Sikhs fight to serve as Marines

WASHINGTON – Three Sikhs were in federal court today fighting for their right to maintain religious beards and serve in the United States Marine Corps. In Singh v. Berger, Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal were denied religious accommodations to begin basic training even though the Marine Corps regularly allows beards for secular reasons. Because the recruits are barred from entry, their careers have been on hold for over a year.  

The Marine Corps argues that allowing Sikhs to maintain religious beards during basic training would disrupt troop uniformity and ultimately undermine national security. However, the Marine Corps regularly permits recruits to grow beards for medical reasons if they have psuedofolliculitis barbae (razor bumps) and has broadly relaxed uniformity requirements by allowing tattoos and permitting women to wear long hair in various styles.   

“These recruits are simply asking to serve our country without having to abandon their religious beliefs,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The Marine Corps should follow in the footsteps of other branches of the military—including the Army and Air Force—that already accommodate Sikh servicemembers who serve with valor and distinction. At a time of severe recruiting shortages, it hurts our military to broadly exclude fully qualified individuals who want to serve.” 

Sikhs have a long history of serving in militaries around the globe, motivated by their religious duty to defend the defenseless. Many Sikhs live out this duty by serving their countries while maintaining beards, turbans, and other articles of faith. But for years, the Marine Corps—unlike other branches of the U.S. military—have barred Sikh recruits with religious beards from entry into basic training. Today, the recruits asked for accommodations that will allow them to serve just as the Marine Corps has provided secular accommodations to allow others to serve.          

“Sikhs have a long history of capable service in the United States military since at least World War I,” said Giselle Klapper, senior staff attorney of the Sikh Coalition. “These brave recruits should not have to forfeit their faith to pursue a career that would allow them to continue this tradition in the Marine Corps.”

Winston & Strawn, the Sikh Coalition, and Baker Hostetler are also representing the recruits. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

BREAKING: Federal appeals court gives Oak Flat another chance

WASHINGTON A federal appeals court will take a second look at Apache Stronghold’s appeal to save their sacred site at Oak Flat. In Apache Stronghold v. United States, the Ninth Circuit previously ruled that the federal government could give Oak Flat to a foreign-owned mining company that will swallow the site in a massive crater, ending Apache religious practices forever (Watch this short video to learn more). Today, the court announced that it will rehear the case “en banc”—meaning in front of a full panel of eleven judges—giving Apache Stronghold a second chance to win protection for Oak Flat. 

“Apache have gathered at Oak Flat to connect with our Creator for millennia, and we want to continue this sacred tradition,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “The government protects historical churches and other important religious landmarks, and our site deserves no less protection. We are glad the Ninth Circuit is going to take a closer look at this decision, and we hope it will do the right thing and protect Oak Flat.” 

Since time immemorial, Western Apache and other native peoples have come to Oak Flat for essential religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. For decades, Oak Flat has been protected by the federal government from mining and other practices that would render the hallowed land unusable for the Apache’s religious practices. The longstanding protections for Oak Flat were eliminated in 2014, when a midnight rider was inserted into a must-pass bill ordering the transfer of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the sacred site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater. 

This past June, a panel of three Ninth Circuit judges ruled 2-1 against Apache Stronghold, with Judge Berzon dissenting and calling the ruling “illogical,” “incoherent,” “flawed,” and “absurd.” Now, a majority of the Ninth Circuit’s 29 active judges has voted to rehear the case and will convene a special panel of eleven judges to decide whether the law allows the government to destroy sacred sites.  

“The court now has an opportunity to correct its earlier mistake and protect Apache religious exercise at Oak Flat,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “A win for Apache Stronghold will be a win for people of all faiths.” 

Oral argument will take place the week of March 20, 2023. In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson. 

Sikhs fight to be Marines without sacrificing faith

WASHINGTON Three Sikhs appeared in federal court today asking for their right to maintain religious beards and serve their country in the United States Marine Corps. Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal were all denied religious accommodations to enter basic training even though the Marine Corps routinely allows beards for other reasons. In Singh v. Berger, Becket, Winston & Strawn, the Sikh Coalition, and Baker Hostetler are representing the recruits in their fight to serve both God and country. 

The Marine Corps argues that allowing Sikhs to maintain their religious beards will disrupt uniformity of appearance among recruits and undermine national security, even though the Army and other branches allow religious beards and the Marine Corps has many exceptions to its uniformity requirements for secular reasons. It allows recruits to grow beards if they have pseudofolliculitis barbae (razor bumps). It allows women to keep long hair. It also allows tattoos, including sleeve tattoos and tattoos on the face, neck, and hands. The Marine Corps itself permits religious beards, but only after basic training, barring access to religious minorities. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia heard oral argument today, considering the Sikh recruits’ emergency appeal to be allowed to begin boot camp instead of being left on hold while their case winds its way through the courts. During argument, members of the court questioned whether the government’s arguments even made sense, and wondered whether the government was “splitting hairs.”

“It’s time for the Marines Corps to follow the footsteps of the Army and Air Force–branches that have already accommodated many Sikh servicemembers who serve with honor and distinction,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “If the Marines can allow sleeve tattoos, medical beards, and varying hairstyles for female recruits, they can also make way for Sikhs to be counted among the Few and Proud without offending uniformity.”  

Sikhs have a long history of military service, stemming from religious teachings that instruct them to defend the defenseless. Many devout Sikhs live out this duty by serving in militaries around the globe while also maintaining beards, turbans, and other articles of faith. But Sikhs who want to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps are forced to choose between their faith and their call to serve their country. Even though other branches of the U.S. military allow religious beards, Sikh Marine recruits are told to leave their beliefs at the door. 

“Sikh Americans have a proven record of capable service in the U.S. Army and Air Force dating at least as far back as World War I–and doing so with their articles of faith,” said Giselle Klapper, senior staff attorney of the Sikh Coalition. “The Marine Corps is doing our country a great disservice by stopping distinguished Sikhs from entering its ranks, especially while it seeks to foster and sustain a diverse and inclusive culture within the Corps.” 

A decision is expected within the coming months. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Native Americans seek protection for sacred land at Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – Members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde yesterday asked the Supreme Court to hold the federal government accountable for bulldozing their sacred site to add a turn lane to a nearby road in Oregon near Mount Hood. In Slockish v. U.S. Department of Transportation, the Native American plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to tell the federal government it must consider all possible options for repairing the site—such as by removing an embankment placed over an ancient burial ground, replanting trees, and allowing reconstruction of a sacred stone altar.  

Native tribes have used the land around Mount Hood, Oregon, to hunt, gather food, fish, bury their dead, and perform religious ceremonies for centuries. The sacred site at issue in this case, known as Ana Kwna Nchi Nchi Patat (the “Place of Big Big Trees”), lay along an ancient Native American trading route now followed by U.S. Highway 26 and consisted of a burial ground, campground, old-growth trees, and ancient stone altar, all on less than one acre of land. Wilbur Slockish, who is a Hereditary Chief of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and Carol Logan, who is a spiritual practitioner and elder in her tribe, regularly visited the site for decades to pray, meditate, and pay respects to their ancestors through memorial ceremonies. But in 2008, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration ignored their pleas to protect the site and bulldozed it to add a turn lane to the nearby highway, even while admitting it could have added the turn lane without harming the site. (Watch their story.) 

“Native American sacred sites should be given just as much respect and protection as churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It’s not the nineteenth century anymore, where the federal government can wantonly destroy Native American sacred sites without consequence; after this latest tragedy, the very least the government can do is to pursue every possible avenue for repairing this site and allowing the plaintiffs’ religious practices to resume.”  

After failed negotiations with the government to restore the sacred site, the tribe members pursued their claims in federal court, arguing that the land should have been protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Free Exercise Clause, and several environmental laws. In 2018, a lower court decided that federal law does not prohibit the government from destroying sacred sites located on federal land. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit similarly ruled that the government would not be held accountable for its destruction of the tribes’ sacred site. With the help of Becket, the tribe members now ask the Supreme Court to correct this injustice. 

“For centuries Native Americans have endured the destruction of sacred places by the federal government, and it’s heartbreaking that the court would say this completely preventable destruction was okay,” said Carol Logan, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “All we want is the return of our sacred artifacts, the rededication of the area for our ancestors, and the promise that we can continue to worship as our tribes have done for centuries.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Singh v. Berger

A Firm Faith Tradition 

For centuries, Sikhs have lived according to the teachings of the gurus, which instruct them to shun evil and seek self-mastery, to regard God’s creation as sacred, and to always defend the weak and helpless. Many devout Sikhs live out their religious duty to defend the defenseless by serving with distinction in militaries around the world while maintaining their articles of faith, including unshorn hair. But Sikhs who seek to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps find themselves forced to choose between their religious obligations and their calling to do good

Uniformity with Exceptions  

Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal faced a horrible dilemma when they sought to join the Marine Corps: shave and abandon their religious beliefs or go home. Even though the recruits passed all the medical and physical tests required to join, the Marine Corps argues that they must shave their beards to begin basic training because having a “uniform appearance” is necessary during recruit training. But other Marines are allowed to grow out their beards for medical reasons, and the Army, Air Force, and United States Military Academy permit religious beards during initial training.  

 The Marine Corps has been relaxing its uniformity standard for years specifically to promote greater diversity, allowing more diverse hairstyles, updating its dress code to better accommodate women, and even loosening longstanding bans on tattoos. In addition, the Marine Corps has recently granted Marines—including those in bootcamp—more leeway to grow a beard to combat “razor bumps,” a painful medical condition that inflames the face and neck after a close shave. And the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force have long been able to accommodate Sikh servicemembers—beards and all—without compromising mission readiness or safety.  

A Longstanding Defense 

Fortunately, the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) ban the federal government from restricting religious freedom unnecessarily. This means that denying religious accommodations by asserting a need for uniformity while granting lots of other secular exceptions is not only unfair but unlawful as well. Sikhs shouldn’t have to choose between their faith’s teachings that encourage their military service, and their religious understanding of God’s requirements for their physical appearance. Their lawsuit simply asks the government to provide them with religious accommodations equal to those granted to Marines for secular reasons. 

Captain Toor, Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Chahal are represented by Becket, Winston & Strawn, and the Sikh Coalition. Jaskirat Singh is also represented by Baker Hostetler. 


Importance for Religious Liberty: 

  • Individual freedom: For generations, people have sought out the United States as a place where they could freely live out their individual beliefs. That freedom does not end where military service begins: the Constitution, federal law, and the traditions of the armed forces all recognize that American servicemembers serve their country best when their own religious freedoms are protected.  

 

Photo Credit: Sikh Coalition

South Texas Catholics want Texas to let them carry out their ministry

WASHINGTON – As the fight between the federal government and the State of Texas over the border escalates, South Texas Catholics and the largest temporary migrant respite center in the Rio Grande Valley are caught in the middle. They are asking a federal court to continue their religious mission of serving the most vulnerable. A hearing on the case will be held this morning in El Paso federal district court.

An executive order issued on July 28 by Texas Governor Abbott that prohibits group vehicle transportation of migrants would have the opposite of its intended effect. It means that young families, pregnant mothers, and single women crossing the border may lose access to food, clothing, a place to rest, and a free COVID test. Local Texas communities may also lose a critical partner in preventing the spread of COVID in their community.

Sister Norma Pimentel leads Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs the Humanitarian Respite Center. Catholic Charities and the respite center are a ministry of the Diocese of Brownsville, headed by Bishop Daniel E. Flores. Sister Pimentel and her team provide food, clothing, medical care, and a place to briefly rest out of the heat for young women and families brought to their doorstep by federal border patrol agents. Since 2014, the Center has served over 100,000 migrants. But in July 2021, Governor Abbott issued an executive order that would stop and impound the cars of people who transport migrants in Texas, supposedly in an effort to limit the spread of COVID. Unfortunately, this order threatens to exacerbate the COVID crisis by preventing Catholic Charities from transporting COVID-positive migrants to quarantine locations. On August 3, the federal district court in El Paso issued a temporary restraining order against Governor Abbott’s order. It will now decide whether to issue an injunction against the order while the lawsuit is pending.

“Caring for the stranger in need has always been at the core of the Catholic faith,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “This order solves nothing and wrongfully endangers Catholic Charities’ religious mission to care for migrants.”

Catholic Charities tests all migrants who arrive at the respite center for COVID; those who test negative are served onsite, while those who test positive are transported to one of several hotels contracted by Catholic Charities or the City of McAllen to serve as a place to quarantine. If the respite center could no longer engage in its ministry, migrants would be dropped by federal border patrol agents at bus stations in the local community without receiving a COVID test, increasing the likelihood of community spread.

“We want to stop the spread of COVID-19 as much as the state does,” said Reverend Daniel E. Flores, bishop of Brownsville, Texas. “But for that to happen, we need the government to let us do what Christ called us to do: minister to the strangers among us in their time of distress.”

In support of the federal government’s legal challenge to Abbott’s July 28 order, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley filed a friend-of-the-court brief explaining how the order restricts religious exercise, harms migrants, and increases the community spread of COVID.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. 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 25 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

United States of America v. State of Texas

The Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, ministers to over 1,000 recent migrants each day. The Center was created in 2014 by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, a ministry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville. The Center has served more than 100,000 migrants to date and is the first stop for many migrant families after they cross the border and are released by law enforcement. At the Center, families dropped off by Border Patrol receive COVID tests and transportation to quarantine locations, if needed. Those without COVID enter the Center to receive basic necessities: medical attention, food, water, temporary shelter from the elements. Catholic Charities then transports them to hospitals, shelters, or on their way to reunite with family.   

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, incoming migrants are tested for COVID-19 before entering the Center. Migrants who test positive are safely quarantined at nearby hotels. However, on July 28, 2021, Texas issued an Order forbidding non-governmental entities from transporting migrants anywhere in Texas. While supposedly intended to prevent COVID-19 transmission, the Order in practice would prevent the Humanitarian Respite Center from taking migrants from the Center to local bus stations, airports, hospitals, and more permanent shelters. And it would prevent the Center from safely transporting COVID positive migrants to quarantine locations. Instead, with the Center unable to take in any more migrants, Border Patrol would leave migrants—without ever testing them for COVID—at local McAllen bus stations, increasing the likelihood of COVID transmission in the community and leaving young women and children with no means of contacting transportation or procuring food and water.   

Concerned about the negative impact this order would have on the federal government’s operations, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit on July 30, seeking to block enforcement of the order. On August 3, a federal judge in El Paso granted temporary relief, set to expire on August 13. On August 11, 2021, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, pointing out that the order impeded the religious rights of Catholic Charities contrary to federal and state law. After a court hearing on August 13, the district court issued an injunction that protects Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley from Governor Abbott’s order while the case continues in court. The court recognized the vital role of religious ministries, finding “sufficient evidence” that federal officials must rely on the transportation efforts of “NGO-partners” like Catholic Charities “in order to operate the immigration system successfully.” 

As Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief explains, both state and federal law protect the free exercise of religion – including the exercise of religious ministries like the Humanitarian Respite Center. Not only did the order potentially increase the spread of COVID-19, but it also – in violation of state laws protecting religious exercise – threatened the Center if it carried out its religious mission of serving the vulnerable.  

The case is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, El Paso Division. 

Unanimous Supreme Court protects foster moms & 200-year-old ministry

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court just ruled in favor of “exemplary” foster mothers Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, allowing these foster care heroes to continue serving children in need in partnership with the Catholic foster ministry that has been serving Philadelphia for over 200 years. Catholic Social Services supports foster mothers like Sharonell and Toni and serves children without regard to race, religion, or sexual orientation. Thanks to today’s decision, it can continue that vital work. In the Court’s unanimous decision, Chief Justice Roberts made clear that the city cannot exclude foster parents like Sharonell and Toni or Catholic Social Services simply because city officials disagree with the religious agency’s sincere Catholic beliefs about marriage. The Justices also recognized that protecting faith-affirming agencies will ensure foster children in need have every opportunity available to find a loving home. As the Court explained, “[t]he City apparently prefers to risk leaving children without foster parents than to allow CSS to follow its religiously dictated policy, which threatens no tangible harm.”

The Court’s opinion also confirmed “CSS has ‘long been a point of light in the City’s foster-care system.’ CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs.” The decision is a strong message in favor of religious freedom: “so long as the government can achieve its interests in a manner that does not burden religion, it must do so.”

Today’s decision recognizes that diverse foster agencies will help diverse families thrive. Catholic Social Services welcomes women of color like Sharonell and Toni and is committed to serving those most in need. More than 70 percent of the children supported by this religious ministry’s foster care program are racial minorities.

“I am overjoyed that the Supreme Court recognized the important work of Catholic Social Services and has allowed me to continue fostering children most in need of a loving home,” said foster mom and named plaintiff Sharonell Fulton. “My faith is what drives me to care for foster children here in Philadelphia and I thank God the Supreme Court believes that’s a good thing, worthy of protection.”

“The Justices understand that foster parents like me share in the common, noble task of providing children with loving homes,” said Toni Simms-Busch, also a foster mom and named plaintiff. “Our foster-care ministry in Philadelphia is vital to solving the foster care crisis and Catholic Social Services is a cornerstone of that ministry. The Supreme Court’s decision ensure the most vulnerable children in the City of Brotherly Love have every opportunity to find loving homes.”

In Sharonell Fulton et. al. v. City of Philadelphia, the City of Philadelphia told Catholic Social Services that it had to either change its religious practices or close down, thus preventing children from being placed with loving foster parents like Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch.

Becket Senior Counsel Lori Windham argued on behalf of Sharonell, Toni, and Catholic Social Services, explaining to the Supreme Court how the First Amendment protects the right of religious organizations to serve those in need without giving up the religious beliefs that motivate their ministry.

“It’s a beautiful day when the highest court in the land protects foster moms and the 200-year-old religious ministry that supports them,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket who argued the case in Fulton. “Taking care of children, especially children who have been neglected and abused, is a universal value that spans all ideological divides. Today, I am grateful that the Supreme Court protected heroes of the foster care system like Sharonell and Toni, who give of themselves daily to care for children in need.”

Becket will hold a press call today at 11:45 AM EST
Foster mom Toni Simms Busch, Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia, and Becket Fund senior counsel Lori Windham who will deliver remarks and answer questions about the Supreme Court decision, respectively.

Call-in information:
 Join https://zoom.us/j/91411888332
Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

Senator Orrin G. Hatch awarded religious liberty’s highest honor

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, who represented Utah in the United States Senate from 1977-2019, was awarded Becket’s highest honor for his unfailing dedication to the defense of religious freedom for all. His principled leadership and legacy of bipartisan lawmaking has helped protect freedom of thought and uncommon religious beliefs to this day. Senator Hatch was honored at last night’s Canterbury Medal Gala in Park City, Utah.  

As a United States senator for 42 years and the longest-serving Republican and Utahn senator, Senator Hatch shepherded more than 750 bills into law. One of his greatest triumphs, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), is considered a cornerstone of religious freedom protection for minority faith communities. The legislation was passed by an overwhelming majority of Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. In 2000, he was the primary author of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which passed unanimously in both houses of Congress. 

“I am proud to have preserved religious freedom for people of all faiths through legislation such as RFRA, which is needed today more than ever.  Religious freedom was sewn into the very fabric of this country from the beginning, and protecting the right of conscience for every American is essential to the future of our republic,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch. “I am humbled tonight to have received the Canterbury Medal, and I take confidence knowing that the defense of religious liberty is in good hands.”

As Chairman Emeritus, Senator Hatch continues his important work through the efforts of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, advancing issues relating to freedom of conscience, religion, and belief. He also writes on topics such as politics, law, and faith. Senator Hatch is a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

“Senator Hatch’s relentless work to pass RFRA unquestionably solidified religious liberty protections for all Americans,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket. “Through his efforts, he has helped protect faithful Sikhs serving in the military, Native American worship traditions and sacred sites, prisoners who turn to their faith while incarcerated, and nuns who care for the elderly sick and dying. Without RFRA and without Senator Hatch’s commitment to religious liberty, our freedom of conscience would simply not be what it is today.” 

The Canterbury Medal is given to a leading figure who champions a robust role for religion in society and refuses to render unto Caesar that which is God’s. Its name draws from one of the most dramatic religious liberty stand-offs, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, repeatedly blocked King Henry II’s encroachments on the church’s liberties. Past medalists include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and apostle and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader President Dallin H. Oaks. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Court denies emergency relief, allows Oak Flat appeal to proceed

WASHINGTON  A federal appeals court today denied an emergency request to stop the Forest Service from handing over Oak Flat, an ancient Apache sacred site, to a foreign mining company for destructionIn denying the request, the court offered no opinion on the merits of the case, but ruled instead that the appeal should move forward on an expedited schedule because the Forest Service had agreed to delay the land transfer for “months. Judge Patrick Bumatay dissented, stating that “Apache Stronghold has shown a high likelihood of success on the merits” and is “entitled to more clarity” than the Forest Service’s “assurances.”  

Apache Strongholda group of Apaches and other Native and non-Native allies, sued the U.S. Forest Service in January to prevent the transfer and destruction of Oak Flat, an Apache holy site that has been used for sacred ceremonies since before recorded history. Western Apaches still rely on the site for core religious practices that cannot take place anywhere else, and the lawsuit alleges that destruction of the sacred site would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The land transfer was originally scheduled to take place March 15. But six hours before the government was required to respond to Apache Stronghold’s emergency appeal, the Forest Service announced that it would delay the transfer 

The transfer and destruction of an ancient Apache sacred site clearly violates federal law,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. Judge Bumatay is right—this is an easy case. There’s no difference between turning this holy site into a massive crater and dynamiting St. Peter’s Basilica – except that if you blew up St. Peter’s Basilica, Catholics would at least be able to worship elsewhere. But this sacred place is core to the traditional religious exercise of the Apaches – if it is destroyed, there’s nowhere else for them to carry on their sacred traditions. 

Oak Flat, which is part of the ecologically rich Tonto National Forest, has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property. Although the federal government had protected Oak Flat – known to the Apache as “Chi’chil Biłdagoteel” – since the days of the Eisenhower administration, a last-minute provision was attached to a must-pass defense bill in 2014, mandating that the land be transferred to a foreign-owned mining company, Resolution Copper. Apaches consider Oak Flat to be an irreplaceable conduit to their Creator and use the site to worship, pray, access sacred medicinal plants and water springs, and perform religious ceremonies.  

“The U.S. government has a long tradition of forcing Apaches off of their own land and destroying their sacred sites to make way for lucrative mining interests,” said  Dr.  Wendsler  Nosie, Sr.  of Apache Stronghold. Chi’chil Biłdagoteel wouldn’t be the first site they have tried to exploit, but we pray that it will be the last. Our ancestors worshipped at Chi’chil Biłdagoteel since time immemorial, and we are merely asking the court to give our children and grandchildren that same opportunity.” 

The Ninth Circuit’s decision comes after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was withdrawing an environmental impact statement issued in the waning days of the Trump administration, which triggered the land transfer to Resolution Copper within 60 days. The appeal will continue on an expedited basis in the Ninth Circuit.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Supreme Court rules feds can’t get off hook when violating religious liberty

WASHINGTON  The Supreme Court just ruled that three Muslim Americans who claim they were wrongfully put on the NoFly List as punishment for their religious beliefs are entitled to sue for financial relief, which the Supreme Court said is sometimes the only form of relief that can remedy government violations of religious freedom. 

Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari filed a federal lawsuit in 2013, claiming that the FBI asked them to serve as confidential informants — an impossible ask that would force them to spy on the private lives of fellow Muslims and violate a core tenet of their religious beliefs. In retaliation, the FBI allegedly placed them on the national No Fly List, a list of individuals banned from flying because they are suspected of being potential terrorist threats. When Tanvir, Algibhah and Shinwari sued, arguing that the FBI was misusing the No-Fly List to burden their religious beliefs in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the FBI took them off the list and asked for the case to be thrown out.   

“We’re glad the Supreme Court unanimously emphasized that the government can’t expect to be let off the hook by simply changing its tune at the last second,” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at Becket. “This is a good decision that makes it easier to hold the government accountable when it violates Americans’ religious liberties. 

This is a common tactic by the government bodies across the United States: changing harmful policies or actions the moment they are challenged in court, and then arguing that since the harm has ceased, the people harmed by their actions cannot even bring a lawsuitEven though accepting this legal argument opens the door to egregious abuses, the district court agreed with the FBI and tried to dismiss the lawsuit. Fortunately, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Muslim men, finding that they still could seek justice.  

When the FBI appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming it they could not be sued for its past actions, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that RFRA was written to let citizens pursue remedies in court, and that letting the government escape accountability was harmful for religious liberty. Today’s Supreme Court ruling means that Tanvir, Algibhah and Sinwari can pursue their claims – and that governmenteverywhere will have to think twice before violating an individual’s religious liberty rights. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Supreme Court examines alleged FBI retaliation against Muslim men

WASHINGTON – Three Muslim men were at the Supreme Court today defending their religious freedom after they were allegedly retaliated against by the FBI. In Tanzin v. Tanvir Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari said they were placed on the FBI’s No Fly list—a record of individuals deemed to be terrorist threats to the United States and therefore not permitted to fly—for refusing to serve as informants against fellow Muslims. Just four days before the court was scheduled to hear their case, the FBI removed the men from the list to avoid legal consequences. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief, urging the Court to allow victims to be compensated for violations of their civil liberties under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), so that government officials cannot use procedural loopholes to violate religious freedom without risk of punishment.

At today’s argument, the Justices emphasized the broad scope of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the protection that it provides to Americans of diverse faiths. The Justices sounded skeptical of arguments to limit RFRA in the way the federal government requested, which would deny the Muslim plaintiffs even the opportunity to prove their claims in court.

“In the United States of America, no one should be targeted by government agents solely because of their religious beliefs,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “Muslim Americans should not be denied their day in court.”

When Tanvir, Algibhah, and Shinwari were allegedly asked to serve as informants against fellow Muslims, the men declined because their religious beliefs prevented them from helping the FBI in this way. The men said they were placed on the No Fly list and told that they could be taken off the list if they agreed to serve as informants for the government. The three men sued the FBI agents in their individual capacities, arguing that they had coercively abused the use of the No Fly List and, in doing so, had violated RFRA by burdening the men’s religious exercise. Just days before the men finally received their day in court, the FBI announced that they were free to fly, then asked the court to dismiss their case.

For years, courts have worked to determine the scope of religious protections under RFRA and what recourse religious individuals have when the government restricts their religious freedom. The Supreme Court’s ruling on this question is expected by June.

“The government shouldn’t be able to get out of legal trouble by changing laws and policies when it knows it’s about to lose in court,” said Windham. “In order for our civil liberties to be meaningful, violations of those liberties must be enforceable. The Court should give the religious rights of Tanvir, Algibhah, and Shinwari their due.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Spy or don’t fly: High Court to examine alleged FBI retaliation against Muslim men

WASHINGTON – Three Muslim men will be at the Supreme Court next week defending their religious freedom after the FBI allegedly punished them. In Tanzin v. Tanvir Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari allege that they were placed on the FBI’s No-Fly list—a record of individuals deemed to be terrorist threats to the United States and therefore not permitted to fly—for refusing to serve as informants against fellow Muslims. The men say that after years on the No-Fly list, they were removed a mere four days before they received their day in court, and now the FBI claims this should end their case. After the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the men should get their day in court, , the FBI appealed to the Supreme Court.

In February 2020, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief, urging the Court to allow victims to be compensated for violations of their civil liberties under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), so that government officials cannot use procedural loopholes to violate the religious freedom of American citizens and get away with it scot-free. The Supreme Court will hear the case telephonically on October 6, 2020.

What:
Supreme Court Oral Argument in Tanzin v. Tanvir

When:
Tuesday, October 6, at 11:00 a.m. EDT (may start later depending conclusion of earlier argument)

Where:
C-SPAN
https://www.c-span.org/supremeCourt/

A Becket attorney will be available for comment immediately following the hearing.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Katsareas v. United States Navy

How does an Australian living in Qatar decide to enlist in the United States military?  

When Leo Katsareas was a teenager in Australia, he found himself drawn to Islam as a path to Providence and a vehicle for protecting the inalienable rights of others and opposing all forms of oppression. At age sixteen, he converted and began living as a practicing Muslim. Later, as a young adult living abroad, Leo studied the American founding era, reading the texts of the Founding Fathers and the United States Constitution. He fell in love with America’s history, its principles, and particularly its commitment to freedom. He vowed to one day come to the United States and serve in the military.

Since then, Leo has done just that. After immigrating to the United States, he spent time working for the government, defending the American people and the freedom he loves by helping uncover and prevent significant terrorist threats both domestically and abroad. In 2016, he joined the United States military as he had promised, enlisting in the Navy. In his years of service, Leo has served on ships domestically and internationally becoming a Mass Communication Specialist in 2019. He works tirelessly for his adopted country while living out his Islamic faith.

 
A call to serve God and a call to serve Country  

A convert to Islam, Leo Katsareas believes that his faith requires him to wear a four-inch beard. This belief has led him to consistently seek accommodations from the Navy’s strict grooming policies. While on a ship in the Red Sea, MC3 Katsareas received a temporary “chit” — a note of permission — that allowed him to keep a beard. And at his last duty station, his commanding officers granted him a partial, quarter-inch accommodation, consistent with the exemptions given to those with medical needs. However, he was told that even this limited permission was not permanent, and he would need to reapply at any future stations of duty.

Grooming policies of the United States Military are designed to prevent safety threats and ensure that uniforms aren’t compromised. In the case of a fire on a ship, for example, Navy personnel might need to quickly don effective masks. MC3 Katsareas agrees that in a life or death situation, he may have to shave his beard and is willing to do so in the interests of his own safety and that of his fellow Sailors. However, he has been able to wear a mask with no issue, including during combat actions in 2016, where he was assigned to his ship’s firefighting party when it came under guided missile fire by Houthi insurgents in Yemen, as well as in other firefighting training situations. Additionally, in recent years the Army and Air Force have both updated their grooming policies in recent years to accommodate religious minorities. The Navy has failed to keep up.

Despite the absence of significant safety concerns that can’t be worked around, and despite broad religious accommodations granted by the other branches of the United States military, the Navy initially denied MC3 Katsareas’s recent request for a full accommodation that would allow him to grow a substantial beard in accordance with his Islamic faith. With Becket’s help, MC3 Katsareas launched an internal appeal of the Navy’s denial, seeking to defend the American freedom he fell in love with: the right to practice one’s religion in the public square, including while serving one’s country.

Protecting religious minorities from unjust exclusion 

In April 2020, the Navy denied Leo’s seventh request for an accommodation for a fist-length beard. In May 2020, Leo appealed the denial, represented by Becket. On July 15, 2020, the Navy reconsidered and granted Leo a temporary, revocable accommodation, informing him that he can maintain his full religiously motivated beard and remain in good standing with the United States Navy while in his current duty assignment. In doing so, the Navy acted in accordance with the accommodation policies of other branches of the military and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Passed by a bipartisan Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993 with the support of an extensive coalition of religious and civil rights leaders, RFRA prohibits the military from suppressing an individual’s sincere religious exercise without a compelling government reason.

Becket has successfully defended members of the U.S. military seeking religious accommodations a number of times. In 2015, Becket filed suit alongside the Sikh Coalition and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery on behalf of Captain Simratpal “Simmer” Singh, a committed Sikh and long-time captain in the U.S. Army, in Singh v. Carter, securing him temporary protections for his religious beard and turban. Becket filed a similar suit in 2016 in Singh v. McConville, representing three Sikh servicemen in the Army also seeking to serve without abandoning the marks of their faith. In response to the court ruling in Singh v. Carter and the suit in Singh v. McConville, the Army issued new regulations in 2017 stating that Sikh soldiers would not be forced to abandon articles of their faith throughout their military careers, thus making the victory for religious minorities serving their country a permanent one. Despite the Army’s new regulations, West Point did not automatically accommodate the religious beliefs of its cadets. In August 2017, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Sikh cadets slated to attend West Point. In court, West Point admitted that it did not have a compelling reason to deny Sikhs the ability to serve, and issued new guidelines that would allow Sikh cadets to maintain their articles of faith while serving at the Academy.

The Navy ought to follow the example of the Army and Air Force and America’s founding principles in recognizing and accommodating the religious belief of its service members and protecting the place of religion in the public square for all Americans. Service to country need not prevent service to God.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Individual freedomAn individual’s religious exercise encompasses more than just belief or worship — it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith. Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times — including while defending the freedom of all Americans by serving in the armed forces.  

Public SquareReligion is natural to human beings and to human culture. Because of this, religious expression cannot be limited to the private sphere, but can, and should, have a place in the public square.  

RFRAThe government — and, consequently, the military — cannot burden religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives. 

Diverse religious groups, 76 Members of Congress and 16 States support foster families at the High Court

WASHINGTON – Among 34 friend-of-the-court briefs, dozens of diverse religious groups, 76 Members of Congress, 16 states, and many others urged the Supreme Court yesterday to protect religious ministries for vulnerable children. In Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia foster moms Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch are defending one the City’s best foster care agencies, Catholic Social Services (CSS), from the City’s attempt to shut it down over of the agency’s beliefs about same-sex marriage and unmarried couples. The friend-of-the-court briefs argue that the Court should keep CSS’s doors open, protect faith-based ministries nationwide, and ensure that the First Amendment protects religious exercise so that religious people can continue to serve their communities.

Sharonell Fulton has fostered more than 40 children over 25 years in partnership with Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, and Toni Simms-Busch is a former social worker who recently adopted the children she fostered through CSS. Both mothers chose CSS because the agency shares their most deeply held values and beliefs, and both have relied heavily on CSS’s support during their foster care journey. A federal appeals court ruled against the foster mothers and CSS, who are now urging the Supreme Court to protect the ministry that serves Philadelphia’s most vulnerable children.

A diverse array of more than two dozen religious organizations, some of the nation’s largest faith-based foster-care ministries, the United States, 16 states, 82 state legislators across seven states, 76 members of Congress, prominent law professors, and former Attorney General Ed Meese urged the Court to protect faith-based ministries and uphold the Constitution’s right to the free exercise of religion. These groups recognize that Philadelphia’s actions don’t just threaten CSS and its foster families—or even faith-based foster agencies nationwide. Rather, Philadelphia’s arguments would undermine the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty for all, anywhere.

Highlights from the friend-of-the-court briefs include:

  • Thirteen states filed a brief asking the Court to protect the “invaluable” partnership of government and religious ministries “from constitutional attack” by restoring the First Amendment’s religious liberty.
  • Another three states filed a brief explaining the longstanding, historical dependence on religious foster ministries by state and local governments.
  • Seventy-six members of Congress asked the Supreme Court to protect faith-based agencies and stop Philadelphia’s attempt to “quash[] any child welfare providers” that have different religious beliefs than those the government prefers.
  • Noted law professors Doug Laycock and Tom Berg, and a diverse array of religious organizations—from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, explained “the powerful disincentive to religious faith and practice” when the government excludes religious ministries from public life.
  • A coalition of minority religious groups including the United Sikhs, the Bruderhof, the Islam & Religious Freedom Action Team, Asma Uddin, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness signed a brief urging the Court to protect religious exercise, recognizing that the outcome of Fulton will affect all kinds of religious exercise, particularly beliefs that are unpopular or unfamiliar.

