museum and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, arguing that displaying the cross would offend them as citizens and taxpayers, in violation the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Though the Museum is a private foundation making a private decision, the American Atheists argued that no religious symbol should ever be allowed on property leased by the government.

Over and over again groups like the American Atheists have tried removing all traces of religion from the public square. Now they wanted to go so far as scrubbing it from our nation’s history.

Thankfully, the federal district judge ruled in favor of the cross, saying that it helps tell the 9/11 story. The American Atheists then appealed in August 2013. In February 2014, Becket filed an amicus brief stating that as a historical artifact, the cross rightfully belongs in a historical museum. For the first time in the case, we also pointed out that the American Atheists had no right to sue in the first place, since taking personal offense over the role that religion actually plays in American life is not grounds for suing.

Separating church and state does not mean separating religion from public life. By removing the cross from the Museum, the American Atheists would deny future generations what was spiritually significant to many Americans during those terrible days. No matter how hard they try, they cannot write religion out of our nation’s history.

In July 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the effort by American Atheists, Inc. to force the National 9/11 Museum to remove the Ground Zero Cross from its display or to include a plaque honoring atheists alongside the cross. The museum was represented by Paul, Weiss of Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

Ahlquist v. City of Cranston

The Becket Fund is defended the School Committee of the City of Cranston, Rhode Island against a lawsuit from the ACLU of Rhode Island. The ACLU sued the School Committee over a historic mural designed by students that has existed in Cranston High School West’s auditorium for almost 50 years. According to the Committee, the lawsuit is a misguided attempt to rid public buildings of historic references to religion.

The Supreme Court has made clear that displays on public property, like the one at Cranston West, can contain some historically significant references to religion because the government can promote history and art without promoting religion. That hasn’t stopped the ACLU from attempting to scrub the historic mural off the walls of Cranston West High School.

The federal district court in Rhode Island ruled against the School Committee of the City of Cranston on January 11, 2012.

Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District

For over a decade, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has successfully defended the words “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Why? Because the phrase “under God” answers one of the most important questions any community can ask: Where do our rights come from?

Although it may seem abstract, that question is one of great practical importance in law and politics, because your answer explains how you will treat the rights of others. Kings and emperors throughout history answered the question by claiming that individual rights were theirs to give and theirs to take away. If you offended the emperor, you could be executed on the spot, no matter who you were.

In more recent history, totalitarian systems such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union said that they had the ability to take away human rights from “enemies of the State”. They could even reclassify some people as “unpersons” without any rights at all. The State gives, and the State takes away.

But the American tradition—and the English system it descends from—has always been different. In England, titans of legal history like Sir Edward Coke and William Blackstone asserted that no king could take away the rights of an Englishman because those rights did not come from the king: they come, instead, from the laws of nature and nature’s God. That same idea inspired American revolutionaries to defend their rights against the ever-encroaching powers of a tyrannical king.

That’s why it is so important to defend the Pledge of Allegiance. People in power tend to abuse the rights of the very citizens they are supposed to protect. By grounding human rights in a source higher than the State, every American’s rights are secured; those in power are checked and restrained; and we have a justifiable reason to stand up for people who are oppressed by dehumanizing, unjust laws.

Courts across the country agree. Many recognize that the phrase “under God,” instead of acting like a prayer or religious creed, communicates timeless American values:

  • On June 14, 2004, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Pledge, holding that the plaintiff, atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow, did not have proper standing to challenge the Pledge.
  • On March 11, 2010, a second challenge from Dr. Newdow in California was rebuffed by the federal appeals court for the 9th Circuit, which held “that the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the Establishment Clause because Congress’ ostensible and predominant purpose was to inspire patriotism.”
  • On November 12, 2010, a third challenge by Dr. Newdow, this time in New Hampshire, was flatly rejected by the federal appeals court for the 1st Circuit because “both the choice to engage in the recitation of the Pledge and the choice not to do so are entirely voluntary.”
  • On May 9, 2014, Massachusetts’ highest state court unanimously rejected the American Humanist Association’s attack on the Pledge, finding that “the pledge, notwithstanding its reference to God, is a fundamentally patriotic exercise, not a religious one.”
  • And on February 4, 2015, a New Jersey teenager and her family successfully protected the right of all her fellow students to continue reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in its entirety from the American Humanist Association’s latest effort to take “under God” out of the Pledge.

The courts are on right side of history. American history is filled with references to “God,” “Creator,” “Author,” and “Nature’s God;” such references honor America’s values and religious heritage.

Congress first officially adopted the Pledge of Allegiance in 1942, during World War II, to encourage patriotism. In 1951, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, first began the practice of saying “one nation under God” as a part of the Pledge. They encouraged many others including Congress to follow the same practice. In 1954, Congress passed and President Eisenhower signed an amendment adding the words “under God” to the Pledge.

One of Congress’s reasons for adding “under God” to the Pledge was to explain America’s disagreement with the Soviet Union about the nature of human rights. The Soviets claimed that people receive their rights from the State, and therefore the State can take those rights away.

In contrast, Congress said it was using the phrase “under God” to make clear that basic human rights are beyond the reach of the State.

In so doing, it was following a centuries-old tradition:

  1. Washington’s General Orders to his troops (July 2, 1776): “The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army.
  2. The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
  3. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863): “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

To avoid saying the “offensive” word “God,” as the secularists attacking the Pledge want, teachers would have to remain silent about the values embraced by the American Revolutionaries, the Constitution, abolitionism, and the civil rights movement.

References to “God,” which remind every American that their rights cannot be seized by the State, are the cherished legacy of a free society; each reminds future generations that their rights come not from the State, but a Source beyond the State’s control.

As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said when signing the amendment adding “under God” to the Pledge on Flag Day, June 14, 1954:

“[The words under God] will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded.”

Atheists of Florida v. City of Lakeland

The Atheists of Florida hauled the City of Lakeland into court for opening their meetings with Christian prayer – a practice that dated back more than 60 years. After the city commission opened the invocation to all faiths, the district court ruled that the legislative prayer practice was permissible. The Atheists of Florida then appealed the case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where they argued that some prayers contained language that was “too” Christian.

The city’s formal policy was elaborately developed to ensure that all faiths have an opportunity to participate and no favorites were picked. In fact, the city developed an exhaustive list of congregations in the county to invite to give the invocation. They created a list of more than 600 diverse religious organizations, spending approximately $1,500 a year to ensure that the net was cast as wide as possible.

Nevertheless, the Atheists still wanted all “sectarian” references stripped from the prayers. In other words, don’t say “Jesus.”

But Supreme Court precedent is clear that legislative prayer – which traces its roots to the Continental Congress in 1774 – is constitutional as long as the prayer is not used to proselytize, advance one faith, or disparage another. So, groups that want to put an end to this American tradition are trying a new tactic. They’re saying that legislative prayer is okay as long as it is stripped of any specific religious references.

GrayRobinson, P.A. represented the City of Lakeland. Becket filed an amicus brief providing the Eleventh Circuit with a thorough historical analysis of legislative prayer. The brief noted that the Atheists essentially wanted to hollow out Supreme Court precedents “to exclude prayers that reflect the faith of the person praying” and that their approach would actually “invite courts to engage in amateur theological inquiry that could itself violate the Establishment Clause.” The court reached a similar conclusion and upheld Lakeland’s policy.

Sac and Fox Nation v. Borough of Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe, a living legend

Arguably one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Jim Thorpe won two Olympic gold medals and played three different professional sports – football, track and field, and baseball. In the course of his career, he was inducted to ten Halls of Fame and in 1950 the Associated Press called him the “greatest American football player” and the “greatest overall male athlete.”

Jim Thorpe’s athletic prowess undoubtedly has something to do with the Sac and Fox Nation Indian blood that ran through his veins. Born with the Indian name Wa-Tho-Huk or “Bright Path,” Jim Thorpe carried the spirit and customs of his tribe until his death in 1953.

A violation of Native American customs

Thorpe’s remaining two sons, along with the Oklahoma-based Sac and Fox Nation, have been fighting since his death to return his remains to the family grave site on sacred Sac and Fox land in Stroud, Oklahoma. The struggle began after a family dispute cut short the burial ceremony.

Thorpe’s body was taken and auctioned off to the highest bidder—a small Pennsylvania town he’d never even visited. Jim Thorpe has been buried there ever since; not next to family, not on sacred Native American land, but commercially on display in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, where his remains have been mocked, vandalized, and desecrated.

Now his sons—themselves now elderly—want to bring him home, burying him near his parents and other family members in Oklahoma. Conner & Winters, LLP and Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic represented them. But the town refused, envisioning major tourist attractions that would come from the deal – an Olympic stadium, football shrine, a Jim Thorpe themed sporting goods store, and even a hotel named “Jim Thorpe’s Teepees.”

The relocation of Thorpe’s remains to Pennsylvania violates the Sac and Fox Nation’s beliefs that a sacred burial ceremony must take place to allow a body’s spirit to successfully complete its spirit journey. It also violates the federal Native American Graves Protections and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which was specifically passed to defend Native American religious beliefs and help these communities reclaim sacred items and remains that were unjustifiably taken from them.

However, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the sons’ request, saying the protections in the statute would lead to “absurd outcome.” This is a dangerous precedent putting courts in the business of deciding what religious beliefs are valid and which are not.

Becket defends the Sac & Fox Nation’s religious freedom

In our country, courts should not be in the business of rejecting religious protections simply because they think protecting those beliefs is “absurd.” Given the history of mistreatment of Native Americans by government officials, they take special care to protect the Native Americans’ religious practices.