In March 2018—just days after putting out an urgent call for 300 more foster families—the City of Philadelphia stopped allowing foster children to be placed with families who work with CSS. Philadelphia argued that the Catholic agency had to either endorse and certify same-sex relationships or close down. The City did this despite the fact that—for the over 100 years CSS had served the City—not a single same-sex couple had sought foster care certification from CSS. Indeed, no couple has ever been prevented from fostering or adopting a child in need because of CSS’s religious beliefs.

“It’s easy to support a foster agency that has been uniting vulnerable children with loving families for over 100 years, so it’s no wonder CSS has received such broad and diverse support at the Supreme Court,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “Faith-based agencies are some of the best at combating the foster care crisis across the nation, yet across the country, they face threats from those who disagree with their religious beliefs. I am hopeful that the Court will recognize that faith-based agencies are rightfully part of the solution and shouldn’t be subject to the political appetites of their adversaries.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Little Sisters ask Supreme Court to protect their ministry to the elderly poor once and for all

WASHINGTON – The Little Sisters of the Poor made a historic virtual appearance today at the Supreme Court and asked for protection from a coalition of states which seeks to take away their hard-won religious exemption from the HHS contraceptive mandate. In Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, after the Little Sisters were twice protected by the Supreme Court and finally granted a religious exemption in 2018, several states dragged the Catholic nuns back to court to defend their ministry. Today, Paul Clement, advocating for the Little Sisters by telephone, asked the Justices to protect the nuns once more and end the Little Sisters’ seven-year legal battle once and for all.

This morning, it was made clear that Pennsylvania takes an even stingier view of the government’s ability to make religious exemptions than the Obama administration did, denying that the Affordable Care Act even gives the government authority to exempt churches.

“We are hopeful that the Court will protect us as it did in 2016 and eager to be rid of this legal trouble which has hung over our ministry like a storm cloud for nearly a decade,” said Mother Loraine Marie Maguire of the Little Sisters of the Poor. “In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the lives of our residents face a real and imminent threat, we are more eager than ever to be able to care for our residents without being harassed by governments.”

The Little Sisters are an order of Roman Catholic religious sisters who dedicate their lives to serving the elderly poor. In 2011, the federal government issued the HHS contraceptive mandate, which required the Little Sisters to provide abortion-inducing drugs in their health care plans or pay millions of dollars in fines. In 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously removed lower court rulings against the Little Sisters and protected them from the IRS fines. HHS then announced a new ruleprotecting religious non-profits, including the Little Sisters. Yet several states, including Pennsylvania and California, immediately sued the federal government to take that protection away, forcing the Little Sisters back to court. After a loss in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the Sisters turned to the High Court to finally put an end to their long legal journey.

“The Court has ruled in the Little Sister’s favor twice before, recognizing what was obvious from the very beginning—that the federal government doesn’t need nuns to help it distribute contraceptives and that forcing them to participate is plainly unconstitutional,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket. “We hope that the Supreme Court ends this litigation once and for all.”

Press call information following argument today:

NEW TIME: Today at 12:30 p.m. EDT
646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or joinhttp://zoom.us/my/comms.line.external
Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney,  contact Ryan Colby at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

United States of America v. Scott Warren

The good Samaritans of the border

Every year thousands of migrants travel across the Sonoran Desert—one of the most extreme environments in North America—to the United States border in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The journey is treacherous, and thousands of migrants die on the way from exposure, dehydration, and hyperthermia. In Arizona alone, thousands of human remains have been found over the past two decades.

In the border counties of Arizona, humanitarian groups have formed to respond to the deaths and try to prevent them by leaving food, water, and supplies in areas that migrants are known to pass through, by conducting search and rescue missions, and by recovering the remains of migrants who have passed away on the journey—giving them a dignified burial.

Dr. Scott Warren is a resident of Ajo, Arizona. Driven by his religious belief that “all life is sacred, and places are sacred as well,” Dr. Warren is an active volunteer with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths—one such group that works to ensure the safety of migrants as they pass through the desert. With No More Deaths, Dr. Warren regularly conducts “missions” on which he places food, water, and other supplies at specific “water drop” sites which are well documented and maintained by No More Deaths.

No good deed goes unpunished

On June 1, 2017, Dr. Warren and his companions loaded up their vehicles with food, water, and supplies and set out into the desert early in the morning. After departing from the public road in order to reach his drop site, he was spotted by an officer, arrested, and charged with “Abandonment of Property” for leaving the supplies for migrants.

Dr. Warren and his companions always log the location and amount of supplies they leave and return to collect containers that are empty or unused. They are not discarding, or abandoning, the supplies left at drop sites; rather, they are giving them to those in need in hopes that they will save lives that may otherwise be lost. Further, the government allows ATVs, camping, and hunting in the same area where it forbids this humanitarian work.

Free to act on faith

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, embodies a simple principle: that government may not burden or punish religious exercise out of policy convenience or whim, but only in the rare case that it is truly necessary to serve an interest of overriding importance. Since it was passed in 1993, RFRA has been especially important to protecting the rights of religious minorities. (See RFRA Info Central for more information.)

In leaving supplies for migrants, Dr. Warren was acting on his sincerely held belief that every human life is sacred and no person should be left to die in the wilderness for lack of food, water, or medical supplies. The government, in prosecuting Dr. Warren, was burdening his religious practice and discouraging others from engaging in the same humanitarian work according to their own religious beliefs.

On November 21, 2019, a federal court acquitted Dr. Warren of the charge of abandonment of property based on his RFRA defense, ruling that the government did not need to burden Dr. Warren’s religious exercise in order to “protect[] the pristine state of the wildlife refuge” or “secur[e] the border.” He was found guilty of a vehicle permit violation, which may be appealed. Dr. Scott Warren is represented by Kuykendall & Associates of Tucson, Arizona.

Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Individual Freedom: Americans have the right to believe, express beliefs, and act in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. Faith cannot and should not be confined to what we do within the four walls of our homes and churches; we must be free to act on those beliefs in our interactions with the broader world.

Court to doctors: you won’t be forced to perform gender transition procedures

WASHINGTON – A federal court handed down a huge victory today for the conscience rights of medical professionals across the nation. In Franciscan Alliance v. Azar, a federal regulation threatened to drive religious doctors out of practice if they would not perform gender-transition procedures that violate their medical judgment and beliefs, but today’s ruling strikes down the regulation, ensuring that doctors can continue practicing their profession consistent with their conscience.

In 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a regulation, applicable to virtually every doctor in the country, that would have required them to perform gender-transition procedures on any patient referred by a mental health professional, even if the doctor believed the treatment could harm the patient. Doctors who refused to violate their conscience would have faced severe consequences, including losing their job. Today’s ruling that the regulation is unlawful aligns with two previous court decisions, accepted medical research, and a recent HHS proposal, keeping the government out of the private medical decisions of patients.

“It is critically important that doctors are able to continue serving patients in keeping with their consciences and their professional medical judgment, especially when it comes to the personal health choices of families and children,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Doctors cannot do their jobs if government bureaucrats are trying to force them to perform potentially harmful procedures that violate their medical and moral judgment.”

An association of over 19,000 healthcare professionals, nine states, and several religious organizations filed two lawsuits against the mandate, arguing that it was inconsistent with federal law and force doctors to violate the Hippocratic Oath, which requires doctors to act in the best interest of their patients. In December 2016, two different federal courts ruled that the policy was an unlawful overreach by a federal agency and a violation of conscience rights of medical professionals. In May 2019, HHS released a proposed new rule which would fix the transgender mandate and keep the federal government from interfering in decisions that should remain between doctors and their patients, but the previous rule remained on the books while the proposal was being considered.

“Today marks a major victory for compassion, conscience, and sound medical judgment,” said Goodrich. “Our clients look forward to joyfully continuing to serve all patients, regardless of their sex or gender identity, and continuing to provide top-notch care to transgender patients for everything from cancer to the common cold.”

Today, a Texas judge finalized his previous decision, agreeing with Becket that the mandate burdens religious freedom by forcing doctors of faith to violate deeply held religious beliefs. Becket is currently fighting for the rights of religious doctors in another case called New York v. HHS.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Foster families win big in Michigan court

WASHINGTON – St. Vincent Catholic Charities, along with Chad and Melissa Buck, parents of five children with special needs, won a major victory for the adoption agency and the families and children it serves.  In Buck v. Gordon, St. Vincent joined the Bucks and Shamber Flore, a former foster child, in fighting the Attorney General of Michigan’s attempt to shut down faith-based foster and adoption agencies. The federal court ruled that “the State’s real goal is not to promote non-discriminatory child placements, but to stamp out St. Vincent’s religious belief and replace it with the State’s own.” Today’s ruling ensures that faith-based agencies can continue working with the State to find more homes for foster children.

Melissa and Chad adopted their five children through St. Vincent Catholic Charities, one of the State’s most successful agencies. Shamber Flore was adopted into a loving family thanks to St. Vincent. In 2017, St. Vincent recruited more new adoptive families than nearly 90 percent of the other agencies in its service area, but despite their success, they were targeted by the Attorney General of Michigan simply because of their beliefs about same-sex marriage.

“St. Vincent has been with us every step of our journey: answering every phone call, coming with us to doctor’s appointments, even bringing us food, as we strive to give our five beautiful children the best future they can have,” said Melissa Buck. “St. Vincent brought our family together, and I’m happy to know they can keep doing their great work helping children find homes.”

There are currently 13,000 children in Michigan’s foster system, and faith-based agencies like St. Vincent have a proven record of effectively uniting vulnerable children—sibling groups, older children, and children with special needs—with loving families. That is why for over 70 years the State of Michigan has relied on St. Vincent to recruit and support foster and adoptive families.

In 2019, Michigan enacted a new policy which threatened the State’s contracts with faith-based foster care and adoption agencies, claiming that the policy was necessary to protect same-sex couples. But no one has ever been prevented from fostering or adopting because of St. Vincent’s beliefs, and St. Vincent will help any couples it cannot partner with to find another agency that can. Same-sex couples who had their paperwork done by another agency have even adopted children in the care of St. Vincent’s foster families in the past. The court emphasized these facts in today’s decision, determining that the State’s new policy would actually mean fewer homes for kids.

“Our nation is facing a foster care crisis, and we are so glad that Michigan’s foster children will continue having all hands on deck to help them find loving forever homes,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “The Bucks and St. Vincent Catholic Charities won a victory in Michigan, but there is still work to be done to ensure that faith-based agencies can contribute to ending our nation’s foster care crisis.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Court allows discrimination case against Wayne State to go forward

WASHINGTON – A Christian student group won a battle against an anti-religious university policy today when a Michigan federal court ruled that the group’s case against Wayne State University should continue. In InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University, Wayne State University’s administration abruptly kicked a 75-year-old Christian student organization off campus, just because the group asks its leaders to embrace its faith. After InterVarsity sued, Wayne State quickly reinstated the student group and sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, even while it still claimed the right to exclude religious groups from campus. Today the court ruled that InterVarsity’s lawsuit must be allowed to go forward.

In the fall of 2017, InterVarsity’s student organization status was revoked, and all their meetings cancelled, because Wayne State claimed the group’s requirement that its leaders be Christian was discriminatory. Wayne State already allows dozens of groups to have requirements for membership and leadership positions: As Judge Cleland pointed out in his opinion, the University admitted that both Greek groups and sports clubs can limit members or leaders to a single gender. With Becket’s help, InterVarsity went to court challenging the university’s discriminatory actions.

“We’re pleased that the court is allowing our case to go forward,” said Greg Jao, Director of External Relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. “InterVarsity just wants to continue serving the campus and local community. All religious students should have the right to come together for worship and service according to their religious identity without being targeted for their faith.”

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is a national organization of Christian college students with over 1,100 chapters in schools throughout the country. At Wayne State, InterVarsity provides a place for Christian students to gather together and practice their faith through Bible studies, worship opportunities and service projects. InterVarsity welcomes all students as members, and anyone is welcome to participate in its activities.

“Christian students have the constitutional right to run their group according to their mission and identity, just as athletes and fraternity members do, without being targeted for their beliefs,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Court tells Texas school to stop bullying boys for their faith

WASHINGTON – A Texas family won a major victory today in their quest to let their boys join extracurricular sports and clubs while keeping a strand of hair uncut and braided as a sign of faith. In Gonzales v. Mathis Independent School District, brothers Cesar and Diego Gonzales have been barred for the past two years from playing on their school’s football team or participating in academic clubs because of a religious promise they have kept since birth. Today’s federal court decision grants the family’s request for a religious accommodation allowing participation in extracurriculars while the case proceeds.

Since 2017, the Gonzales brothers have been barred from all University Interscholastic League (UIL) interschool competition in sports and clubs at Mathis Middle School, including playing football and joining the art and computer programing clubs. Last month, the Gonzales family urged a Texas federal court to put an end to the school district’s religious discrimination and allow the brothers to keep their lifelong promise to God.

“After two years of needless bullying of students of faith, it’s now clear that the school district is breaking the law,” said Montserrat Alvarado, vice president and executive director at Becket. “Mathis Independent School District should stop this foolish fight and do the right thing.”

Cesar and Diego Gonzales leave a small part of their hair uncut and braided, a religious promise known as a promesa they have kept since infancy. Although the school’s dress code forbids male students from having hair past the collar, the school district granted an exemption to the boys from kindergarten through sixth grade, and they participated in school activities with no problem. But when they entered seventh grade in 2017 at Mathis Middle School, Cesar and Diego Gonzales were told that their religious practice would no longer be accommodated. They are now freshmen at Mathis High School.

“It is unacceptable to keep children from doing what they love because of their religious beliefs,” said Alvarado. “Mathis ISD should follow the law and respect these students’ religious beliefs.”

The court invited the parties to submit additional evidence and briefing on September 10 and said that it will issue a more “detailed order” soon. The Gonzales family is represented by Texas attorney Frank Gonzales and Jamie Aycock, Kenneth Young, and Kelsee Foote of the international law firm Kirkland & Ellis.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Texas brothers ask court to end public school discrimination

WASHINGTON – A Catholic family in Texas asked a federal court Monday to allow their boys to join sports and other after-school activities while keeping a strand of their hair uncut and braided as a sign of their faith. In Gonzales v. Mathis Independent School District, the court will decide if the Mathis Independent School District can discriminate against brothers Cesar and Diego Gonzales because of a religious promise they have kept since infancy.

For two years, the Gonzales brothers have been barred from all University Interscholastic Leave (UIL) interschool competition in sports and clubs at Mathis Middle School, including playing football and joining the art and computer programing clubs. The family is now asking a Texas federal court to allow the brothers to keep their religious promise to God while participating in their school’s extracurricular activities as freshmen at Mathis High School.

“This school district’s senseless religious discrimination has gone on long enough, and we fully expect the court to allow the Gonzales brothers to participate in the after-school activities they love,” said Montse Alvarado, VP and executive director of Becket. “Cesar and Diego should have a chance to play and learn alongside their friends and classmates without having to give up a central part of their religious identity.”

Since birth, Cesar and Diego Gonzales have kept a small strand of hair uncut and braided as a sacred religious promise to God. Although their school’s dress code forbids male students from having hair past the collar, the school district granted an exemption to the boys from kindergarten through sixth grade. However, when they entered seventh grade in the fall of 2017, Cesar and Diego were surprised to find out that their religious practice would no longer be accommodated and were suddenly banned from all UIL activities.

“In a diverse society like ours there is no reason for young students to be bullied and excluded for practicing their faith,” said Alvarado. “The law does not tolerate this kind of blatant suppression of students’ religious expression.”

On July 15, 2019, Becket sent a letter urging the school district to settle the case and give the boys a religious exemption. The school district refused. Now, the federal court will decide whether the boys will be allowed to participate in extracurriculars this school year. The Gonzales family is represented by Texas attorney Frank Gonzales and Jamie Aycock, Kenneth Young, and Kelsee Foote of the international law firm Kirkland & Ellis.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Michigan adoptive family back in court

WASHINGTON – The parents of five children with special needs will be in court today to challenge a Michigan state policy threatening the faith-based adoption agency that brought their family together. In Buck v. Gordon, Melissa and Chad Buck, former foster child Shamber Flore, and St. Vincent Catholic Charities are challenging a new policy enacted by Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel that is threatening to shut down faith-based agencies like St. Vincent across the State. St. Vincent specializes in serving a diverse community and has been ministering to foster children and their families for over 70 years. Unless the court protects St. Vincent from the State’s harmful policy by September 30, the agency will be excluded from the state adoption system, Melissa and Chad will be left without crucial support, and many of Michigan’s thousands of foster children will be less likely to find forever homes (watch video here).

What:
Oral Argument in Buck v. Gordon

Who:
Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket
Melissa Buck

When:
Thursday, August 22, 2019, at 2:00 p.m. EST

Where:
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan
110 Michigan St., NW, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503

Senior Counsel Lori Windham and Melissa Buck will be available for comment immediately following the hearing.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

 

Chung v. Washington Interscholastic Activities Association

Meet the Chungs: Star athletes, faithful to their Sabbath

Joelle and Joseph Chung are siblings, avid tennis players, and active members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in their hometown, Chehalis, Washington. As faithful Adventists, Joelle and Joseph observe the Sabbath, a biblically-ordained practice of devoting time to rest, prayer and collective worship, every week from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. The Chung family take their faith very seriously. Joelle even missed her own high school graduation because it fell on a Saturday. Joelle and Joseph became tennis players because they knew that the sport was primarily played on the weekdays, so it would not interfere with their religious observance.

Joelle was a top athlete on her high school’s girls’ tennis team for four years before graduating in 2019. Joseph is a current high school student and is already a star player on the boys’ tennis team as a sophomore. The Chungs are talented and dedicated tennis players, but a discriminatory rule has kept them from playing the sport they love because of their beliefs.

Kept off the court for their faith

Every year the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), the organization authorized under Washington law to regulate high-school sports in Washington, holds a state-wide postseason tennis tournament. To advance to the State Championships, players must compete in two qualifying tournaments. Throughout Joelle’s high school tennis career, the WIAA required participants to certify that they would be able to participate in each level of the tournament to qualify for the championships, with exceptions for injuries, illness, and “unforeseen events.”

In her junior year, Joelle won the first qualifying tournament leading up to the State Championships but had to forfeit her spot to an alternate because the next round conflicted with the Sabbath. In 2019, her senior season, Joelle was undefeated and expected to win in the qualifying tournaments and advance to the State Championships. Yet the State Championships were scheduled on a Friday and Saturday. According to WIAA rules, she was disqualified from playing the entire postseason.

Hoping to reach a compromise, the Chung family contacted the WIAA months in advance, asking for a religious accommodation. The Chungs asked the WIAA to move the State Championships to a weekday or simply allow Joelle to participate in the qualifying tournaments and use an alternate for the championships, just like athletes with injuries or illness can. Of course, it was entirely hypothetical that a replacement would be needed, depending on whether Joelle advanced to the championships. The WIAA flatly denied their requests, forcing Joelle to give up her chances in the tournament.

Defending the right to play while keeping the faith

No student-athlete should be barred from experiencing the excitement of competition and the opportunity to advance to the top of their field because of discriminatory standards. With Becket’s help, the Chung family sued the WIAA, asking that the rule be changed so that all students, including students of faith, can fully participate. The boys’ state tennis postseason begins in October so, Becket asked the WIAA to change its discriminatory rule before then so that Joseph and other students whose faith compels them to keep the Sabbath on Saturday can participate on equal terms with other students.

On August 27, 2019 the WIAA added religious observance to the list of exceptions allowing a player to withdraw from competition without being penalized. But this rule change is only a partial victory because the WIAA continues to insist that it cannot adjust the schedule of the tournament to accommodate religious observance, even if one of the remaining contenders has a Sabbath conflict.

The Chungs moved for summary judgment in September 2020, but the court decided to send the case to trial. Because WIAA had already changed the rule excluding them from postseason play, our clients agreed to settle as long as WIAA would agree to keep in place its amended rule allowing Saturday Sabbath observers to play in the postseason up until they run into an actual Sabbath conflict. A settlement agreement was reached and approved by the court on September 3, 2021. On September 21, 2021, the court granted the parties’ motion to dismiss, formally ending the case.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual Freedom—In a pluralistic society, organizations have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations to ensure Americans of all faiths can participate fully in society. No American should unnecessarily be forced to choose between participating in public life and living out their sincere religious beliefs. Organizations especially cannot make secular exceptions to their rules and regulations and then claim that religious exceptions cannot be allowed.

Becket to Texas School: Stop bullying boys for their faith

WASHINGTON – A Catholic family in Texas is suing their school district to allow their children to participate in sports and other afterschool activities while keeping a small strand of their hair uncut and braided as a promise to God. In a letter sent to Mathis Independent School Board today, Becket warned the school that it “will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if it does not respect these students’ rights” and gave the school until August 12—when the children will start missing afterschool activities again—to settle the case.

When they entered seventh grade in 2017 at Mathis Middle School, in Texas, Cesar and Diego Gonzales were told that they would no longer be allowed to leave a small part of their hair uncut, a religious promise they have kept since infancy. Because of their religious promise the boys were banned from all University Interscholastic League (UIL) interschool competition in sports and clubs. Cesar has been banned for two years from playing on the football team and Diego has been forbidden from off-campus trips with the student council and the art and computer programming clubs. The school’s coaching staff told Cesar, “All it takes is a quick snip of the scissors for you to get your football equipment.”

“A religious promise to keep a small strand of uncut hair shouldn’t ban school children from catching touchdowns or participating in student council meetings,” said Montse Alvarado, executive director of Becket. “The school board should give these boys a chance to be active in the sports and clubs they love—not only because the school would lose miserably in court, but because it is the right thing to do.”

When Cesar was an infant, he contracted a serious illness, and Pedro and Belen Gonzales made a promise to God never to cut a small strand of their son’s hair if he was healed. The family has kept this deeply personal religious promise ever since, and their sons have adopted the religious promise as their own. Although the school’s dress code forbids male students from having hair past the collar, the school district granted an exemption to the boys from kindergarten through sixth grade, and they participated in school activities with no problem. The Texas Association of School Boards also instructs school districts that they “must accommodate requests for exceptions [from grooming codes] based on a student or parent’s sincerely held religious belief.” But starting in seventh grade, they have been banned from all University Interscholastic League (UIL) interschool competition in sports and clubs.

“In this day and age, a school should be warm and welcoming toward students of diverse beliefs,” said Alvarado. “But instead these boys have been needlessly traumatized and targeted by the very teachers who should protect them from this kind of bullying.”

The letter informed the school district that if they do not reach a settlement with the Gonzales family by August 12, Becket is prepared to intervene and defend Cesar and Diego’s right to learn and play alongside their classmates. The Gonzales family is represented by attorney Frank Rey Gonzales of Corpus Christi, Texas.

Belen Gonzales v. Mathis Independent School District

Brothers bound by a sacred promise 

When Pedro and Belen Gonzales’ eldest son, Cesar, was an infant, he contracted a very serious illness. Longing for his recovery, Pedro and Belen made a religious promise that if their son’s health improved, they would keep a strand of hair on the back of his head uncut as an expression of faith and gratitude. After Cesar recovered and their second son, Diego, was born, the family continued the practice as a deeply important and personal part of their religious faith. As they grew older, both boys continued to keep a small strand of their hair uncut, committed to living out their family’s sacred practice 

From kindergarten through sixth grade, the local school district allowed the boys to keep their long hair—despite a dress code requiring boys to have short hair—because the school recognized that the religious promise was an important part of their identity. The boys were active in many afterschool activities, such as football, the robotics team, and student government.  

Forced to sever a core part of their identity 

In August 2017, as they were entering the seventh grade at Mathis Middle School, the Gonzales brothers were suddenly told that they would no longer be allowed to keep a strand of their hair uncut. The Gonzales family appealed the decision but were eventually denied by the school board. The boys were banned from all University Interscholastic League (UIL) interschool competition in sports and clubs, which meant they couldn’t play on the football team or travel with the robotics team. Cesar’s grades even began to suffer when he was excluded from band performances—a core part of the academic band grade.  

The Texas Association of School Boards instructs school districts that they “must accommodate requests for exceptions [from grooming codes] based on a student or parent’s sincerely held religious belief.But the boys’ school district has refused to follow this recommendation. The school’s coaching staff even told Cesar, “All it takes is a quick snip of the scissors for you to get your football equipment.”  

Defending students’ freedom to express their faith 

On May 30, 2018, the Gonzales family sued the Mathis Independent School District on behalf of their sons, arguing that the school’s stubborn adherence to their grooming code imposed a burden on the family’s religious practice. 

On July 15, 2019, Becket sent a letter to Mathis Independent School District, urging the District to reach a settlement with the Gonzales family and allow the Gonzales boys to learn and play alongside their classmates.  

When the District refused, the federal court on September 5, 2019, granted the family’s request for a religious accommodation allowing participation in extracurriculars while the case proceeds. Finally, on May 25, 2021, the Mathis Independent School District entered a settlement agreement resolving the case. The District paid $20,000 to cover the family’s attorneys’ fees and promised to respect the Gonzales brothers’ religious practices for the duration of their enrollment. The Gonzales children can now fully participate in the life of the school while keeping their religious promise.  

The Gonzales family was represented by Texas attorney Frank Gonzales and Jamie Aycock, Kenneth Young, and Kelsee Foote of the international law firm Kirkland & Ellis. 

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

  • Education: No American should have to give up their faith when they go to school. The Constitution protects the free expression of sincerely held religious beliefs from arbitrary restrictions 
  • Individual Freedom: Every individual has the right to live and act according to their conscience, both privately and publicly, free from government coercion. 

Patterson v. Walgreens

In a sense attacking my faith and my ability to worship and putting my family’s livelihood at stake was a deeper attack than any that I’ve ever experienced. It was deeper than my race or color, it goes to the very core, my very soul of who I am.”—Darrell Patterson 

Work six days, rest the seventh  

Growing up as a black man in the pre-civil rights south made Darrell Patterson no stranger to discrimination and hostility. But nothing compares to the pain he experienced when he was forced to choose between his job and his Seventh-day Adventist faith  

Since childhood, Mr. Patterson has felt called to a strong devotion to God. As an adult, Mr. Patterson demonstrated his faithfulness by abstaining from work on the Sabbath day, a practice that is important to people of many faithsbut particularly for Seventh-day Adventists, as indicated by their name. For Mr. Patterson this means retreating from the distractions of everyday life to spend time with family, serve his community and worship God. Whether he is at home singing hymns or ministering to at-risk youth or the homeless, Mr. Patterson is faithful every Sabbath day.   

In 2005, during his interview for a position at an Orlando Walgreens call center, Mr. Patterson made it clear that he wouldn’t be able to work from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, and he was hired without a problem. For several years, Mr. Patterson loved his job and enjoyed interacting with new hires. He saw his work as an extension of his ministry and treated his colleagues with compassion. He was always available to work all other days of the week, including Sundays, and his colleagues were always more than happy to switch shifts with him on the rare occasion he was scheduled to work on a Saturday.   

Employees shouldn’t be punished for their company’s mistakes  

In 2011, Mr. Patterson’s supervisors scheduled him to work on a Saturday for an extra training session after Walgreens executives made an error that broke Alabama’s pharmacy laws. The training was only two hours long and could have been done Friday, Sunday, or Monday, but Walgreens scheduled Mr. Patterson to do it on Saturday. Unable to work on a Saturday, Mr. Patterson followed protocol and attempted to switch schedules with a colleague, but because it was last minute, he was unsuccessful. Mr. Patterson conducted the training on Monday, ahead of the deadline. But Walgreens swiftly fired Mr. Patterson anyway.  

This attack on both his ability to worship and his family’s livelihood was unlike any other discrimination he had faced before. In 2014, Mr. Patterson sued Walgreens in Florida federal district court, which ruled in favor of Walgreens. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit also sided with the company. Both courts claimed that Walgreens had done enough to accommodate Mr. Patterson’s religious beliefs. In 2018, Mr. Patterson brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend his right to earn an honest livelihood while following his deeply held religious convictions  

All Americans must be free to practice their faith in the workplace 

Keeping holy days like Christmas, Yom Kippur, or a Sabbath like Mr. Patterson’s is a core religious practice for Americans of many different faith backgrounds. But because of a mistake made by Walgreens executives, Mr. Patterson was forced to choose between providing for his family and practicing a central tenet of his faith—a decision no American should have to make. The Supreme Court should step in to protect Mr. Patterson’s rights and clarify that employers must reasonably accommodate sincere religious practice, just as they do other protected characteristics like disability 

Along with its partners the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Gene Schaerr of Schaerr| Jaffe, Becket is defending Mr. Patterson and the right of Americans of all faiths to live and work according to their religious beliefs, including the fundamental practice of observing the Sabbath. The Supreme Court denied review in Patterson v. Walgreens on February 24, 2020.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Individual Freedom: Religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith, at home and at work. All Americans must be free to live according to their consciences without fear of losing their jobs.

Ricks v. Idaho Board of Contractors

One man’s religious convictions 

George Ricks is a 59-year-old father of four who has worked in construction his entire career. A long-time student of the Bible, George believes it is wrong to provide his Social Security number as a condition of obtaining work. 

In 2014, he tried to become an independent contractor. But in Idaho, where George lives, it is a misdemeanor to work as a contractor without first registering with the state, and registering requires providing a social security number. George was willing to provide any other form of identification, including his birth certificate, but he has a sincere religious objection to using his Social Security number to secure employment. The Idaho Board of Contractors—which makes exceptions for others, and which could obtain Ricks’s Social Security number in other ways if it really needed to—refused to accommodate his religious beliefs and denied his registration. 

No social security number, no job 

The Board’s denial was motivated by money. A federal law dictates that the Board of Contractors will receive extra funding if it collects contractors’ Social Security numbers. The law’s intent is to help the government track down delinquent fathers—something no one could ever accuse George of being, as he has spent his entire adult life providing for his four children. 

Yet the Board’s refusal to register George cost him the ability to find full-time work and provide fully for his family. Government regulations shouldn’t force someone unnecessarily to choose between being employed and practicing their religion. But in Ricks’s case, that is exactly what’s happening. Idaho’s forced choice between faith and work is entirely avoidable: the other licensing laws already grant accommodations to foreign residents who don’t have Social Security numbers; and if Idaho really needs Ricks’s government-issued number, it can consult its own records or ask the federal government to provide it. 

Becket defends free exercise 

Needless bureaucracy should never take precedence over the free exercise of religious beliefs. The Board of Contractors should stop forcing George to choose between his religious beliefs and his ability to provide for his family. In January 2019, Becket stepped up to represent George in his lawsuit against the Idaho Board of Contractors. After the Idaho Supreme Court refused to hear his case, Becket filed a petition in the Supreme Court of the United States on July 10, 2019, asking the Court to hold that the Free Exercise Clause requires Idaho to accommodate George’s religious beliefs. On June 28, 2021, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari for the case.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Free exercise: Individuals should be free to hold and act on their deeply held convictions, not just in their homes or places of worship, but in their places of employment and the public square.
  • Religious beliefs and employment: When a government regulation bars someone from pursuing employment because of their religious beliefs, the government must prove that there is no other way for it to achieve its goals without banning a private person’s freedom of religion.

RFRA celebrates 25 years protecting religious liberty for all

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Supported by one of the broadest and most diverse coalitions in modern political history—including over sixty religious and civil liberties groups, ranging from the ACLU to the Traditional Values Coalition, and from Americans United for Separation of Church and State to the National Association of Evangelicals—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed the House by a voice vote, passed the Senate 97–3, and was signed into law by President Clinton on November 16, 1993. In the 25 years since, RFRA has provided critical protections for religious freedom, especially for religious minorities.

Drafted in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which cut back long-standing legal protections for religious liberty, RFRA requires the government to satisfy a demanding legal test before it imposes a significant restriction on religious freedom. Specifically, if the government attempts to restrict religious practices, it must show that restricting those practices is the only possible way to accomplish a “compelling” government interest. This legal standard has ensured that individuals like Becket clients Lipan Apache Pastor Robert Soto could freely use eagle feathers in observance of his faith, Army Captain Simratpal Singh could fully serve his country while practicing his Sikh faith, and the Little Sisters of the Poor could continue serving the elderly poor without violating their religious convictions. Recent empirical research has shown that these kinds of protections are especially critical for small minority faiths.

The following statement can be attributed to Becket President Mark Rienzi:

“Since its passage 25 years ago, RFRA has ensured that our government can’t interfere with an individual’s religious practices. That protection is especially important for members of minority faiths, whose beliefs may be unfamiliar to government bureaucrats. In our free and diverse society, RFRA ensures that we “live and let live,” even when our neighbors have different beliefs. No matter your religious beliefs or political party, you live in a better and stronger country today because people of all faiths are free from government intrusion.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 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).

Fifth Circuit protects Texas Catholic bishops from prying by abortion group

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Fifth Circuit federal appeals court permanently blocked an order yesterday evening that would have forced Catholic bishops in Texas to hand over internal communications on religious doctrine to an abortion facility. The decision protects religious leaders from intrusive government burdens on internal church affairs, including being forced to turn over discussions regarding church doctrine and ministry.

In 2016 Whole Woman’s Health, an Austin, Texas-based abortion facility chain, sued the State of Texas over a state law that would require hospitals and abortion facilities to dispose of aborted human remains by burial or cremation, rather than in a landfill or the sewer, as is currently allowed. Although the Texas Catholic bishops are not part of that lawsuit, Whole Women’s Health recently demanded to see all communications among the bishops regarding abortion, simply because the church offered space in Catholic cemeteries to bury aborted human remains. Last night the court ruled that Whole Women’s Health’s demands were far beyond what the law allows.

The Court found that the bishops’ claims “go to the heart of the constitutional protection of religious belief and practice as well as citizens’ right to advocate sensitive policies in the public square.” The Court also stated that the abortion facilities’ efforts against the bishops “looks like an act of intimidation,” placing the bishops’ conference in a “‘Hobson’s choice’ of retreating from the public square or defending its position.” In concurrence, Judge Ho worried that this might be indicative of an effort “to retaliate against people of faith for not only believing in the sanctity of human life—but also for wanting to do something about it.”

“Letting trial lawyers put religious leaders under constant surveillance doesn’t make sense for Church or State,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The Court was right to nip this abuse of the judicial process in the bud.”

The Catholic Church has a well-known pro-life stance. In line with these beliefs, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, who oversee hundreds of parishes in Texas, have worked with hospitals and families for many years to provide burial for unborn remains. When the State of Texas passed a law requiring all hospitals and abortion clinics to bury or cremate all unborn remains, the bishops offered support—as an act of ministry.

But in March 2018, two years after Whole Women’s Health sued the state to stop the fetal remains law, the abortion group subpoenaed the bishops, demanding they hand over all communications they have had about abortion. The bishops handed over more than 4,000 pages of communications with outside groups but stood their ground when it came to private religious deliberations among the bishops and their staff. They argued that churches should be free to lend support to public initiatives without the fear that they will be forced to hand over private, internal communications, especially on matters of ministry and theology. The Fifth Circuit agreed that the privacy of religious communications between leaders is important to religious liberty.

“We are grateful for the Court’s ruling,” stated Bishop Brendan Cahill, bishop of Victoria, Texas. “We believe it will protect religious freedom not just for Catholics, but for Americans of all faiths.”

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is also represented by Steven Levatino of Levatino|Pace PLLC in Austin, Texas. Amicus briefs supporting the bishops were filed by the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, among others.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, 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).

Native American Feather Dancer asks feds to end criminal ban on religious use of eagle feathers

Pastor Robert SotoWASHINGTON, D.C. – Native American feather dancer Robert Soto asked the federal government today to end its criminal ban on using eagle feathers for religious worship, invoking his landmark court victory in a formal rulemaking petition to be filed with the Department of the Interior today.

In 2006, an undercover federal agent raided Pastor Soto’s powwow, detained him, and confiscated his eagle feathers, threatening him with fines and imprisonment. Pastor Soto, represented by Becket, fought back in court and won a historic victory allowing him and over 400 members of his religious organizations to use eagle feathers in their religious worship. Pastor Soto and Becket are now asking the government to extend the same treatment to all Native Americans so that no sincere religious believers are ever prosecuted again simply for using feathers to practice their faith.

“No Native American should have to live in fear that the federal government will raid their religious gathering and punish them for peacefully using eagle feathers in their religious faith,” said Pastor Soto. “I’m grateful to God that the federal government acknowledged it violated my rights, and I want to see the same rights protected for my children, grandchildren, and all Native Americans.”

Eagle feathers play a central role in many Native American religious practices, including smudging rituals, traditional religious dances, and prayers. Without feathers many of these practices become impossible. Yet the government’s policies are so restrictive that they ban any Native American who is not enrolled in a federally-recognized tribe from ever possessing a single protected feather. At the same time, the government allows thousands of eagles to be killed by wind farms and power companies each year.

  • End the federal ban on Native American use of feathers in religious worship.
  • Protect only sincere religious believers, not people acting for personal profit.
  • Reform the National Eagle Repository to ensure it serves all sincere Native Americans.
  • Combat the commercialization of Native American religious practices and increase enforcement of laws against killing eagles and other federally protected birds.

“Under current law, a grandmother who bestows an eagle feather on her grandson to honor his college graduation turns them both into criminals,” said Adèle Keim, counsel at Becket. “A member of a state-recognized tribe who simply picks up a molted feather from the ground and uses it in prayer is subject to prosecution. It’s long past time for this to change.”

Under the settlement agreement in Pastor Soto’s case, the Department of Interior is required to issue a notice in the Federal Register requesting public comment on the petition and to make a decision on the petition within two years of its submission.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more here).

No justice for Native Americans in Oregon

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Members of the Klickitat and Cascade tribes in Oregon were denied justice late Friday after a federal magistrate judge ruled that the government is free to bulldoze sacred Native American burial grounds and destroy sacred artifacts. The tribal members plan to appeal the ruling in Slockish v. U.S. Federal Highway Administration, which dramatically narrows the religious freedom rights of Native Americans by saying that a key federal religious freedom law cannot be used to protect their artifacts and sacred sites. (Watch their story. 

In 2008, while widening Highway 26 near Mount Hood, the Federal Highway Administration destroyed a sacred site that included a stone altar, ancient burial grounds, a campground, and trees and medicinal plants used for religious rituals. Although tribal members repeatedly alerted officials to the importance of the site, and there were many ways to widen the highway while still protecting it, the government refused to listen and bulldozed the site.   

“For centuries Native Americans have endured the destruction of sacred places by the federal government, and it’s heartbreaking that the court would say this completely preventable destruction was okay,” said Carol Logan, member of the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde“All we want is the return of our sacred artifacts, the rededication of the area for our ancestors, and the promise that we can continue to worship as our tribes have done for centuries.” 

The tribal members sought justice under a federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—which was enacted in 1993 after the Supreme Court neglected to protect religious freedom for Native Americans. Nevertheless, the magistrate judge’s opinion said, “Even where the government’s actions would virtually destroy a group’s ability to practice their religion the Constitution simply does not provide a principle that could justify upholding [their] legal claims.”   

“The federal government has repeatedly shown a callous disregard for Native American religious beliefs,” said Stephanie Barclay, counsel at Becket. “For these tribes, this burial ground was their church. Our religious freedom laws wouldn’t allow the government to destroy other churches with impunity, and it shouldn’t be any different for Native Americans.” 

Plaintiffs Wilbur Slockish and Johnny Jackson are Hereditary Chiefs of the Klickitat and Cascade tribes of the Yakima Nation and Carol Logan is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde.  They are joined in their lawsuit by the Cascade Geographic Society and the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance. They are represented by Becket, together with Seattle-based law firm Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch and Oregon City attorney James Nicita. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more here). 

Chahal v. Seamands

The United States Military Academy at West Point will now accommodate Sikh soldiers, allowing them to wear their essential articles of faith, after two young men persisted for the right to serve their country without being forced to abandon their articles of faith. 

Called to serve their country 

Cadet Arjan Singh Ghotra has been preparing to serve in the U.S. Army since high school. He volunteered for both the Civil Air Patrol and the Virginia Defense Force, and won the Virginia Defense Force Medal for his service at age 17. When he became eligible in 2015, Cadet Ghotra enlisted in the Virginia Army National Guard. After completing one year in the National Guard he applied to, and was accepted at, West Point.  

Like Cadet Ghotra, Cadet Ugrian Singh Chahal knew at a young age that he wanted to serve his country through the military. Inspired by a family history of army service and the service members he met growing up near the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan, Cadet Chahal worked hard and, like Cadet Ghotra, gained admission to West Point in 2016. 

Denied the ability to serve both God and Country  

From World War I until 1981, the U.S. Army allowed observant Sikhs to serve honorably in the U.S. military while maintaining their articles of faith. But a 1981 policy change banned observant Sikhs from military service simply because they wore turbans and unshorn hair and beards—two of the articles of faith required by their religion.  

As observant Sikhs, Cadets Ghotra and Chahal asked for accommodations that would permit them to continue their service to their country at West Point without having to abandon their articles of faith. Their requests were denied. They were left with the heartbreaking choice: to serve their country or to follow their faith. 

Making room for faith in the ranks 

When Cadet Ghotra realized in March 2016 that he would not be able to participate in practice drills at West Point because of the prohibition on his articles of faith, he submitted his request for a religious accommodation. But because the Army refused to respond, Becket, the Sikh Coalition, and McDermott Will & Emery stepped in to challenge the Army’s policy.  

At a court hearing in August, the Army conceded that it had no legitimate grounds for denying Sikhs the full opportunity to serve their country at West Point and issued new guidelines allowing them to maintain their articles of faith while serving.   

Cadets Ghotra and Chahal are the first two fully-observant Sikh men to serve at West Point. 

Dumont v. Lyon

WEBSITE for Religious Adoption Cases

A Desperate Need 

There is a national foster care crisis: more and more vulnerable children are being placed in the foster care system, and there aren’t enough families to care for them. For the nearly 13,000 children in Michigan foster care, nothing is more important than finding a loving, permanent home. Each year, over 600 Michigan children “age out” of the foster system, meaning that at the age of 18 they are on their own, never having found a family to provide stability, love and support. With so many children in need, and a shortage of families willing to take them in, the State of Michigan relies on private agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities. Like other agencies, St. Vincent partners with the state to recruit and support foster and adoptive families. St. Vincent is particularly good at finding homes for sibling groups, older children, and children with special needs. In 2017, St. Vincent recruited more new adoptive families than nearly 90 percent of the other agencies in its service area.

ACLU would put children’s needs last 

In September 2017, the ACLU sued the State of Michigan to forbid the state from partnering with faith-based adoption agencies like St. Vincent, solely because of their religious beliefs about marriage. St. Vincent’s beliefs have never prevented a child from being placed in a loving home. Gay couples working with other agencies have been able to adopt children in St. Vincent’s care in the past. In fact, the ACLU’s clients live closer to four other foster and adoption agencies that would have helped them adopt. Instead of going to these agencies, they have spent years targeting St. Vincent and trying to shut down their programs. 

ACLU’s lawsuit is not about helping kids. It’s about scoring cheap political points at the expense of kids. The only thing that the ACLU’s lawsuit would accomplish is fewer homes for children, especially minority children and those with special needs.

Protecting children and families 

In March 2018, the Court granted Becket’s motion to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of St. Vincent Catholic Charities, Shamber Flore and the Buck family. Becket asked the court to dismiss this unnecessary lawsuit, but in September 2018 the court decided the case should go forward.

On March 22, 2019, the Attorney General Michigan and the ACLU signed a settlement agreement to try to stop the state from working with faith-based adoption agencies, which could keep thousands of children from finding the loving homes they deserve.

Becket filed a new lawsuit defending St. Vincent and foster families in federal court on April 15, 2019. 


Importance to religious liberty 

  • Individual freedom: The government discriminates against religious groups if it prevents them from providing services simply based on their religious beliefs. 
  • Public squareFaith-based organizations have the same right as secular organizations to operate in the public square. Religion in the public square is not a threat, but rather a natural expression of a natural human impulse. 
  • Establishment Clause: A state does not violate the Establishment Clause when it partners with faith-based agencies to further the interests of a state initiative. In this case, private adoption agencies provide critical resources to address a state issue: the shortage of families willing and able to adopt children in the foster care system. 

Little Sisters of the Poor head back to court

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Little Sisters of the Poor are heading back to court to defend themselves against lawsuits by the states of California and Pennsylvania to take away the Little Sisters’ religious exemption from the new Health and Human Services rule. In early October, HHS issued a new rule that protects religious non-profits like the Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic nuns who dedicate their lives to caring for the elderly poor, from providing services like the week-after pill in their healthcare plans in violation of their faith. The new rule should mean that their lawsuit against the federal government will soon end.  

However, shortly after the new mandate was issued, the states of California and Pennsylvania sued to take away the religious exemption the Little Sisters just won. The Little Sisters of the Poor, represented by Becket, are asking the court to ensure that they can continue their vital ministry of caring for the elderly poor without violating their faith. Becket filed to intervene on the Sister’s behalf in California and Pennsylvania today.

The following statement may be attributed to Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket and lead attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor: “Sadly Josh Shapiro and Xavier Becerra think attacking nuns is a way to score political points. These men may think their campaign donors want them to sue nuns, but our guess is most taxpayers disagree. No one needs nuns in order to get contraceptives, and no one needs these guys reigniting the last administration’s divisive and unnecessary culture war.”  

What:
Press call to discuss Little Sisters’ intervention in Pennsylvania v. Trump and California v. Hargan.

Who:
Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket 

When:
Tuesday, November 21 at 11:30 a.m. EST 

Press Call Information:
888-670-9385 | Pin #: 54523
Email media@becketlaw.org with questions 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more here). 

Federal court to decide fate of Native American sacred site

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Members of the Klickitat and Cascade Tribes went to court this morning, asking for justice after the government needlessly bulldozed their sacred burial grounds for a highway widening project (watch video). Following years of failed negotiations in Slockish v. U.S. Federal Highway Administrationthe government refuses to return the Tribes’ sacred artifacts or allow the tribes to return and rededicate the site. Today in court, the tribes argued that enough is enough.  

The highway project, begun in 2008, destroyed a sacred site located off Highway 26 near Mount Hood that included a stone altar, ancient burial grounds, a campground, and trees and medicine plants used for religious rituals. The tribes argued in court today that the Government could have widened the highway and simultaneously protected the sacred site by widening the opposite side of the road or using a retaining wall—as it did to protect nearby wetlands and a tattoo parlor. 

“The government has been destroying sacred Native American land for far too long,” said Carol Logan, elder of the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde“All we want is to practice our faith as our tribes have for centuries. We are hopeful that justice will be served and that our sacred spaces will at least be given the same protection as tattoo parlors.”   

Native Americans have lived in the areas surrounding Mount Hood for centuries. It has been the center of tribal quests, spiritual rituals, and sacred burial ceremonies long before this nation was founded. In 2006 the Oregon Department of Transportation announced a project to expand U.S. Highway 26, which follows portions of a traditional Native American trading route from Portland to Mount Hood. Tribal members alerted officials to the importance of the burial grounds as tribal members had done prior to previous government expansion plans. Yet this time the government refused to listen and approved the project, which bulldozed the ancestral burial grounds. Although the government left the other side of the highway untouched, the highway expansion covered the Natives’ ancestral grave sites, destroyed sacred stone markers, and removed safe access to the sites.  

The tribes are seeking justice under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the same law relied on by the Supreme Court to protect the Green family of Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor, to ensure that sacred places are respected for people of all faiths. 

“The saddest thing about this case is that this destruction never had to happen. The government had numerous alternatives for widening the highway without harming the sacred site,” said Stephanie Barclay, counsel at Becket. “The court did not seem to take kindly to the government’s extreme argument that it can destroy Native American sacred spaces with impunity.” 

Wilbur Slockish, Johnny Jackson, and Carol Logan are joined in their lawsuit by the Cascade Geographic Society and the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance. They are represented by Becket, together with Seattle-based law firm Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch and Oregon City attorney James Nicita. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more here). 

Court to decide fate of sacred Native American burial ground

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Members of the Klickitat and Cascade Tribes of the Yakama Nation will be in court on October 23, in Portland, Oregon, asking for justice after the Federal Highway Administration needlessly bulldozed their sacred burial site when widening a highway. In Slockish v. U.S. Federal Highway Administrationthe government could have easily widened the highway and simultaneously protected the sacred site by widening the opposite side of the road or using a retaining wall—as it did to protect nearby wetlands and a tattoo parlor. But in 2008, the government ignored the tribal members’ request and destroyed one of their most sacred places where they worshiped for generations.

After years of failed negotiations, the government still refuses to return the Tribes’ sacred artifacts or allow the tribes to return and rededicate the site. On October 23, a federal court in Portland will hold a pivotal hearing that will decide the future of the sacred site. Trump administration lawyers claim that they had authority to destroy the site. The tribes are asking for protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the same law the Supreme Court relied on to protect the Green family of Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor.   Oral Argument in Slockish v. U.S. Federal Highway Administration

Who:
Stephanie Barclay, counsel at Becket
Carol Logan, member of the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde 

When:
Hearing begins October 23, 2017 at 9:30 a.m. PST and will last approximately one hour
Press conference will immediately follow  

Where:
Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse, Room 12B
1000 Southwest Third Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97204-2939  

Plaintiff Carol Logan and Becket attorney Stephanie Barclay will be available for comment immediately following the hearing. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more here). 

HHS finally protects Baptist universities

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new HHS mandate rule announced this morning will at least temporarily protect East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University from providing items such as the week-after pill in their healthcare plan against their religious beliefs. Under the interim rule, the federal contraceptive mandate will remain in place for most employers but will now include an exemption for religious groups, including religious universities.  

The rule aligns with the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling last year protecting the universities in Zubik v. Burwell that the government cannot fine the religious groups for following their faith. The contraceptive mandate issue went to the Supreme Court five times, and each time the Supreme Court ruled in favor of protecting religious groups.    

“We are thankful that HHS has seen the light and issued this new rule,” said ETBU President Dr. Blair Blackburn. “Our goal is to provide excellent Christ-centered education while remaining true to our Baptist beliefs. This case is at the core about protecting the constitutionality of our institution’s religious liberty to follow the tenets of our faith rooted in God’s truths.” 

“We are glad the government has finally listened to the Supreme Court,” said HBU President Dr. Robert Sloan. “Our mission has always been driven by our faith, and all we have ever wanted was to live out that faith in every aspect of what we do.” 

The interim final rule takes effect immediately, but can be revised by HHS before being issued as final. The rule strikes a balance between the government’s interests in contraceptive access and religious liberty by retaining the Obama Administration’s overall contraceptive mandate but adding a targeted religious exemption.

With an interim rule now in place, the ongoing court battles between religious groups and the federal government may be resolved soon. The interim rule acknowledges that the earlier mandate violated the universities’ religious liberty and that there are many other ways to obtain contraceptives. 

“This is a victory for common sense at HHS. Now we need the lawyers at the Department of Justice to follow through too,” said Eric Rassbachdeputy general counsel with Becket.   

Today’s interim rule also affects other Becket clients, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, Christian Brothers Services, Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, GuideStone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention, Colorado Christian University, Wheaton College, Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College, and Eternal Word Television Network. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more here). 

HHS finally protects Little Sisters of the Poor

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new HHS mandate rule announced this morning will at least temporarily protect the Little Sisters of the Poor from providing services such as the week after pill in their healthcare plan against their religious beliefs. Under the interim rule, the federal contraceptive mandate will remain in place for most employers but will now include an exemption for religious groups.  

The rule aligns with the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling last year protecting the Little Sisters in Zubik v. Burwell protecting the Little Sisters, which says the government cannot fine the religious groups for following their faith. The contraceptive mandate issue went to the Supreme Court five times, and each time the Supreme Court ruled in favor of protecting religious groups.   

“The new rule is a victory for common sense,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel with Becket. “The previous administration pursued a needless and divisive culture war. It was always ridiculous to claim you need nuns to give out contraceptives. This new rule shows that you don’t.”  

The interim final rule takes effect immediately, but can be revised by HHS before being issued as final. The rule strikes a balance between contraceptive access and religious liberty by retaining the Obama Administration’s contraceptive mandate but adding a targeted religious exemption.  

“It should be easy for the courts to finalize this issue now that the government admits it broke the law. For months, we have been waiting for Department of Justice lawyers to honestly admit that fact, like the President did in the Rose Garden five months ago,” said Rienzi. “Now that the agencies admit the mandate was illegal, we expect the leadership of the Department of Justice will cooperate in getting a final court resolution so the Little Sisters can stop thinking about lawyers and mandates and return to spending all their energies caring for the elderly.”  

With an interim rule now in place, the ongoing court battles between religious groups and the federal government may be resolved soon. The interim rule acknowledges that the earlier mandate violated the Little Sisters’ religious liberty and that there are many other ways to obtain contraceptives. 

Today’s interim rule also affects other Becket clients, including Christian Brothers Services, Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, GuideStone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention, Colorado Christian University, Wheaton College, Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College, and Eternal Word Television Network. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more here). 

Press Call: Implications of new HHS Rule on Little Sisters of the Poor lawsuit

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new HHS mandate announced moments ago now provides an exemption for religious groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious charities, while maintaining the existing federal contraceptive mandate for most employers. The interim rule aligns with the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Zubik v. Burwell that the government cannot fine the religious groups for following their faith.   

There will be a press call at noon EST today to discuss the new rule and what it means for the Little Sisters’ ongoing lawsuit.  

The following statement may be attributed to Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket and lead attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor: “HHS has issued a balanced rule that respects all sides– it keeps the contraceptive mandate in place for most employers and now provides a religious exemption. The Little Sisters still need to get final relief in court, which should be easy now that the government admits it broke the law.” 

What:
Press call to discuss new HHS Mandate protecting the Little Sisters of the Poor 

Who:
Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket 

When:
Oct. 6, 2017 at 12:15 pm EST 

Press Call Information:
888-670-9385 | Pin #: 54523
Email media@becketlaw.org with questions 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more here). 

Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

An artist’s livelihood at stake

Jack Phillips is a Christian and a baker. For almost 25 years he has run Masterpiece Cake Shop in Denver, creating artistic, custom-designed cakes for his customers. As a Christian and an artist, he believes his work should only promote messages that align with his religious beliefs.

In July 2012, a same-sex couple asked Phillips to bake a cake for their wedding. Phillips explained that he could not, in good conscience, participate in a wedding ceremony he disagreed with. Although the couple quickly received a cake from another bakery, they filed a complaint against Masterpiece with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In June 2014, the Commission ruled against Masterpiece.

Forced to violate his beliefs—or forfeit his business

The Commission’s ruling would have required Phillips to create whatever cakes customers requested, regardless of his religious views. Phillips appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which again ruled against him in August 2015. Phillips appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in September 2017, the Court agreed to hear his case. Phillips was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom.

In September 2017, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Phillips and defending his right to decline to participate in wedding ceremonies that he religiously objects to. Becket separately asked the Court to hear his case in tandem with another religious wedding vendor case, Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers.

Victory for free speech and religious liberty

In a diverse and pluralistic society, individuals of different faiths and backgrounds will disagree on many issues, and we must allow for these differences to flourish without the threat of government forcing a religious individual to violate his or her conscience. Weddings are important and sacred events to many Americans. Religious dissenters shouldn’t be forced to participate in a wedding ceremony they do not agree with.

On June 4, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cake Shop. The Justices ruled 7-2 that the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution protects Jack Phillips from unfair treatment based on his religious beliefs.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times, including in the workplace.
  • 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, Jack Phillips’ artistic expressions were a form of speech, and the government should not force him into expression that violates his religious beliefs.

Alert: Press Call on Becket filing in “travel ban” case

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This afternoon Becket urged the Supreme Court to review the Trump administration’s “travel ban” cases Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project and Trump v. Hawaii through the proper legal lens in order to protect people of faith. Currently, several groups, including the ACLU, are challenging the President’s Executive Order on immigration but are using the wrong legal framework to properly protect religious minorities.

Becket has a long track record of defending people of all faiths from religious targeting, including Muslims. Becket won the historic religious freedom victory for Muslims,Holt v. Hobbs, at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.

The cases currently before the Supreme Court have been decided under the discredited and weak “Lemon Test,” which relies on subjective guesswork by judges about government motivation. Instead, these cases should be resolved using the Free Exercise Clause, which has a well-developed and objective test for stopping governments from targeting religious minorities. Using the right constitutional tests will lead to the best outcomes not just for Muslim immigrants, but for other religious minorities and all Americans who cherish their First Amendment protections.

What:
Press call to discuss Becket’s amicus brief in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project and Trump v. Hawaii

Who:
Becket Senior Counsel Mark Rienzi

When:
Monday, June 12, 2:30 pm EST

Where:
888-670-9385 | Pin #: 54523
Email media@becketlaw.org with questions

 

If the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, oral argument would take place early next term.

 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Melinda Skea atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more here).

New Doe Child # 1 v. United States of America (Eighth Circuit)

“God” is not a dirty word

God is not a dirty word. The Founders believed this and courts have continually protected their view.

Yet atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow has sued again and again to scrub “God” from the public square. For years, he has repeatedly attacked our national motto, “In God We Trust,” by suing the government in courts across the country. The motto is based on the national anthem and first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864. Newdow’s lawsuits are an attempt to create a heckler’s veto for atheists—a chance for anyone who disagrees with the government to dictate what it can say about our nation’s history. So far, his lawsuits have all been rejected.

In 2017, Newdow filed two separate lawsuits in the Sixth and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals to erase “God” from the public square, demanding “In God We Trust” literally be scrubbed from all U.S. coins and bills. In each case, Newdow represented a group of atheists claiming that the national motto violates their practice of atheism under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment. The Department of Justice represented the government to defend the motto. Becket filed friend-of-the-court briefs defending the government’s use of “In God We Trust” in both cases.

“In God We Trust” does not violate the First Amendment

In April 2017, Becket’s brief in the Eighth Circuit countered Newdow’s argument that the motto establishes a religion. For the Founders who wrote the First Amendment, an “establishment of religion” meant an official state church with government funding, government control, and fusion of church and state. As Becket’s brief pointed out, “Virginia’s earliest settlers attended twice-daily services on pain of losing daily rations, whipping, and six months of hard-labor imprisonment…” While that constituted an establishment of religion, “[t]he motto’s presence on currency, of course, does not involve church attendance, compulsory or otherwise.”

This is not the first time Becket, or the courts, have weighed in to protect the national motto. In 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Newdow’s argument that the motto violates the First Amendment by “establishing a monotheistic religion.” As Becket wrote in our friend-of-the-court brief in that case, it is not an establishment of religion simply to pay tribute to our nation’s religious heritage.

Court protects “In God We Trust”

On March 13, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held oral argument in St. Paul, Minnesota. On August 28, 2018, the Court rejected the atheists’ attempt to strip the national motto from U.S. coins and bills and adopted Becket’s argument that recognizing our national heritage does not violate the First Amendment by establishing a religion.

On October 12, 2018, Newdow sought a rehearing by the full Eighth Circuit Court. On November 26, 2018, the Court shut down Newdow’s case when it denied the request.

Newdow then sought review from the Supreme Court, which denied his request on June 10, 2019, ending the case.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public squareReligion is a natural part of human culture and has a natural place in the public square. “God” is not a dirty word, and paying tribute to our nation’s heritage in a national motto does not violate the First Amendment. 

Becket to Court: God is not a dirty word

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Becket urged a court today to protect the national motto “In God We Trust” from an atheist attempt to scrub “God” from all facets of public life. The national motto “In God We Trust” is based on the national anthem and first appeared on U.S. currency in 1864, but atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow is suing in two different courts on behalf of a group of atheists to now have the words stripped from all U.S. coins and bills.

Newdow argues that printing the motto on money is a government establishment of religion and puts a “burden” on atheists’ “exercise of religion” – even though Newdow and the group of atheists suing specifically reject all religion. Today, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to defend the motto.

“This is not Iran or Saudi Arabia,” said Diana Verm, legal counsel at Becket. “No reasonable person would pick up a penny, see the words ‘In God We Trust,’ and panic because we’ve become a theocracy.”

This is Newdow’s latest in a long series of attempts to have the national motto removed from coins. In 2014, his lawsuit in the Second Circuit in New York was rejected outright after he claimed that “In God We Trust” violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing a state religion or favoring one religion over another. In February, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending the national motto from yet another one of Dr. Newdow’s lawsuits in the Sixth Circuit.

This time, Dr. Newdow is making both arguments: that the national motto both violates the Establishment Clause and “burdens his religious exercise.” In its brief, Becket explains that for the Founders who wrote the First Amendment, an “establishment of religion” meant an official state church with government funding, government control, and fusion of church and state – and putting the national motto on our coins and bills is none of those things.

“‘God’ is not a dirty word,” said Verm. “Dr. Newdow has every right to hold his beliefs, but he doesn’t have the right to impose them on the rest of us.”

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.

New Doe Child # 1 v. The Congress of the United States (Sixth Circuit)

“God” is not a dirty word

God is not a dirty word. The Founders believed this and courts have continually upheld their view.

Yet atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow has sued again and again to scrub “God” from the public square. For years, he has repeatedly attacked our national motto, “In God We Trust,” by suing the government. The motto is based on the national anthem and first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864. So far, his lawsuits have all been rejected.

Newdow’s latest two lawsuits in his crusade against the word God are in the Sixth Circuit and Eighth Circuit courts of appeals. In each case, he has led a group of atheists claiming that the national motto violates their practice of atheism under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief to defend the government’s use of “In God We Trust” in both cases.

Becket’s Sixth Circuit amicus brief, filed in February 2017, stated: “Plaintiffs want to have it both ways. They want to reject any notion of religious belief and transcendent truth and yet call it an ‘exercise of religion.’ Neither the English language nor the law can stretch that far.”

“In God We Trust” does not violate the First Amendment

In April 2017, Becket filed an amicus brief in the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, Missouri. In that case, Newdow argued not only that the motto violates atheists’ religious freedom, but that it establishes a religion as well. Becket’s amicus brief countered those arguments, explaining that for the Founders who wrote the First Amendment, an “establishment of religion” meant an official state church with government funding, government control, and fusion of church and state – and that honoring our nation’s religious heritage on our coinage is not one of them. The brief states, “Virginia’s earliest settlers attended twice-daily services on pain of losing daily rations, whipping, and six months of hard-labor imprisonment … . The motto’s presence on currency, of course, does not involve church attendance, compulsory or otherwise.”

These are not the first cases to consider the national motto, which has been upheld in court before. In 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Newdow’s argument that the national motto violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause by “establishing a monotheistic religion.” Becket filed an amicus brief defending the motto, arguing that it is not an establishment of religion to simply pay tribute to our nation’s religious heritage.

Newdow’s lawsuits are an attempt to create a heckler’s veto for atheists—a chance for anyone who disagrees with the government to dictate what it can say about our nation’s history. Becket’s briefs explain to the courts that if Newdow succeeds here, church-state conflict will balloon, and we will see a lot more litigation against God around the country.

Court protects “In God We Trust”

The Sixth Circuit heard oral argument in June 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Newdow and the Department of Justice argued on each side. On May 29, 2018, a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit ruled 2-1 against the challenge to the national motto. On August 8, 2018, the Sixth Circuit denied en banc review.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public squareReligion is a natural part of human culture and has a natural place in the public square. “God” is not a dirty word, and paying tribute to our nation’s heritage in a national motto does not violate the First Amendment. 

U.S. v. Sterling

Our nation’s military was practicing religious liberty even before our country recognized it’s inherently beneficial traits: solving religious conflicts and advancing the human right to freely seek God. If there is one lesson our military history has taught us it’s that religious diversity works.

A recent military court ruling threatens that heritage. A member of the Marine Corps, Monifa Sterling, was forced to take down a Bible verse from her desk despite other soldiers’ permission to decorate their workspaces. The court ruled that the verse, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper,” was not “religious” enough to be protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The ruling also noted that religion was “divisive” and “contentious” and government is allowed to censor it to avoid the risk that other Marines might be “exposed” to it.

But scripture is religious, and religion is not some sort of toxic cousin of profanity that deserves suppression instead of protection. The court’s ruling is very dangerous, particularly for minority religious groups with lesser-known faiths, who will more likely be targeted for “preemptive” censorship. The ruling also forgets the lesson of history: respectful religious pluralism enhances both individual rights and the military mission. To correct these errors, a diverse coalition of experts on military religious liberty joined the Becket’s amicus brief explaining why the lower court’s ruling must be overturned. The experts include military veterans, chaplains, and senior-level military commanders who have extensive personal and professional experience supporting soldiers’ free exercise of faith. They come from a variety of religions: Jewish, Catholic, Sikh, Southern Baptist, Muslim, Presbyterian, Mormon, Lutheran, Anglican, and Assemblies of God. Bancroft PLLC (Paul Clement), Liberty Institute, and Major John Stephens represented Ms. Sterling.

On August 10, 2016, the military’s highest court ruled against Monifa Sterling.

Slockish v. U.S. Department of Transportation

A spiritual promise to protect sacred lands of Mount Hood

Members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde have lived in the areas surrounding Mount Hood for centuries. Sacred land nearby, known as Ana Kwna Nchi Nchi Patat, or the Place of Big Big Trees, has been used for religious ceremonies and sacred burials since long before this nation was founded. 

For decades, Hereditary Chief Wilbur Slockish and Carol Logan, a spiritual practitioner and elder in her tribe, have visited the land to pray, meditate and pay respects to their ancestors through memorial ceremonies. As leaders in their community, their role of protecting the land and preserving their traditions is of utmost importance. 

Government bulldozes sacred lands

In 2006, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration announced a project to expand U.S. Highway 26, which runs between Mount Hood and Portland in Oregon. The Native leaders alerted government officials to the importance of the burial grounds, as tribe members had done in the past when the government announced expansion plans. Yet, this time, the government refused to listen.   

In 2008, ignoring the tribe members’ objections, government officials bulldozed the ancestral burial grounds. Although the government left the other side of the highway untouched—protecting nearby wetlands and a tattoo parlor—it destroyed ancestral grave sites, dismantled a sacred stone altar, and removed safe access to the sites.  

Defending the religious rights of Native Americans

In October 2008, Chief Slockish and Carol Logan, together with the Cascade Geographic Society, the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance, and the late Hereditary Chief Johnny Jackson, sued the government, relying on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. After two-and-a-half years of negotiations between the tribe members and the government, negotiations failed.   

In 2015, the tribe members returned to court. In October 2017, an important hearing was held in which the tribe members asked the court to find that the destruction of their sacred site substantially burdened their religious practices. Sadly, the tribes were denied justice when the judge ruled that RFRA did not apply to the case and the government was free to bulldoze sacred Native American burial grounds and destroy sacred artifacts if it occurred on federal land.  

In December 2018, the tribe members asked the court for relief based on their claims that the destruction of their sacred site violated environmental laws. Following a magistrate judge’s preliminary recommendation against the tribe members in April 2020, the district court denied relief to the tribe members in a 3-page order on February 21, 2021.

The tribe members then appealed to the Ninth Circuit. On November 24, 2021, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the government will not be held responsible for its destruction of the sacred site and dismissed the case as “moot.” Essentially, the Ninth Circuit said nothing could be done since the destruction had already occurred.

On October 3, 2022, Becket asked the United States Supreme Court to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and hold the federal government accountable for needlessly destroying their sacred land. Our petition to the Court emphasizes that RFRA protects Native American sacred land just as it protects churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship.  

The tribe members are represented by Becket together with Keith Talbot of the Seattle-based law firm, Patterson Buchanan Forbes & Leitch. 


Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious liberty includes the right to worship how and where one’s faith dictates. Government should not restrict the ability of individuals or groups to access religious sites, especially when there is an alternative way for the government to achieve its goal.
  • 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.

Singh v. McConville

Soldiers of faith and service

Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra are three Sikh soldiers who can now freely serve in the U.S. Army while following their faith.

Specialist Kanwar Singh was highly regarded for his ROTC service during college and achieved the highest possible score on the military entrance exam when applying to join the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Specialist Harpal Singh is fluent in Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu, all three of which are highly sought after by the Army. He also has significant expertise in telecommunications technologies, having deployed around the world—including to Ghana, Russia, and the Middle East—to develop telecommunications systems. Private Arjan Ghotra joined the Virginia Army National Guard at age seventeen after serving for several years in the Civil Air Patrol and the Virginia Defense Force.

All three men exemplify the values of the Army. Yet all three faced discrimination for wearing turbans, unshorn hair, and beards according to their faith.

Discriminating against the faithful

These three soldiers sought their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Passed in 1993 by President Clinton, RFRA prohibits the Army from suppressing a soldier’s sincere religious exercise without a compelling government reason.

In this instance the government had no good reason for discriminating against Sikh Americans. Nearly 100,000 soldiers have exemptions from the Army’s beard ban for medical reasons. Our military’s Special Forces commonly wear beards on the front lines in Afghanistan. And observant Sikhs have always served, and continue serving, in the militaries of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, and elsewhere. Canada’s current Secretary of Defense is a fully-bearded Sikh, who previously served alongside American forces in Afghanistan.

Becket defends Sikh soldiers

This is the second lawsuit launched by Becket in defense of Sikh Americans seeking to serve the country. In Singh v. Carter, Becket also represented decorated Army Captain Simratpal Singh, who filed a similar suit against the Army for the right to keep his beard according to his faith.

In March 2016, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra and their right to serve in the Army without abandoning their Sikh faith.