In July 2015 Becket led a diverse coalition of religious groups to the Supreme Court, filing a friend-of-the-court brief to help honor the religious beliefs and final wishes of Jim Thorpe and his remaining family. Members of the coalition included Becket, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the National Council of Churches, and the Queens Federation of Churches. The coalition was represented at the Supreme Court by Becket, along with attorneys Troy Eid and Harriet McConnell of prominent international law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, which has a nationally-renowned Indian Law practice.

However, in October 2015 the Supreme Court denied to hear the case, thus ending the battle to bring Jim Thorpe’s body back to Oklahoma.

Big Sky Colony v. Montana Department of Labor and Industry

The Hutterites are a peaceful and industrious people who have lived every aspect of their lives in religious communities for almost 500 years—eating meals in a communal dining hall, educating their children in a communal school, wearing the same homemade clothing, and working together on a communal farm.

All Hutterite members take a vow of poverty, renounce private property, and hold all their possessions in common. They devote all of their time, labor, and energy to the community as an act of service and religious devotion. They also pledge to resolve any disputes among themselves without using secular courts. They have been successfully living by these religious principles for almost 500 years.

In 2009, however, powerful labor unions and construction lobbyists in Montana complained that Hutterites receive a supposed “competitive advantage” because they do not pay wages to their members, and therefore are not required to provide workers’ compensation insurance. In response, the state passed a new law forcing the Hutterites to provide workers’ compensation insurance for their members. The new law would force the community to violate its 500-year-old commitment to holding all possessions in common, working without expectation of compensation, and refusing to assert legal claims against each other.

The new law is also pointless, because the Hutterites already provide expensive, comprehensive medical care to all of their members, regardless of the reason for their illness or injury. Thus, the workers’ compensation requirement does nothing to protect the health of Hutterite workers; it only forces the community to violate its religious beliefs. Unfortunately, because Hutterites shun politics and do not vote, the legislature never consulted them before passing the new law, and was unaware that the law would serve no purpose.

When the colony discovered that they would be forced to violate their religious beliefs, they petitioned the Montana state courts for relief. A district court decided that the law violated the First Amendment because it was “drafted with such care to apply only to Hutterites,” and because it imposed “property rights concepts [that are] forbidden by the fundamental communal living and community of goods doctrine upon which the [community] is founded.” In a sharply divided 5-4 ruling, the Montana Supreme Court reversed that decision.

The Hutterites then asked Becket to appeal their case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, but Becket ultimately helped the Hutterites work out a solution with the Montana legislature. Today, the Hutterites continue to live in accordance with their religious beliefs without legal persecution.

EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores

Meet Samantha Elauf   

Samantha Elauf is a fashion blogger who takes her faith seriously. When she was 17, she sought a job at her local mall’s Abercrombie & Fitch. She knew the company dress code prohibited hats but had previously hired a Jewish employee who wore a yarmulke, so she never imagined that her headscarf might be an issue.

The store manager who interviewed Samantha liked her and recommended that she be hired. But when the district manager learned about Samantha’s headscarf, he made the store manager lower Samantha’s scores so she would appear unqualified.

Blatant Discrimination

Abercrombie does have a policy that prohibits employees from wearing hats, but they’ve made religious accommodations numerous times in the past. But rather than acknowledge that their district manager erred in refusing to accommodate Samantha, Abercrombie claims she should not be protected by the Civil Rights Act—which prohibits employment discrimination on the grounds of race, national origin, sex, and religion—because she never “explicitly” confirmed in her interview that she wore the scarf for religious reasons. In short, Abercrombie refused to hire Samantha because of her Muslim faith, and now they want a free pass for discrimination.

But anti-discrimination laws have been on the books for over fifty years. These are the same laws championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. that protect our civil rights from discrimination to this day. Abercrombie blatantly denied Samantha Elauf a job on the basis of her religion, and that should not go unchallenged.

In 2011, a federal district court judge ruled in Samantha’s favor, but in October 2013, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. On October 2, 2014, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Samantha’s case.

Protecting Religious Diversity

Becket became involved in this lawsuit for the first time at the Supreme Court. Becket champions religious diversity and defends Samantha’s right to bring her religious identity into her workplace. Religious expression is invaluable and inseparable from the human experience. No American should be forced to leave their faith at the door when they enter the workplace, especially when their religious activity has no impact on their employer’s business. Society will only benefit from protecting religious diversity everywhere, even at the mall.

On December 11, 2014, Becket filed an amicus brief in this case. On February 25, 2015, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in this case.

On June 1, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of religious job seekers. The Court held that a job seeker suing for religious discrimination only has to show that their need for a religious accommodation–such as wearing a headscarf–was a “motivating factor” in the employer’s decision not to hire. Even if the employer is not certain the applicant needs a religious accommodation, they can be liable if they suspect there is a need for religious accommodation and reject the job applicant for that reason. This Supreme Court ruling requires that employers be mindful of the potential religious needs of job applicants and not let the possible need for a religious accommodation influence their employment decisions.

The Solicitor General and Department of Justice represented Samantha.

 

Moss v. Spartanburg County School District No. 7

In 2006, South Carolina passed legislation to allow public school students to take outside religious classes and receive elective credits. Thousands of public school children across the nation receive religious education through released-time classes, and the Supreme Court has allowed it since 1952.

The classes are provided off-campus by third parties unaffiliated with the public schools. South Carolina’s Released Time Credit Act (RTCA) made it easier for public schools to accommodate the religious interests of their students. In 2007, Spartanburg County School District No. 7 passed its own policy permitting released-time programs in compliance with state law.

In 2009, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the School District, claiming that the school’s policy violates the Establishment Clause. Becket successfully defended the school district in district court and in appeal, where the Fourth Circuit unanimously upheld the program saying, “[T]he program properly accommodates religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment.”

In November 2012, the Supreme Court denied FFRF’s final appeal. “This is a big win for public school students and for religious education,” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at Becket, who argued the case at the Fourth Circuit. “The Supreme Court’s rejection of this case is a blow against anti-religious legal theories that would treat religion with suspicion.”

The court’s decision has implications for released-time programs across South Carolina and throughout the country. It also affirms that private schools and public schools can work with each other for their students’ benefit.

 

 

Elmbrook School District v. Doe

The Question

Where would you rather attend your high school graduation: In a hot, sweaty gym? Or in a state-of-the-art church auditorium? For the Elmbrook School District, the question was a no-brainer: It chose the auditorium.

The school gym was hot, cramped, and sweaty in the month of June—with no air conditioning, inadequate parking, poor handicapped facilities, and only folding chairs or bleachers for seating. So the senior class proposed moving graduation to a local church auditorium.

The auditorium had more space, more parking, better handicapped facilities, and better seating. It had large video screens for close-up viewing. It had air conditioning. And it cost the same as the school gym.

The District happily moved graduation to the auditorium, and for the next decade, the students were delighted.

The Lawsuit

Then came the lawsuit. A secularist organization claimed that certain students were “offended” and “angry” at the use of the church auditorium. They admitted that the graduation events were entirely secular, and that no prayers or religious references had ever been made. But they disliked the fact that there was a cross at the front of the auditorium, Bibles and hymnals in the pews, and church brochures in the lobby.

A federal district court quickly rejected their lawsuit. But surprisingly, the Chicago-based United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that renting the church auditorium was unconstitutional. It said that the “religious environment” of the auditorium created a risk that graduating students would “perceive the state as endorsing a set of religious beliefs.”

The Supreme Court Appeal

That’s when the School District turned to Becket. We knew that the case was important:  Hundreds of school districts hold graduations in religious venues, because those venues are often the best and cheapest available. The Constitution does not require school districts to treat religion like a toxic subject that must be avoided.

But we also knew that the odds were against us: The U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear only about 1% of cases that are appealed to it.

On December 20, 2012, we appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. After a year-long delay, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. But in a strong show of support, Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented, arguing that the lower court had failed to apply the proper legal standards.

Becket remains ready to defend the principle that religion is a vital part of human culture—not a toxic subject to be avoided.

 

Ward v. Wilbanks

Julea Ward was kicked out of Eastern Michigan University’s counseling program after she declined to counsel a student against her religious beliefs. Represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, Ward lost in the lower courts, but in January 2012 the Sixth Circuit issued a major victory for the rights of individuals with religious beliefs. The court ruled that Eastern Michigan University may have violated the Constitution by expelling Ward based on her religious beliefs, and sent the case back to the district court. In December 2012, Eastern Michigan University quietly settled the lawsuit.

Ward was expelled for trying to use a patient referral mechanism that other student counselors were allowed to use. Her sin?  She wanted to refer patients for religious reasons; she felt she could not provide good-faith relationship advice to same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs. The university allowed student counselors to refer patients for all sorts of other reasons, and Ward violated no written university policy; Ward was simply being targeted.

The university earned a rebuke from the Sixth Circuit, which ruled that the university was “permitting secular exemptions but not religious ones” and “failing to apply the policy in an even-handed, much less a faith-neutral, manner to Ward.” This reasoning echoed Becket’s amicus brief in the appeal.

Ward v. Wilbanks is another example of government officials using their power to force ideological conformity onto those who dissent from academic pieties. The university’s decision to give up, pay Ward, and issue her a clean academic record indicates that the First Amendment is still a bulwark against the bureaucratic urge to squelch diversity of ideas – but it is a bulwark that still requires defenders.

Becket submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, making arguments that the court ultimately adopted under the Free Exercise Clause. Becket also assisted with Ms. Ward’s primary brief.

*Photo Courtesy of ADF

Yoder v. Morristown

An Amish community’s centuries-old practice threatened

The Swartzentruber Amish community of Morristown, New York believe in living a simple life, separate from modern worldly customs. They exercise this belief by not using electricity in their homes, driving horse drawn carriages rather than cars or other gasoline-powered vehicles, and wearing simple and modest clothing, among other practices. The home is a central part of their faith because it is where the community gathers to meet and worship. And the way they build their homes is essential to their religious tradition, since they use construction plans handed down from generation to generation.