In April 2016, the Army took a historic step toward allowing Sikhs to serve in the military by accommodating Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Ghotra, at least long enough for them to complete basic training. In January 2017, that victory was made permanent when the Army issued new regulations stating that Sikh soldiers will not be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards throughout their military career.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Individual freedomIndividual religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith. Religious individuals must be free to follow their faith in all aspects of life, especially those who serve in our military to defend the freedom of all Americans. 
  • Public SquareBecause religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square. 
  • RFRAThe Religious Freedom Restoration Act ensures that the government cannot burden the religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives to doing so.  

Singh v. Carter

Torn between serving country and living out faith 

Military service has a rich legacy within the Sikh tradition: observant Sikhs have served in the U.S. military from at least World War I through the Vietnam War. For Captain Simratpal “Simmer” Singh, a committed Sikh, the legacy is also personal, as military service runs strong in his family. Endorsed by his local congressman, Simmer was accepted into West Point in 2006. But a 30-year ban on beards threatened Simmer’s ability to serve. 

As a child, Simmer Singh wore the  patka, a small turban worn by Sikh children to cover their unshorn hair. In high school, he began wearing a full turban and beard—also core “articles of faith” in the Sikh religion—to remind him of the inherent dignity and equality of every individual before God. He expected to wear these articles of faith to his death – until he joined the Army. Simmer believed that he would be given a religious accommodation for his unshorn hair, beard, and turban, but on Reception Day he was told he had to cut his hair and shave or leave the Academy. Compelled on the spot to choose between serving his country and his faith—a decision no American should have to make—he chose to serve, committing to reclaim his articles of faith at the earliest opportunity. 

Captain Singh went on to serve with distinction for more than ten years. He completed both Ranger School and Special Forces Assessment and Selection Courses, received a Bronze Star Medal for clearing IEDs in Afghanistan, and attained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. 

RFRA protects Sikhs who serve 

In 2015, Simmer learned about his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute passed by a bipartisan Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993 with the support of an extensive coalition of religious and civil rights groups. RFRA prohibits the Army from suppressing an individual’s sincere religious exercise without a compelling government reason. 

In this case, the Army had no good reason for discriminating against Sikh Americans by banning their religious beard, since it gave nearly 100,000 soldiers exemptions from its beard ban for medical reasons. Special Forces Operators commonly wear beards on the front lines in Afghanistan. And observant Sikhs have continually served in the militaries of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, and throughout the world. In fact, Canadian Minister of National Defense Harjit Singh Sajjan is a fully-bearded Sikh and previously served alongside American forces in Afghanistan. 

Victory for Sikh soldiers 

In October 2015, Becket, along with the Sikh Coalition and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, petitioned the Army to grant Captain Singh a religious accommodation. In December 2015, the Army  issued  a one-month accommodation under RFRA, but then shortly after, ordered Simmer to undergo a series of discriminatory tests that other soldiers who wore beards for medical reasons were not required to complete. 

On February 29, 2016, Becket, McDermott, and the Sikh Coalition  filed a lawsuit  on Simmer’s behalf to block the discriminatory testing and to obtain a permanent accommodation.  Days later, in a rare move against the Army, the court ordered the Department of Defense to cease all discriminatory testing against Captain Singh because of his religious beard and granted him  temporary protection  while the case was ongoing. In March 2016, Becket filed a similar lawsuit in  Singh v. McConville  on behalf of Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra and their right to serve in the Army without abandoning their Sikh articles of faith. 

Following the court ruling, the Army granted Simmer a longer accommodation that allowed him to serve with his religious beard, unshorn hair, and turban for up to one year. On January 4, 2017, that victory became permanent when the Army issued new regulations stating that Sikh soldiers will not be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards throughout their military career.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Individual freedomIndividual religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith. Religious individuals must be free to follow their faith in all aspects of life, especially those who serve in our military to defend the freedom of all Americans. 
  • Public SquareBecause religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square. 
  • RFRAThe Religious Freedom Restoration Act ensures that the government cannot burden the religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives to doing so.  

Reaching Souls International v. Azar

Evangelical ministries challenge a federal mandate

In 2013, an orphan care ministry, a Christian college, and a 100-year-old Baptist ministry went to court to challenge the HHS mandate, which forced them to violate their beliefs or pay crippling IRS fines. The mandate required employers to provide services like the week-after pill in their health insurance plans but did not accommodate religious ministries like Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Resources.

Reaching Souls International is a nonprofit evangelistic ministry that has preached the Gospel to over 20 million people and rescued hundreds of orphans in Africa, India, and Cuba by placing them into loving homes. If Reaching Souls does not comply with the government’s mandate, it will face each year in IRS fines.

Truett-McConnell College is a Georgia Baptist college committed to training students to share the Gospel by providing a biblically-centered education. If Truett-McConnell does not comply with the mandate, it will face millions of dollars each year in IRS fines.

GuideStone Financial Resources has been the benefits arm of the Southern Baptist Convention for over 100 years and provides retirement and health benefits to thousands of Southern Baptist churches and evangelical ministries like Reaching Souls and Truett-McConnell College.

Defending their religious mission and beliefs

These evangelical ministries simply could not comply with the mandate to provide free access to abortion-inducing drugs and devices through the GuideStone health plan because doing so would violate their Christian beliefs about the sanctity of human life. While the government exempted churches and church-controlled ministries from the mandate, it refused to exempt religious ministries like Reaching Souls and Truett-McConnell College.

Faced with no choice but to defend their beliefs, the ministries filed suit in October 2013, representing over 187 ministries that both relied on GuideStone for health benefits and faced massive IRS fines for refusing to violate their beliefs.

In December 2013, their case became the first class-action suit to win relief from the government’s HHS mandate. But on July 14, 2015, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court decision and ruled against the evangelical ministries. On July 23, 2015, GuideStone, Reaching Souls, and Truett-McConnell appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court and a new federal rule protect ministries

Reaching Souls, Truett-McConnell, and GuideStone’s fight brought them all the way to the Supreme Court, which on November 6, 2015 agreed to hear their case along with several other religious ministries. The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark case, Zubik v. Burwell. Zubik granted a victory to religious non-profits by directing the government to find another way to achieve its goals without violating religious liberty. Because of that ruling, the Tenth Circuit threw out its previous ruling against Reaching Souls, Truett-McConnell, and GuideStone, instead ordering the ministries and the government to address possible alternatives to the mandate.

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption. On November 7, 2018, the federal government issued a final rule protecting religious ministries like Reaching Souls while offering alternative means for women to obtain free contraception.

Becket and Locke Lord LLP represented Reaching Souls, Truett-McConnell, and GuideStone in their fight for religious freedom. This was the second class action filed challenging the administration’s mandate; the first was filed by Becket and Locke Lord LLP on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor and hundreds of Catholic ministries participating in the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, a national plan for Catholic employers. Becket also represented Eternal Word Television Network, Houston Baptist University, and others in similar lawsuits against the HHS mandate.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that the government cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to build and lead their ministries according to their beliefs free from governmental discrimination.
  • Individual freedom: Religious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace.

Neely v. Wyoming Ethics

The story of a small-town, Wyoming judge raises a big question: Is there room in our society for people to live according to different views of marriage?

Ruth Neely is a municipal judge and part-time circuit court magistrate from Pinedale, Wyoming. Shortly after Wyoming legalized same-sex marriage, a local reporter published an article stating that Judge Neely would be unable to perform same-sex weddings because of her religious beliefs. Based on the article, the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics launched an unprecedented investigation against her.

Even though Wyoming law does not require (or pay) judges to perform weddings at all, and she has never been asked to solemnize a same-sex wedding, and there are several other magistrates who would be happy to do so, the Commission recommended that Judge Neely be stripped of all her judicial duties and fined up to $40,000 because of her beliefs. Town residents, including members of the LGBT community, were incredulous. In Pinedale, Judge Neely is known as an exemplary, caring judge who has spent 21 years treating everyone fairly.

Judge Neely was forced to defend her religious beliefs in the Wyoming Supreme Court, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. In May 2016, Becket submitted a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that it would violate the Wyoming and federal constitutions to penalize Judge Neely because of her religious beliefs. In March 2017, the Wyoming Supreme Court unanimously rejected the government’s request for extreme sanctions, allowing Judge Neely to keep both of her judicial positions. But a bare majority of the Court, in a 3-2 vote, ruled that she cannot continue performing any marriage ceremonies unless she’s willing to violate her faith by personally performing same-sex ceremonies. The dissenting justices defended Judge Neely and got the big question right: “In our pluralistic society, the law should not be used to coerce ideological conformity. Rather, on deeply contested moral issues, the law should ‘create a society in which both sides can live their own values.’”

Becket stands ready to defend others like Judge Neely, who, despite government pressure to conform, courageously choose to follow their conscience.

Baker v. Hands On Originals

A Christian printer ordered to violate his faith

Blaine Adamson owns Hands On Originals, a small screen printing shop in Kentucky that creates promotional materials like shirts, hats, blankets, and mugs. Blaine serves everyone regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. But he doesn’t print messages that are contrary to his faith, such as messages promoting violence. As printers across the country have agreed, it is standard industry practice for printers to decline messages that contradict their core beliefs. Blaine has operated this way for years without a problem.

Until 2012, when the Gay and Lesbian Services Organizations (GLSO) asked Blaine to create t-shirts promoting the local Pride Festival. Because the message of the t-shirts conflicted with Blaine’s religious beliefs, he offered to connect GLSO with other printers who would match his price. GLSO received numerous offers to print the t-shirts and ultimately received them for free. But GLSO filed a complaint with the local human rights commission, which ordered Blaine to print the shirts and attend “diversity training” to change his views.

Support from the LGBT community

Two different Kentucky courts have ruled that this sort of coercion is illegal. Blaine has also received strong support from the printing industry and LGBT business owners.

“This isn’t a gay or straight issue. This is a human issue. No one really should be forced to do something against what they believe in. It’s as simple as that,” said Kathy Trautvertter & Diane DiGeloromo of BMP T-shirts.

Becket defends Blaine’s free speech

The human rights commission has now appealed the case to the Kentucky Supreme Court. In February 2018, Becket and University of Virginia Law Professor Doug Laycock, together with Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLCS, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Blaine. The brief argues: “Just as a pro-choice printer has a right to decline to print a religious message attacking Planned Parenthood, and a gay photographer has a right to decline to photograph a religious anti-gay rally, a Christian printer who believes in traditional marriage has a right to decline to print materials contradicting that view. The law protects the freedom of individuals in a pluralistic society to disagree.”

On October 31, 2019, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hands On Originals, further protecting free speech and our pluralistic society.


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 Blaine Adamson to choose between his deeply held religious convictions and his 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, Blaine’s artistic expressions are a form of speech, and the government should not force him to create something that violates his religious beliefs.

Colorado Christian University v. Azar

“A university like Colorado Christian University, whose employees and students share its religious convictions concerning the sanctity of life, should not be forced against its beliefs to distribute drugs that it deems to be morally wrong.” – Senior Counsel Eric Baxter

An unconstitutional mandate threatens a Christ-centered university

For almost a century, Colorado Christian University has offered an education that develops students intellectually, professionally, and spiritually. It’s faith-central mission seeks to cultivate knowledge and a love of God in a Christ-centered community, with an enduring commitment to spiritual formation. But in 2011, CCU’s founding principles were threatened by the federal government.

In 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate requiring employers to provide services like the week-after pill in their health insurance plans.  The government’s unprecedented intrusion into the health care realm forced the university to authorize and take part in providing services that violated their beliefs, or face crippling fines.

CCU fights back

In December 2011, CCU launched its initial lawsuit against the government’s unconstitutional mandate, making it the first interdenominational Christian college to challenge the HHS mandate in federal court. In August 2013, Becket stepped in to refile CCU’s lawsuit after the government’s new promised “accommodations” still infringed on the Christian university’s religious beliefs. In June 2014, the university won temporary relief at the federal district court.

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption for religious non-profits. On July 11, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit granted the university a permanent injunction, protecting CCU from having to violate its faith. And on November 7, 2018, the federal government issued a final rule protecting religious ministries like CCU.

Colorado Christian University is now free to continue carrying out its educational mission according to its religious beliefs.


Importance to Religious Liberty

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that the government cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to build and lead their ministries according to their beliefs free from governmental discrimination.
  • Individual freedom: Religious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace.

Abeles v. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA)

Like millions of Jews worldwide, Susan Abeles celebrates the religious festival of Passover, considered one of the most important holidays in Judaism. For 26 years as an employee of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) Susan would take four days off to observe the religious holiday. Each year she would submit the request with ample notice and send multiple email reminders of her upcoming time off. But in 2013, when she returned to work following Passover, her supervisors accused her of following leave protocol improperly. They eventually drove Ms. Abeles to retire early.

Ms. Abeles sued the MWAA for violating her right to observe her religious faith. In a friend-of-the-court brief Becket argued: The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority claims that it is not strictly a government entity and so does not have to follow the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), giving it free rein to avoid all anti-discrimination laws and even terminate Jewish employees without consequence. But Becket and additional amicus the American Jewish Committee argue that MWAA is not above the law. Their brief states, “Can a governmental entity wielding the full force of law, armed with police and eminent domain powers and tasked with the oversight of two of the busiest airports in the country, properly declare itself exempt from the reach of both state and federal anti-discrimination law? …the law says no.”

A Virginia federal district court ruled against Ms. Abeles, and she appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In June 2016 Becket and the American Jewish Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Ms. Abeles, who is represented by Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin. In January 2017, a panel of the Fourth Circuit ruled against Susan Abeles. She appealed that ruling to the entire court, but was denied. In July 2017, she appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In August 2017, Becket and Jews for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the high court to take up the case, reverse the Fourth Circuit’s decision and hold MWAA accountable to RFRA. In October 2017, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Religious Freedom Day Celebrates Nation’s Pluralism

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Over two decades ago, Congress declared January 16 as Religious Freedom Day, a day for honoring America’s first freedom. This Saturday, Becket launches RFRA Central to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the “Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom” – the forerunner of the Constitution’s First Amendment Religion Clauses. Thomas Jefferson considered the Virginia Statute his crowning achievement and today it lives on in laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which gives life to the First Amendment’s guarantee that every American should be free to live out their beliefs in peace.

“On this Religious Freedom Day, we celebrate the foundational rights in the Virginia Statute championed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that are enshrined in our Constitution and civil rights laws,” said Hannah Smith, Senior Counsel of Becket. “RFRA plays an essential role in protecting the religious minorities of our time.”

In 1993, the same year Americans observed the first official Religious Freedom Day, Congress passed RFRA by nearly a unanimous vote, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law. The president and Congress called on American courts, through RFRA, to protect more vigorously Americans of all faiths against substantial burdens on their religious practices.

The new RFRA Central website is designed as a resource for all Americans, including journalists, lawyers and researchers, interested in learning more about this critical law.

RFRA Central highlights various aspects of this landmark civil rights law, including:

  • RFRA Stories: A collection of court decisions from around the country demonstrating how the federal RFRA (and its state counterparts) have protected Native Americans, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Santerias as well as Christians.
  • History of RFRA: A comprehensive review of RFRA’s history from Employment Division v. Smith to RFRA, RLUIPA, and state RFRAs.
  • RFRA Map: An interactive map highlighting which states have passed RFRAs as well as fast facts about states’ key court decisions invoking RFRA.
  • RFRA News: A list of news stories touching on nationwide RFRA issues.
  • RFRA Legal: A collection of legal publications and other RFRA resources.
  • RFRA Numbers: A collection of important statistics and facts related to RFRA.
  • RFRA Fact v. Fiction: An infographic addressing the myths vs. reality surrounding RFRA.

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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.

Faith and military service: Why aren’t there more Sikhs in the military?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Decorated Captain Simratpal Singh, along with other Sikhs wanting to serve their country, has finally prevailed against a three-decade ban preventing observant Sikhs from serving in the United States Army. His journey is documented in a new video released today.

Military service runs strong in Captain Singh’s family.  When he was accepted into West Point in 2006, he believed that he would be given a religious accommodation for his unshorn hair, beard, and turban. But on Reception Day Captain Singh was told he had to cut his hair and shave or give up his seat at the Academy. Compelled on the spot to choose between serving his country and his faith—a decision no American should have to make—he chose to serve, committing to reclaim his articles of faith at the earliest opportunity. Yesterday, the Army issued new regulations ending Captain Singh’s long ten-year journey.

“My hope is that no 18-year-old kid has to make the miserable decision that I had to make to choose between their faith and their country,” said Captain Simratpal Singh. “And that parents can tell their young kids, ‘You can be anything that you want in the United States, and that includes military service, and still practice your faith fully.’”

West Point graduate and Bronze Star Medal recipient Captain Singh, along with other Sikh soldiers, faced the prospect of being forced to compromise his faith despite the fact that the military already accommodates nearly 100,000 soldiers with beards for medical or other reasons. The soldiers initially received temporary accommodations in the spring of 2016, allowing them to report to their assignments with beard and turban intact, but the Army continued to withhold assurances that they could finish their military careers. The new policy now makes that promise, with the sole restriction that soldiers may be asked to shave in the case of real tactical situations involving specific and concrete threat of exposure to toxic agents.

“Military experts have always questioned why the U.S. military has restricted Sikhs from serving,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, which acted as co-counsel on Captain Singh’s behalf. “Our Army will be stronger and our nation safer with Sikhs serving alongside their fellow Americans.”

Becket and the Sikh Coalition, along with co-counsel at McDermott Will & Emery, filed a complaint in February in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking the court to permanently protect Captain Singh’s First Amendment right to keep his beard and turban while serving in the military. A second lawsuit was filed on behalf of Specialist Harpal Singh, Private Arjan Ghotra, and Specialist Kanwar Singh. Yesterday, the Army has promised to secure their right, and the right of all Sikhs, to serve without having to abandon their faith.

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).

Sikh soldiers are back!

Washington, D.C. – Sikh American soldiers have finally prevailed against a three-decade ban preventing observant Sikhs from serving in the United States Army. New regulations just issued by the Secretary of the Army provide that—except in rare circumstances—sincere followers of the Sikh faith may no longer be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards to serve their country. Resulting from years of advocacy, the new rules promise that the religious accommodations will last throughout a soldier’s career and can only be denied or rescinded by the Secretary of the Army or his designee.

“An Army with Sikhs is an even stronger Army,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, which represents several Sikh soldiers. “Sikhs have a history of heroic service in militaries around the world—including in the U.S. until about thirty years ago. Now their strength will be added back to the Army without the threat of forced shaves and haircuts.”

West Point graduate and Bronze Star Medal recipient Captain Simratpal Singh, along with other Sikh soldiers, faced the prospect of being forced to compromise his faith despite the fact that the military already accommodates nearly 100,000 soldiers with beards for medical or other reasons. The soldiers initially received temporary accommodations in the spring of 2016, allowing them to report to their assignments with beard and turban intact, but the Army continued to withhold assurances that they could finish their military careers. The new policy now makes that promise, with the sole restriction that soldiers may be asked to shave in the case of active tactical situations involving specific and concrete threat of exposure to toxic agents.

“While we still seek a permanent policy change that enables all religious minorities to freely serve without exception,” said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director for the Sikh Coalition, which serves as co-counsel for Captain Singh, “We are pleased with the progress that this new policy represents for religious tolerance and diversity by our nation’s largest employer.”

“The Sikh articles of faith have always been consistent with the best of American values and we’re pleased that the burden no longer rests with Sikh soldiers to prove this through a lengthy administrative process,” said co-counsel Amandeep Sidhu, McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

Becket and the Sikh Coalition, along with co-counsel at McDermott Will & Emery, filed a complaint in February in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking the court to permanently protect Captain Singh’s First Amendment right to keep his beard and turban while serving in the military. A second lawsuit was filed on behalf of Specalist Harpal Singh, Private Arjan Ghotra, and Specialist Kanwar Singh. Today, the Army has promised to secure their right, and the right of all Sikhs, to serve without having to abandon their faith.

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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more).

FOX News Opinion: The essential scorecard for religious liberty in 2016

The year 2016 has seen much conflict for religious freedom, not just domestically but worldwide. As individuals fight to defend this basic and fundamental human right — sometimes sacrificing their very lives — we find ourselves asking many questions about the future.

“My life is always filled with more questions than answers,” Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said in May as he stood in front of 500 people, honoring his longtime friend and former Cuban political prisoner, Armando Valladares.

No one knew it would be Wiesel’s last public appearance before his death two months later.

To those present, he asked a question he said had haunted him throughout his life: “What is it in the human being that he or she is capable of the worst and the best? So fast — literally sometimes overnight, in one hour — a person can change.”

At this time of year, we naturally reflect on what kind of people we want to be and what we have accomplished. But it is equally important to ask those same questions of ourselves as a society. How are those of us who have a voice working to defend those who do not?  How are we fighting to protect those more vulnerable than ourselves?

Right now the people of Cuba are yearning for change following the death of a dictator who ruled the island with an iron fist for over 50 years. Will religious people now be able to worship freely? Will LGBT individuals be free to live their lives without fear of imprisonment and torture? Will artists and poets be allowed to express themselves free from censorship?

Though Elie Wiesel’s time in the Nazi concentration camp and Armando’s Valladares’s 22 years in Castro’s gulags may seem a bygone era, the unanswered question of how to evoke change for the better in ourselves and society lingers. Can we remain silent while others suffer?

Just this month the world looked in horror as Aleppo burned. In Egypt, a bomb detonated at Cairo’s main Coptic Cathedral, killing 24 people. Millions have fled their war-torn homes, hoping for peace in a new country, while ISIS commits genocide against Christians and minority Yazidis.

Though lives have not been endangered, questions of protecting freedom of conscience have been poignant here at home as well. We’ve been forced to question how the government found itself fighting the Little Sisters of the Poor, nuns who dedicate their lives to serving the elderly poor.

A month after hearing their case, presented by Becket Law, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with what the Little Sisters had argued all along: the government has other ways to provide contraception to women who want it without hijacking the nuns’ health plan or forcing them to violate their faith.

We’ve also confronted the idea that it’s okay to infiltrate a Native American religious ceremony to search for supposed “illegal use” of eagle feathers. For the past decade Pastor Robert Soto and many of the Lipan Apache tribe of Texas have been fighting for the return of 50 eagle feathers confiscated during one of their religious services, in what the government dubbed “Operation Powwow.”

Although power plants and wind turbine farms have legal exemptions for eagles killed by their machinery, the government claimed it was illegal for the Lipan Apache to use molten feathers found on the ground. Thankfully, in what the Wall Street Journal called “a victory for religious freedom,” the government ultimately settled the case, returned the feathers, and admitted it was wrong to send an undercover agent to raid the powwow.

Meanwhile, Sikh members of the military are still left questioning when they will be allowed permanent accommodations to both honor their faith and continue their exemplary military service. Nearly a year ago, the Becket Law had to sue to get a temporary accommodation for Captain Simratpal Singh, allowing him to wear his beard and turban while serving, even though thousands are regularly given accommodations for medical or tactical reasons.

Though he received a bronze star for clearing IEDs in Afghanistan, the Army wanted to subject Singh to discriminatory gas mask testing. After Becket Law and the Sikh Coalition filed in court on his behalf under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the military continues to postpone issuing a permanent religious accommodation.

Following a year of questions, this next year should be one of answers.

How can we, as a society stand up against those who try to strip individuals like Captain Singh, the Little Sisters of the Poor and Lipan Apache Elder Robert Soto, of their rights?

The answer is simple: give voice to your convictions.

Melinda Skea is the director of communications of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Jewish woman defends Passover in court

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An Orthodox Jewish woman who was fired by the government agency that operates Dulles and Reagan National Airports because she observed Passover took her case to court today.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia will decide the case of Susan Abeles, who lost her job of 26 years for observing Passover, an important religious holiday in Judaism. An employee of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the government agency that operates Reagan National and Dulles Airports, Ms. Abeles had observed Passover every year without incident until 2013, when she was punished and forced to retire despite following leave protocol.

“My Jewish faith is an integral part of who I am and that includes observing Passover,” said Susan Abeles. “I worked at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for twenty-six years and provided to various supervisors the same advance notice of all Jewish holidays without incident. It is saddening that despite following the same protocol I had each year, I was put on AWOL and suspended for five days which drove me to retire early for simply practicing my faith.”

Passover is observed for eight days, and Jewish religious law prohibits work during the first two and last two days. Millions of Orthodox Jews like Ms. Abeles have observed Passover for thousands of years, yet the MWAA’s policy is to ignore this important religious holiday. Of course, like all government agencies, MWAA treats Christmas as a holiday for all workers. In 2015, Ms. Abeles sued the MWAA, which now claims to be exempt from both federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and Virginia religious freedom laws, giving it free rein to avoid all anti-discrimination laws.

Becket and the American Jewish Committee argue that MWAA is not above the law, stating in their brief, “Can a governmental entity wielding the full force of law, armed with police and eminent domain powers and tasked with the oversight of two of the busiest airports in the country, properly declare itself exempt from the reach of both state and federal anti-discrimination law? …the law says no.”

“It takes some chutzpah for the government to punish a Jewish woman for celebrating Passover,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel of Becket. “It takes even more chutzpah to say that they are the only government agency in DC exempt from our civil rights laws.”

Becket and the American Jewish Committee, a leading Jewish advocacy group, filed a friend-of-the-court brief earlier this year defending Ms. Abeles and her right to practice her faith as protected by RFRA. After a Virginia federal district court  ruled against  Ms. Abeles, she appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard her case today. Ms. Abeles is represented by Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin.

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).

Fired for observing Passover, Jewish woman goes to court

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Susan Abeles, an Orthodox Jewish woman, will go to court tomorrow to defend her right and the right of all employees to observe their respective religious holidays. After working for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) for 26 years, Susan Abeles lost her job for observing Passover, an important religious holiday in Judaism. Ms. Abeles had observed Passover every year without incident until 2013, when she was punished and forced to retire despite following leave protocol. She then sued the MWAA, which now claims to be exempt from both state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Becket and the American Jewish Committee, a leading Jewish advocacy group, filed a friend-of-the-court brief earlier this year defending Ms. Abeles and her right to practice her faith, as protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). After a Virginia federal district court ruled against Ms. Abeles, she appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear her case tomorrow, Thursday, December 8th.

What:
Oral Argument for Abeles v. MWAA

When:
Tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Eastern

Where:
Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals
1100 East Main Street, Suite 501
Richmond, VA 23219

Becket attorneys will be available for interviews immediately following the hearing. Susan Abeles is represented by Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin.

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).

Religious hospitals go to the Supreme Court

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court decided today to review the case of several nonprofit Protestant and Catholic hospital ministries that are being threatened by lawyers who want to prevent them from participating in their church pension plans.

Advocate Healthcare System, St. Peter’s Healthcare, and Dignity Health are driven by their faith to provide compassionate care, wellness services and free clinics for those in need, particularly juvenile victims of abuse, mentally disabled or violence-prone youth, and the poor. They also provide generous pension benefits to their employees. Yet their mission and the people they serve face a grave threat from trial lawyers who say that these openly religious hospitals are not part of the church and therefore cannot participate in a church pension plan. If they succeed, these lawyers will be paid millions of dollars in court fees and will possibly put several community hospitals who serve the poor out of business.

“The lawyers who brought these cases are like Robin Hood in reverse: stealing from hospitals who serve the poor in order to line their own pockets,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at Becket Law. “What’s worse is that they want the Court to declare that Christian hospital ministries aren’t actually part of the church. We hope the Court will reject their crabbed view of Christian charity.”

These faith-driven hospitals also provide generous benefits to their employees, including 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. The lawyers argue that the 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 2016 three of the cases—involving hospitals affiliated with the Lutheran, Catholic and United Church of Christ churches—were appealed to the Supreme Court, while almost a hundred more are pending in lower courts across the country. In August 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.

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 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).

Washington florist defends right to free expression

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Washington state’s highest court will hear arguments for Barronnelle Stutzman, a 71-year-old florist who was sued by the government and may lose her business, her home, and her life savings simply for expressing her beliefs.

For nearly 40 years, Barronelle Stutzman has created custom floral arrangements to celebrate her customers’ life events. In 2013 one of her longtime customers asked her to create arrangements for his same-sex wedding. She told him that she valued his friendship but because of her religious beliefs couldn’t participate in his wedding. He eventually received floral arrangements for free by another florist, but Barronelle was still sued by the state Attorney General for thousands of dollars.

“Americans have a variety of beliefs about important issues like sex and religion, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Adèle Auxier Keim, legal counsel of Becket Law, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers. “It’s outrageous that the government would sue someone like Barronelle – who has served and employed LGBT people for decades – because her faith doesn’t allow her to participate in a same-sex wedding.”

For nine years she served Rob Ingersoll, designing custom arrangements for Valentine’s Day and other holidays that he celebrated with his partner Curt Freed. But when Rob asked Barronelle to arrange flowers for their wedding, she told him with tears in her eyes that she could not – although she valued him as a friend, her faith would not allow it. Another florist eventually provided floral arrangements for free, and a court found that Rob and Curt suffered less than $8 in damages.

After the story broke, Barronelle was sued by the state’s Attorney General and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The state offered to settle the case, but only if Barronelle agreed to create floral arrangements to celebrate same-sex weddings. Barronelle explained that her faith wouldn’t let her. Last year a state court ruled that Barronelle was personally liable for Rob Ingersoll’s attorney’s fees—which means that she could lose her business, her home, and her life savings.

“The government’s job is to protect dissent, not punish it,” said Keim.

Becket Law filed an amicus brief in February supporting Mrs. Stutzman, who is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom.  Other amici supporting Barronelle include the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Coalition of African American Pastors USA, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Cato Institute, 27 law professors, and 13 states.

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 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).

Two years later, few Hobby Lobby copycats emerge

October 11, 2016, Politico

Several other religious non-profits filed for the accommodation, as well, including St. Joseph’s Abbey, a community of monks in Massachusetts, and the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.
Mark Rienzi, a Becket Fund attorney who has represented several clients opposed to the mandate and accommodation, including the Little Sisters of the Poor order of Catholic nuns, said the number of employers that want to opt out is tiny, compared with employers whose health plans are grandfathered so they don’t have to comply with the contraceptive provision until their health plans change.

Small town judge goes to court to defend her livelihood

Washington, D.C. – A small town judge went to court today to defend her livelihood, which is being threatened by a government agency that wants to kick her out of her job because it thinks her Lutheran religious beliefs are “repugnant.”

The Wyoming Supreme Court heard arguments today in the case of Judge Ruth Neely, who faces an unprecedented lifetime ban from the judiciary and $40,000 in fines for merely stating that her Lutheran faith prevents her from personally performing same-sex marriages. Judge Neely has a 20-year track record of ruling fairly in every case before her, and local LGBT citizens have called out the state agency’s prosecution of Judge Neely as “obscene and offensive.”

At oral argument today, the government showed that it had fumbled its handling of the case. Government lawyer Patrick Dixon admitted that neither the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell “nor any other law says that Judge Neely has to perform any given marriage.” Dixon also admitted that several of the assertions that the government made in its briefs were wrong, conceding the state does not pay small-town judges like Judge Neely to perform weddings and that judges can decline to personally perform private wedding ceremonies. At another point, Dixon tried unsuccessfully to avoid a lengthy argument from his brief by saying that “several people wrote this brief.” Yet despite getting even basic facts wrong, Dixon still pushed for the most extreme possible sanction: kicking Judge Neely out of the judiciary.

“It takes real chutzpah for the government to come in like the Keystone Kops but still ask an innocent judge to pay the price,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for Becket, which also submitted an amicus brief defending Judge Neely. “If you ask the people of Pinedale, they say that Judge Neely has served the town with fairness and integrity for decades, and that they want to keep her. This judge shouldn’t lose her job just because a bunch of bureaucrats decided they don’t like Lutherans.”

Judge Neely serves the small town of Pinedale, which holds one of the nation’s oldest cattle drives and has about ten times as much wildlife as residents. Because the town is so small, she wears two judicial hats, neither of which requires her to perform weddings. In fact, one of the positions is not even authorized to perform any weddings, and the other one allows officials to decline to perform weddings for many reasons—even a desire to go fishing instead. Yet the agency insists that Judge Neely should be banned for life because she said she would decline to perform some weddings for religious reasons. The record in the case is full of examples where Dixon described Judge Neely’s Lutheran religious beliefs as “repugnant,” singled out her church (the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) for disapproval, and called her religious beliefs a “holy war.”

“There’s an easy live-and-let-live solution here: same-sex couples can have full access to state marriage ceremonies, and judges like Judge Neely don’t have to participate,” said Blomberg. “The agency’s push to simply fire every judge who dares speak her faith is starting an unnecessary culture war.”

All of the main briefing and legal documents filed with the Wyoming Supreme Court are available here. Judge Neely is represented by James Campbell of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

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).

Military court punishes Marine over Bible verses

Washington, D.C. – The military’s highest court ruled yesterday that men and women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces can be punished for exercising their religion if judges deem the practice not religiously “important.” The ruling upholds the government’s criminal prosecution of a U.S. Marine for refusing to discard personal notes that had Bible verses on them. The case may now be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2014, Marine Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling was ordered to remove from her workstation three pieces of paper with a paraphrase from the Book of Isaiah, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper,” even though co-workers were permitted to keep nonreligious messages on their desks. She declined and was court-martialed. A lower court upheld Sterling’s court martial, rejecting her argument that her faith was protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“This is a real-life example of why judges shouldn’t play theologians,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel of Becket, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Lance Corporal. “Here, a few judges concluded that keeping scripture nearby isn’t ‘important,’ even though more than half of the world’s population belong to religions that teach the exact opposite. Avoiding obvious errors like this is why RFRA protects all religious beliefs, not just beliefs that government officials deem ‘important.’” 

The majority of judges on the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled that Lance Corporal Sterling’s posted verses were a “religious exercise” under RFRA and assumed that the exercise was sincere. But it held that, despite the court-martial Sterling faced for refusing to remove the verses, the military hadn’t placed a “substantial burden” on her religion because the court was not persuaded that she had a “subjective belief in the importance of [the] practice to her religion.” The dissent disagreed, arguing that RFRA “does not empower judges to curtail various manifestations of sincere religious belief simply by arbitrarily deciding that a certain act was not ‘important’ to the believer’s exercise of religion.” The dissent also noted that the majority’s ruling falls on one side of a “distinctive split among the federal circuit courts of appeals” which the “Supreme Court has yet to address.” That split may raise the likelihood that the Supreme Court would grant review of the case.

Becket filed an amicus brief explaining that the lower court’s ruling harms both service members and the military’s mission by limiting religious freedom. The brief was signed by a coalition of military veterans and military ministries from a variety of faith backgrounds—including Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, Mormon, Muslim, Presbyterian, Sikh, and Southern Baptist. Among them are the U.S.’s largest organization of Orthodox rabbis; the first Sikh soldier in a generation allowed to keep his turban and beard on active duty; and the ministries led by a recently retired U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains and senior veteran chaplains from the Army, Air Force, and Marines.

“Last I checked, Marines weren’t afraid of anything—and they certainly don’t need to be afraid of religious liberty,” said Blomberg. “In fact, it was the military itself that taught our young country how protecting religious liberty is good for our nation, good for mission accomplishment.”