The Amish community have been living peacefully in Morristown for decades. They never had trouble obtaining building permits or legally maintaining their property—until 2006, when they began receiving tickets for building code violations.

Becket defends the Amish community’s right to live by their faith

The Amish community’s traditional building methods require that they do not install battery-powered smoke detectors, use certified architectural plans, or install hurricane tie-downs. But under a new local law enforced by a newly appointed town official, the Amish were suddenly barred from obtaining building permits while following this religious practice. The Amish feared that if the town’s actions continued, their entire community would be forced to either leave Morristown because they would be unable to live according to their religious beliefs or face government fines. In 2009, Becket and the New York-based Proskauer Rose LLP represented twelve Amish individuals in a lawsuit to end Morristown’s continued violation of the Amish community’s rights under the United States and New York constitutions.

Cooperation and compromise: a win-win for religious liberty and local government

With Becket’s help, the Amish proved that their homes were structurally sound and just as good as what is required under the law. In 2012, the Amish and Morristown signed a settlement agreement which dismissed all criminal charges against the Amish and allowed them to continue to practice their traditional building methods. The town inspected the Amish homes and deemed them compliant with the state building code.

For the in-depth story and more about Amish American communities, listen to our Stream of Conscience podcast episode, Codes and Communities.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom means having the freedom to live out one’s faith in all aspects of life. Just because a religious belief is unusual—like building homes according to centuries-old religious practices, as the Amish do—does not mean the government can trample on that belief.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities that stand out from the rest of society are often vulnerable to religious liberty violations from governments, sometimes as a result of misunderstandings or ignorance. Government and religious communities must work together to come up with solutions that allow the government to do its job, while accommodating religious exercise.
  • Minority religions: Minority religions are particularly at risk of religious liberty violations, but government has no right to selectively target minority faith practices because they are unusual or unpopular. Protecting minority religious beliefs and practices is critical for strengthening the fundamental principle of religious freedom: that all human beings must be free to seek the truth and live out their convictions.

Intermountain Fair Housing Council v. Boise Rescue Mission Ministries

A ministry with a Christian mission: serving those in need

What if a Christian homeless shelter were forbidden from holding a Christian chapel service? That almost happened to the Boise Rescue Mission, a ministry that had served the needy in Boise, Idaho for over 50 years.

The Mission serves the homeless by offering addiction recovery programs, a Veterans Ministry program, holiday meals, job searches, counseling, and after-school activities for children. From 2012 to 2013 alone, it welcomed nearly 5,000 new guests, served about 700,000 meals, and provided 250,000 beds. Hundreds have graduated from its recovery program and have moved on to build productive, successful lives. The Boise Rescue Mission has never turned away a person in need.

The Rescue Mission is a Christian ministry, one that provides a Bible-based curriculum and chapel services to those in need. Its commitment to the Word of God inspires it to welcome the homeless and needy with open arms.

A lawsuit threatens the ministry’s vital work

But in 2008, its faith-based programs and the people it serves were threatened when a federally funded fair housing group in Idaho sued the Rescue Mission under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The lawsuit claimed that the Rescue Mission discriminated on the basis of religion by encouraging guests at the homeless shelter to attend chapel services and by requiring members of the Christian discipleship program to participate in religious activities. This is despite the fact that participation in the Rescue Mission’s programs is voluntary and free of charge, and the Rescue Mission receives no government funding.

In response to the lawsuit, the Rescue Mission argued that the FHA protected the right of the homeless shelter to conduct chapel services, and that forcing the Rescue Mission to accept members of the discipleship program who reject its core beliefs would violate the First Amendment.

Court victory for religious ministries and the communities they serve

The federal district court in Idaho ruled in favor of the Rescue Mission, and the fair housing group appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In July 2011, Becket attorney Luke Goodrich argued the case in the Ninth Circuit.

In September 2011, Becket won a resounding victory when the Ninth Circuit issued a unanimous opinion in favor of the Boise Rescue Mission. The court victory enshrined the right of religious groups to minister to the poor and needy in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Learn more about this case by listening to our Podcast episode, “Religion and Recovery.”


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Religious CommunitiesReligious communities have the right to build and lead their ministries according to their beliefs free from governmental interference or discrimination.

Town of Greece v. Galloway

A diverse town practices a cherished tradition

In the town of Greece, New York, volunteers from any religious faith may commence legislative meetings with a prayer. The town has had a wide variety of volunteers—from Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, to leaders from the Bahá’í and Wiccan traditions. This practice of legislative prayer can be traced back to the time of the Founding Fathers, who did not see it as a forbidden “establishment of religion” but rather as a powerful reminder of their own limited political authority and the divine source of the people’s inalienable rights.

It is a practice as old as this nation, but thanks to a court decision, it soon became a forbidden practice.

Becket defends legislative prayer as our Founders saw it

In August 2013, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a decision by the Second Court Circuit of Appeals and restore the Establishment Clause to its original, founding-era meaning.

The brief explains that the Founders understood establishment of religion as consisting of four key elements: (1) government financial support of the church, (2) government control of the doctrine and personnel of the church, (3) government coercion of religious beliefs and practices, and (4) government assignment of important civil functions to the church – all linked by an underlying concern about state coercion to participate in religious activity. Because legislative prayer does not meet any of these conditions, it is not an establishment of religion.

The brief also explains how the Founders “viewed legislative prayer as a natural outflow of their political philosophy of limited government and inalienable, God-given rights.” By hearing prayer before a government meeting, elected officials are reminded of the limits of their powers, as well as the source of the inalienable rights of those they are elected to serve.

A Supreme Court victory for religious freedom

Oral arguments were heard in November 2013. In May 2014, the Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit’s opinion, protecting legislative prayer in a great victory for religious freedom. For the first time in decades, the Court addressed the constitutionality of legislative prayer and helpfully began clarifying how lower courts should interpret the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Alliance Defending Freedom and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP were counsel in this case.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public square: Because religious exercise is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. Religious expression, including legislative prayer, should not be treated as dangerous or scrubbed from our public discourse.

McCullen v. Coakley

Meet Eleanor McCullen, who ministers to women in crisis

Since 2000, Eleanor McCullen has knitted baby hats and lovingly counseled women outside of abortion clinics near her home in Massachusetts. Driven by her faith, Eleanor aspires to see mothers become parents and to see families flourish by supporting an expectant mother’s decision to say yes to life. As a sidewalk counselor, Eleanor ensures struggling women she meets outside the clinic do not feel alone in their journey, and that, while it may not seem like it, they have a choice. She also directs expectant mothers to important resources such as housing, medical care, sonograms, and food supplies. She even hosts baby showers.

But starting in 2000, the State of Massachusetts passed a series of laws that threatened free speech—and Eleanor’s ability to give women the support they willingly accepted.

Massachusetts “buffer zone” restricts free speech

By 2007, Massachusetts had imposed a 35-foot buffer zone around every abortion clinic in the state. The law made it illegal for Eleanor to have conversations with women who wanted her help on the sidewalks in front of abortion clinics.  Instead, Eleanor was forced off the sidewalk, away from the clinic, and at times into the streets

The buffer zone not only restricted Eleanor’s freedom of speech, but also religious freedom. Eleanor is motivated by her faith to help women in need. A Catholic priest, who joined Eleanor in her lawsuit, wanted to provide religious counseling to women in need.  Another individual simply wanted to stand silently on the sidewalk and pray. Yet the Massachusetts’s law banned all of these peaceful activities. By stopping religious people from offering help to women in need, the law also harmed countless women by depriving them peaceful and often welcomed offers of help.  [There is a heartbreaking brief by women who WISH they’d had such help outside of abortion clinics.

In January 2008, Becket President Mark Rienzi co-counsel Michael DePrimo, and lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom represented Eleanor in federal court. The court ruled against Eleanor in August 2008. In July 2009, Eleanor lost again on appeal at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. She appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court ruling protects free speech and religious liberty 

Central to the First Amendment is the right to a free and peaceful exchange of ideas, which requires an individual’s ability to have personal conversations and distribute literature in public places. Under the new law it would have been a crime punishable with jail time if Eleanor so much as uttered, “Good morning, Jesus loves you,” to a passerby.

In January 2014, Becket President Mark Rienzi argued the case before the Supreme Court. On June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Massachusetts buffer zone law violated the First Amendment because it overly interfered with people’s rights to converse and interact with others.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Free speech: Free speech includes the right to a free and peaceful exchange of ideas with others—including religious ideas. Freedom of speech and religious liberty go hand-in-hand; protecting one protects the other.
  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom includes the freedom to practice one’s faith in all areas of life, both public and private, free of government interference.

Calvary Assembly of God, Wisconsin

For more than 50 years, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has used an extremely broad interpretation of the tax code to censor and intimidate religious leaders of every faith. In short, they occasionally come out of the shadows and threaten a house of worship with losing its religious tax exemption if its religious leaders speak too openly about political issues. Such threats often coincide with heated political races where moral issues are of high importance. And the IRS is often put up to it by hyperseparationist groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

So Becket decided to take the challenge right back to the IRS.

On January 16, 2008, Becket publicly dared the IRS to investigate the Calvary Assembly of God in Algoma, Wisconsin, after its pastor, Kenneth Taylor, used his pulpit to preach about the moral implications of a number of different campaigns going on at the time. We made sure the IRS wouldn’t miss the challenge and printed it as an open letter in Wall Street Journal, knowing that if they pressed forward with the threat, the public would be outraged, and if they backed away, they would essentially concede that you cannot muzzle religious speech in the name of the tax code.

Pastor Taylor has yet to hear from the IRS. Paper tiger?

Freedom from Religion Foundation v. Hanover School District

The year was 2007, the night—Halloween, but trick-or-treaters dressed as ghosts and hobgoblins weren’t the only ones stirring up fanciful fears in New England. No, Dr. Michael Newdow, an atheist and ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, along with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), filed suit to silence the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools across New Hampshire. Why? They found the phrase “under God” spooky.

Representing three New Hampshire families and the Knights of Columbus, Becket intervened, urging the federal district court to dismiss Newdow’s third suit attacking the Pledge in less than 7 years.

After losing at the district court, Newdow appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. The Founder and now President Emeritus of Becket, Seamus Hasson, personally defended the Pledge as the quintessential expression of American political philosophy. “The Constitution doesn’t ban the word God from public discourse, in California or New Hampshire, in the Pledge or anywhere else,” Hasson declared.

Mr. Hasson demonstrated that historic appeals to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are not primarily religious. Instead, such phrases embody our Founder’s political philosophy. By adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 (reaffirmed in 2002), Congress not only contrasted the mutually exclusive conceptions of human rights envisioned by the United States and the U.S.S.R., but affirmed that our rights come from an authority higher than the State.

In November 2010, the First Circuit joined every other appellate court to rule on the issue by affirming the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance. The Court unanimously held that the primary effect of voluntarily reciting the Pledge, in accordance with the New Hampshire School Patriot Act, “is not the advancement of religion, but the advancement of patriotism through a pledge to the flag as a symbol of the nation.”

The First Circuit flatly rejected FFRF’s assumption that children who decline to participate in the Pledge become “outsiders based on their beliefs about religion” for one simple reason: “Under the New Hampshire Act, both the choice to engage in the recitation of the Pledge and the choice not to do so are entirely voluntary.”

Dr. Newdow appealed to the Supreme Court. In June 2011, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Perhaps it’s time for Newdow to find a different haunt.

EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School

“The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” – Chief Justice Roberts, Supreme Court Opinion

A church dispute

In 2007, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan found itself in a surprising position: a commissioned minister and teacher was suing them. Cheryl Perich, a commissioned minister in the church, taught fourth grade, taught religion, and led worship services. The church school had dismissed her for insubordination, disruptive conduct, and threatening to sue the church—all in violation of church teachings. The Church and its denomination have long taught that disputes over fitness for ministry must be resolved within the denomination.

But in September 2007, Perich sued in federal court, joined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that the school retaliated against her for threatening to file a discrimination claim.

Can government force a church to retain a minister who violates church teachings?

The church argued that forcing it to retain Perich as a commissioned minister and teacher against its will was an unconstitutional restriction on its right to choose its own religious leaders – a concept known as “ministerial exception.” The federal trial court agreed, applying the ministerial exception, and ruled for the church in October 2008. But after Perich and the EEOC appealed the decision, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the church in March 2010, ruling that Perich was not a minister but merely a teacher. Becket stepped in to represent Hosanna-Tabor as it appealed to the US. Supreme Court.

Because of the difference of opinion among the federal courts of appeals concerning which church employees count as ministers, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Oral argument was held in October 2011.

At the Supreme Court, Perich and the EEOC escalated their arguments, arguing that there should be no ministerial exception at all and that any minister—including a priest, a rabbi, or a pastor of a congregation—should be able to sue the church that employs him. Becket’s arguments rejected this extreme perspective on church-state relations, instead explaining that the ministerial exception is a constitutionally protected right, one that avoids unnecessary entanglement between government and churches and allows religious groups the autonomy they need to operate freely.

Supreme Court rules 9-0: churches are free to choose their own leaders

On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously for Hosanna-Tabor, a decision the Wall Street Journal called one of the “most important religious liberty cases in a half century.” The decision adopted Becket’s arguments, saying that religious groups should be free from government interference when they choose their leaders.

The court rejected the government’s narrow view of religious liberty as “extreme,” “untenable,” and “remarkable.” The decision stated: “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

For the in-depth story and more about this case, listen to our Stream of Conscience podcast episode, Synods and Statutes.


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Freedom of religious groups to choose their own leaders: This case set an important precedent, confirming the principle of “ministerial exception” that ensures religious groups have the right to choose their own leaders.
  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Both church and state are better off when the government isn’t meddling in the internal religious affairs of a religious ministry, including a religious school.

Stormans v. Wiesman

Your job or your conscience: It’s a choice no American should have to make. But it’s a choice that led faithful family pharmacists all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Family behind the Pharmacy 

Margo Thelen, Rhonda Mesler, and the Stormans family have worked in the pharmacy profession for over 60 years. Because of their beliefs, they cannot sell the morning-after or week-after pills—both of which can potentially cause an abortion.

Instead, when a customer asks for one of these drugs, the pharmacists refer them to one of over 30 pharmacies within a five-mile radius that willingly offer these drugs. This referral process is approved by the American Pharmacists Association and has long been legal in all 50 states.

Government Coercion 

But in 2005, abortion-rights activists rewrote the rules in Washington state. Although the state pharmacy commission had long supported the right of conscience, Governor Christine Gregoire opposed conscience rights. She publicly threatened to disband the commission, appointed several new members recommended by abortion rights activists, and asked those activists to write a new regulation. Buckling under pressure, the commission adopted a new regulation requiring pharmacies to sell the morning-after and week-after pills in violation of their religious beliefs.

The new regulation allows pharmacies to refer patients elsewhere for a wide variety of business, economic, and convenience reasons—such as a when a drug is unprofitable, attracts an undesirable clientele, or falls outside the pharmacy’s chosen business niche. But it forbids referral for one—and only one—reason: conscience. The commission adopted the regulation even though it admitted that no one in the state has ever been denied timely access to any drug because of a conscience-based referral.

Defending Conscience 

Because of the regulation, Margo was fired from her pharmacy, Rhonda was threatened with firing, and the Stormans family was placed under investigation and threatened with the loss of their pharmacy license. In July 2007, Margo, Rhonda, and the Stormans family sued to stop the regulation. In February 2012, after a 12-day trial, a federal court ruled the regulation unconstitutional. The court concluded that the commission’s rules intentionally discriminated against people of faith like Margo, Rhonda, and the Stormans’.

The State appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in July 2015 ruled against the pharmacists’ right of conscience. Then came the Supreme Court appeal. Represented by Becket, Alliance Defending Freedom, and leading scholar Michael McConnell, the pharmacists needed the votes of four Justices to hear their case. Yet just weeks after they appealed, Justice Scalia died, leaving the Court short one member. Their appeal received three votes—one shy of what was needed.

Although the missing vote ended the case, the three dissenting Justices noted that the pharmacists can still challenge the discriminatory regulations again in the future, if the state attempts to punish them. Margo, Rhonda, and the Stormans family remain committed to their faith, and Becket remains ready to defend them.

Tommy DeForest, Alabama

Tommy DeForest was a Sikh high school student in Alabama who wanted to wear a patka, the headcovering required by the Sikh faith. Good Hope High School barred him from attending school with his patka, citing its “no hats” policy. Becket sent a letter to the superintendent and argued that forcing a student to chose between his religious convictions and receiving a public education violates the right to free exercise of religion. We pointed to the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment to Alabama’s constitution, which says that the “[g]overnment shall not burden a person’s freedom of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” While the reasoning behind a no hats policy in public schools may be fine, it should not restrict the religious freedom of students, be they Jewish, Sikh, or something else. The school backed down, and Tommy was able to return to school and continue practicing his faith.

Reed v. Town of Gilbert

Everyone is welcome at Good News Community Church.

Services are held Sundays. The Church encourages Christian fellowship through Bible study, religious song, and prayer. Its mission is outreach, inviting everyone into its community. As a fledgling congregation with limited financial means and no permanent location, the Church depends on sidewalk signs to spread word of events.

But in 2005, the town of Gilbert, Arizona, imposed strict regulations on the church’s signs, demanding they be no larger than six square feet and stand for no more than fourteen hours. Claiming safety and aesthetic concerns, the code threatens violators with fines and even jail time. Yet political, ideological, and other noncommercial signs can be up to thirty-two square feet in size and can stand for many months—sometimes indefinitely.

Represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, Church Pastor Clyde Reed sued challenging the town’s discriminatory ordinance, but the Ninth Circuit ruled in the town’s favor, deeming political and ideological speech more valuable than the church’s religious speech.

Becket filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, supporting the Church and urging reversal of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. Local governments should not be permitted to impose regulations that favor some kinds of speech, while discriminating against religious speech. The Supreme Court heard oral argument in this case in January 2015.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously 9-0 in favor of Pastor Reed of Good News Community Church. The Court agreed with Becket’s argument, ruling that Gilbert’s sign ordinance violated the First Amendment because it showed no reason to justify discriminating against a church’s speech. This landmark ruling means that the government must treat religious speech the same as political speech and cities can’t treat churches as second-class citizens.

Darling v. Bakersfield School District

Danielle and Alexandra Darling are students in the Bakersfield City School District and observant Episcopalians. In March 2006, their mother Nona Darling followed school policy and contacted her daughters’ school to be excused at noontime in order to attend Ash Wednesday services. Following their beliefs, the Darling sisters fasted in the morning and planned to break their fast at the noon Ash Wednesday service at their church.

Instead of being allowed to miss part of the day like one would typically be excused for a dentist appointment or sick day, the school refused to grant the Darlings an excused absence and punished them for observing this important religious holiday. The school even went so far as to treat the siblings as if they were skipping school or did something illicit—even sending them a truancy letter.