Oral argument was heard in April 2016. The Lance Corporal is represented by the First Liberty Institute and Paul Clement of Bancroft PLLC.

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 defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

 

Native Americans win, feds flee feather fight

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a historic settlement agreement signed last night, the federal government admitted that it was wrong to send an undercover agent to raid a Native American powwow and seize nearly 50 eagle feathers used for religious worship—a raid the government dubbed “Operation PowWow” (watch video). Called “a victory for religious freedom” by the Wall Street Journal, the historic agreement ends a decade of litigation by recognizing the right of Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and 400 other Native Americans to freely use eagle feathers for Native American worship.

Until now, Pastor Soto and other Native Americans had been criminally barred from using naturally fallen eagle feathers for religious ceremonies, even though the federal government allows hundreds of eagles to be killed every year by large power companies, farming, and construction interests.

The following statement can be attributed to Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas:

“Today marks the end of a long journey. A journey that ten years ago seemed full of impossibilities. I have spent countless hours in prayer seeking God the Creator’s help. No one had ever won a case like this and many had even suffered time in prison. … [Yet] tonight, we gather together to celebrate the return of our eagle feathers. First and foremost, I thank my Lord and Savior for the wisdom He gave to people like our lawyers to help us not just win our feathers back, but to restore our culture and faith. Along with our attorneys I thank my wife Iris and the countless individuals whose faith and prayers have led us here today. As of this evening, we are free to dance, to worship, and to honor our God as Native people.” (read the full statement)

Click for full infographic

“The government has no business sending undercover agents to raid peaceful Native American religious ceremonies,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel of Becket. “Native Americans were caring for eagles before this Nation was a twinkle in the Founding Fathers’ eyes. This historic agreement recognizes that the government violated Mr. Soto’s religious freedom and must respect the rights of all Native Americans in the future.”

Federal law currently restricts the possession of eagle feathers without a permit. Permits are available for museums, scientists, zoos, farmers, and “other interests”—such as power companies, which kill hundreds of eagles every year. Permits are also available for American Indian religious uses—but only if the Indian is a member of a federally recognized tribe. Because the federal government does not recognize Mr. Soto’s tribe, it sent an undercover agent in 2006 to raid his powwow, confiscate 42 of his feathers, and threaten him with prison time. With the help of Becket, Mr. Soto fought back in court, winning in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—the same law that the Supreme Court used to protect Hobby Lobby just months before. In 2015 the government agreed to return the eagle feathers but still threatened Mr. Soto and his congregation with civil and criminal penalties if they used those feathers in their religious services.

Yesterday’s settlement agreement recognizes the right of Mr. Soto and over 400 members of his congregations to freely use eagle feathers in observance of their Native American faith. They are also free to keep, share, loan, and travel with their eagle feathers, and even obtain new ones from the National Eagle Repository. And the government has promised to reconsider its policies for enforcing feather restrictions, meaning that it will likely rethink ill-conceived methods like Operation PowWow in the future.

“This is a victory not just for me and my people, but for all people of faith,” said Pastor Soto. “If the government can take away my freedom, it can take away yours. So we have to stand together.”

Becket is co-counsel in the case, together with the international law firm of Baker Botts LLP, and the Civil Rights Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Mr. Soto was joined by 15 other plaintiffs and ministries in the 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.

Native American powwow celebrates historic eagle feathers agreement


WASHINGTON, D.C. –
This evening, Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and his congregation will hold a powwow celebrating a historic agreement with the federal government on the right to use eagle feathers for religious worship. Called a “victory for religious freedom” in today’s Wall Street Journal, the agreement will be signed as part of the powwow celebrations and ends a decade-long legal battle. As part of the agreement the federal government admits it was wrong to seize eagle feathers from Pastor Soto and his congregation in an undercover raid in 2006 and also recognizes the right of Pastor Soto and 400 other Native Americans to freely use eagle feathers for Native American worship.

What:
Historic eagle feather settlement
Powwow celebration

Who:
Pastor Robert Soto, Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas

When:
Monday, June 13, 2016 at 6:30 p.m. CST

Where:
St. Marks Methodist Church, 301 Pecan Ave., McAllen, Texas

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.

Wyoming town tells court: Let our judge serve!

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Local officials in the quiet cattle town of Pinedale, Wyoming wrote yesterday to their own Supreme Court in support of their beloved magistrate judge. A state agency is threatening Judge Ruth Neely with an unprecedented lifetime ban from public office and $40,000 in fines merely for expressing her religious views on marriage to a British reporter, who unexpectedly called for an interview on same-sex marriage while she was hanging up her Christmas lights.  The widely respected judge has received support from her neighbors as well as a local LGBT couple who views the threats against her as “obscene.”

“State officials called her faith ‘repugnant’ and said this is why they want to strip her of her job and permanently ban her from public office. But in America there is nothing repugnant about expressing your faith — even if it is unpopular with state officials. This is a right guaranteed by our First Amendment and by Wyoming’s own constitution.” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for Becket, which also submitted an amicus brief defending Judge Neely. “What is truly repugnant is that this agency is attempting to destroy Judge Neely’s life. Judges, like all government officials, are graded on their ability to do the job, not on their religious beliefs.”

The case is the first of its kind in the nation: even though small-town magistrates like Judge Ruth Neely aren’t required or even paid by the state to perform weddings, a Wyoming agency is demanding her firing because it disagrees with her religious beliefs. In fact, because Pinedale is so small—it still holds one of the nation’s oldest cattle drives and has about ten times more wildlife than residents—Judge Neely wears two judicial hats, neither of which requires her to perform weddings at all. One of the positions is not even authorized to perform any weddings, and the other one allows officials to decline to perform weddings for many reasons—such as a desire to go fishing instead.

In addition to the local officials, the judge is also supported by a diverse coalition of African-American and Hispanic ministries; numerous judges, legislators, and law professors (including a judicial ethics expert); local and national churches; and Becket. The groups filed five amicus briefs, though the Supreme Court chose not to accept all of them, joining Pinedale LGBT citizens to express strong support for the judge. Their statements of support include:

  • Pinedale LGBT citizens: “Ruth Neely is one of the best people I have ever met….Though I do not share her beliefs regarding marriage, I have no doubt whatsoever that Ruth is fair and impartial as a judge. …It would be obscene and offensive to discipline Judge Neely for her statement…about her religious beliefs regarding marriage.”
  • African-American and Hispanic ministries: Speaking on behalf of “more than 70,000 African American and Hispanic churches, and tens of millions of African Americans and Hispanic Americans, throughout the United States,” it “denounc[es] the spurious notion that understanding marriage to be a union between a man and a woman is akin to holding racist views on marriage.”
  • Law professors and retired judges: “If the government has the power to remove a judge in this case, no judge’s career is safe because all judges hold beliefs on contentious issues.”
  • National and local churches: “[T]he Commission’s decision effectively declares that millions of adherents of…traditional faiths – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – are unfit to hold certain public offices in Wyoming….[That conclusion] is astonishing and unconvincing. There is no conflict between Judge Neely’s traditional religious beliefs and her ability to serve as an effective – indeed, exemplary – judge in the State of Wyoming.”
  • Wyoming legislators: “The people who drafted and ratified our State Constitution sought to ensure that no one would be excluded from public office on account of their religious beliefs. Despite this, [a Wyoming agency] is attempting to remove Judge Neely form office because of her religious beliefs about marriage…[S]uch religion-based exclusions from public office [should] not occur in the Equality State.”
  • Becket: “If this Court faithfully applies the Wyoming Constitution, the First Amendment, and Obergefell, everyone can win: Same-sex couples can have full access to the legal institution of marriage, and religious individuals can remain in public office if they hold a traditional religious view of marriage. There is room enough in our pluralistic democracy for both sides to live according to their views of sex, marriage, and religion.”

All of the amicus briefs, along with the entire record for the case, are available here. Judge Neely is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

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).

Orthodox Woman Sues Washington Airports Authority for Not Allowing Her Passover Time Off

June 9, 2016, Forward

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the American Jewish Committee each filed a friend of the court brief on Tuesday with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, on behalf of Susan Abeles, who retired involuntarily in 2013 after working for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for 26 years. She was accused of being absent without leave on the last two days of Passover that year and suspended for five days without pay.

Jewish woman loses job for observing Passover

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An Orthodox Jewish woman is suing her former employer the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) after it punished her for observing Passover, considered one of the most important holidays in Judaism. Becket joined together with the American Jewish Committee, one of the nation’s leading Jewish advocacy groups, to file a friend-of-the-court brief Tuesday defending the right of employees to observe their religious holidays.

“It takes some chutzpah for the government to punish a Jewish woman for celebrating Passover,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at Becket, which prepared the friend-of-the-court brief supporting Ms. Abeles. “That didn’t work out so well for Pharaoh.”

Susan Abeles worked for the MWAA for 26 years and each year was given approved time off to observe Passover in accordance with her Orthodox Jewish beliefs. In 2013, Ms. Abeles followed the same procedure, giving ample notice and several reminders about her upcoming time off. However, when she returned to work, her superiors accused her of failing to follow proper protocol for obtaining leave. Eventually they forced her into early retirement.

MWAA claims that even though it was specifically created by Congress and exercises powers Congress gave it, MWAA has nothing to do with the federal government. At the same time MWAA says it is not subject to state laws either. That would lead to the absurd and frightening result that MWAA is a law unto itself. MWAA would not have to follow the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) or Virginia religious freedom laws, giving it free rein to avoid many anti-discrimination laws. But Becket and the American Jewish Committee argue that MWAA is not above the law. Their brief states, “Can a governmental entity wielding the full force of law, armed with police and eminent domain powers and tasked with the oversight of two of the busiest airports in the country, properly declare itself exempt from the reach of both state and federal anti-discrimination law? …the law says no.”

Passover is observed for eight days, and Jewish religious law prohibits work during the first two and last two days. Millions of Orthodox Jews like Ms. Abeles have observed Passover for thousands of years, yet the MWAA’s policy is to simply ignore this important religious holiday.

“This case is just one more example of the rampant antisemitism that Orthodox Jews face every day,” said Rassbach. “In recent years there has been a concerted effort to keep the Orthodox out of certain neighborhoods, out of certain schools, and out of certain jobs. The Fourth Circuit can send a strong message in favor of interreligious understanding by recognizing MWAA’s duty to provide reasonable accommodations to believers.”

A Virginia federal district court ruled against Ms. Abeles, and she appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. Becket and the American Jewish Committee filed an amicus brief Tuesday on behalf of Ms. Abeles, arguing that the MWAA cannot unilaterally exempt itself from federal civil rights laws and that it clearly violated the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Susan Abeles is represented by Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin.

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).

Pres. Obama confirms HHS Mandate unnecessary

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision yesterday to overturn the lower court ruling against the Little Sisters and forbid the government from fining the Little Sisters for failure to comply with its “contraception mandate,” President Obama applauded the decision as a win for religious freedom and women. In an interview following the decision, President Obama said it was a win for everyone and that women could continue to obtain contraception while the religious plans are protected by the Court from being forced to comply with the HHS mandate.

The government had previously told the Supreme Court that any woman who does not receive contraceptive coverage from her employer can already get free contraceptive coverage from many other sources because those “employees will ordinarily obtain coverage through a family member’s employer, through an individual insurance policy purchased on an Exchange or directly from an insurer, or through Medicaid or another government program.” Following the Court’s decision, President Obama said, “The practical effect right now is that women will still continue to be able to get contraception, if they are getting health insurance. And we are properly accommodating religious institutions who have objections to contraception.”

“I wish HHS had reached the same conclusion five years ago that President Obama did yesterday,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket. “But the President’s acknowledgment that any woman who wants free contraception can already get it right now—while the Little Sisters are under Court protection against a forced takeover of their health plan— should effectively end this debate over whether the HHS mandate was necessary to providing women access to these services.”

“The rhetoric from our opponents in this case has never matched the reality,” said Rienzi.  “We hope that the President’s willingness to acknowledge that the Little Sisters’ religious objections have never threatened any woman’s access to contraception will encourage others to tone down their rhetoric and follow his lead.”

The government exempts 1 in 3 Americans from the HHS mandate. It also exempts large corporations such as Exxon, Visa and even the government’s own military family plan. A total of 100 million Americans are exempt from this regulation and could be eligible for coverage under the new solution chosen by the government.

The Little Sisters are joined in their case by many other Becket clients, including Christian Brothers Services, Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention. Other parties in this case include Geneva College, Southern Nazarene University, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, and the Most Reverend David A. Zubik. All of these clients also had the adverse decisions in their cases vacated and sent back to the lower courts.

Paul D. Clement of Bancroft, PLLC presented the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. Noel J. Francisco of Jones Day also presented arguments on behalf of several other ministries. The Little Sisters of the Poor are represented by Becket, Locke Lord LLP, and Professor Kevin Walsh of the University of Richmond Law School.

For more information about the case, visit www.thelittlesistersofthepoor.com.

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).

Unanimous Win for Little Sisters of the Poor at Supreme Court

WASHINGTON, D.C. –Today the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government cannot fine the Little Sisters of the Poor.  The Supreme Court vacated the lower court rulings against the Little Sisters, accepting the government’s admission that it could meet its goals of providing the free services to women without involving the Little Sisters or using their plan.  The Court also ordered the lower Courts to help the government choose an alternative method of providing the services that does not require the participation of the Little Sisters. (see Sister Constance’s reaction here)

“All we have ever wanted to do is serve the neediest among us as if they were Christ himself,” said Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “We look forward to serving the elderly poor for another 175 years to come.”

“This is a game-changer.  This unanimous decision is a huge win for the Little Sisters, religious liberty, and all Americans,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket. “The Court has accepted the government’s concession that it could deliver these services without the Little Sisters. The Court has eliminated all of the wrong decisions from the lower courts and protected the Little Sisters from government fines.”

Less than a week after the Supreme Court heard the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor in March, the Court made an unprecedented move asking both sides to provide additional arguments about whether the government could find ways to distribute contraceptives without the involvement of religious non-profits and their health plans. The religious non-profits  responded to the Supreme Court: “Yes.”

The government’s lower court argument was that it would deliver the services without using the Little Sisters’ plan and that there was no way to deliver these services except for the path laid out in the mandate.  But before the Supreme Court, the government admitted 1) that its current scheme was impossible without the Little Sisters’ plan and participation, and 2) that the government did have other ways to deliver the services without using the Little Sister’s plan or forcing them to participate.  These admissions changed the decision before the Court from deciding whether the Little Sisters’ religious beliefs should trump government interests to simply requiring the government to truly remove the Little Sisters from the process and protect their religious liberty by meeting government goals through one of the many options it now admitted were possible.

The government exempts 1 in 3 Americans from the HHS mandate. It also exempts large corporations such as Exxon, Visa and even the government’s own military family plan. A total of 100 million Americans are exempt from this regulation and could be eligible for coverage under the new solution chosen by the government.

“The Little Sisters won, but what this unanimous ruling shows is that there was never a need for anyone to lose,” said Rienzi. “The government will still be able to meet its goal of providing these free services to women who want them—not just for those with religious plans—but for the tens of millions in exempted corporate and government plans.”

The Little Sisters’ win was also a win for other Becket clients, including Christian Brothers Services, Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention. Other parties in this case include Geneva College, Southern Nazarene University, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, and the Most Reverend David A. Zubik. All of these clients also had the adverse decisions in their cases vacated and sent back to the lower courts.

Paul D. Clement of Bancroft, PLLC presented the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. Noel J. Francisco of Jones Day also presented arguments on behalf of several other ministries. The Little Sisters of the Poor are represented by Becket, Locke Lord LLP, and Professor Kevin Walsh of the University of Richmond Law School.

For more information about the case, visit  www.thelittlesistersofthepoor.com

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).

Supreme Court victory for Texas Baptist Universities

WASHINGTON, D.C.– Earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government cannot fine East Texas Baptist (ETBU) and Houston Baptist (HBU) Universities for carrying out their religious beliefs in their health plans. It also threw out the lower court decision against the universities.

In its decision, the Supreme Court held that after its unprecedented call for supplemental briefing, the lower courts should again review the cases.

“ETBU is very pleased that the Supreme Court threw out the Fifth Circuit ruling against us and also ordered that we cannot be fined for failing to comply with the government’s scheme,” said Blair Blackburn, president of East Texas Baptist University. “The Court is saying that there should be a solution that works for everyone—the government can achieve its objectives, and we can continue following God’s truths and our consciences, while providing excellent Christ-centered education.”

“We are glad that the Supreme Court threw out the decision against us in light of the government’s new position,” said Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University. “Religious liberty is at the core of our identity and so it is vital that it be preserved.”

Less than a week after the Supreme Court heard HBU and ETBU’s case in March, the Court made an unprecedented move asking both sides to provide additional arguments about whether the government could find ways to distribute contraceptives without the involvement of religious non-profits and their health plans. ETBU and HBU responded to the Supreme Court: “Yes.”

The government’s lower court argument was that it would deliver the services without using the Universities’ plans and that there was no way to deliver these services except for the path laid out in the mandate. But before the Supreme Court, the government admitted 1) that its current scheme was impossible without the Universities’ plans and participation, and 2) that the government did have other ways to deliver the services without using their plans or forcing them to participate. These admissions changed the case at the Supreme Court. Instead of deciding whether the government’s interests could trump religious beliefs, the Court simply required the government to truly remove the religious non-profits from the process.

“The Supreme Court has called the government’s bluff.” said Diana Verm, legal counsel at Becket, which represents East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University. “By taking the government at its word, the Court has paved the way for the government to truly accommodate religious beliefs.”

Their case was decided with those of other Becket clients, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, Christian Brothers Services, Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention. Other parties in this case include Geneva College, Southern Nazarene University, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, and the Most Reverend David A. Zubik.

Paul D. Clement of Bancroft, PLLC presented the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. Noel J. Francisco of Jones Day also presented arguments on behalf of several other ministries. East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University are represented by Becket.

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).

 

Unprecedented: Small town judge faces ban for religious beliefs

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Ignoring the pleas of LGBT citizens in the small town of Pinedale, Wyoming, a state agency is demanding that – after over 20 years of sterling service – Judge Ruth Neely be banned for life from the judiciary and pay up to $40,000 in fines merely for stating that her faith prevents her from personally performing same-sex weddings. Even though small-town magistrates like Judge Neely aren’t required or even paid by the state to perform weddings, the state agency concluded that Judge Neely “manifested a bias” and is therefore permanently unfit to serve as a judge. This would be the first time in the country that a judge was removed from office because of her religious beliefs about marriage.

“As a local LGBT couple who actually knows Judge Neely put it: punishing Judge Neely for her religious beliefs would be ‘obscene and offensive,’” said Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel for Becket, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief defending Judge Neely. “They were right. In America, the government doesn’t get to punish people for their religious beliefs—especially not for beliefs that the U.S. Supreme Court itself, in the very opinion that recognized same-sex marriage, said were ‘decent and honorable’ and held ‘in good faith by reasonable and sincere people.’”

Judge Neely has served the community of Pinedale, Wyoming (population, 2030) for over 20 years. Many local officials in Pinedale can solemnize weddings, but are not required to do so. Judges like Judge Neely can decline to perform weddings for many reasons, such as a desire to marry only friends and family, to avoid conflicts with fishing, football games, or hair appointments, or even simply because they “don’t feel like it.” Nevertheless, Judge Neely faces removal from office for saying that her religious beliefs would prevent her from performing a same-sex marriage—even though she has never even been asked to perform one.

Judge Neely has had a career of impeccable service, with local mayors and citizens praising her fairness and impartiality. The local town attorney says that “every[one] who appears before Ruth gets a fair shake,” and another Pinedale resident says “Ruth Neely is one of the best people I have ever met.” Even the state agency calling for her ouster admits she has “served the community well” and she’s a “well-recognized and respected judge.” The worst offense that the state agency was able to find was that she occasionally corrected police officers who used bad grammar in writing tickets.

“Unfortunately, the agency is trying make an example out of Judge Neely to intimidate any other judge that doesn’t toe the agency’s line on marriage,” continued Blomberg. “But the constitution doesn’t allow government agents to purge the judiciary of anyone who holds ‘heretical’ views about marriage.”

Becket today submitted an amicus brief in support of Judge Neely in the Wyoming Supreme Court. Joining Becket on the amicus brief is local counsel Douglas W. Bailey. Judge Neely is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more).

Who Is Monifa Sterling? Bible And Religious Freedom Debated By Military Court After Marine Discharged For Sharing Scripture

April 29, 2016, International Business Times

“The other charges aren’t being challenged in this appeal. The only issue before the court is whether the military violated Lance Cpl. Sterling’s right to religious freedom by discriminatorily forcing her to remove her scripture verses from her workspace,” Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for The Becket Fund, told Military.com.

Media Advisory: Court to hear military religious liberty case

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Later this morning, the military’s top court will consider whether U.S. service members can be court-martialed for expressing their faith. Earlier in the case, a court ruled that only well-known religious beliefs enjoy legal protection and that religious speech seen as “divisive” can be broadly censored. The case arose when a Marine Lance Corporal was forced to remove the scriptural phrase “no weapon against me shall prosper” from her personal workstation even though co-workers were permitted to keep nonreligious personal messages on their desks.

Becket filed an amicus brief explaining the lower court’s ruling harms religious liberty, particularly for minority religions, and must be overturned. The brief was signed by a coalition of military veterans and military ministries from a variety of faith backgrounds—including Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Sikh, and Southern Baptist. Among them are the U.S.’s largest organization of Orthodox rabbis; the first Sikh soldier in a generation allowed to keep his turban and beard on active duty; and the ministries led by a recently retired U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains and senior veteran chaplains from the Army, Air Force, and Marines. The Lance Corporal is represented by the First Liberty Institute and Paul Clement of Bancroft PLLC.

What:
Oral argument in United States v. Sterling

Who:
Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel of Becket
(available for comment immediately following the hearing)

When:
Today, April 27, 2016 at 9:30 a.m. EST

Where:
United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
450 E St NW, Washington, DC 20442

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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The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 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 defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

Army grants religious accommodation to three more Sikhs

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Army is taking historic steps toward allowing Sikhs to serve in the military. Just one week after deciding to accommodate Bronze Star recipient Captain Simratpal Singh, the Army is now allowing three more Sikhs to serve with their religious beards and turbans in place. Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Ghotra can finally report to Basic Combat Training in May with their conscience protected.

Although the Army has granted thousands of exceptions to its shaving rules for medical reasons, the four religious exceptions in the last week are more than all accommodations granted to Sikhs in the last thirty-five years since the beard-ban has been enforced. The Army’s decision is not legally binding, however, and may be withdrawn at any time. In fact, the Army has already stated that the accommodations will be re-evaluated in approximately one year. So the soldiers will continue their lawsuit to ask the court to make their accommodations lasting and legally binding.

“For decades, Sikhs have been excluded from serving our country because of their faith while many other countries recognize their valor and patriotism—and benefit from it,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, which represents the three Sikh soldiers. “The Army’s current agreement to stop discriminating against these individual soldiers is an important step, but the court should still issue a ruling to extend that protection to all Sikhs.”

“After months of waiting, I’m ecstatic that I can finally serve both God and country,” said Private Arjan Ghotra, a high school senior who joined the Virginia Army National Guard. “I will be forever grateful to the Army for at least letting me go to boot camp. I look forward to proving that I can serve as well as anyone and am hopeful the Army will extend my accommodation afterward.”

All three soldiers were already admitted into the National Guard or Reserve, but were in danger of being forced to either shave in violation of their faith or face a court-martial for refusing. Specialist Kanwar Singh was even segregated from his unit for six months and then pressured by top Army officials to shave if he wanted to start Basic Training. The Army’s treatment of these soldiers is a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and stands in stark contrast to how Sikhs are treated in the militaries of other nations. For example, Canada’s Minister of National Defense is himself an observant Sikh who served in Afghanistan as a special assistant to the American commander in the region.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Army, Captain Singh became the first and only Sikh soldier in a combat brigade to be granted an accommodation. Even that victory, however, was loaded with caveats, requiring Captain Singh to also continue seeking relief in Court.

“The Army complained to a judge that Captain Singh was saying nice things about them in the media, but still pressing forward with his lawsuit in court,” said Baxter. “The Army is understandably sensitive about its history of discrimination against Sikhs. But after dragging its feet for years, and still admitting Sikhs only slowly and grudgingly, the need for a decisive court order is regrettably clear.”

“We commend the U.S. Department of Defense for its decision to allow these soldiers to serve with their religious turbans and beards,” said Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition. “However we know, the federal court knows, and even our nation’s largest employer, the DoD, knows that engaging in case-by-case, burdensome accommodation processes while enforcing a discriminatory ban is illegal and indefensible.”

Becket is joined by the Sikh Coalition and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery in representing the Sikh soldiers.

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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more).

Sikh Army Captain Wins Religious Freedom Victory

April 7, 2016, Law Street 

What makes this scenario particularly incredulous is that Sikhs served in the U.S military from WW1 through 1981 without restrictions on their religious articles of faith. Sikhs already enrolled in the services before the 1981 restriction were grandfathered. The Army claims the turban and hair could impede the soldiers from fully securing gas masks on themselves, or other protective gear, yet military divisions in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia allow Sikhs to serve without any restrictions.

Three Sikhs to Army: Finish the job!

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Three Sikhs—Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Ghotra—are pressing a federal court for the same right the Army gave to another Sikh soldier last week to serve with his religious beard and turban in place.  All three soldiers are scheduled to begin Basic Combat Training in May and, without a court order, will be forced to shave in violation of their religious convictions or face a courts-martial if they don’t. Their court filing yesterday evening states that the Army has refused to act on their requests for religious protection for as long as eight months and that the delays are making it impossible for them to carry on with their lives.

“It’s high time the Army stopped dragging every single Sikh who wants to serve his country through months of discrimination and delay,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, which represents the three Sikh soldiers. “The Army boasts about diversity—now it needs to walk the talk.”

The Army’s decision last Friday allows Captain Simratpal Singh to serve with his beard and turban in place for at least one year, with the Army promising to implement clearer standards for granting religious protections by that time. While a few other limitations imposed on Captain Singh are still being worked out in court, the decision allowing him to serve for at least a year was a significant step forward. But the Army is still leaving other Sikhs such as Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Ghotra without any clear direction on their rights as soldiers—admitting them into the Army, but then prohibiting them from fully serving while their requests for exemptions from the “no beards” rule drag on. Specialist Kanwar Singh was literally segregated from his unit for the first six of the eight months that his request has been pending (read about all three soldiers’ experiences here).

“The Army’s delays leave Sikh soldiers uncertain about their future for months on end,”  said Baxter. “In the meantime, they are often treated like second-class soldiers. The Army needs to stop sending the message that religious minorities are not welcome in the military.”

Becket is joined by the Sikh Coalition and the law firm McDermott, Will & Emery in representing the Sikh soldiers.

“We are back in court because our nation’s largest employer continues to endorse religious discrimination against patriotic Sikh Americans,” said the Sikh Coalition’s Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur. “Until that policy ends these cases will have no choice but to continue.”

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).

 

Believers, Thinkers, and Founders: How We Came to Be One Nation Under God

In Believers, Thinkers and Founders: How We Came to be One Nation Under God,  Kevin Seamus Hasson—founder and president emeritus of the Becket Fund for Religious liberty—offers a refreshing resolution to the age-old dispute surrounding the relationship of  religion and state: a return to first principles.

“The traditional position,” writes Hasson, “is that our fundamental human rights—including those secured by the First Amendment—are endowed to us by the Creator and that it would be perilous to permit the government ever to repudiate that point.” America has steadfastly taken the position that there is a Supreme Being who is the source of our rights and the author of our equality. It has repeated that point for well over two hundred years throughout all branches and levels of government.

Never mind, says the secularist challenge. God is, to put it mildly, religious. Religion has no place in Government. So God has no place in Government. It’s just that simple.
But for the government to say there is no creator who endows us with rights, Hasson argues, “is to do more than simply tinker with one of the most famous one-liners in history; it is to change the starting point of our whole explanation of who we are as Americans.”

He proposes a solution straight from the founding: the government acknowledges the existence of God who is the source of our rights philosophically but not religiously. This idea of the “Philosophers’ God” is a conception of God based not on faith but on reason. Hasson suggests that by recognizing the distinction between the creator of the Declaration of Independence and the God of our faith traditions, we may be able to move past the culture wars over religion that have plagued the country.

In Believers, Thinkers, and Founders, Hasson examines the idea of the “Philosophers’ God” while looking at a host of issues—including the Pledge of Allegiance, prayer at public events, and prayer in public schools—as he demonstrates how we can still be one nation under God.

Finally! US Army allows Sikh Bronze Star Medalist to serve

WASHINGTON, D.C. –  Bronze Star Medal recipient, Army Captain Simratpal Singh, will continue to serve our country with his religious turban and beard in place. In response to a lawsuit brought by Becket, the Army issued a decision late Thursday evening conceding that allowing beards for medical reasons but banning them for religious reasons discriminates against Sikh Americans by needlessly barring them from serving their country.

“The Army needs courageous men like Captain Singh who are willing to fight for what’s right,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket, which represents Captain Singh. “He’s already proven he is willing to sacrifice his life for the freedoms of others. Hooah to the Army for finally letting him enjoy his own religious freedom!”

Captain Singh is a West Point graduate, an Army Ranger, and a Bronze Star Medal recipient, yet the Army threatened to discharge him for wearing a turban and beard as required by his Sikh faith. The Army’s stance was absurd, especially considering that Sikhs serve without controversy in militaries around the world, including in Australia, Canada, India, and the United Kingdom. Moreover, at any given time, roughly 100,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army have exemptions for medical beards. Special Forces in Afghanistan have also frequently grown beards under relaxed grooming standards applied on the front lines. (Read the NYT article here.) The lawsuit was brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which serves to protect religious minorities against mindless bureaucratic action.

“I’m proud to be an American soldier,” said Captain Singh. “More than ever, the military needs to reflect the diversity of our great nation. I’m grateful the Army is allowing me to serve without being forced to compromise my religion.”

“This decision gives hope that our nation’s largest employer is making progress towards permanently ending a policy of religious discrimination,” said Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition.

Captain Singh initially received a temporary accommodation in mid-December, allowing him to report to his new assignment in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, with beard and turban in place. In early March, however, the Army tried to subject him to heightened testing for his gas mask and safety helmet, even though he had already passed the standard safety testing all soldiers undergo. On March 4, 2016, a  U.S. District Court in D.C. ordered the Army to stop imposing discriminatory testing and to treat Captain Singh under the same rules that apply to everyone else. The Army’s decision yesterday confirms that Captain Singh’s religious turban and beard have no impact on his ability to serve.

Becket is joined by attorneys from the Sikh Coalition and McDermott Will & Emery in representing Captain Singh. On Wednesday March 29, 2016, they filed a similar suit on behalf of three other observant Sikhs—Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra.

“The Army’s feeble arguments are falling apart,” said Baxter. “It’s time to let all Sikhs serve.”

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).

Three Sikh-American Soldiers File New Lawsuit Against U.S. Department of Defense

March 29, 2016, NBC News 

“Three Sikhs filed suit against the Army to ensure that their requests for religious accommodation are resolved by their basic training ship dates in May,” Harsimran Kaur, The Sikh Coalition’s legal director, told NBC News. “The lead plaintiff has been waiting over seven months. The Army has been failing to make decisions on whether these patriotic Sikhs will be able serve their country while abiding by the tenets of their faith. In doing so, the Army is violating their constitutional and statutory rights.”

Soldiers press Army to stop discriminating

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Three Sikh soldiers are seeking  the right to serve their country without having to violate their faith. Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra are all scheduled to report for basic combat training in May. Yet Pentagon officials are still threatening to make them shave against their religious beliefs or leave the service. The policy appears to originate with Lieutenant General James McConville, who is tasked with providing religious accommodations to soldiers. This is the second lawsuit launched by Becket this month asking the court to protect the right of Sikhs to serve their country without abandoning their faith.

“These men are exactly what the Army says it wants: soldiers of integrity, patriotism, and courage,” says Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, which represents the three Sikh soldiers. “It’s embarrassing that the Army is still quibbling over their beards when militaries in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and India all accommodate Sikhs without a problem. Hasn’t the Army ever heard of Ulysses S. Grant?”

Specialist Kanwar Singh was recruited into the competitive Officer Candidate School program based on his leadership skills and having achieved the highest possible score on the military entrance exam when applying to join the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Specialist Harpal Singh is fluent in Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu, all three of which are highly sought after by the Army. He also has significant expertise in telecommunications technologies, having deployed around the world—including to Ghana, Russia, and the Middle East—to develop telecommunications systems for Ericsson, a large Swedish telecommunications company. Private Arjan Ghotra is a seventeen-year-old high school senior who joined the Virginia Army National Guard after serving for several years in the Civil Air Patrol and the Virginia Defense Force.

“I was inspired to serve after learning about the Massachusetts National Guard’s response in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings,” says Specialist Kanwar Singh. “I’m so grateful for the privileges I enjoy in this country. I want to help our country in time of need and help preserve peace and freedom for all Americans.”

Sikhs have a long history of meritorious service in the United States military, extending from World War I through the Vietnam War. It was only in the early 1980s that the Army begin enforcing its beard ban against observant Sikhs, who never cut their hair or beards out of respect for God’s creation. For centuries when Sikhs were subjected to forced conversions by oppressing majorities in Asia, where the Sikh faith originated, many Sikhs chose martyrdom over shaving their beards or cutting their hair.

“A policy of religious discrimination by our nation’s largest employer runs completely counter to the values our military purports to protect,” said the Sikh Coalition’s Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur. “Action must be taken.”

The soldiers’ lawsuit joins another suit brought by decorated Army Captain and Bronze Star recipient Simratpal Singh. Earlier this month the United States District Court for the District of Columbia stopped the Army from subjecting Captain Singh to discriminatory testing because of his faith. The Army then promised to resolve his request for a religious accommodation by April 1. In their filing this morning, the three new Sikh plaintiffs are seeking an order that will require the Army to resolve their requests at the same time.

“The Army has roughly 50,000 soldiers with permanent beard exceptions for medical reasons,” says Baxter. “It’s mind-boggling that they’d rather discriminate against Sikhs than give them the same respect they give to soldiers with shaving bumps.”

The Sikh Coalition and McDermott Will & Emery serve as co-counsel in this case alongside Becket.

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).

Supreme Court hears Little Sisters of the Poor case

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a 175-year-old religious order of women who have vowed their lives to care for the elderly poor.

At the hearing, the justices pressed the government with hard questions on why it is trying to force the Sisters to violate their religious beliefs when it has chosen to exempt so many other employers from the mandate. Justice Ginsburg noted that “no one doubts for a moment” the sincerity of the Little Sisters’ beliefs. And other justices expressed concern the government was, in fact, “hijacking” the Little Sisters’ health plan and making them “subsidiz[e] conduct which they believe to be immoral.” Yet the government specifically stated that it not only believes it can force its scheme on the Little Sisters, but also on churches and other houses of worship—making them help provide “seamless” coverage for services like the week-after pill. (Transcript can be found here as soon as it is available.)