The school district conveyed a message to the Darlings, and the other students, that it is wrong to honor their God according to their beliefs. This was unacceptable and unconstitutional, as students of faith should not be punished for adhering to their faith by attending church on important religious holidays.

After Becket stepped in on behalf of the Darling family, the school district backed down and not only excused Danielle and Alexandra, but also rewrote their existing excused absence policy to accommodate students of faith.

Heffernan v. City of Paterson

In 2006 New Jersey police officer Jeffrey Heffernan was spotted picking up a campaign sign for the candidate opposing the mayor of Paterson. Officer Heffernan didn’t live in the city and was picking up the sign for his bed-ridden mother. And in any case, the Constitution protects nonpolitical employees who decide to get involved in elections. None of that mattered to the chief of police, who demoted Officer Heffernan from detective to patrol officer as punishment for opposing the sitting mayor. Officer Heffernan sued the city, the mayor, and the police chief of Paterson, New Jersey for violating his freedom of speech and association. Becket joined his fight in a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court explaining how important it is to protect freedom of assembly, and citing scholars such as Washington University School of Law Professor John Inazu, who advocate that approach. Officer Heffernan was represented by Mark B. Frost & Associates, UCLA School of Law Supreme Court Clinic, and Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.

 

Negusie v. Mukasey

Daniel Negusie, an Eritrean Christian, was imprisoned in inhumane conditions for his refusal to serve in his country’s military. While in prison, he was punished and threatened with death for his conversion to Christianity.  After two years of imprisonment, he was made a guard and threatened with more punishment if he did not carry out his duties as a guard.  However, Negusie disobeyed orders to inflict violent punishment on prisoners, allowed prisoners to take showers, and sneaked basic amenities to prisoners. After two more years, he was able to flee the prison and the country, hiding in a container on a ship bound for the United States.

However, upon arriving at a U.S. port, he was denied asylum because, as a prison guard, he “assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of others.” The U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals agreed, saying “the fact that [Negusie] was compelled to participate as a prison guard, and may not have actively tortured or mistreated anyone, is immaterial.”

The case went before the Fifth Circuit Court in Louisiana and ultimately the Supreme Court, where Becket created and led a coalition of religious and human rights organizations which filed an amicus brief in his support. The brief argued that Mr. Negusie should not be punished for acting as a guard, since he was forced to do so as a part of his punishment. This was a crime committed against Negusie, not by Negusie. Becket argued that it is common for thug regimes to set believers against one another and alienate the religious from their consciences, a form of persecution the U.S. must condemn.

The Supreme Court sided with Becket and Mr. Negusie, ordering the lower court to rethink its decision.

Becket’s brief was co-signed by a range of human rights organizations that included the American Islamic Congress, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), China Aid Association, the Dalit Freedom Network, the Hindu American Foundation, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Human Dignity International, the Institute for Global Engagement, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Jubilee Campaign, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, Open Doors USA, the Queens Federation of Churches, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and United Sikhs.

Negusie was represented by Mayor Brown LLP; Yale Law School Supreme Court Clinic.

 

Norwood v. Gamble

Two Ohio residents were being forcibly evicted by Norwood City so that commercial developers could improve the land and generate more tax revenue.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief to the Ohio Supreme Court urging that the Court reject the Kelo rule in interpreting the state takings clause. We argued that affirming the lower court’s bad decision would both declare open season on the taking of religious institutions of all faiths and functions (houses of worship, schools, hospitals and soup kitchens, to name just a few). Since religious institutions do not pay taxes, they are especially vulnerable to Kelo-style land grabs.  Allowing this taking to go forward would turn the Ohio Constitution’s prohibition against takings for private use on its head.

The Ohio Supreme Court agreed that economic motives alone cannot justify taking private property from its owners, and that cities must demonstrate they have a genuine public use for the land. This decision protects religious institutions throughout Ohio. Institute for Justice was counsel in this case.

American Atheists v. Duncan

*Now known as Davenport v. American Atheists.

William J. Antoniewicz, a 27-year-old Utah state trooper, was shot to death on December 8, 1974 while making a routine traffic stop near the Utah-Wyoming border. Many years later, the Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private group dedicated to supporting the state troopers, decided to erect a 12-foot memorial cross with a biographical plaque near the site of his death. The patrol association has since erected 13 more crosses in Utah commemorating all of its fallen patrolmen. In every case the trooper’s family has agreed to have a memorial cross set up.

In December 2005, American Atheists, a Texas-based organization, sued in federal court, seeking to have the crosses removed. American Atheists claimed that Utah violated the Establishment Clause simply by allowing the patrol association to erect the privately owned, designed and erected memorial crosses on public property. In 2008 the Utah federal district court ruled in favor of the state, and American Atheists appealed the decision to the Tenth Circuit Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Becket filed an amicus brief in the Tenth Circuit Circuit on behalf of the States of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, arguing that the memorial crosses do not violate the Establishment Clause because they constitute private speech, not government speech. In February 2009, the states and Becket were granted their request to participate in oral argument before the Tenth CIrcuit. Becket attorney Luke Goodrich was designated Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Colorado to argue the appeal for the amici, and presented argument in early March 2009. Sadly, the Tenth Circuit overturned the lower court’s decision.The full panel decided not to grant a rehearing before the full court.

But what was remarkable is that the court’s decision focused in large part on Becket’s arguments, which were the strongest ones before the Court.

Becket filed an amicus brief in support of Utah’s appeal to the Supreme Court in May of 2011. Although the Supreme Court denied review of this case, Justice Thomas believed review should be granted (see dissent here). Utah was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, National Legal Foundation, Mylar Law, and Colorado’s Office of the Attorney General.

Richardson Independent School District, Texas

Schoolchildren should never be forced to choose between respectfully practicing their religion and obeying the law. Yet in 2005, that was the dilemma that confronted a group of Muslim high school students in Richardson, Texas, who were threatened with expulsion for saying their midday prayers.

At the beginning of the school year, several Muslim students approached administrators to make sure they would be able to continue their daily midday prayers, as they had been allowed to do in the past. School administrators granted such permission, and arranged for them to use an empty lecture hall for the prayer. For two weeks, the students prayed peacefully for three minutes each day, causing no disruptions or inconveniences. Two teachers noticed and complained, and several days later two assistant principals and a police officer confronted the students when they went to pray. The students were told that school policy prohibited them from praying anywhere on campus.

A few days after that, the school slightly modified its ban. Under the new policy, some observant Muslim students would be forced to choose between eating lunch or praying during the lunch period. The daily prayer only lasts three minutes, and the lunch period is half an hour – yet if a student chose to pray, he or she would not be allowed to eat lunch and would be forced to go hungry for the day. Other observant students were still not permitted to pray within the time frame set by their faith because of their assigned lunch period.

Becket intervened on behalf of the students, and Richardson Independent School District eventually revised its policy to allow students of all faiths to pray on school grounds, resulting in a victory for all students of faith in that district.

Pleasant Grove v. Summum

The city of Pleasant Grove, Utah included a Ten Commandments monument —along with other monuments—in its city park. A small religious group wanted to include its own religious monument in the same park, but was denied the permission to do so. Defending the city’s right to exclude the additional monument, Becket’s amicus brief argued that the city park displays were government—not private—speech, which meant that the city could legitimately decide which monuments to include and which to exclude.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, and its majority opinion relied on similar reasoning: such government speech was not subject to scrutiny under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.

American Center for Law and Justice and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP were counsel in this case.

Kelo v. City of New London

The Supreme Court held that the city’s use of eminent domain power to take private property for the purpose of furthering its economic development plan did not run afoul of the constitutional “public use” requirement. In her dissenting opinion, Justice O’Connor (joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas) cited Becket’s amicus brief to highlight the uniquely burdensome effect an expansive view and overuse of eminent domain poses to houses of worship, church schools, and religious social service organizations like soup kitchens. The Institute for Justice was counsel in this case.

Hinrichs v. Bosma

For 188 years, the Indiana House of Representatives had a long-standing tradition of opening each day of legislative business with a prayer. These prayers were offered by local chaplains and clergymen from a variety of faiths. In 2005, several Indiana taxpayers filed suit against the legislature claiming that allowing “overtly sectarian prayers” was unconstitutional because it violated the Establishment Clause. The district court ruled in their favor.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court to the Seventh Circuit criticizing the lower court’s decision that the Establishment Clause prohibits “sectarian” prayer at the Indiana legislature, but allows “non-sectarian” prayer. Our brief demonstrated to the judges the historical pedigree of the term “sectarian” to help realign its definition with its original connotation.

The Seventh Circuit then overturned the lower court’s decision.

Winston & Strawn LLP represented the Indiana legislature.

*Photo: First Prayer in Congress, September 1774, by: H.B. Hall.  Used by permission

Amandeep Singh v. Greenburgh Central School District

Amandeep Singh, a ninth-grade honor student in New York, was reprimanded and suspended indefinitely for wearing a kirpan—a ceremonial religious item worn by members of the Sikh faith—to school.

Meet Amandeep Singh, a high school honor student and a faithful Sikh

Amandeep Singh became a baptized Sikh at age eight, requiring him, like 20 million other Sikhs worldwide, to follow the five Sikh articles of faith. The best known of these is the requirement to wear hair uncut in a turban. Another lesser known requirement is to wear a kirpan, an item shaped like a sword that reminds Sikhs of their duty to speak out against injustice and stand up for the defenseless. In deference to school security concerns, school-age children like Amandeep typically wear a very small, blunt kirpan that is completely harmless.

For over seven years, Amandeep attended local public schools and continuously observed all five articles of his faith, including the wearing of the kirpan, without any incident. Many of his teachers were aware of his kirpan and specifically commended him for his dedication to his faith. None ever told him that his kirpan–which was duller than a butter knife and secured underneath his clothes–posed any sort of danger.

School officials ban a Sikh article of faith

Without explanation, school officials suddenly reversed course in February 2005 and declared Amandeep’s kirpan to be a prohibited “weapon.” Moreover, they refused to allow him to set foot on school grounds unless he abandoned his article of faith.

Becket intervened on Amandeep’s behalf, meeting with school district officials to explain the kirpan’s religious significance and Amandeep’s rights under the First Amendment. The district quickly changed course, agreeing to allow Amandeep to continue his education without compromising his faith.

This was a victory not only for Amandeep and other Sikhs, but also for students of all faiths to freely exercise religion in public schools.

Newdow v. Rio Linda Union School District

“This is about a lot more than just how school kids start their day. It’s about where the next generation thinks its rights come from – the Creator or the State.”
—Seamus Hasson, Becket’s Founder

Atheist activist continues attack on “under God” in Pledge of Allegiance

Just a year after his procedural defeat at the U.S. Supreme Court, atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow made another attempt to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance—this time in California. In May 2005, Becket intervened on behalf of public school parents whose children sought to continue voluntarily reciting the Pledge in school.

After the federal district court sided with Dr. Newdow, Becket appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which previously issued what the L.A. Times called one of its “most controversial opinions,” that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional. In December 2007, the Ninth Circuit heard a lively argument in a packed courtroom that included several of Dr. Newdow’s boisterous supporters.

In the hearing, Becket founder Seamus Hasson argued that the phrase “under God” in American history protects rights, not violates them. Mr. Hasson demonstrated that historic appeals to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are not primarily religious but instead embody our Founding Fathers’ political philosophy. By adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, Congress not only contrasted mutually exclusive conceptions of human rights envisioned by the United States and the Soviet Union, but affirmed that our rights come from an authority higher than the state.

Ninth Circuit changes its mind—thanks to Becket

After considering the case for almost two and a half years, in March 2010, the Ninth Circuit reversed itself, affirming the constitutionality of the words “under God.” Remarkably, the same court that in 2002 ruled that saying “under God” was like saying a prayer, adopted Becket’s position that the Pledge is a statement of political philosophy.

Dr. Newdow has since made similar attempts in other states to alter the Pledge of Allegiance as well as to scrub the national motto “In God we trust” from U.S. currency. Becket continues to defend religion in the public square, arguing that “God” is not a dirty word that needs to be scrubbed from society.

To learn more about the case, listen to Becket’s Stream of Conscience podcast episode, Rights and Recitations.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Public Square: Because religious exercise is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have a place in the public square. Becket fights to assure free religious expression in public schools, including the right of students to voluntarily say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Morr-Fitz v. Blagojevich

Americans who work in the healthcare field often do so out of concern for their fellow citizens – their careers allow them to make a living and make a difference in the lives of those who need their help. Unfortunately, healthcare workers are increasingly being told by the government that they have to make a choice—abandon their religious beliefs or abandon their careers. Under the First Amendment, that is a choice no American should have to make.

Consider the policy Illinois imposed in 2005 to force pharmacists to sell emergency contraceptives, including “morning after” and “week after” pills. For Luke Vander Bleek and Glenn Kosirog, this requirement was troublesome because their religious beliefs prohibited them from selling these products.

The aim of the rule was clear from the outset. Governor Rod Blagojevich announced that its purpose was to stop religion from “stand[ing] in the way” of dispensing drugs, and to force pharmacies to “fill prescriptions without making moral judgments.” Governor Blagojevich announced that pharmacists with religious beliefs about these drugs should “find another profession.” VanderBleek and Kosirog had each spent more than twenty-five years building pharmacy careers. Being told to “find another profession” at mid-life because they had the wrong religious beliefs was an unwelcome mandate.

At trial, Illinois was totally unable to support its new rule. The state had no evidence of any person who had been unable to get the drugs in question. In fact, evidence showed that there were many neighboring pharmacies willing to sell the products, which were also available over the internet. Worse, the government admitted that pharmacies could avoid this rule for “common sense business” reasons, but not for religious reasons. Refusing to sell the drugs because you want to make more money was allowed; refusing to sell because of religion was not.

The pharmacists were represented in this fight for nearly seven years by Becket attorney Mark Rienzi. Ultimately the Circuit Court ruled the law was invalid for violating two state laws designed to protect religious liberty, as well as unconstitutional for violating the Free Exercise of Religion clause in the First Amendment.

In December 2012, Illinois declined to appeal, delivering a final victory for the pharmacists.

Even for those who disagree with the religious persuasion of the pharmacists, it is important to protect minority rights and honor America’s tradition of diverse opinions by upholding their right to Free Exercise.

*Becket handled the case on appeal, along with attorneys from ACLJ and WilmerHale, LLP.

Christian Legal Society v. Martinez

In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a Christian student group was denied official recognition by a public law school because the group insisted that its voting members and leaders accept and adhere to a statement of faith.  UC Hastings College of Law, located in San Francisco, decided that the Christian Legal Society (CLS) policies violated the school nondiscrimination policy. CLS limited voting membership and leadership to Christians who agreed with the group’s statement of faith, including its teachings on sexual morality. Becket filed an friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of a coalition of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Sikh groups, arguing that religious groups have the constitutional right to determine the requirements of membership in their organizations. Mike McConnell, Christian Legal Society, Alliance Defending Freedom were counsel in this case.

In April 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of UC Hastings, calling into question the associational rights of student groups across the nation. Four justices filed a strong dissent, calling the decision “deeply disappointing” and “serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.” That dissent relied in part on the arguments made by Becket.

Hindu Temple Society of North America v. New York Supreme Court

Venigalla v. Nori

In New York City, it’s common to hear about a hostile takeover of a corporation. What you don’t hear about every day is a hostile takeover of a Hindu Temple.

The Hindu Temple Society of North America is the nation’s oldest and most influential Hindu temple. But in 2004, it was the target of a hostile takeover attempt by six insurgents, some of whom rarely, if ever, attended the Temple. The insurgents filed suit in New York state court seeking an order putting them in charge of the Temple’s religious activities.

The New York state court system’s response to the takeover attempt was a forced restructuring of the Temple. Instead of allowing the Temple to govern itself in the traditional Hindu religious manner—which does not include a concept of “membership”—the New York courts tried to force the Temple to adopt a congregational structure similar to that of a Baptist church, where members elect leadership. In fact, since the Temple had no membership rolls, the state courts asked everyone who had signed the Temple’s visitor book if they wanted to be “members.”

To defend the Temple against this unprecedented invasion of its religious autonomy, Becket intervened in 2004, defending both the state court lawsuit and filing a lawsuit on behalf of the Temple, its Trustees, and several ordinary devotees of the Temple who wanted to keep the government out of the Temple’s affairs.

Becket argued in both lawsuits that the presiding judges had taken control of the Temple, stopped its devotees from worshiping the way they want, censored the Temple’s speech, and imposed a voting membership requirement, including the definition of who is a Hindu. If the state had gotten its way, it would have had the authority to decides which priests will be hired and what gods will be worshiped.

However, after four years of litigation, New York’s highest court—the Court of Appeals—ruled in favor of the Temple and against the idea that a Temple could be treated as if it were a congregation of believers.

In a twist of irony, this victory for religious freedom came in a place where that freedom was first invoked in North America. The Temple is located in Flushing, Queens, the birthplace of religious freedom in North America. The Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 is an important precursor to the First Amendment and one of the oldest expressions of religious freedom in the world. It reproved the Dutch colonial Governor Peter Stuyvesant for his attempts to ban Quakers, a reviled religious minority at the time. Bowne Street, on which the Temple stands, is named after John Bowne, the English resident of New Amsterdam whom Governor Stuyvesant banished from the colony for allowing Quakers to hold religious services in his home.

*Photo of Hindu Temple Society of North America.  Credit WikiCommons.

 

Conaway v. Deane

Nine same-sex couples in Maryland sued when they were denied marriage licenses, due to a Maryland law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.  Becket filed an amicus brief addressing the impact that a wholesale change to the laws defining marriage would have on religious liberty.  Maryland’s highest court—the Court of Appeals—ruled that the marriage law was constitutional, and the definition of marriage in Maryland remained unchanged. Maryland’s Office of the Attorney General defended the law.

Michele Curay-Cramer v. Ursuline Academy

When Michele Curay-Cramer, an English and religion teacher at the private, Catholic school Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, came out publicly in favor in abortion, she was immediately terminated from her position teaching Catholic doctrine. More specifically, on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 2003, Curay-Cramer signed onto a full-page ad in the Wilmington News Journal praising the Roe decision and declaring her pro-choice position. Adding to the irony, that same day her employer sponsored a field trip for students to travel to Washington, DC to protest the Roe decision and declare the school’s pro-life position.

The ad conflicted with fundamental Catholic teaching on abortion, and when the school confronted Curay-Cramer with the ad, she declined to recant her views and was subsequently fired.

But she soon sued the school, and the case went first to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, federal district court in Delaware, and eventually the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Becket represented the school and the Diocese successfully getting Curay-Cramer’s claims soundly dismissed on First Amendment grounds in 2006.

In dismissing Ms. Curay-Cramer’s complaint, Judge Kent Jordan of the Delaware federal district court was unequivocally clear on the religious rights of the school and the Diocese, saying:

“Short of a declaration that the Pope should pass draft encyclicals through the courts for approval, it is hard to conceive of a more obvious violation of the free exercise rights of the Catholic Church or a clearer case of inappropriate entanglement of church and state … It is not the place of this or any other court to say what system of beliefs constitutes ‘true’ Catholicism or makes for a ‘good’ Catholic. Ours is a system which, wonderfully, forbids any intrusion of the sort.”