“The government has many ways to deliver its services without using the Little Sisters of the Poor—alternatives that it says are as easy to use as shopping on Amazon or Kayak, and which it has already extended to millions of Americans” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket and lead Becket attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “Yet the government admitted today that it is forcing the Sisters to violate their sincerely held beliefs. That’s wrong and unnecessary. As Paul Clement said in concluded oral argument today, the Little Sisters are happy to be conscientious objectors, but they can’t agree to be conscientious collaborators.”

The Little Sisters have asked the Supreme Court for protection from a government mandate that already exempts 1 in 3 Americans, large corporations like Chevron, Exxon, and Pepsi, and the U.S. military. The High Court must decide whether the government can force the Little Sisters of the Poor to comply with this mandate and provide services that violate their faith, even though these same services could easily be offered through the government exchanges.

“We don’t understand why the government is doing this when there is an easy solution that doesn’t involve us—it can provide these services on the exchanges,” said Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, in a statement made outside the Court. The full statement is available here, and video can be found here. “It’s also hard to understand why the government is doing this when 1/3 of all Americans aren’t even covered by this mandate, and … yet the government threatens us with fines of 70 million dollars per year if we don’t comply…. All we ask, is that we can continue to do this work.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor have received widespread support in their case from a diverse coalition of religious leaders. As one justice noted at oral argument, the coalition included not only Catholics, Baptists, and Evangelicals, but also “Orthodox Jews, Muslim groups, and an Indian tribe,” who expressed concern that the government’s scheme was “an unprecedented threat to religious liberty.” Other supporters included over 200 Democratic and Republican Members of Congress. More than 40 friend-of-the-court briefs were filed at the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Little Sisters (view full list).

The Little Sisters of the Poor appealed to the Supreme Court last July, and in November, the Court agreed to take up the appeal. This is the second time the Little Sisters have been forced to ask the Supreme Court for protection from the government’s efforts to make them to provide services against their faith.

The Little Sisters’ case was heard with those of other Becket clients, including Christian Brothers Services, Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention. Other parties also before the Court today included Geneva College, Southern Nazarene University, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, and the Most Reverend David A. Zubik.

Paul D. Clement of Bancroft, PLLC presented the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court for the Little Sisters. Noel J. Francisco of Jones Day also presented arguments on behalf of several ministries. The Little Sisters of the Poor are represented by Becket, Locke Lord LLP, and Professor Kevin Walsh of the University of Richmond Law School. A decision from the Supreme Court can be expected in June.

For more information about the case, visit www.thelittlesistersofthepoor.com.

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).

Media Advisory: Little Sister to deliver landmark statement following Supreme Court hearing

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The case of the Little Sisters of the Poor will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow March 23 at 10:00 a.m. The Little Sisters are a 175-year-old religious order of women who have vowed their lives to care for the elderly poor. The Little Sisters have asked the Supreme Court for protection from a government mandate that already exempts 1 in 3 Americans, large corporations like Chevron, Exxon, and Pepsi, and the U.S. military. The High Court must decide whether the government can force the Little Sisters of the Poor to comply with this mandate and provide services that violate their faith even though these services can easily be obtained through the government’s own exchanges.

In addition to the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Becket clients Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities as well as five other religious non-profit groups in Zubik v. Burwell. Becket represents the Little Sisters, as well as the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Christian Brothers Services, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

What:
The Little Sisters of the Poor oral argument
before the U.S. Supreme Court in Zubik v. Burwell

Who:
Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor
Paul Clement, Bancroft PLLC

When:
Wednesday March 23, 2016 at 10:00 a.m. EST

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

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, and Becket attorneys will deliver statements in a press conference outside the Supreme Court immediately following oral argument. For more information about the case, visit www.thelittlesistersofthepoor.com.

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.

###

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 (learn more).

Media Advisory: Supreme Court to hear Little Sisters of the Poor case March 23

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The case of the Little Sisters of the Poor will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday March 23 at 10:00 a.m. The Little Sisters are a 175-year-old religious order of women who have vowed their lives to care for the elderly poor. The Little Sisters have asked the Supreme Court for protection from a government mandate that already exempts 1 in 3 Americans, large corporations like Chevron, Exxon, and Pepsi, and the U.S. military. The High Court must decide whether the government can force the Little Sisters of the Poor to comply with this mandate and provide services that violate their faith even though these services can easily be obtained through the government’s own exchanges.

What:

The Little Sisters of the Poor oral argument
before the U.S. Supreme Court in Zubik v. Burwell

Who: 

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor
Paul Clement, Bancroft PLLC

When: 

Wednesday March 23, 2016 at 10:00 a.m. EST

Where:

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

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, and Becket attorneys will deliver statements in a press conference outside the Supreme Court immediately following oral argument. For more information about the case, visit www.thelittlesistersofthepoor.com.

The Supreme Court consolidated the Little Sisters of the Poor case, which includes petitioners Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust and Christian Brothers Services, with the cases of other Becket clients Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as with the cases of five other religious non-profit groups in Zubik v. Burwell.

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  (learn more).

Judge sides with Sikh soldier on grooming standards

March 4, 2016, The Hill

“Getting a court order against the Army is huge — it almost never happens,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, said in a written statement Friday. “It goes to show just how egregious the Army’s discrimination against Sikhs is. Thankfully the court stepped in to protect Capt. Singh’s constitutional rights. Now it’s time to let all Sikhs serve.”

Court halts discriminatory testing of Sikh Army Captain

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Decorated Army Captain and observant Sikh Simratpal Singh has prevailed against the Department of Defense’s (DOD) efforts to subject him to discriminatory testing because of his religion.

In an order issued last night, federal District Judge Beryl A. Howell held that the DOD is forbidden from imposing “any non-standard or discriminatory testing for [Captain Singh’s] helmet and gas mask during the pendency of the litigation.” Judge Howell issued the order in response to Captain Singh’s complaint filed earlier this week, where he disclosed that DOD bureaucrats planned to force him to undergo three days of testing under escort at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, despite the fact he had just passed the standard gas-mask testing exercise.

“Getting a court order against the Army is huge—it almost never happens,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, which represents Captain Singh. “It goes to show just how egregious the Army’s discrimination against Sikhs is. Thankfully the Court stepped in to protect Captain Singh’s constitutional rights. Now it’s time to let all Sikhs serve.”

Captain Singh is decorated with the Bronze Star and is a West Point graduate, yet he faced the possibility of being forced to compromise his faith, which includes wearing a beard and turban, even though the military already accommodates nearly 50,000 soldiers with beards for medical or other reasons (NYT article.) Captain Singh initially received a temporary accommodation in mid-December, allowing him to report to his new assignment in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, with beard and turban intact. The accommodation was extended until March 31, but the Army proposed putting Captain Singh through a battery of tests seemingly designed to exclude him from the Army, even though he had just passed the standard gas-mask testing.

“We have been advocating for the simple, straightforward, equal right to serve for years and held onto the belief that the military would correct this injustice once they realized their mistake,” said Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition“The military’s treatment of Captain Singh, a decorated soldier, makes it clear that they deliberately want to squash diversity and religious freedom in their ranks and that’s not something that any court or American should ever tolerate.”

“The U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act make it crystal clear that Captain Singh’s right to practice his faith and serve in our military are not mutually exclusive,” said co-counsel Amandeep Sidhu, partner at McDermott Will & Emery. “We are grateful that the court is on the right side of religious freedom with its ruling, which begs the question: does the world’s largest employer really want to be on the wrong side of history?”

On February 29, Becket and the Sikh Coalition, along with co-counsel at McDermott Will & Emery, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking the court to permanently protect Captain Sikh’s First Amendment right to keep his beard and turban while serving in the military.

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).

Sikh Army Captain fights Pentagon to practice faith

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Army Captain Simratpal Singh filed a lawsuit earlier today asking a federal court to protect his right to wear his Sikh turban and beard while serving in the Army. Captain Singh initially received a temporary accommodation in mid-December, allowing him to report to his new assignment in Fort Belvoir, Virginia with beard and turban intact. But now the Army is imposing new hurdles, signaling it will refuse to make the accommodation permanent, thereby forcing him to seek the court’s protection.

A Bronze Star recipient and West Point graduate, Captain Singh faces being forced to compromise his faith despite the fact that the military already accommodates nearly 50,000 soldiers with beards for medical or other reasons (NYT article.) The accommodation was only the fourth time the military has granted such an accommodation since imposing a ban in the 1980s.

“Captain Singh is a decorated war hero. The Army should be trying to get more soldiers like him, not banning them from serving or punishing them for their beliefs,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket, which represents Captain Singh. “It’s time for the Pentagon to stop playing games and start doing the right thing – for Captain Singh, for Sikh Americans, and for all Americans.”

Captain Singh, a devout Sikh with a family history of military service, graduated West Point with honors and then served in Afghanistan, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for his work clearing IEDs. During his time in the Army, Captain Singh has completed Ranger School and his Master’s degree. After nine years of being forced to choose between his faith and his country, the Army granted him two back-to-back temporary religious accommodations that protect him into March 2016. However, just before next month’s deadline, and after Captain Singh passed standard protective-mask testing, the Army demanded he undergo a series of additional tests that other soldiers permitted to wear beards for medical reasons are not required to complete. This discriminatory testing could threaten Captain Singh’s ability to continue serving his country with a permanent accommodation.

“I am proud to fight for my country, which includes fighting to protect others’ religious beliefs,” said Captain Simratpal Singh in December after receiving his temporary accommodation. “I simply ask that I be able to continue serving without being forced to give up a core part of my own faith—of who I am.”

Observant Sikhs have served in the U.S. military—including in combat zones and in Special Forces—from at least World War I through the Vietnam War. The Army has granted nearly 50,000 permanent exemptions to its beard ban for medical reasons. And just this summer, a D.C. federal court held that the Army violated federal law and its own regulations by barring a Sikh from applying to join the military because of his turban and beard.

“This ban is wrong. Sikh Americans have proven time and again that they can serve with honor and excellence,” said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director for the Sikh Coalition, which serves as co-counsel for Captain Singh. “Our military’s work is too hard and too important to be weighed down by unnecessary limitations on who can do the job.”

“For years we have worked to avoid litigation under the guiding belief that the U.S. military would finally do the right thing,” said co-counsel Amandeep Sidhu, McDermott Will & Emery LLP. “The U.S. Constitution and RFRA make it clear that Captain Singh has the right to practice his faith in the military and we are confident that the court will agree.”

On February 29, Becket and the Sikh Coalition, along with co-counsel at McDermott Will & Emery, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking the court to permanently protect Captain Singh’s religious freedom and allow him to keep his beard and turban while serving in the military.

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.

###

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).

Sikh Army Captain Sues For Right To Wear Turban, Sport Beard In Uniform

February 29, 2016, The Daily Caller

The lawsuit alleges that the Army forced Singh to undergo extraordinary testing measures far beyond other comparable cases. They say Singh had to go through evaluations for mask and helmet fit. A coalition including more than two dozen retired generals and over 100 members of Congress have publicly called for Sikhs to receive an exemption, but the Army has been slow to give these kinds of concessions.

Court deeply disturbed by Army treatment of Captain decorated with Bronze Star

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Decorated Sikh Army Captain Simratpal Singh succeeded in forcing the Army to retreat from an order issued last Friday that would have subjected him to discriminatory testing solely because of his religion.  Captain Singh filed his lawsuit earlier today in federal court. Under vigorous questioning from Judge Beryl A. Howell, Army lawyers conceded that they did not need to subject Captain Singh to immediate testing that no soldiers permitted to wear beards for medical reasons have ever had to endure. Army lawyers agreed to hold off on these unprecedented tests and will have to respond to the Court again tomorrow to justify their position.

Decorated with the Bronze Star and a West Point graduate, Captain Singh faced the prospect of being forced to compromise his faith despite the fact that the military already accommodates nearly 50,000 soldiers with beards for medical or other reasons (NYT article.) Captain Singh initially received a temporary accommodation in mid-December, allowing him to report to his new assignment in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, with beard and turban intact. The accommodation was extended until March 31, but the Army proposed putting Captain Singh through a battery of tests seemingly designed to exclude him from the Army. Captain Singh has already passed a gas mask safety test while wearing his beard and turban.

“Justice was done today,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket, which represents Captain Singh. “Captain Singh has already passed through a trial by fire in Afghanistan. He did not need to return home only to face a trial by Army bureaucrats.”

Baxter added, “All Captain Singh wants to do is serve his country without violating his faith. The Court saw through the Army’s argument that Sikh Americans have to be put through special testing that doesn’t apply to the thousands of other soldiers serving with beards. Heightened rules for Captain Singh, with standard rules for everyone else is not equal justice under the law. The Army saw the writing on the wall and retreated from its outrageous position that it needed to subject Captain Singh to immediate testing.”

Observant Sikhs have served in the U.S. military—including in combat zones and in Special Forces—from at least World War I through the Vietnam War. The Army has granted nearly 50,000 permanent exemptions to its beard ban for medical reasons. And just this past summer, a D.C. federal court held that the Army violated federal law and its own regulations by barring a Sikh from applying to join the military because of his turban and beard.

“We believe the Court will end the Army’s discriminatory ban on observant Sikh’s in the military,” said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director for the Sikh Coalition, which serves as co-counsel for Captain Singh. “Sikh Americans have proven time and again that they can serve with honor and excellence.”

“For years we have worked to avoid litigation under the guiding belief that the U.S. military would finally do the right thing,” said co-counsel Amandeep Sidhu, McDermott Will & Emery LLP. “As the Court recognized today, the U.S. Constitution and RFRA set a high standard for protecting religious rights.”

On February 29, Becket and the Sikh Coalition, along with co-counsel at McDermott Will & Emery, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking the court to permanently protect Captain Singh’s First Amendment right to keep his beard and turban while serving in the military. Getting the government to back down from the immediate threatened testing was a significant step in the right direction.

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, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read more).

 

Sikh soldier sues Pentagon over grooming standards

February 29, 2016 – The Hill

“Capt. Singh is a decorated war hero. The Army should be trying to get more soldiers like him, not banning them from serving or punishing them for their beliefs. It’s time for the Pentagon to stop playing games and start doing the right thing – for Capt. Singh, for Sikh Americans and for all Americans.”

Divided court rules against nun’s network on HHS mandate

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, in a splintered decision, a federal court ruled that the world’s largest religious media network, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), must comply with the government’s infamous HHS Mandate even though the government can offer these same services through its own exchanges. This mandate forces religious ministries like EWTN to violate their faith or pay massive IRS penalties. Recognizing the severity of the situation, the court immediately put its ruling on hold until the Supreme Court address this important issue on March 23 in the Little Sisters of the Poor case.

“We are disappointed in the Court’s refusal to protect our religious freedom,” said EWTN Chairman and CEO Michael P. Warsaw. “We simply want to continue to practice the same faith we preach to the world every day. We are prayerful and hopeful that, if necessary, the Supreme Court will correct this critical error.”

In the majority opinion, the Court stated “We accept the plaintiffs’ sincere belief . . . that the accommodation puts them to a choice between honoring their religious beliefs and facing significant penalties. We nonetheless conclude that the accommodation imposes no substantial burden.”  In a blistering dissent, Judge Tjoflat responded: “the majority runs roughshod over the sincerely held religious objections of Eternal Word Television Network,” and concluded that “At bottom, the majority’s reasoning takes aim at the heart of RFRA itself.”

“This is wrong. Rather than provide these drugs and devices through its own exchanges, our government wants to punish EWTN for practicing its faith.” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel of Becket and lead attorney on the case. “This 2-1 decision is not the end. The government’s unconstitutional mandate has lost repeatedly at the Supreme Court, and we believe it will lose again.”

Over three decades ago, Mother Angelica, a cloistered nun, started the small television network in a garage on monastery grounds. That network’s sole purpose was and remains sharing Catholic faith and traditions with the world. Today, EWTN is now the largest religious media organization in the world, reaching into over 250 million homes in 144 different countries.

In October 0f 2013, EWTN and the Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange joined with Becket to challenge the unconstitutional HHS Mandate. The 11th Circuit granted EWTN emergency relief in June of 2014 to protect the nun’s network from having to either violate its faith or pay millions of HHS-mandated IRS fines. Today, a different panel of judges rendered a split decision, voting 2-1 against EWTN.

Becket  continues to lead the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate, winning a landmark victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  It  currently represents  the  Little Sisters of the Poor, Reaching Souls International, and Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist University,  along with  many other  religious ministries.

In addition to Becket, EWTN is also represented by Kyle Duncan of Duncan PLLC.

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. 

Leading medical groups urge Supreme Court to protect pharmacists’ right of conscience

WASHINGTON, D.C.– A diverse coalition of medical organizations, states, Members of Congress, scholars, and religious organizations urged the Supreme Court to hear a case involving two female pharmacists and a family-owned pharmacy, who face the loss of their livelihood unless they sell abortion-inducing drugs in violation of their religious beliefs (view full list). The pharmacists in Stormans v. Wiesman are challenging a controversial regulation in Washington State that has been condemned by the American Pharmacists Association as “a radical departure from past regulation of the pharmacy industry.”

“[The] ‘right of conscience’ has always been integral to the ethical practice of pharmacy,” said the brief of the American Pharmacists Association and 37 other national and state pharmacy associations. “No other regulation in the country so clearly targets pharmacists who conscientiously object to stocking or delivering certain drugs.”

Margo Thelen, Rhonda Mesler, and the Stormans family have worked in the pharmacy profession for over seventy years. When a customer requests an abortion-inducing drug, they refer the customer to one of over thirty pharmacies within five miles that willingly sell the drugs. For decades, this has been standard pharmacy practice, has been approved by the American Pharmacists Association, and has been legal in all 50 states.

But in 2007, Washington adopted a new law making referrals for reasons of conscience illegal. The law was passed in a cloud of controversy, with then-Governor Christine Gregoire threatening to terminate the State Pharmacy Commission and replacing Commission members with individuals recommended by abortion-rights activists. The law leaves pharmacies free to refer patients elsewhere for a wide variety of reasons related to business, economics, and convenience—but not for reasons of conscience. Because of the law, Margo Thelen lost her job, Rhonda Mesler was threatened with losing hers, and the Stormans family faces the loss of its pharmacy license.

“It is absurd to force a pharmacy to sell drugs against their conscience when there are over thirty pharmacies within five miles that already sell the exact same drugs,” said  Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of Becket, which represents the pharmacists.

“The regulation was a solution in search of a problem,” said the brief of Democrats for Life and seven other organizations. “Washington’s regulations depart radically from widely established norms within the health-care industry,” said a brief of over 4,600 individual health care professionals.

The Supreme Court will likely consider whether to take the appeal this spring. If the Court agrees to hear the case, it would be argued later in the 2016 term. The plaintiffs are represented by Becket, together with Alliance Defending Freedom, the law firm of Ellis, Li, & McKinstry, and former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael McConnell.

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: Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century,” the landmark ruling in Burwell v.  Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in  Holt v. Hobbs.

 

 

Little Sisters to Highest Court: Protect Our Ministry

WASHINGTON, D.C. –Moments ago,  the Little Sisters of the Poor,  a  group o f Catholic  nuns who care for the elderly poor, urged the Supreme Court to protect them from $70 million dollars in government fines for refusing to violate their Catholic faith (watch video.) This is the second time the Sisters have been forced to ask the Supreme Court for protection from the government’s efforts to make them to provide contraceptives to their employees. The Supreme Court gave the Sisters preliminary protection in January 2014, and it will hear their case in March of this year.

“The Little Sisters spend their lives taking care of the neediest members of our society —that is work our government should applaud, not punish,” said  Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel of Becket. “ The Little Sisters should not have to fight their own government to get an exemption it has already given  to thousands of other employers, including big companies like Exxon and Pepsi Cola Bottling Company.”

Today’s brief, which was filed by Becket along with former Solicitor General Paul Clement, chides the government for its “deceptive labels and diversionary tactics” designed to falsely suggest that the Little Sisters can “opt out” of the mandate. (See pp. 37-38 explaining how the mandate commandeers the health plans of religious objectors.)

The brief also explains why the government does not need the Little Sisters at all: because it already has many other ways to get contraceptive coverage to those who want it. “Indeed, the government has invested billions of dollars in creating exchanges for the express purpose of making it easy to obtain qualifying insurance when it is not available through an employer.  The government cannot explain why those exchanges suffice to advance its goal of getting contraceptive coverage to the tens of millions of [other] people . . .  yet are not good enough” for the employees of the Little Sisters.

“As Little Sisters of the Poor, we offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they are welcomed as Christ.  We perform this loving ministry because of our faith and cannot possibly choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith, and we shouldn’t have to,”  said  Sr. Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial of the Little Sisters of the Poor. “All we ask is that our rights not be taken away.  The government exempts large corporations, small businesses, and other religious ministries from what they are imposing on us – we just want to keep serving the elderly poor as we have always done for 175 years. We look forward to the Supreme Court hearing our case, and pray for God’s protection of our ministry.”

The brief was filed on behalf of several other entities facing the same mandate as the Little Sisters, including Becket clients Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Christian Brothers Services, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, along with Westminster Theological Seminary, South Nazarene University, and Geneva College. The religious objectors are also represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, Locke Lord LLP, Professor Kevin Walsh of the University of Richmond, Ken Wynne, and Bradley Tupi. 

“It is ridiculous for the federal government to claim, in this day and age, that it can’t figure out how to distribute contraceptives without involving nuns and their health plans.” said  Senior  Counsel  Mark Rienzi.

Becket continues to lead the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate, winning a landmark victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. It currently represents the  Little Sisters of the Poor, Mother Angelica’s  Eternal Word Television Network,  Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, along with  many other religious ministries.

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, includingBuddhists, 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.”

 

 

Pharmacists to Supreme Court: Protect our religious conscience

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A family-owned pharmacy and two female pharmacists asked the U.S. Supreme Court today to stop a new Washington State law that would force them to sell abortion-inducing drugs in violation of their religious beliefs. The Washington law is the only one of its kind in the country and has been condemned by the American Pharmacists Association as “radical” and “grossly out of step with state regulatory practice.”

“No one should be forced out of her profession solely because of her religious beliefs,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of Becket. “We are optimistic that the Supreme Court will step in and strike down this blatant discrimination against people of faith.”

Margo Thelen, Rhonda Mesler, and the Stormans family have worked in the pharmacy profession for over seventy years. When a customer requests an abortion-inducing drug, they refer the customer to one of over thirty pharmacies within five miles that willingly sell the drugs. For decades, this has been standard pharmacy practice, has been approved by the American Pharmacists Association, and has been legal in all 50 states.

But in 2007, Washington adopted a new law making referrals for reasons of conscience illegal. The law was passed in a cloud of controversy, with then-Governor Christine Gregoire threatening to terminate the State Pharmacy Commission and replacing Commission members with new ones recommended by abortion-rights activists. The law leaves pharmacies free to refer patients elsewhere for a wide variety of reasons related to business, economics, and convenience—but not for reasons of conscience. Because of the law, Margo Thelen lost her job, Rhonda Mesler was threatened with losing hers, and the Stormans family faces the loss of its pharmacy license.

After a twelve-day trial, a federal court in February 2012 struck down the law as unconstitutional, finding “abundant evidence” that the law was designed to force religious pharmacists and pharmacy owners to violate their faith. But last July the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, upholding the law.

“It is absurd to force a pharmacy to sell drugs against their conscience when there are over thirty pharmacies within five miles that already sell the exact same drugs,” said Goodrich. “This law does nothing but punish people of faith.”

The Supreme Court will likely consider whether to take the appeal in March 2016. If the Court agrees to hear the case, it would be argued in late 2016. The plaintiffs are represented by  Becket, together with Alliance Defending Freedom, the law firm of Ellis, Li, & McKinstry, and former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael McConnell.

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.” 

 

Faith groups unite to protect military’s robust religious diversity

WASHINGTON, D.C. Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Mormon, and Catholic leaders with strong military ties joined today in urging the military to give greater respect to the diverse religious practices of service members throughout the armed forces. The brief, filed in the nation’s highest military court, criticizes a Navy ruling that allows commanders to censor religious activity on the grounds that religion is too “divisive” and “contentious” a topic for our nation’s Marines.

“Even before the Continental Army, the military has always set the tone for the nation by protecting religious diversity,” said Daniel Blomberg, Counsel at Becket. “Strength comes from mutual respect for religious differences, not enforced silence.”

The lawsuit involves a Marine who was ordered by her commander to remove from her desk three small strips of paper with scripture verses printed on them. Last February, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction of Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling for refusing to remove them, even though co-workers were permitted to keep nonreligious personal items on their desks, such as career accolades and pictures of family.

The lower court held that posting personal religious messages was not protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Further, the court justified allowing commanders to suppress religious speech, claiming that Marines would suffer “detrimental effect” from being “exposed to biblical quotations in the military workplace.” The religious leaders’ brief filed in support of Sterling’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces explains how all major religions teach the importance of regularly pondering scriptural messages. The brief also shows how religious diversity promotes the military’s mission.

“Throughout history, religion has been an essential source of both courage and comfort for those called to defend our freedoms,” said Blomberg. “The least we can do is respect their personal religious beliefs and practices.”

The brief’s signatories include high-ranking veterans who have served in every branch of the military and in every major U.S. conflict since Vietnam.  Among them are the nation’s largest organization of Orthodox rabbis; the co-founder of the first ministry to send Muslim chaplains into the U.S. military; the first Sikh service member in a generation to obtain an accommodation to maintain his religiously mandated turban and beard on active duty; ministries led by, among others, a recently retired U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains and several senior veteran chaplains from the Army, Air Force, and Marines; and entities that have been officially endorsing chaplains for service in the U.S. military since at least the Civil War, including the military’s largest single chaplain endorser.

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.” 

 

Army ends forced shaves for Sikh soldier

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Captain Simratpal Singh won a temporary religious accommodation today, allowing him to maintain a beard and wear a turban according to his Sikh faith while serving in the Army. The accommodation comes in the nick of time, as Capt. Singh reports to his new post in Fort Belvoir, Virginia later today. This is only the fourth time the military has granted such an accommodation since it imposed a ban in the early 1980s. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) created the legal path for Captain Singh’s personal accommodation. But the Army’s general beard ban continues to keep other patriotic Sikhs out of the military.

“My Sikh faith and military service are two core parts of who I am,” said Captain Singh. “I am proud to serve my country as an Officer and I look forward to being able to continue serving without having to give up my religious beliefs.”

Maintaining uncut hair and wearing a turban are core tenets of the Sikh faith, signifying the inherent dignity and equality of every individual. Although the Army has granted nearly 50,000 permanent exemptions to its beard ban for medical reasons, it still refuses—except in rare cases—to admit soldiers who wear beards for religious reasons.

“Anyone who observed our unshaven special forces in Afghanistan knows a beard won’t stop an American soldier,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket, which represents Captain Singh. “Now the Pentagon just needs to make Captain Singh’s exemption permanent. In fact, it should explain why it is using the beard ban to discriminate against any Sikh American.”

Captain Singh graduated West Point with honors and then served in Afghanistan, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for his work clearing IEDs. In addition to later earning his Master’s degree through the Army, Captain Singh completed both Ranger School and Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course — a rare accomplishment.

While Captain Singh can now report for duty maintaining his articles of faith, this accommodation is only temporary. Questions remain whether he will be issued a permanent accommodation or if the military will finally exempt all religious beards from its general ban, as it should.

“It is once again clear to military leadership that nothing about the Sikh articles of faith actually prevents excellence in military service,” said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director for the Sikh Coalition, which serves as co-counsel for Captain Singh. “Captain Singh is another example that  illustrates how unnecessary the religious discrimination ban on Sikhs is.”

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.”

 

 

Sikh Soldier Allowed to Keep Beard in Rare Army Exception

December 14, 2015, The New York Times

It is the first time in decades that the military has granted a religious accommodation for a beard to an active-duty combat soldier — a move that observers say could open the door for Muslims and other troops seeking to display their faith. But it is only temporary, lasting for a month while the Army decides whether to give permanent status to Captain Singh’s exception.

High Court to decide if Government can force nuns to provide contraceptives

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns facing tens of millions of dollars in IRS fines because they cannot, according to their faith, include contraceptives in their employee health plan. This is the second time the Sisters have been forced to ask the Supreme Court for protection against the government’s HHS Mandate. The Court’s decision will finally resolve the crucial question of whether governmental agencies can, wholly without legislative oversight, needlessly force religious ministries to violate their faith. The Supreme Court has consolidated their case with Becket client Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, Priests for Life, South Nazarene University, Geneva College, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and Zubik.

“Becket is grateful that the Supreme Court has decided to weigh in on this important case,” said Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel of Becket. “The Little Sisters spend their lives taking care of the elderly poor—that is work our government should applaud, not punish. The Little Sisters should not have to fight their own government to get an exemption it has already given to thousands of other employers, including Exxon, Pepsi Cola Bottling Company, and Boeing. Nor should the government be allowed to say that the Sisters aren’t ‘religious enough’ to merit the exemption that churches and other religious ministries have received.”

The Little Sisters, who care for more than 13,000 of the elderly poor around the world, had no choice but to appeal to the Supreme Court due to the government’s refusal to exempt them from the HHS mandate, which is currently in its 9th unacceptable iteration. The mandate forces the Little Sisters to authorize the government to use the Sister’s employee healthcare plan to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs – a violation of their faith –  or pay massive fines, which would threaten their religious mission. The Supreme Court entered a temporary order protecting the nuns in January, 2014, but the government has continued litigating, asking lower courts to remove that protection.”

“As Little Sisters of the Poor, we offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they are welcomed as Christ.  We perform this loving ministry because of our faith and cannot possibly choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith, and we shouldn’t have to,” said  Sr. Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial of the Little Sisters of the Poor. “All we ask is that our rights not be taken away.  The government exempts large corporations, small businesses, and other religious ministries from what they are imposing on us – we just want to keep serving the elderly poor as we have always done for 175 years. We look forward to the Supreme Court hearing our case, and pray for God’s protection of our ministry.”

Becket and leading Supreme Court advocate Paul Clement—the same legal team that won the Hobby Lobby case—filed the petition on behalf of the Little Sisters, as well as the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Christian Brothers Services, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Today, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Little Sisters’ case, along with Becket client Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, Priests for Life, South Nazarene University, Geneva College, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and Zubik v. Burwell.“It is ridiculous for the federal government to claim, in this day and age, that it can’t figure out how to distribute contraceptives without involving nuns and their health plans.” said Senior Counsel Mark Rienzi. Becket continues to lead the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate, winning a landmark victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. It currently represents the Little Sisters of the Poor, Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network, Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, along with many other religious ministries.The Little Sisters are also represented by the law firm of Locke Lord LLP and Professor Kevin Walsh of the University of Richmond Law School.

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.”

 

Becket Defends Christian Printer Ordered to Print Shirts for Gay Pride Festival

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, law firms and scholars came to the defense of Blaine Adamson, the owner of a small printing company, who has been ordered by the government to print shirts promoting a gay pride festival and to attend government-mandated “diversity training.” Among his supporters are LGBT-owned businesses such as BMP T-Shirts as well as Becket, renowned scholar and University of Virginia Law Professor Douglas Laycock, and Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLCS, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Mr. Adamson’s defense.

“Americans disagree about sex and religion. That’s nothing new. But this case is about whether the government will allow people who disagree to live side-by-side in peace, or whether the government will instead pick one ‘correct’ moral view and force everyone to conform,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of Becket. “Fortunately, the Supreme Court has already resolved this question and held that the government can’t force people to promote views they disagree with.”

“Both same-sex couples, and religious believers committed to traditional understandings of sexuality, have faced hostile regulation that condemns their most cherished commitments as evil,” said Professor Douglas Laycock, Professor of Law at the University of Virginia. “The American solution to this conflict is to protect the freedom of both sides—not punish the side that dissents.”

Blaine Adamson owns Hands On Originals, a small, closely-held printing company in Lexington, Kentucky. Mr. Adamson regularly employs and serves LGBT individuals, and he has never turned away any customer because of their race, sex, or sexual orientation. But in accordance with standard industry practice, Mr. Adamson does not print messages that contradict his core beliefs. For example, just as pro-choice printers have declined to print pro-life messages, and LGBT printers have declined to print anti-gay messages, Mr. Adamson has declined to print messages promoting a strip club, sexually explicit videos, and violence.

In 2012, the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO) asked Mr. Adamson to print shirts promoting the local Pride Festival. Because Mr. Adamson believes that sex is designed for traditional marriage, and because the Pride Festival promotes a contradictory view, Mr. Adamson could not in good conscience print the shirts. Instead, he offered to refer GLSO to other printers who would match his price. GLSO received many offers to print the shirts and ultimately obtained them for free. Nevertheless, GLSO filed a complaint with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission, which has now ordered Mr. Adamson to print shirts in violation of his religious beliefs and to attend government-mandated “diversity training.”

A Kentucky Circuit Court ruled in favor of Mr. Adamson, concluding that forcing him to print messages in violation of his religious beliefs would violate both the Free Speech Clause and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Act. But the Human Rights Commission has now appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

“Just as a pro-choice printer has a right to decline to print a religious message attacking Planned Parenthood, and a gay photographer has a right to decline to photograph a religious anti-gay rally, a Christian printer has a right to decline to print messages that violate his beliefs,” said Goodrich. “The right of free speech protects everyone, and it means that the government doesn’t get to force anyone to say things that contradict their deeply held beliefs.”

Several LGBT-owned businesses, such as BMP T-Shirts, have been publicly supportive of Mr. Adamson’s free speech rights:

“No one should be forced to do something against what they believe in. If we were approached by an organization such as the Westboro Baptist Church, I highly doubt we would be doing business with them, and we would be very angry if we were forced to print anti-gay t-shirts,” said Diane DiGeloromo, one owner of BMP T-shirts, a lesbian-owned business. “This isn’t a gay or straight issue. This is a human issue.”

Her business partner, Kathy Trautvertter, added, “You put your blood and your sweat and your tears into [your business]” and “it’s very personal. . . . When I put myself in [Mr. Adamson’s] shoes, I could see it from his side.”

Mr. Adamson is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom. Becket, Professor Laycock, and Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLCS will continue supporting his free speech and religious freedom rights.

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.”

Federal Gov’t Joins Growing Tide of Judges: SCOTUS Should Hear Mandate Cases

Washington, D.C. – Last night, the federal government finally told the Supreme Court what everyone else been saying for months: the Court should take a case to decide whether the government can force religious ministries to participate in its contraceptive mandate. But in the government’s response to the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Supreme Court petition, it spends much of its time asking the Court not to hear the Little Sisters’ case and instead to hear a different case.

“What is the federal government afraid of?” asked Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel at Becket and lead counsel for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “The government continues to insist that the Little Sisters help with its contraceptive delivery system, but doesn’t want to let them present their side at the Supreme Court. Just a few days ago the President told the Pope he would ‘stand with’ the Pope ‘in defense of religious freedom.’ Forcing nuns to violate their faith for no good reason is a very strange way to do that.” 