Lt. Ryan Berry v. U.S. Air Force

Lt. Ryan Berry, 26, is a West Point graduate who followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Air Force to become a nuclear missileer. Berry morally objected to sex-integrated silo duty where each missile silo had one bed and toilet facilities shielded only by a retractable curtain — rendering privacy minimal. Berry sought counsel from the base Catholic chaplain who agreed that mixing of the sexes among silo crews was improper and a likely occasion of sin.

From May 1997 to December 1998, Berry’s religious waiver was honored and he worked silo duty exclusively with men. He received excellent job performance evaluations. Then several squadron members complained about “preferential” treatment, and the new wing commander, Col. Ronald Haeckel, refused to continue Berry’s religious accommodation.

In an April job performance review, Haeckel blasted Berry for “unacceptable professionalism.” He wrote that Berry “refuses to accept personal responsibilities … (and) will not perform duties with fully qualified female crew members.” Berry was then decertified from working with nuclear missiles and assigned to a desk job.

Recognizing a violation of Lt. Berry’s religious liberty, Becket stepped in to negotiate a favorable settlement for Berry with the U.S. Air Force.

Church of Christ in Hollywood v. Lady Cage-Barile

Lady Cage-Barile was a member of the congregation of Church of Christ in Hollywood, California, who disagreed with how Dr. Rodriguez, the church leader, and other leaders guided the church. Cage-Barile engaged in disruptive conduct on church premises, sometimes entering the church and following certain members, shouting that they were adulterers, agents of Satan, and demon-worshipers. She shouted at Dr. Rodriguez and church leaders, calling them Satan’s agents because they allow divorced and remarried persons to participate in church ministries.

Dr. Rodriguez then asked Cage-Barile to attend services at a different church — one where she would respect the leadership. In February 2002, he wrote a letter to Cage-Barile, informing her that her membership was terminated, that she could no longer participate in church activities or enter church premises, and that if she did enter the church she would be considered a trespasser.

But when Cage-Barile continued to disrupt worship services, the church filed for a temporary restraining order.

The trial court found that Cage-Barile had a constitutional right of free speech and if the court forced her exclusion it would entangle the court in an ecclesiastical dispute. Becket appealed the case and in May 2002, the court concluded that the church, like any nonreligious property owner, may decide whom to allow on its premises.

Van Orden v. Perry

In an Establishment Clause challenge to a Ten Commandments display on the Texas State Capitol grounds, Becket’s amicus brief argued that such displays are constitutionally protected.  The Supreme Court ruled our way. Texas’s Office of the Attorney General and  Acting Solicitor General (Paul Clement) were counsel in this case.

Bronx Household of Faith v. The Board of Education of the City of New York

The Bronx Household of Faith is an inner-city church serving one of the roughest neighborhoods in New York City. Founded in 1971, it has spread hope in its local community for over forty years—serving local children, working with refugees, sponsoring neighborhood clean-ups, and providing emergency food and clothing.

But finding a church building in New York City isn’t easy. Land is expensive; rentals are scarce. For over a decade, the church had to meet in the pastor’s dining room.

Fortunately, New York City owns almost 1,200 buildings that sit empty on nights and weekends: its public schools. Each year, the City rents out empty schools to tens of thousands of community groups for any meetings that might be of interest to the community: Boy Scouts, drama clubs, taxpayer associations, senior citizen groups, sporting events, merchant associations, labor unions—you name it. In 2011 alone, the City issued over 122,000 permits for using the schools.

So Bronx Household, like tens of thousands of other community groups, applied to rent an empty school. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. City bureaucrats decided that letting a church meet in an empty school would be unconstitutional. So it banned religious worship services—and only religious worship services—from its empty schools. Other groups can still use the schools for singing, teaching, and discussion; but if the singing, teaching, and discussion is “religious worship,” it is banned. Of the fifty largest public school districts in the country, New York City is the only one that bans worship from empty schools.

Thus began a legal battle that has lasted almost 20 years. The church was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, and Becket supported the church at every level of the federal courts along the way, filing friend-of-the-court briefs in 2002, 2011, 2012, and 2014.

Unfortunately, the New York-based United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the City’s ban, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. But shortly after the case ended, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the City would open its public schools to churches. So for now, the City and the churches have reached a truce. And Becket stands ready to protect churches against government discrimination.

Salazar v. Buono

In a case involving the constitutionality of a cross memorial in the Mojave Desert, Becket’s amicus brief argued that the court of appeals should be reversed, because the plaintiff lacked standing and that the cross did not violate the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court agreed, with two Justices agreeing that the plaintiff lacked standing, and three Justices agreeing that the court of appeals misapplied the Establishment Clause.

The cross was erected on public land in 1934, and was undisturbed until the ACLU sued for its removal in 2001.  When a federal court ruled that the cross’s presence on federal land was unconstitutional, Congress intervened by passing legislation that directed the U.S. Department of the Interior to give the land where the cross was located to the VFW in exchange for a parcel of equal value.  In 2010, the Supreme Court approved Congress’ action; however, the cross was then stolen by vandals.  On April 25th, 2012, a federal judge approved a settlement agreement for the memorial cross to return to its place in the Mojave Desert.

The Solicitor General of the Department of Justice defended the cross.

Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow

In March of 2000, atheist Michael Newdow sued on behalf of his daughter to strip the words “under God” from the Pledge recited by students in California public schools.Terence Cassidy represented the school district.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later agreed that public schools violate the First Amendment by leading their students in a voluntary recitation of the Pledge that includes the words “under God.” Although the Supreme Court initially agreed to give full review of the case, in June 2004, the Court opted to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on a technicality: Newdow lacked sufficient custody of his daughter to represent her in federal court.

Becket filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Knights of Columbus, demonstrating that the phrase “under God” is not only constitutionally permissible but philosophically laudable. The brief argues that historical references to the “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God” are not primarily religious. Instead, these phrases embrace our Founder’s political philosophy. When recited in the Pledge, the words “under God” reflect the principle that no government can undermine our rights because they come from a higher source than the state.

By adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, Congress starkly contrasted mutually exclusive conceptions of human rights envisioned by the United States and the U.S.S.R.

Although three Justices—Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Thomas—defended the constitutionality of the Pledge, it was disappointing to see the Court sidestep the merits of the case and rule instead on standing. As Becket’s Founder Seamus Hasson said, “You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out. It’s a shame the Court couldn’t unify around the same principle that has been unifying the rest of us since the Declaration of Independence: our rights are secure because they come from a higher authority than the state. Sooner or later, the Court will have to face up to that.”

McCreary County v. ACLU

In the same day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Ten Commandments display in Van Orden v. Perry, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the Ten Commandments display in a Kentucky courthouse.

Becket filed an amicus brief in both cases arguing such displays are both culturally valuable and constitutionally permissible.

Liberty Counsel was counsel in this case.

 

 

 

Ganulin v. U.S.

The Grinch almost stole Christmas through this lawsuit, but thanks to Becket, this federal holiday eluded an Establishment Clause challenge.

When an anti-Christmas activist in Ohio sued the federal government claiming that the law making Christmas Day a federal holiday violated the Establishment Clause, Becket intervened on behalf of several federal employees to defend Christmas.

In the spirit of Dr. Seuss, Judge Susan Dlott of the federal district court wrote part of the opinion upholding the Christmas holiday in verse.  The decision accords with precedent holding that, as long as the government can articulate a secular purpose for its actions, it may officially recognize a holiday—even one with religious meaning—for all government employees.

Judge Dlott’s Poem

The Court will address plaintiff’s seasonal confusion
erroneously believing Christmas merely a religious intuition.

Whatever the reason constitutional or other,
Christmas is not an act of Big Brother!

Christmas is about joy and giving and sharing,
it is about the child within us, it is most about caring!

One is never jailed for not having a tree,
for not going to church, for not spreading glee!

The Court will uphold seemingly contradictory causes,
*826 decreeing “the establishment” and “Santa” both worthwhile “Claus(es)!

We are all better for Santa, the Easter bunny too,
and maybe the great pumpkin, to name just a few!

An extra day off is hardly high treason.
It may be spent as you wish, regardless of reason.

The Court having read the lessons of “Lynch”
refuses to play the role of the Grinch!

There is room in this country and in all our hearts too,
for different convictions and a day off too!

Good News Club v. Milford Central School

Becket’s amicus brief defended the right of a Christian children’s club to use public school facilities that were available to non-religious groups.  The Supreme Court agreed. It upheld the club’s free speech right and found no Establishment Clause justification for curbing its religious speech. Thomas Marcelle represented the club.

Hood v. Medford Township Board of Education

The Bible: A first grader’s favorite book to read to his class

In 1996, a 1st grade teacher at Haines Elementary School in Medford Township, New Jersey asked her students to choose a story from a favorite book to read aloud in class. Zachary Hood chose to bring his children’s Bible so he could read “A Big Family,” a story in which two brothers, Jacob and Esau, reunite. The story met all the teacher’s requirements regarding complexity and length. Yet after reviewing the story, the teacher refused to allow Zachary to read it to his classmates because she thought his religious speech should be banned from the classroom.

Becket defends religious speech in the classroom

When the Board of Education defended the teacher’s discrimination and censorship, Zachary’s mother Carol sued the Medford Township Board of Education arguing that the school violated Zachary’s First Amendment rights to free speech and religious liberty. After a federal district court sided with the Board of Education and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, Becket stepped in and obtained a rehearing. In February 2000, the full Third Circuit heard oral argument, and later the sharply divided court issued a split 6-6 decision, leaving in place the district court’s ruling against Zachary’s right to read his Bible.

When the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, Becket continued pursuing Zachary’s lawsuit against the Board of Education on a related issue that had become part of the case: a religious Thanksgiving poster Zachary had made that was taken down from his classroom’s walls. In November 2002, the Township agreed to settle the case and pay an award to Zachary and his mother.

The government upholds students’ rights in the classroom with “Zach’s rules”

In response to our lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Education  unequivocally confirmed that students retain their free speech and religious liberty while in the classroom, , issuing official guidance in February 2003 that “students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.” At Becket, they’re known as “Zach’s Rules.”

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Education: Students don’t lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the classroom. Freedom of conscience includes the right to believe, express beliefs, and live according to one’s conscience in private and in public, at home and in school.
  • Public Square: Because religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. Religious expression should not be treated as dangerous expression, scrubbed from society. It can, and should, have a place in the public square, including public schools.
  • Free Speech: The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when, and especially when, that view is unpopular.

The Pledge of Allegiance Cases

For over a decade, Becket has successfully defended the words “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Why? Because the phrase “under God” answers one of the most important questions any community can ask: Where do our rights come from?

Although it may seem abstract, that question is one of great practical importance in law and politics, because your answer explains how you will treat the rights of others. Kings and emperors throughout history answered the question by claiming that individual rights were theirs to give and theirs to take away. If you offended the emperor, you could be executed on the spot, no matter who you were.

In more recent history, totalitarian systems such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union said that they had the ability to take away human rights from “enemies of the State”. They could even reclassify some people as “unpersons” without any rights at all. The State gives, and the State takes away.

But the American tradition—and the English system it descends from—has always been different. In England, titans of legal history like Sir Edward Coke and William Blackstone asserted that no king could take away the rights of an Englishman because those rights did not come from the king: they come, instead, from the laws of nature and nature’s God. That same idea inspired American revolutionaries to defend their rights against the ever-encroaching powers of a tyrannical king.

That’s why it is so important to defend the Pledge of Allegiance. People in power tend to abuse the rights of the very citizens they are supposed to protect. By grounding human rights in a source higher than the State, every American’s rights are secured; those in power are checked and restrained; and we have a justifiable reason to stand up for people who are oppressed by dehumanizing, unjust laws.

Courts across the country agree. Many recognize that the phrase “under God,” instead of acting like a prayer or religious creed, communicates timeless American values:

  • On June 14, 2004, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Pledge, holding that the plaintiff, atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow, did not have proper standing to challenge the Pledge.
  • On March 11, 2010, a second challenge from Dr. Newdow in California was rebuffed by the federal appeals court for the 9th Circuit, which held “that the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the Establishment Clause because Congress’ ostensible and predominant purpose was to inspire patriotism.”
  • On November 12, 2010, a third challenge by Dr. Newdow, this time in New Hampshire, was flatly rejected by the federal appeals court for the 1st Circuit because “both the choice to engage in the recitation of the Pledge and the choice not to do so are entirely voluntary.”
  • On May 9, 2014, Massachusetts’ highest state court unanimously rejected the American Humanist Association’s attack on the Pledge, finding that “the pledge, notwithstanding its reference to God, is a fundamentally patriotic exercise, not a religious one.”
  • And on February 4, 2015, a New Jersey teenager and her family successfully protected the right of all her fellow students to continue reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in its entirety from the American Humanist Association’s latest effort to take “under God” out of the Pledge.

The courts are on right side of history. American history is filled with references to “God,” “Creator,” “Author,” and “Nature’s God;” such references honor America’s values and religious heritage.

Congress first officially adopted the Pledge of Allegiance in 1942, during World War II, to encourage patriotism. In 1951, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, first began the practice of saying “one nation under God” as a part of the Pledge. They encouraged many others including Congress to follow the same practice. In 1954, Congress passed and President Eisenhower signed an amendment adding the words “under God” to the Pledge.

One of Congress’s reasons for adding “under God” to the Pledge was to explain America’s disagreement with the Soviet Union about the nature of human rights. The Soviets claimed that people receive their rights from the State, and therefore the State can take those rights away.

In contrast, Congress said it was using the phrase “under God” to make clear that basic human rights are beyond the reach of the State.

In so doing, it was following a centuries-old tradition:

  1. Washington’s General Orders to his troops (July 2, 1776): “The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army.
  2. The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
  3. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863): “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

To avoid saying the “offensive” word “God,” as the secularists attacking the Pledge want, teachers would have to remain silent about the values embraced by the American Revolutionaries, the Constitution, abolitionism, and the civil rights movement.

References to “God,” which remind every American that their rights cannot be seized by the State, are the cherished legacy of a free society; each reminds future generations that their rights come not from the State, but a Source beyond the State’s control.

As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said when signing the amendment adding “under God” to the Pledge on Flag Day, June 14, 1954:

“[The words under God] will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea, Communications Director, at mskea@becketfund.org or call 202.349.7224.

 

Bear Lodge Multiple Use Assocation v. Babbitt and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

Several Native American tribes, including the Cheyenne River Sioux of Wyoming, had worked with the National Park Service to make arrangements to practice their ancient Lakota rituals undisturbed every June on sacred grounds at Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. The area also happens to be quite popular for rock climbers and visitors, so the Park Service implemented a sensible plan that discouraged rock climbing during June, posted signs marking the sacred ground, and started a cultural education program that informed visitors of Native American culture and religion.

But a group of climbing guides sued the Park Service, arguing that the efforts unconstitutionally made the Lakota religion an official state religion in Wyoming. Becket, along with a group of civil liberty and religious organizations, fought back with an amicus brief on behalf of the tribe. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, dismissed the case, finding that the climbers had failed to identify a personal injury and consequently had no standing to bring the case.

Cases like this are important because it is admirable when governments make a conscientious effort to protect religious minorities. Yet the same arguments used by the climbers, while seemingly absurd, are used to challenge studying religious texts in high school history or English classes, or exhibiting religious elements in local cultural festivals and displays. But the religious aspects in our culture and history are what make our society great.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (Steven Emery, Thomas J. Van Norman), the Indian Law Resource Center and the Law Office of John Schumacher, LLC represented the tribes.

Bauchman v. West High School

Can school choirs sing songs that include religious texts? The law says ‘yes’

Richard Torgerson was a music teacher who led choir at West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Every year Mr. Torgerson arranged school concerts throughout the year where students would perform a variety of songs that reflected the diversity of the community’s culture and heritage. In addition to secular songs, he often included spiritual songs with a Judeo-Christian origin. Mr. Torgerson made clear that the religious songs were optional to perform, and that nonparticipation would not affect a student’s grade in any way.

But in 1995, a student sued the school, challenging the music director’s decision to include the religious songs in the school Christmas concert. Becket stepped in on behalf of other students and their parents to defend the school’s decision to foster cultural and religious diversity in its musical choices.

In federal court, Becket argued that, given the prevalence of religious themes and text in Western music, it is simply natural for a rich and diverse music curriculum to include music with religious references. Religious freedom, as understood by our nation’s founders, means that religion is a natural part of human culture and occupies a natural and proper place in the public square. Public schools are not required to scrub their curricula of any reference to religion. To do so would be to deny students valuable educational materials.

The courts agree with Becket: including religious songs does not violate the U.S. Constitution

In September 1995, the federal court agreed, ruling in favor of West High School and dismissing the student’s lawsuit. The student appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which again ruled in favor of the high school on December 18, 1997. The court ruled that the student’s allegations were insufficient to support her attack on the song selections, given the obvious secular purposes of the Christmas concert, as well as the fact that the religious songs were completely optional for the students. Furthermore, the court saw no reason to conclude that the selection of religious songs was illegal simply because they contained views different from the student’s own. The Supreme Court declined to take up the student’s case, ensuring that religious music could continue to be part of the public square and to celebrated as part of America’s diverse culture.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Education: Public schools are not required by the U.S. Constitution to scrub their curricula of any reference to religion. To do so would deny students valuable educational materials that reflect our nation’s diverse culture.
  • Public square: Religion is a natural piece of human culture and has a natural place in the public square. Religious references cannot be confined to private spaces just because there are those who disagree with them.

Creatore v. Trumbull

Celebrating the Season on the Green

The public green in the town of Trumbull, Connecticut is used year after year to host a wide variety of events, both religious and secular, including an annual art fair, an international food festival, Veteran’s and Memorial Day commemorations involving religious content and the laying of a wreath, and a National Prayer Day. For many years, a Menorah and a Christmas tree have also stood together on the green during the holiday season.

In November 1993, Donald Creatore and the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, requested permission from town officials to place a nativity display on the public green next to the town hall of Trumbull, Connecticut. Even though there was already a Christmas tree and a Menorah on display, town officials denied their request, claiming that the application was too late.

Wasting no time, Creatore submitted an application to display the nativity scene for the next holiday season in early 1994. This time, he received a letter from town officials granting permission. Creatore and the Knights submitted plans to the Town Building Official for approval, which was approved in August. Creatore and the Knights made eager plans to place the display.

The city censors a Christmas crèche

Three days before the display was set to be placed—and seven months after permission was granted by the town—officials called Creatore to revoke his permission. Creatore was told that he would no longer allow the display because it communicated a religious message, and that he was concerned that other individuals might oppose it.

All the while, the Christmas tree lit up the green.

Becket defends diversity of displays

Becket stepped in and took their case to court. The district court ruled against Creatore and the Knights, and after their appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against them. Finally the U.S. Supreme Court protected their right to display a crèche.

Boy Scouts of America v. Dale

When the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a state public accommodations law required the Boy Scouts to readmit a gay leader, Becket filed a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the First Amendment right of expressive association concerning religious institutions. The Supreme Court did just that, ruling that applying the public accommodation law violated the Boy Scout’s First Amendment right of expressive association. The Boy Scouts were represented by George Davidson of Hughes Hubbard & Reed.