The government’s change of heart came the same day as three additional federal judges weighed in to expose the inherent flaws of the government’s mandate scheme. The judges—Judges Edith Jones, Priscilla Owens, and Edith Clement of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit—expressed their view in an opinion dissenting from their circuit’s refusal to reconsider its panel opinion against religious ministries challenging the mandate.

They recognized that other courts have committed “grave error” in accepting the government’s arguments, which boil down to little more than “simply disagree[ing] with the [ministries’] view of what Christian theology demands.” The judges ended with the poignant reminder that “[l]iberty of conscience” was the “foundation” for the “First Amendment’s religion clauses.” “Conscience is the essence of a moral person’s identity. Thomas More went to the scaffold rather than sign a little paper for the King.”

With these judges, there are now opinions from 18 federal appellate judges, including one federal circuit court of appeals, condemning the mandate. This growing tide has recognized the mandate scheme as “clearly and gravely wrong” because “it is not the job of the judiciary to tell people what their religious beliefs are.” Five judges sitting on the court that ruled against the Sisters confidently predicted that the government’s case “will not long survive” because Supreme Court would weigh in and reject a position that is “contrary to all precedent concerning the free exercise of religion.”

And now the government itself has joined the chorus of voices asking the Court to intervene. The government’s new position makes it is even more likely that the Court will choose to take one of the cases. The Court recently took action allowing it to consider all of the mandate petitions at the same time, and some Court-watchers predict it will announce its decision by early to mid November.

Becket and a legal team including former Solicitor General and leading Supreme Court advocate Paul Clement filed the cert petition on behalf of the Little Sisters, their health benefits provider Christian Brothers, and the Baptist ministries GuideStone, Reaching Souls, and Truett-McConnell College.

Becket  continues to lead the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate, winning a landmark victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  It  currently represents  the  Little Sisters of the Poor, Mother Angelica’s  Eternal Word Television Network,  and Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities,  along with  many other  religious ministries. Five other petitions challenging the HHS mandate have already been filed at the Supreme Court and more are expected.

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.”

Federal Judges Criticize Ruling Against Little Sisters of the Poor

Washington, D.C. – In an almost unprecedented move, five federal judges issued an opinion sharply criticizing their court’s refusal to correct its recent decision that would force the Little Sisters of the Poor to assist the federal government with its contraception distribution scheme.

The opinion calls the decision against the Little Sisters “clearly and gravely wrong—on an issue that has little to do with contraception and a great deal to do with religious liberty.” The five judges took their colleagues to task for refusing to accept the Little Sisters’ sincere beliefs, warning that “it is not the job of the judiciary to tell people what their religious beliefs are.”

“Today’s opinion offers important support to the Little Sisters’ request that the Supreme Court hear their case,” said Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel at Becket and lead counsel for the Little Sisters of the Poor.  “These judges understand that courts and bureaucrats should not be telling nuns what the Catholic faith requires.” (see video).

After a divided three-judge panel ruled against them, the Little Sisters promptly petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. Although the Little Sisters had not asked the entire Tenth Circuit to reconsider the panel’s opinion, the Tenth Circuit conducted a vote on its own initiative to determine whether the entire court should re-hear the case. When the court declined, the five judges issued their opinion explaining why the Little Sisters deserve protection.

The opinion further criticizes the decision against the Little Sisters as reflecting a “dangerous approach to religious liberty.” The opinion noted that the reasoning of the court could be used to second-guess the religious beliefs of any faith, including religious minorities like Jews requesting a kosher diet.

But knowing that the Little Sisters and other religious ministries have already asked the Supreme Court to intervene, the five judges explained: “Fortunately, the doctrine of the panel majority will not long survive. It is contrary to all precedent concerning the free exercise of religion.”

Becket and a legal team including former Solicitor General and leading Supreme Court advocate Paul Clement filed the cert petition on behalf of the Little Sisters, their health benefits provider Christian Brothers, and the Baptist ministries GuideStone, Reaching Souls, and Truett-McConnell College.

Becket continues to lead the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate, winning a landmark victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. It currently represents the Little Sisters of the Poor, Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network, and Houston Baptist University, along with many other religious ministries. Six other petitions challenging the HHS mandate have already been filed at the Supreme Court and more are expected.

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.”

20 States, Orthodox Rabbis, and Several Orders of Nuns Ask Supreme Court to Take Contraceptive Mandate Case

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today 20 states, along with a group of Orthodox Jewish Rabbis, five orders of nuns, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, and many other religious and secular organizations, are filing friend-of-the-court briefs at the Supreme Court supporting the Little Sisters of the Poor in their HHS mandate challenge. Last month, the Little Sisters and several other religious ministries appealed to the Supreme Court for relief from the government, which is forcing them to comply with the healthcare mandate in violation of their faith or pay millions in IRS fines (watch video).

“We are deeply grateful for the outpouring of support we have received from such a wide range of people and groups,” said Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “We simply ask the government to allow us to continue our ministry of caring for the elderly poor as we have for over 175 years without being forced to violate our faith or pay government fines.”

“This strong show of support for the Little Sisters demonstrates just how important it is that the Supreme Court address the impact of the HHS mandate, particularly on religious groups,” said Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel at Becket. “It is especially significant that 20 state governments are supporting the Little Sisters at the Supreme Court.”

In addition to the 20-state amicus brief, briefs are being filed by, among others, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Albert Mohler and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Cato Institute, several law professors, the Judicial Education Project, the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Christian and Missionary Alliance Foundation, the Alliance Community for Retirement Living, Simpson University, Crown College, and the 181-member Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Today’s strong support is an indication that the Court is likely to decide in the upcoming term whether religious ministries, like religious for-profits, will receive protection from the Mandate. It also shows the broad importance of the case to a variety of different religious groups and faith traditions.

In January 2014, the Supreme Court issued an emergency order protecting the Little Sisters, but in July 2015 the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals denied relief to the Little Sisters, their health benefits provider Christian Brothers, and the Baptist ministries GuideStone, Reaching Souls, and Truett-McConnell College. Last month, Becket and a legal team including former Solicitor General and leading Supreme Court advocate Paul Clement filed the cert petition on behalf of the religious groups.

“The Supreme Court has already granted interim relief from the HHS Mandate to religious groups five times,” said Rienzi. “The government has exempted thousands of businesses from the HHS Mandate, so why is it needlessly forcing religious institutions, nuns and homeless shelters to carry out its goals? The government already has its own exchanges to do that.”

Becket continues to lead the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate, winning a landmark victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. It currently represents the Little Sisters of the Poor, Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network, and Colorado Christian University, along with many other religious ministries. Five other petitions challenging the HHS mandate have already been filed at the Supreme Court and more are expected.

In addition to Becket and Paul Clement, the Little Sisters petitioners are also represented by Locke Lord LLP and Kevin Walsh, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

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.”

Little Sisters Receive Short-term Shelter from HHS Mandate

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Just this morning, the Tenth Circuit issued an order temporarily safeguarding the Little Sisters of the Poor and other ministries from being forced to violate their faith. The court’s order means that the protection that the Supreme Court granted the Little Sisters last year will remain in place until the Supreme Court rules on their case (see video).

The following statement can be attributed to Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel of Becket, which represents the Little Sisters of the Poor:

The federal government doesn’t need the Little Sisters or any other ministry to help it distribute abortion-inducing drugs and other contraceptives. Yet it not only insists on forcing them to participate in the delivery, it argues that their beliefs against participating are wrong and that government officials and judges can tell the Little Sisters what Catholic theology really requires. That’s wrong, and it’s dangerous — especially when those same government officials have disrespectfully compared the Sisters’ beliefs to ‘fighting an invisible dragon’ that can be vanquished with the ‘stroke of the [Sisters’] own pen.’

The Little Sisters of the Poor, along with Reaching Souls International and several other ministries, have asked the Supreme Court to take their case and give them long-term relief from the government’s mandate. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on that petition, along with several others, this fall.

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.”

Native Americans Sue after Government Destroys Burial Site

Washington, D.C. – Today, three Native American tribal members were forced back into court after years of failed negotiations with the government.  Members of the Cascade and Klickitat Tribes of the Yakama Nation, as well as a  member of the Calckamas tribe, sued the government after it bulldozed sacred burial grounds in 2008, then spent the last two and a half years in dialogue seeking an agreement.

“The government has callously and needlessly destroyed a sacred Native American burial ground, and now it refuses to make things right.” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of Becket and lead attorney in this case. “Although the government left the other side of the highway untouched, it bulldozed the burial site, lost sacred stone markers and removed safe access to the site. All the tribal members ask is that their beliefs and sacred sites be respected.”

For centuries, Native Americans have gathered food and medicine and buried their dead in the forests surrounding Mount Hood. In 2008, the Oregon Department of Transportation announced plans to bulldoze sacred burial grounds, ignoring the pleas of local tribal members (watch video).

“Desecrating these burial sites is in clear violation of federal law,” said Goodrich. “In fact, many of our laws regarding the protection of religious beliefs were passed by Congress precisely to protect the rights of Native Americans.”

Hereditary Chiefs Wilber Slockish and Johnny Jackson sued, together with Carol Logan, a Traditional Practitioner from the Clackamas/Chinook/Kalapooya Tribes, citing federal laws including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Joining Slockish, Jackson, and Logan in their lawsuit are the Cascade Geographic Society and the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance. They are represented by Becket, together with Oregon City attorney James Nicita and Michael Patterson of the Seattle-based law firm, Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch.

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.” 

Court Rejects Pharmacists’ Right of Conscience

Washington, D.C. – Today, in Stormans v. Wiesman, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld controversial Washington state regulations that require a family-owned pharmacy and two individual pharmacists to dispense the morning-after and week-after pills in violation of their religious beliefs. The Washington regulations go further than regulations in any other state in forcing pharmacists to violate their religious beliefs.

“Today’s decision is unfortunate,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “The government has no business punishing citizens solely because of their religious beliefs. The pharmacists in this case willingly refer patients to over 30 pharmacies that stock the morning-after pill within a five mile radius, and no patient has ever been denied timely access to any drug. The pharmacists’ practices are also supported by the American Pharmacists Association and are legal in every other state.”

The court’s opinion, written by Judge Susan P. Graber, acknowledges that “pharmacies whose owners object to the distribution of emergency contraception for religious reasons may be burdened disproportionately” by the state’s rules. It also acknowledges that the plaintiffs “ha[ve] been implicated in a disproportionate percentage of [the State’s] investigations,” and that there may be “other means that might achieve the [State’s] purpose” without burdening the plaintiffs. Nevertheless, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ claims because it “conclude[d] that the rules are neutral and generally applicable and that the rules rationally further the State’s interest in patient safety.”

Margo Thelen, Rhonda Mesler, and the Stormans family have worked in the pharmacy profession for over sixty years. Because they believe that life begins at the moment of fertilization, they do not sell the morning-after or week-after contraception pills. Instead, they willingly refer customers to one of over thirty pharmacies that sell the drugs within five miles of their store. For decades, this has been standard pharmacy practice, has been approved by the American Pharmacists Association, and has been legal in all 50 states.

But in 2005, the State of Washington passed a new regulation requiring pharmacies to sell these drugs in violation of their faith. The 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 makes it illegal to refer patients for reasons of conscience.

Due to the regulation, Margo Thelen was terminated from her job; Rhonda Mesler was told she would lose her job if the regulation remained in place; and the Stormans family was threatened with the loss of its pharmacy license. On July 25, 2007, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit to prevent this new regulation from forcing them out of their profession.

After a twelve-day trial, on February 22, 2012, a federal court in Washington struck down the regulation as unconstitutional. The state appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which today upheld the regulation.

The plaintiffs are represented by Becket, together with Alliance Defending Freedom, the law firm of Ellis, Li, & McKinstry, and former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael McConnell.

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.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7226.

 

Court: Army Must Let Sikh Student Wear Beard in ROTC

Washington, D.C. – A federal court ordered the Army to allow a Sikh college student to join his college’s NROTC unit without having to shave his beard, cut his hair or remove his turban. The detailed and colorful 49-page opinion states that “given the tens of thousands of exceptions the Army has already made to its grooming and uniform policies …. the Army’s refusal to permit him to do so while adhering to his faith cannot survive” the protections in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The court also reminded the Army of the exemptions it had granted, including grandfathering 197,102 soldiers who had non-conforming tattoos as well as issuing 183 exceptions to the current tattoo policy including “a vampire Mickey Mouse” tattoo.

According to court documents, the student, Iknoor Singh, a junior at Hofstra University, “hopes to serve in Military Intelligence, and he speaks Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi, as well as English.”

“All this Sikh student wants to do is to serve his country,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket. “The military cannot issue uniform exemptions for secular reasons but then refuse to issue them for religious reasons. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was written and passed nearly unanimously by Congress precisely to protect the rights of individuals such as Mr. Singh.”

The opinion, issued last Friday, June 12, relied heavily on the standard for religious protection set out in Supreme Court cases such as Holt v. Hobbs and Hobby LobbyBoth cases were brought to the Supreme Court by Becket.

“When the government singles out religious people and refuses to protect their rights, our democracy is impoverished,” added Baxter. “The court’s opinion is not only good for Sikhs, it is good for our country.”

“This decision should allow religious Jews to serve their country while adhering to Torah law,” said Rabbi Sanford Dresin, Director of Military Programs for the Aleph Institute.

Sikhs such as Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an Army Doctor who served in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star, have been advocating for their ability to serve in the military. In a Congressional policy hearing in early 2014, Major Kalsi stated:  “I love the Army, I love the military. It’s become a big part of me. Sikhs everywhere are very patriotic. We just want to serve our nation…We just want to serve, to become part of the community, without having to give up what is our religious uniform.”

For centuries, the bravery and skill of Sikhs has been praised by many leaders. Among the most well known references to their courage is Winston Churchill’s: “British people are highly indebted and obliged to Sikhs for a long time. I know that within this century we needed their help twice [in two world wars] and they did help us very well. As a result of their timely help, we are today able to live with honour, dignity, and independence. In the war, they fought and died for us, wearing the turbans.

Becket attorneys are available to comment on the 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.”

Media Advisory: Tomorrow Court To Hear Native American Eagle Feather Case

Washington, D.C.  –  Tomorrow, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, located in McAllen, Texas, will hear the case of Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache Tribe, whose sacred eagle feathers were confiscated by the government in a covert operation called “Operation Powwow.” The hearing — and possible same-day decision — will determine whether the federal government can seize eagle feathers from religious Native American dancers and bar them from practicing their faith (see video). 

The hearing comes one month after the federal government returned Mr. Soto’s feathers, seized nine years ago, but under the condition that they could not be used by anyone else in his family or tribe. Mr. Soto is a tribal chief and award-winning feather dancer, yet faced criminal fines and imprisonment for possessing eagle feathers according to his Native American faith. The case featured prominently in the recent national debate over religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas, and it has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and other major media outlets.

What:
Oral Argument in McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Jewell

Who:
Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of Becket

When:
Tomorrow at 4:00 p.m. CT

Where:
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas
1701 W. Hwy. 83, Suite 1011
McAllen, TX 78501

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 Hosts Press Call in Response to Indiana RFRA

Washington, D.C. – Today on April 2, 2015 at 12:15 p.m. EST, Becket will be hosting a press conference call to discuss the implications of the Indiana’s “fix” to its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Reporters can dial in to join the discussion.

What:
Press conference call to discuss implications of Indiana’s “fix” to RFRA

Who:
Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel for Becket, will host the press conference call

When:
April 2, 2015 at 12:15 p.m. Eastern Time

Where:
Press Call: 800.704.9804
Access code: 743216#
Please mute your phones and email in your questions to media@becketlaw.org

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 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.”

Becket Statement in Response to Indiana RFRA

Washington, D.C. – Today Becket hosted a press conference call to discuss the implications of the Indiana’s “fix” to its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The following statement can be attributed to Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel of Becket:

The proposed “fix” to Indiana’s RFRA is unnecessary. Our country has had over 20 years of experience with RFRAs and we know what they do: They provide crucial protections to religious minorities. The key disagreement is over what should happen in a very small class of cases where individuals are asked to participate in a same-sex wedding in violation of their religious beliefs. In that situation, there are two possibilities: (1) Our government can drive religious people out of business, fine them, and possibly even imprison them; or (2) our government can say that these religious people deserve a day in court, and that courts should carefully balance religious liberty with other competing values. The original RFRA would give people their day in court; the proposed “fix” would be a green light for driving religious people out of business. Our society should not settle this issue by punishing religious people before they even have their day in court.

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 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.”

 

Why you shouldn’t be asking “Can I shop at Hobby Lobby?”

by Mark Rienzi Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

The Green family of Hobby Lobby
The Green family won their case at the Supreme Court in June 2014.

A new complicity argument from opponents of religious liberty?

Well, here’s something I didn’t expect to read about in the New York Times.

You may recall that the Times strongly opposed the efforts by the Green family (who own Hobby Lobby) to avoid paying for abortion-inducing drugs. Hobby Lobby employees, of course, are free to spend their money on these drugs (or anything else) if they want to. But the Greens did not want to be complicit in abortion and therefore asked not to pay for the drugs. The Times derided the Greens’ effort to step aside as trying to “impose their religious views on employees.” Continue reading “Why you shouldn’t be asking “Can I shop at Hobby Lobby?””

Government Returns Confiscated Eagle Feathers to Tribal Leader, But Still Enforces Arbitrary Law

Washington, D.C. – Today the federal government returned the property it had seized from a Native American man exactly nine years ago: his eagle feathers. (see video)

Although just moments ago Mr. Robert Soto, a Lipan Apache religious leader and renowned feather dancer, received the tribe’s sacred feathers, the federal government has not repealed an arbitrary federal law forbidding Mr. Soto and others like him from possessing eagle feathers, and it is still threatening Mr. Soto with punishment for practicing his faith. Becket continues to defend Mr. Soto in court, and today it will be filing a motion to obtain protection from this unjust law.

“The government has about a million better things to do with taxpayer money than send undercover agents to raid Native American powwows and confiscate their eagle feathers,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel for Becket.

In 2006, the government sent undercover agents to a Native American religious ceremony called a powwow to confiscate eagle feathers, which play a central role in the Native American faith. The agent was enforcing federal laws that prohibit possession of eagle feathers without a permit. The laws grant permits to museums, scientists, zoos, farmers, and “other interests,” such as large power companies. They also grant permits to Native Americans who are members of “federally recognized” tribes. But they don’t grant permits to Mr. Soto’s tribe–the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. Although the Lipan Apache are recognized by historians, sociologists, and the State of Texas, they are not recognized by the federal government.

Mr. Soto challenged this arbitrary treatment under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act–the same law that featured in last year’s Supreme Court decision involving Hobby Lobby. In August 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in his favor.

Although the Government has returned Mr. Soto’s feathers, it persists in threatening Mr. Soto and his congregation with civil and criminal penalties if they use eagle feathers in their religious services.

“The government allows hundreds of eagles, if not thousands, to be killed every year for non-religious reasons. Yet it won’t allow these Native Americans to possess even a single feather.” said Goodrich. “It’s time to let Native Americans practice their faith; we’re not living in the 1800s anymore.”

Becket is co-counsel in the case, together with the international law firm of Baker Botts LLP, and the Civil Rights Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Media Advisory: Government to return confiscated eagle feathers to tribal leader tomorrow, March 10th

Washington, D.C. Tomorrow, March 10th, the United States government will return 42 eagle feathers it seized from Robert Soto, a religious leader and feather dancer of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, exactly nine years ago. The move comes seven months after the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled unanimously in Mr. Soto’s favor on his legal claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Eagle feathers play a central role in the religious practices of many American Indian tribes. On March 11, 2006, an undercover federal agent infiltrated Mr. Soto’s powwow and confiscated his feathers. Although the government has agreed to return Mr. Soto’s feathers due to the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, the government still claims that it can criminally prosecute the members of Mr. Soto’s tribe for using his feathers. And it still opposes Mr. Soto and his tribe in continuing litigation. (See Video)

Who: 
Pastor Robert Soto, an American Indian feather dancer and holy man

What: 
The U.S. Government returns confiscated sacred eagle feathers to Mr. Robert Soto

When: 
March 10, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. CST

Where:
The Cisneros Law Firm
312 Lindberg St.
McAllen, Texas 78501

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.”

Justices Revive Birth-Control Insurance Challenge

National Law Journal, March 9, 2015

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents a number of nonprofit religious organizations challenging the contraceptive requirement, hailed the high court’s action as a “major blow” to the government’s defense of the coverage requirement.

“For the past year, the Notre Dame decision has been the centerpiece of the government’s effort to force religious ministries to violate their beliefs or pay fines to the IRS,” said Becket senior counsel Mark Rienzi, who filed an amicus brief in the Notre Dame case. “As with the Supreme Court’s decisions in Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby, this is a strong signal that the Supreme Court will ultimately reject the government’s narrow view of religious liberty.”

Supreme Court Hears Religious Discrimination Case

Washington, D.C. – Moments ago, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in an important religious freedom case.

Samantha Elauf is a Muslim teen who was rejected for employment by Abercrombie & Fitch simply because she wore a religious headscarf to her job interview. Today her lawyers argued at the Supreme Court that no employer is free to engage in religious discrimination.

Samantha Elauf gave the following statement after oral argument at the Supreme Court:

I am grateful to the EEOC for taking this religious discrimination case to the courts. I am not only standing up for myself, but for all people who wish to adhere to their faith while at work. Observance of my faith should not prevent me from getting a job.

The following statement can be attributed to Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel of Becket, which filed an amicus brief in the case EEOC v. Abercrombie:

Religion is part of the human experience and carries into all aspects of life for persons of faith. Employees shouldn’t have to wear a sign that says “I’m religious” before they are protected by our civil rights laws that prohibit religious discrimination.

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 the Abercrombie & Fitch store in her local mall. The interviewing store manager wanted to hire Samantha, but when the district manager was told that Samantha wore a religious headscarf, he made the store manager reject her as “unqualified.”

Although Abercrombie has a “no-hat” policy for employees, the policy has an exception for religious headwear, and Abercrombie has allowed other employees to wear headscarfs, yarmulkes, and other religious garb. But instead of acknowledging that its manager violated Ms. Elauf’s rights, Abercrombie is doubling-down on its religious discrimination,claiming that Samantha was not protected by the civil rights laws because she never explicitly stated that she was wearing the headscarf for religious reasons, even though the district manager knew that was why.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit on Samantha’s behalf and prevailed in the district court in July 2011, before losing on appeal in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2013. On  December 11, 2014, Becket filed an amicus brief supporting Ms. Elauf and the EEOC. Today the case was heard by the Supreme Court, which will issue its decision no later than June 30.

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: Supreme Court to hear religious discrimination case

Washington, D.C.  The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the religious discrimination case concerning Abercrombie & Fitch’s refusing to offer a job to a qualified Muslim teen applicant because she wore a religious headscarf. Samantha Elauf is a Muslim girl who was 17 years old when she applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch. In December, Becket filed a brief  debunking Abercrombie’s claim that she was not protected by longstanding civil rights laws which prohibit an employer from refusing to hire someone merely because they are religious. Abercrombie claimed they prohibit headwear and never knew she was religious because she never explained in her job interview that she was wearing the headscarf because of her faith. However, Abercrombie’s internal records showed that they knew she wore a headscarf for religious reasons and had previously made headwear exceptions for employees who wore religious head cover such as yarmulkes.

Who:
Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel of Becket

What:
Oral Argument for EEOC v. Abercrombie

When:
February 25, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

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

Samantha Elauf and Becket attorneys will be available for comment after 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.

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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.”

Obama Admin. Targets Nuns over HHS Mandate

CBN News February 4, 2015

The nuns run the Eternal Word Television Network, EWTN. Their case goes before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

They object to the Health and Human Services contraception mandate in Obamacare, which would force them to provide health insurance for drugs that may cause abortions.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing the nuns in the case.

Read the full article here.

“American Indians challenging eagle feather rules get a boost from ‘Hobby Lobby’”

ABA Journal January 1, 2015

Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, believes there’s a “very serious constitutional issue” in this disparity. The fund plans to help defend McAllen.

“There’s a lot of dispute about what the establishment clause means these days, but one thing it clearly means is that the government doesn’t get to give licenses to the Episcopal Church to preach but not to the Baptist Church,” Goodrich says. “That’s basically what’s happening here.”

Though the fund also handled Hobby Lobby, Goodrich doesn’t believe that case was the key inMcAllen. He notes that the 5th Circuit made favorable RFRA rulings before Hobby Lobby on issues such as animal sacrifices in Santeria and Sikhs carrying knives to work.

Similarly, Goodrich believes the existence of secular exceptions to the acts covering eagles and birds—for scientists, power plants and farmers—could be fatal to the government in McAllen. Indeed, the Interior Department recently allowed wind farms to obtain 30-year permits to kill eagles accidentally.

Read the full article here.

Mr. Smith goes to Washington

Mr. Robert Soto, Lipan Apache religious leader and feather dancer and plaintiff in McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Salazar

By Lori Windham, Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

The Atlantic just published a fascinating elegy for Alfred Smith. You may not recognize the name, but if you’ve seen a constitutional law textbook in the last twenty years—or spent more than a few minutes on the Becket Fund’s website—you’ve probably heard of his case. Mr. Smith is the plaintiff in Employment Division v. Smith, a case which changed the landscape of religious freedom law in the United States. This controversial decision allowed neutral, generally applicable laws to trump religious belief—even when they placed a heavy burden on religious freedom. Continue reading “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”

The righteousness in Hobby Lobby’s cause

Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2013

The government and others argue that the Greens’ religious beliefs are irrelevant because they’ve freely chosen to enter the rough-and-tumble world of commerce and that, in any event, the exercise of religion is for individuals, not corporations. But Hobby Lobby’s lawyers at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty will be on solid ground when they explain to the court that both of these arguments are misguided.

What’s at Stake in the Little Sisters of the Poor Case Against Obamacare

Breitbart, December 4, 2014

For 175 years, the Little Sisters of the Poor have been inspired by their faith to take care of the elderly poor. But now the federal government wants them to choose between their faith and their ministry and is pushing hard in federal court to force them to decide. The stakes couldn’t be much higher for people who care about and enjoy religious liberty.

Read Becket Attorney, Daniel Blomberg’s full article here.

Becket’s Statement following Pharmacist Conscience Case Hearing

Washington, D.C. – Moments ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument in Stormans v. Wiesman, a case challenging Washington State regulations that would require a family-owned pharmacy and two individual pharmacists to dispense the morning-after and week-after pills in violation of their religious beliefs.

The following statement can be attributed to Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of Becket:

“The government has no business punishing citizens solely because of their religious beliefs. The plaintiffs willingly refer patients to over 30 pharmacies that stock the morning-after pill within a five mile radius, and no patient has ever been denied timely access to any drug. The plaintiff’s practices are supported by the American Pharmacists Association and are legal in every other state. We’re optimistic that the court will not permit the government’s naked discrimination against people of faith.”

Becket, together with former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael McConnell, the law firm of Ellis, Li, & McKinstry, and Alliance Defending Freedom, is representing the plaintiffs, who face the loss of their pharmacy license and exclusion from their profession for acting according to their conscience.

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: Oral Arguments for Pharmacist Conscience Case set for November 20, 2014

Washington, D.C. — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled the oral argument in Stormans v. Wiesman for November 20, 2014 at 2:00 p.m. The case involves a family-owned pharmacy and two individual pharmacists who cannot dispense the morning-after or week-after pills because of their religious beliefs. Becket, together with former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael McConnell, the law firm of Ellis, Li, & McKinstry, and Alliance Defending Freedom, is representing the plaintiffs, who face the loss of their pharmacy license and exclusion from their profession for acting according to their conscience.

Who:
A family-owned pharmacy and two individual pharmacists vs. the State of Washington

What:
Oral argument in Stormans v. Wiesman

When:
2:00 pm Pacific (5 pm EST), November 20, 2014

Where:
The James R. Browning Courthouse, 700 S.W. Sixth Avenue, Portland, Oregon 97204

You can listen to the oral argument live stream here. (Click the bottom link for 11/20/2014 at 2:00 PM in the Portland Pioneer Courtroom).


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.”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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Texas woman settles lawsuit over Sikh dagger

KSN News November 8, 2014

“Sikh Americans shouldn’t have to choose between their faith and their jobs,” said Daniel Blomberg, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which helped Tagore. “The government doesn’t get to say that sharp knives are OK if they are brought in to cut birthday cakes, but dull kirpans aren’t OK because they are religious items,” he said. “The settlement confirms that religious freedom is not a second-class right.”

Read the full article here.

Sikhs Protected from Government Discrimination

Washington, DC – In a settlement announced today, the U.S. Government completed its long retreat from discriminating against an American Sikh woman’s right to carry one of the five symbols of her faith–her kirpan, which is a ceremonial blade that’s duller and shorter than a butter knife (see infographic below). The settlement comes after the federal government—in response to the Sikh woman’s lawsuit—issued a groundbreaking policy allowing Sikhs and other religious minorities to wear religious symbols and attire in federal buildings.

“Sikh Americans shouldn’t have to choose between their faith and their jobs,” said Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel at Becket. “The government doesn’t get to say that sharp knives are okay if they are brought in to cut birthday cakes, but dull kirpans aren’t okay because they are religious items. The settlement announced today confirms that religious freedom is not a second class right.”

Ms. Tagore was fired from her accountant position with the IRS, banned from accessing federal buildings, and blackballed from future federal employment simply because her ceremonial kirpan had a 3-inch blade (learn more about kirpans here). Yet the federal government freely allows the public to access those same buildings with sharp 2.5-inch blade knives, metal canes, and other potentially dangerous items, and lets federal employees use far longer and sharper cake knives, box cutters, and other similar items inside the buildings.

After being fired, Ms. Tagore sought protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and won a significant victory at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Her efforts forced the federal government to scrap its rigid kirpan ban and give Ms. Tagore a clean employment record and renewed access to federal buildings.

The government agreed to settle the case shortly after the start of Ms. Tagore’s trial. Ms. Tagore was represented by Scott Newar of Newar Law Firm and Eric Rassbach, Lori Windham, and Daniel Blomberg with Becket. Mr. Newar was lead counsel on the case, guiding Ms. Tagore through five years of litigation and spearheading both the victory at the Fifth Circuit and the favorable settlement. The Sikh Coalition also represented Ms. Tagore for part of the case.

“Sikhs have suffered unjustly in America, and it’s good to see that their religious freedom counts too,” said Blomberg. “After the tragedies Sikhs have endured in the Wisconsin shooting and the attack of the Columbia professor, it’s important that our nation stop discriminating against Sikhs for wearing their articles of faith.”

This is Becket’s fifth victory in a row against the federal government: Becket clients have prevailed in the Hosanna-TaborLittle Sisters of the PoorHobby Lobbyand Wheaton College cases. In the pending Holt v. Hobbs case, the federal government sided with Becket’s client.

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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: Federal Ban on Sikh Religious Attire Goes to Trial

Washington, DC – A federal district court in Texas will hold a trial on Monday, October 20, about whether the federal government can discriminate against a Sikh woman for wearing religiously-required attire—a sheathed ceremonial blade with an edge that’s shorter and duller than a butter knife—in federal buildings. Ms. Kawal Tagore was fired from her accountant position with the IRS, banned from accessing federal buildings, and blackballed from future federal employment simply because her ceremonial kirpan had a 3-inch blade. Yet the federal government freely allows the public to access those same buildings with sharp 2.5-inch blade knives, and lets federal employees use much longer and sharper cake knives inside the buildings. After being fired, Ms. Tagore sought protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and has already won a significant victory at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Her efforts also prompted the government to alter its ban, albeit in a way that still discriminates against her for being a faithful Sikh.

What: Trial in Tagore v. Dept. of Homeland Security, Houston, TX

Who: Scott Newar, Newar Law Firm, and
Daniel Blomberg, Becket

When: October 20, 2014 at 1:00 p.m.

Where:
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division
515 Rusk Avenue, Houston, TX 77002

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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What Hobby Lobby Means for Religious Liberty

By Zachary Enos, Assistant Director of Communications

Looking for the inside scoop on Hobby Lobby’s historic advance of religious liberty? You just found it! Only hours after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy blog (hosted by the Washington Post) published exclusive legal analysis from Professor Mark Rienzi—one of Hobby Lobby’s lead attorneys and Senior Counsel for the Becket Fund.

After highlighting landmark aspects of the opinion, Rienzi demonstrates that High Court’s reasoning sounds the death knell for the Administration’s assault on religious ministries. Here’s a brief sketch of Mark’s points: Continue reading “What Hobby Lobby Means for Religious Liberty”

Lawyer: Hobby Lobby Ruling Will Help Religious Nonprofits Win Exemptions

CNS News July 11, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling has opened a door for religious non-profits that also oppose the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate and its resulting accommodation authorizing third-parties to pay for abortion-inducing drugs, says Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

The ruling will strengthen the case of such groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor and Wheaton College, as they attempt to get a hearing before the high court, Rienzi told attendees at a Heritage Foundation event in Washington this week.

The Becket Fund represented Hobby Lobby in its successful challenge of the contraceptive mandate.

ADVISORY: Supreme Court Victory for Hobby Lobby and Religious Freedom

Washington, D.C. – The Supreme Court granted a victory to David and Barbara Green and their family business, Hobby Lobby, this morning. A press conference call will be held at 12:00pm EST to discuss the ruling and implication of the decision. A full press release will be sent out immediately following the call.

The following statement can be attributed to Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at Becket for Religious Liberty and counsel for Hobby Lobby in this case:

This is a landmark decision for religious freedom. The Supreme Court recognized that Americans do not lose their religious freedom when they run a family business.”

The following statement can be attributed to Barbara Green, co-founder of Hobby Lobby:

“Our family is overjoyed by the Supreme Court’s decision. Today the nation’s highest court has re-affirmed the vital importance of religious liberty as one of our country’s founding principles. The Court’s decision is a victory, not just for our family business, but for all who seek to live out their faith. We are grateful to God and to those who have supported us on this difficult journey.”

What:
Press briefing to discuss Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby                 

Who:
Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel for Becket and counsel for Hobby Lobby

When:
12:00pm EST, June 30, 2014

Where:
800.704.9804, Access code: 743216#*1 to ask a question or e-mail media@becketlaw.org

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.”   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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Supreme Court Victory for Hobby Lobby and Religious Freedom

Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court granted a landmark victory for religious liberty today, ruling in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that individuals do not lose their religious freedom when they open a family business.  The court ruled 5-4 in favor of David and Barbara Green and their family business, Hobby Lobby, ruling that they will not be required to violate their faith by including four potentially life-terminating drugs and devices in the company’s health insurance plan or pay severe fines.

“This is a landmark decision for religious freedom.  The Supreme Court recognized that Americans do not lose their religious freedom when they run a family business,” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel for Becket and counsel for Hobby Lobby. “This ruling will protect people of all faiths. The Court’s reasoning was clear, and it should have been clear to the government. You can’t argue there are no alternative means when your agency is busy creating alternative means for other people.”

The decision also has important implications for over 50 pending lawsuits brought by non-profit religious organizations, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, which are also challenging the mandate. In two different respects, the Supreme Court strongly signaled that the mandate may be struck down in those cases too. First, it rejected the government’s argument that there was no burden on the Green’s religious exercise because only third parties use the drugs. Second, it held that the government could simply pay for contraception coverage with its own funds, rather than requiring private employers to do so.

“The handwriting is on the wall,” said Windham. “The Court has strongly signaled that the mandate is in trouble in the non-profit cases, too.”

The Court upheld a June 2013 ruling by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals protecting Hobby Lobby and the Green family from the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate. That mandate requires Hobby Lobby and co-founders David and Barbara Green to provide and facilitate, against their religious convictions, four potentially life-terminating drugs and devices in the company’s health insurance plan. The Greens argued that the mandate substantially burdened their religious beliefs in violation of a federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (see video).In an opinion by Justice Alito, the Court stated:

The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate . . . against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs. . . . Our responsibility is to enforce RFRA as written, and under the standard that RFRA prescribes, the HHS contraceptive mandate is unlawful.”

Justice Kennedy’s concurrence added: “Among the reasons the United States is so open, so tolerant, and so free is that no person may be restricted or demeaned by government in exercising his or her religion.”The Greens and their family businesses have no moral objection to providing 16 of the 20 FDA-approved contraceptives under the HHS mandate, and will continue to provide a broad range of contraceptives at no additional cost to their employees.

“Our family is overjoyed by the Supreme Court’s decision. Today the nation’s highest court has re-affirmed the vital importance of religious liberty as one of our country’s founding principles,” said Barbara Green, co-founder of Hobby Lobby. “The Court’s decision is a victory, not just for our family business, but for all who seek to live out their faith. We are grateful to God and to those who have supported us on this difficult journey.”

Founded in an Oklahoma City garage in 1972, the Green family has grown Hobby Lobby from one 300-square-foot retail space into more than 603 stores in 47 states (626 stores by the end of 2014). Devout Christians, the Green family believes that “It is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured” and seek to run their company “in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.” This includes closing on Sundays and generous treatment of their employees, with full-time hourly workers starting at more than double the federal minimum wage.Also joining the lawsuit is Mardel Christian & Education, a chain of Christian bookstores owned and operated by members of the Green family.

The case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was consolidated before the Supreme Court with Conestoga v. Burwell. Becket represented Hobby Lobby, Mardel and the Greens together with Paul D. Clement of Bancroft, PLLC, who presented the oral argument before the court in March.

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.”    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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Prof. Mark Rienzi: A good day for Hobby Lobby — and for the Little Sisters of the Poor and Mr. Muhammad, too

Washington Post June 30, 2014


Here are a few initial thoughts on today’s decision in Hobby Lobby from the perspective of a law firm — The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — that has been litigating these cases against the Department of Justice across the country for almost three years, and was counsel for Hobby Lobby in this case. First I offer some highlights from the opinions by Justice Alito and Justice Kennedy, and then I point out some near-term effects on religious liberty litigation.

Awaiting Hobby Lobby decision, Catholic Nun’s Network Seeks Emergency Relief from U.S. Supreme Court

Washington, D.C. Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), founded by a cloistered nun and dedicated to spreading the teachings of the Catholic Church, filed an emergency appeal today asking the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the world’s largest religious media network from violating its deeply help religious convictions or paying crippling fines to the IRS starting July 1 (see video).

After the district judge issued a disappointing ruling against the nun’s network last week, Becket filed an emergency appeal to the 11th Circuit. Pending that ruling, today Becket urged the Supreme Court to step in to protect EWTN from being forced to provide contraceptives and potentially life-terminating drugs and devices that violate its Catholic teachings. Without relief, starting on July 1st the Catholic network faces fines of up to $12 million dollars per year to the IRS. A petition for the Supreme Court to take up the full merits of the case will be filed shortly.

“The government fought the Little Sisters of the Poor all the way to the Supreme Court, and now it is fighting Eternal Word Television Network all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at Becket. “It’s time for the government to stop its war on nuns and protect religious ministries from this unjust mandate. Our laws give EWTN the right to practice what it preaches.”

Thirty-three years ago, Mother Angelica, a cloistered nun, founded a small television network in her monastery garage with a mission to spread the teachings of her Catholic faith. Today, EWTN has become the largest religious media network in the world, transmitting programming 24 hours a day to televisions in more than 230 million homes in more than 140 countries and territories, according to the organization’s website. EWTN is also a religious shrine and pilgrimage site for millions of Catholics seeking daily mass and worship. A Catholic network whose sole purpose is to spread the word of God, EWTN must fight for the right to remain faithful to the very Catholic message it advances (see video).

“We did not want to take the government all the way to the Supreme Court, but we were left with no choice,” said EWTN Chairman and CEO Michael P. Warsaw. “We should not be forced to choose between violating our faith and paying severe fines to the IRS.”

After their original lawsuit was dismissed in early 2013, EWTN and the Attorney General of the State of Alabama joined Becket last October in filing a new lawsuit against the unconstitutional HHS mandate. Today, EWTN turned to the Supreme Court hoping to join the 80% of HHS legal challenges that have resulted in favorable rulings supporting religious freedom. There are currently 100 lawsuits challenging the unconstitutional HHS mandate.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 19 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. The Becket Fund recently 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, media@becketlaw.org, 202.349.7224.

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After Hobby Lobby, what’s next?

The Hill , June 25, 2014


As a last resort, the Little Sisters, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (which also represents Hobby Lobby), filed a lawsuit challenging the contraception mandate—one of 51 suits on behalf of over 200 non-profit ministries. Although the Little Sisters make many of the same arguments as Hobby Lobby, a federal appeals court ruled against them in late December, and they filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on New Year’s Eve—just hours before the multi-million dollar fines would begin. Fortunately, the Supreme Court unanimously granted them a temporary reprieve, ordering the government not to enforce the mandate against them while their lawsuit moved forward. The case is now awaiting a decision from the federal court of appeals.

Experts Weigh In On Upcoming Hobby Lobby Decision

Townhall June 23, 2014

The Supreme Court is set to make a decision in the famous Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby case by June 30 before it lets out for the summer, and religious employers are poised to see whether they will be allowed an exemption for their beliefs. Adele Keim of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Heritage policy analyst Sarah Torre discussed the implications of the HHS mandate and the case at a Thursday event co-hosted by the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Colorado Christian University Wins Big Victory Against Obama HHS Mandate

LifeNews June 23, 2014

“This is an important win for religious liberty,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represents CCU in this case. “A university like CCU, whose employees and students share its religious convictions concerning the sanctity of life, should not be forced against its beliefs to distribute drugs that it deems to be morally wrong.”

Colorado Christian University Obtains Injunction Against HHS Mandate

Washington D.C. – Colorado Christian University (CCU) scored a victory for religious liberty today when a federal judge in Denver ruled that the Christian-based institution does not have to facilitate access for its employees and students to potentially life-terminating drugs.

“This is an important win for religious liberty,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket for Religious Liberty, who represents CCU in this case. “A university like CCU, whose employees and students share its religious convictions concerning the sanctity of life, should not be forced against its beliefs to distribute drugs that it deems to be morally wrong.”

In a carefully reasoned opinion, the court ruled that the Health and Human Services Mandate, which would have forced CCU to include drugs like Plan B (the “morning after” pill) and ella (the “week after” pill) in its health care plan, infringes the University’s freedom of religion. The court noted that “[i]f CCU refused to provide health insurance coverage for its employees,” or “did not include the coverages required by the Mandate, CCU would be subject to significant – if not ruinous – financial penalties.” The court then concluded that this pressure on CCU to violate its religious beliefs violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“We’re extremely grateful for the District Court’s affirmation of our religious freedom,” said William Armstrong, President of CCU. “Teaching sanctity of life from the moment of conception is an important part of the University’s mission and a core value shared by its employees and students.”

Before the Court issued its order, CCU faced millions of dollars in annual fines beginning July 1 for refusing to include the objectionable drugs in its healthcare plan.For almost a century, Colorado Christian University has offered an education that develops students intellectually, professionally, and spiritually. Faith is central to the CCU’s educational mission, which is to cultivate knowledge and love of God in a Christ-centered community, with an enduring commitment to spiritual formation and engagement with the world.Based near Denver with satellite campuses around Colorado, the University has 5,500 undergraduate and graduate students.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. Becket has a 19-year history of defending religious liberty for people of all faiths. Its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. They recently won a 9-0 victory against the federal government at the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.

Why Hobby Lobby is a family business

Deseret News, June 6, 2014

As a way of explaining what Hobby Lobby is, and how it works as a Family Business, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Hobby Lobby, shared a video that specifically looks at the history of the company owned by the David and Barbara Green family.

Groups push military for more religious liberty

Washington Times, May 28, 2014

“The bottom line is that we do have more to do,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “We have seen a series of problems in the military that have given rise to a number of concerns and direct congressional action. Congress has twice passed statutes that require the military to be more accommodating to religious beliefs and practices.”

Supreme Court Hears Landmark Hobby Lobby Case

Washington, D.C. – The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in the landmark case Sebelius v. Hobby Lobbydetermining whether individuals lose their religious freedom when they open a family business.

At issue is the Health and Human Service (HHS) Mandate which requires David and Barbara Green and their family business Hobby Lobby to provide and facilitate four potential life-terminating drugs and devices in their health insurance plan, against their religious convictions, or pay severe fines to the IRS (see video).

“Our family started Hobby Lobby built on our faith and together as a family.  We’ve kept that tradition for more than forty years and we want to continue to live out our faith in the way we do business,” said Barbara Green, co-founder of Hobby Lobby.  “The choice that the government has forced on us is out of step with the history of our great nation founded on religious freedom.  We believe that no American should lose their religious freedom just because they open a family business.  We are thankful that the Supreme Court has heard our case, and we prayerfully await the justices’ decision.”

Founded in an Oklahoma City garage in 1972, the Green family has grown Hobby Lobby from one 300-square-foot retail space into more than 500 stores in over 40 states.  Devout Christians, the Green family believes that “it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured” and seek to run their company “in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.”  This includes closing on Sundays and generous treatment of their employees with full-time hourly workers starting at 90 percent above the federal minimum wage. The Greens and their family businesses have no moral objection to providing 16 of the 20 FDA-approved contraceptives under the HHS mandate, and will continue to provide a broad range of contraceptives at no additional cost to their employees.

“No one should be forced to give up their constitutionally protected civil rights just to open a family business,” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel for Becket and counsel for Hobby Lobby. “This case demonstrates in no uncertain terms that the government’s efforts to strip this family business of its religious rights represent a gross violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment.”

In court today former United States Solicitor General Paul Clement argued on behalf of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, two family businesses whose cases were consolidated before the court. Clement argued that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and that nothing in the law excludes these family businesses and their owners from religious freedom protections.

The Court is expected to rule on the case before the end of its current term in June.

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

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Media Advisory: Hobby Lobby Supreme Court Arguments March 25th

Washington, D.C.The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for the landmark case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores. on March 25, 2014, 10:00am EST to determine whether individuals lose their religious freedom when they open a family business. The Supreme Court agreed to take up this appeal in November and will review whether the Green family should be required to provide four potentially life-terminating drugs and devices in their employee health care plan, contrary to their religious beliefs.

What:
Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court

Who:
Following the argument, there will be brief remarks by the parties and legal counsel:

  • Hahn Family, founders and owners of Conestoga Wood
  • Green Family, founders and owners of Hobby Lobby
  • Lori Windham, Becket, counsel for Hobby Lobby
  • David Cortman, ADF, counsel for Conestoga Wood
  • Paul Clement, Bancroft PLLC, arguing the two consolidated cases before the court and will take Q&A

When:
March 25, 2014 at 10:00 a.m., press statements immediately following hearing (oral arguments have been extended to 90 minutes)

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

Attorneys for Becket, counsel for Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., will be available for additional comment following the argument.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 19 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently 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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Hobby Lobby Press Briefing Today 3:30 p.m

Washington, D.C.Hobby Lobby, the family-owned arts and crafts business founded by David and Barbara Green, will ask the U.S. Supreme Court today to protect them from being forced to violate their deeply held religious beliefs or be forced to pay severe fines. The brief will be filed today at the Supreme Court, with the government filing its own brief in Hobby Lobby’s companion case by 11:59 p.m. EST.

In preparation for oral arguments on March 25, 2014, join us for a press briefing to discuss the legal merits, government’s position, and the implications of this case as it arrives at the Supreme Court.

What:
Press briefing for Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

Who:
Kyle Duncan, Becket and lead counsel for Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

When:
February 10, 2014, 3:30 p.m. EST

Where:
800.704.9804    Participant code: 743216#

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 19 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently 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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Hobby Lobby Supreme Court Brief Counters Government “Divide and Conquer” Attempt to Violate Business Owners’ Religious Rights

WASHINGTON – Hobby Lobby, the family-owned arts and crafts business founded by David and Barbara Green, asked the U.S. Supreme Court today to protect them from being forced to violate their deeply held religious beliefs or be forced to pay severe fines. The written brief filed today at the Supreme Court, calls a federal mandate to provide objectionable drugs and devices “one of the most straightforward violations … this Court is likely to see” of a 1993 law preserving the free exercise of faith.

Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, to be argued at the Supreme Court March 25, 2014, will determine whether the government has the power to force family business owners to act against their faith based solely on their companies’ form of organization.  Specifically, the government is mandating that Hobby Lobby provide four potentially life-terminating drugs and devices through their health insurance plans or face severe fines, even as it concedes that doing so will violate the Green family’s beliefs.  The Greens and their family businesses have no moral objection to providing 16 of the 20 FDA-approved contraceptives under the HHS mandate, and they provide a broad range of contraceptives at no additional cost to employees under their self-insured health plan.

Hobby Lobby’s brief calls on two centuries of high court rulings to counter the government’s reasoning that the Greens’ rights as individuals cannot be exercised through their family-owned corporation. The brief insists that this freedom does not “turn on [the Company’s] tax status,” and further states that the Administration cannot “divide and conquer” the Greens’ religious liberties from those of Hobby Lobby to make those rights “simply vanish.”

“Hobby Lobby’s latest brief brings into even sharper focus the issue at the heart of this landmark case: No one should be forced to give up their constitutionally protected civil rights just to go into business,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel for Becket and counsel for Hobby Lobby.   “The filing demonstrates in no uncertain terms that the government’s efforts to strip this family business of its religious rights represent a gross violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will uphold the Tenth Circuit’s strong affirmation of the Greens’ rights to live out their deeply held beliefs in every aspect of their business.”

In July, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals granted Hobby Lobby a preliminary injunction preventing the government from forcing the family business to provide the objectionable drugs and devices. The government then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  “The government has taken the extreme position that Americans forfeit their constitutional rights when they open a family business,” said Duncan.  “That rule would give the government broad powers to restrict religious freedom. People of all faiths should be concerned.” There are currently 93 lawsuits challenging the mandate, with 90% of the cases winning relief.

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

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 19 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently 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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Bi-Partisan Legislators, Religious Leaders, Legal Scholars and States File Support in Supreme Court for Hobby Lobby

Washington, D.C. – At midnight tonight more than 50 briefs will be filed in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Hobby Lobby Stores and the Green family, supporting their challenge to the HHS mandate. Becket represents Hobby Lobby and David and Barbara Green, owners of the family business, and is the leading resource on all HHS Affordable Care Act mandate cases.

Becket will continue to update its website as the briefs are filed.   As of 11:00 a.m. EST today:

Three Congressional briefs will be filed by members of Congress from both parties.

  • 107 members of the House and Senate asked the Supreme Court to protect the Greens’ religious freedom.  Of the 107, more than 85 members of the House and Senate joined a bipartisan brief asking the Court to protect religious freedom.
  • Fifteen original signers of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act submitted a bicameral brief arguing that the civil-rights law at the core of the case was intended to protect the religious exercise of business owners like the Green family.
  • The signers are both Republicans and Democrats, men and women, and represent 34 states.

Twenty states filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to protect Hobby Lobby.

Leading scholars agree that the Supreme Court should rule for Hobby Lobby.

  • Law professors filed a brief explaining that religious accommodations like the one that protects the Greens are constitutional.   Includes: Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School, Robert George of Princeton, Eugene Volokh of UCLA Law School, Rick Garnett of Notre Dame Law School, Steven Smith of the University of San Diego Law School, Nathan Chapman of University of Georgia Law School, Michael Moreland of Villanova Law School.
  • International law scholars and legal institutes filed a brief explaining that international law principles support Hobby Lobby’s claim of religious freedom.
  • More than thirty Catholic theologians and ethicists joined a brief explaining how longstanding Christian teaching supports the Greens’ refusal to participate in providing potentially life-terminating drugs and devices.
  • Pastor Rick Warren joined Eric Metaxas and over thirty Protestant theologians in a brief explaining the importance for Christians of living out their deeply held religious commitments in their work life.  This is exactly what the Greens strive to do in running their family business.
  • Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School filed a brief explaining that the history of the First Amendment shows that it protects family businesses like Hobby Lobby.

Women’s groups are supporting Hobby Lobby.

  • Several women’s groups joined a brief highlighting the many women who are challenging the HHS Mandate.
  • Professor Helen Alvare and the group Women Speak for Themselves filed a brief explaining the lack of justification for the HHS Mandate.

Doctors and scholars are supporting Hobby Lobby.

  • Six medical groups filed a brief explaining the science behind the drugs and devices the Greens object to, and how they can act to terminate a pregnancy.
  • The Catholic Medical Association filed a brief explaining the legal definition of pregnancy, and how existing law supports the Greens’ objection to providing drugs that could terminate a life.
  • Professor Helen Alvare filed a brief explaining the lack of scientific evidence for the government’s arguments, including mistakes in the underlying report and how it failed to prove that changes to insurance coverage would actually have a measurable impact on public health.

Diverse religious groups support Hobby Lobby and religious freedom.

  • Christian and Jewish publishers came together to explain how the First Amendment should protect those who run businesses based upon deeply held religious convictions.
  • Orthodox Jewish groups filed a brief explaining the importance of integrating work and faith under Jewish law.
  • Supporters include:
    • Orthodox Union, a leading Orthodox Jewish association
    • U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
    • Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, a Santeria church behind that won a 9-0 Supreme Court victory under the Free Exercise Clause
    • International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a Hindu organization which has appeared before the Supreme Court to protect its own religious exercise
    • Dr. Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College in California, whom The Guardian newspaper called “arguably the west’s most influential Islamic scholar.”
    • Feldheim Publishers, an American Orthodox publisher of Torah books and literature
    • CBA, an association of Christian publishers and retailers
    • Crescent Foods, a halal food company
    • Tyndale House, a Bible and Christian book publisher
    • The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention
    • The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
    • Prison Fellowship Ministry
    • Anglican Church in North America
    • Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities
    • Democrats for Life
    • Former Congressman Bart Stupak
    • House Majority Whip Eric Cantor
    • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea, media@becketlaw.org, 202.349.7224. Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby will be argued March 25, 2014, and decided before the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June 2014.  There are currently 91 lawsuits challenging the unconstitutional HHS mandate.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 19 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. The Becket Fund recently 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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Additional Information:

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Landmark Hobby Lobby Case

WASHINGTON, Nov. 26, 2013 – The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to take up Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a landmark case addressing the Constitutionally guaranteed rights of business owners to operate their family companies without violating their deeply held religious convictions.

The nation’s highest court accepted the federal government’s appeal of a June decision by the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals that a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate to provide potentially life-terminating drugs and devices in employee insurance plans places a substantial burden on the religious freedoms of Hobby Lobby, which is solely owned by founder David Green and his family.

“This is a major step for the Greens and their family businesses in an important fight for Americans’ religious liberty,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel of Becket and lead lawyer for Hobby Lobby. “We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will clarify once and for all that religious freedom in our country should be protected for family business owners like the Greens.”

In July, a lower federal court granted Hobby Lobby a preliminary injunction preventing the government from enforcing the HHS mandate requiring the family businesses to provide in the employee health insurance plan two drugs and two devices that are potentially life-terminating.

The Greens and their family businesses – who have no moral objection to providing 16 of the 20 FDA-approved contraceptives required under the HHS mandate and do so at no additional cost to employees under their self-insured health plan – then took the unusual step in October of joining the government in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, despite the family’s victory in the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“My family and I are encouraged that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide our case,” said Mr. Green, Hobby Lobby’s founder and CEO.  “This legal challenge has always remained about one thing and one thing only: the right of our family businesses to live out our sincere and deeply held religious convictions as guaranteed by the law and the Constitution. Business owners should not have to choose between violating their faith and violating the law.”

Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. will be argued and decided before the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June 2014.

There are currently 84 lawsuits challenging the unconstitutional HHS mandate. Becket Fund  represents: Hobby Lobby, Little Sisters of the Poor, Guidestone, Wheaton College, East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University, Colorado Christian University, the Eternal Word Television Network, Ave Maria University, and Belmont Abbey College.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 19 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. The Becket Fund recently 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 handling Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., please contact Melinda Skea, media@becketlaw.org, 202.349.7224.

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Court of Appeals: Federal Government Burdened Sikh Religious Liberty

Washington, D.C. – Today the federal court of appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in a unanimous decision that the Department of Homeland Security had put a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of a Sikh IRS accountant by prohibiting her from working at the Houston federal building due to her faith. The court of appeals reversed a Houston federal district court’s decision against Kawaljeet Tagore and remanded for further proceedings.

The case concerns Tagore’s religious practice of wearing a kirpan, a small Sikh article of faith similar in shape but not in sharpness or function to a knife. Baptized Sikhs are required to carry the kirpan at all times and it plays in some regards a role similar to a crucifix or tefillin. Tagore was banned from the federal building where her office was and eventually fired for refusing to take off this Sikh article of faith. The Fifth Circuit’s decision rejected the federal government’s justification of a generalized interest in protecting security and said that it must prove that it had a compelling interest in excluding Tagore specifically. The court also rejected the federal government’s attempt to question the validity of Tagore’s mainstream Sikh beliefs about refusing to take off her kirpan.

“This is a big win for religious freedom, and not just for Sikhs,” stated Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at Becket. “The Court made it crystal-clear that government does not get to second-guess citizens’ religious beliefs, and it also can’t just wave the “security” card around to justify bans on the core practices of any religion. Holding government to the proper legal standard is especially important for protecting Americans who practice minority faiths.”

Tagore has been represented during the litigation by Scott Newar, a prominent Houston civil rights attorney, along with Becket and civil rights organization the Sikh Coalition. During the litigation, the Federal Protective Service (FPS), a subagency of the Department of Homeland Security, revealed a new policy directive to accommodate all religious groups who do not want to give up their religious identity at the door of a federal building. The directive apparently was the direct result of Tagore’s lawsuit.

“Religious freedom is a precious thing, and government officials should treat it that way,” added Rassbach. “All too often callous bureaucrats trample religious liberty by imposing rules on religious practice that are not just intrusive and offensive, but also entirely unnecessary. That needs to stop, today.”

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 19 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently 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, media@becketlaw.org, 202.349.7224.

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Hobby Lobby Asks Supreme Court to Take Its Appeal

Washington, D.C. — Today, Hobby Lobby asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review its case and decide whether the Green family will be required to provide and pay for life-terminating drugs and devices in violation of their religious beliefs. Last month, the government asked the Supreme Court to review the case, and today Hobby Lobby took the unusual step of agreeing with the government that the Supreme Court should hear the appeal.

“Hobby Lobby’s case raises important questions about who can enjoy religious freedom,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel of Becket and lead lawyer for Hobby Lobby. “Right now, some courts recognize the rights of business owners like the Green family, and others do not. Religious freedom is too important to be left to chance. The Supreme Court should take this case and protect religious freedom for the Green family and Hobby Lobby.”

Last June the Christian-owned and operated business won a major victory before the en banc 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected the government’s argument that the Green family and their family-owned businesses, Hobby Lobby and a Christian bookstore chain named Mardel, could not legally exercise religion. The court further said the businesses were likely to win their challenge to the HHS mandate. Since then, courts in other parts of the country have ruled differently, setting up a conflict that only the Supreme Court can resolve.

The Court will consider the government’s petition and Hobby Lobby’s response next month. If the petition is granted, the case would be argued and decided before the end of the Court’s term in June.

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 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, media@becketlaw.org, 202.349.7224.

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Hobby Lobby petitions Supreme Court to take up birth control mandate case

The Hill’s Healthwatch, October 21, 2013

“Hobby Lobby’s case raises important questions about who can enjoy religious freedom,” Kyle Duncan, the lead lawyer for Hobby Lobby, said in a statement. “Right now, some courts recognize the rights of business owners like the Green family, and others do not. Religious freedom is too important to be left to chance. The Supreme Court should take this case and protect religious freedom for the Green family and Hobby Lobby.”

Iowa Agency Tries to Force Mennonite Couple to Host Controversial Religious Ceremony

Des Moines, IA – Yesterday Becket filed a lawsuit in Iowa state court, seeking protection for Betty and Richard Odgaard (see video), a Mennonite couple, from being forced to facilitate a religious ceremony against their religious convictions.    Betty and Richard personally own and operate the Görtz Haus Gallery, a 77-year-old-church-building-turned-art gallery.   After declining a request to plan, facilitate, and host a ceremony that ran counter to their beliefs, they faced punitive action before the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

“Iowa is a great champion of individual freedom,” said Emily Hardman with Becket.  “Every Iowan should be concerned that bureaucrats are forcing Betty and Richard to personally host a religious ceremony against their religious convictions.”

Betty Odgaard was born and raised a Mennonite—her father was a Mennonite minister and she played music for her church growing up. When she and her husband founded the Görtz Haus Gallery (Görtz is Betty’s maiden name), they made sure to keep the old church elements, such as the stained glass windows depicting Biblical images. With its religious decorations and architectural elements, the Gallery has served as a place to express the Odgaards’ faith for over a decade. One of their favorite ways to do that is hosting wedding ceremonies in the old church’s sanctuary. They personally help plan and host every wedding, and are both at the Gallery from morning until night for each wedding ceremony.

But after privately declining to personally plan, host, and facilitate a same-sex wedding ceremony because doing so would run counter to their beliefs, they faced punitive action by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

“We hire and serve gays and lesbians, and have close friends who are gays and lesbians,” said Betty Odgaard.  “And we respect that good people disagree with our religious conviction against hosting a ceremony that violates our faith. We simply ask that the government not force us to abandon our faith or punish us for it.”

Becket is a non-profit religious liberty law firm that defends the free expression of all faiths.   Our clients have included Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and many others.  We protect religious liberty for all of our clients, including those who support same-sex marriage and those who oppose it. The Becket Fund takes no position on the issue of same-sex marriage as such, but believes that where same-sex marriage is legally recognized, individuals or communities whose religious convictions forbid them from participating in such marriages should not be forced to do so.  People on all sides of the issue must remain free to express their religious beliefs.

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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Religious group sues over same-sex marriage dispute

Quad-City Times, October 7, 2013

“The Odgaards have long hired and served gays and lesbians, and are happy to serve all persons regardless of their sexual orientation,” said Emily Hardman. “The only remedy they are seeking is not to be forced by the government to host a religious ceremony that would violate their own beliefs. The Iowa Civil Rights Act supports this remedy, as it expressly states that the Act is not intended to force individuals to recognize same-sex marriage.”

United States Appeals Hobby Lobby Decision to Supreme Court

Washington, D.C. — Today, the United States government asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the Hobby Lobby case to determine whether the Green family will be required to provide and pay for life-terminating drugs and devices in violation of their religious beliefs. The government’s appeal makes it highly likely that the Supreme Court will decide the issue in the upcoming term.

“The United States government is taking the remarkable position that private individuals lose their religious freedom when they make a living,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel of Becket and lead lawyer for Hobby Lobby. “We’re confident that the Supreme Court will reject the government’s extreme position and hold that religious liberty is for everyone—including people who run a business.”

Last June the Christian-owned and operated business won a major victory before the en banc 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected the government’s argument that the Green family and their family-owned businesses, Hobby Lobby and a Christian bookstore chain named Mardel, could not legally exercise religion. The court further said the businesses were likely to win their challenge to the HHS mandate.

The government’s petition comes the same day as a petition in Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, another case involving a challenge to the HHS mandate.

The court will consider the government’s petition in the next six weeks. If the petition is granted, the case would be argued and decided before the end of the Court’s term in June.

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 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, media@becketlaw.org, 202.349.7224.

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Odgaard v. Iowa

Meet the Odgaards

It was their home away from home.

Betty and Richard Odgaard are a small-town Mennonite couple. In 2002, they rescued a nearly century-old church that was going to be torn down to make room for a gas station. Instead, they converted the church into an art gallery to display Betty’s and other local artists’ work. Inside the Görtz Haus Gallery, the couple also ran a bistro and a small framing, flower, and gift shop.

The Odgaards also personally hosted weddings in the old sanctuary several times a year. For every wedding, Betty would meet with the bride multiple times, plan the celebration, and design the wedding flowers and decorations. Richard would prepare the sanctuary for the ceremony, handle the sound system, and assist the officiant and guests. Each wedding kept them at the gallery from morning until night to set up, facilitate, and clean up after the ceremony. Running the gallery wasn’t just a business; it was the Odgaards’ life’s work.

Their life’s work as an expression of their faith

Betty and Richard chose to keep the church’s religious elements as an expression of their Christian faith. Latin crosses still adorn the building, both inside and out. Stained glass windows depict Biblical images, and a scripture verse on the wall welcomes all visitors. Many of Betty’s paintings displayed in the gallery also express religious themes.

Through the years, the Odgaards gladly hired gay employees and served gay customers at the gallery’s shops and bistro. However, they could not participate in a wedding ceremony that violated their religious beliefs.

After over a decade, the Odgaards were forced to shut down the gallery when the Iowa Civil Rights Commission tried forcing them to personally host a same-sex wedding ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs. The state’s prosecution began after a same-sex couple sued the Odgaards, even though there were numerous nearby venues that are eager to host same-sex weddings.

An intense media campaign was launched against the Odgaards. They were subjected to hate mail, boycotts, personal attacks, and even death threats. Officials in the Civil Rights Commission showed open disdain for the Odgaards’ religious rights, and even denied them access to state court to defend their religious liberty claims. Shockingly, the state refused to dismiss its case against the Odgaards even after the two men—contrary to their prior sworn statements—admitted they had been married months before asking the Odgaards to host their ceremony.

Becket defends the Odgaards’ religious liberty

Becket defended the Odgaards in their lawsuit. Facing growing pressure from the state and potentially years of legal proceedings, the Odgaards chose to remain true to their faith. They settled the charges brought against them, paying thousands of dollars to the couple, and agreed to stop hosting all weddings. Without this vital income, the Odgaards were forced to close the gallery.

While heartbroken to see their life’s work end this way, the Odgaards’ faith is stronger than ever, and they’re certain they did the right thing in staying true to their beliefs.

A local church later purchased the gallery as a house of worship, which would mean it can continue to express the Odgaards’ Christian faith—and this time, even the state of Iowa has to respect it.

Christian University First to Renew its Lawsuit Over HHS Mandate

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Colorado Christian University (CCU) became the first non-profit organization to renew its lawsuit challenging the HHS abortion-drug mandate’s “accommodation,” which still forces the Christian university to violate its deeply held religious beliefs or pay crippling fines. The new challenge comes just weeks after the final rule was announced in June.

“The bureaucrats’ proposed solution does not solve anything,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket, which represents CCU in this matter. “CCU is still forced to participate in the government’s scheme to provide free access to abortion-causing drugs and devices.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado dismissed CCU’s challenge while waiting for the administration to issue final regulations responding to the religious objections of non-profit organizations. Under those now-released regulations, organizations like CCU are excused from directly paying for abortion-causing drugs and devices only if they “designate” another organization to do the same thing they cannot do directly. They and their health care plan remain the central cog in the government’s scheme.

“CCU cannot assuage its conscience by simply requiring someone else to provide the objectionable services.  It cannot allow its healthcare plan to facilitate access to abortion-causing drugs and devices in any way,” said Baxter. “Like other religious employers, CCU deserves a complete exemption.”

CCU’s renewed lawsuit was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. The lawsuit challenges the HHS regulations as violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the First and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and the Administrative Procedures Act. There have been more than 60 cases challenging the mandate.

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 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, 202.349.7224.

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Federal judge grants injunction in Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit over birth-control requirement

Washington Post, July 19, 2013

Kyle Duncan, Hobby Lobby’s lead attorney, argued that requiring the company to comply with the mandate would be a burden to religious exercise. The U.S. Department of Human Services has granted exemptions from portions of the health care law for plans that cover tens of millions of people and an injunction for Hobby Lobby would be in the public interest and would not burden the government, he said.

Hobby Lobby Wins Preliminary Injunction

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, a federal court granted Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. a preliminary injunction against the HHS abortion-drug mandate, preventing the government from enforcing the mandate against the Christian company.  This victory comes less than a month after a landmark decision by the full 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled 5-3 that Hobby Lobby can exercise religion under the First Amendment and is likely to win its case against the mandate.

“The tide has turned against the HHS mandate,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel with Becket, and lead attorney for Hobby Lobby.

In an opinion read from the bench, the court said, “There is a substantial public interest in ensuring that no individual or corporation has their legs cut out from under them while these difficult issues are resolved.”

This is a major victory for not only Hobby Lobby, but the religious liberty of all for-profit businesses.

There are now 63 separate lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate. Becket led the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate. Becket currently represents: Hobby LobbyWheaton CollegeEast Texas Baptist UniversityHouston Baptist UniversityColorado Christian University, the Eternal Word Television NetworkAve Maria University, and Belmont Abbey College.

For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, 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—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.”

Media Advisory: Hobby Lobby Oral Argument Set for July 19, 2013

Washington, D.C. – Becket will represent Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma at 9 a.m. CT Friday, July 19, 2013. This hearing comes after the full 10th Circuit granted a major victory to Hobby Lobby, ruling 5-3 that Hobby Lobby can exercise religion under the First Amendment and is likely to win its case against the HHS mandate. Immediately following that dramatic ruling, the district court granted Hobby Lobby a temporary restraining order against the HHS mandate. The court will now consider whether to grant Hobby Lobby a preliminary injunction.

Who: Kyle Duncan, General Counsel, Becket

What: Hobby Lobby oral argument before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma

When: 9 a.m. CT (10 a.m. ET), Friday, July 19, 2013

Where: U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, Courtroom No. 304, 200 NW 4th St, Oklahoma City, OK 73102

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 202.349.7226.

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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.”

Hobby Lobby wins a stay against birth control mandate

Reuters, July 19, 2013

“There is a substantial public interest in ensuring that no individual or corporation has their legs cut out from under them while these difficult issues are resolved,” [Judge Joe] Heaton said at a hearing, according to the Becket Fund.

Judge: Hobby Lobby won’t have to pay fines

USA Today, June 29, 2013

“The opinion makes it very clear what is a valid religious belief and what is not,” said Emily Hardman, spokeswoman for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The group is representing the companies and their owners, the Green family.

Hobby Lobby Gets 11th Hour Victory Against the Mandate

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, for the first time, a federal court has ordered the government not to enforce the HHS abortion-drug mandate against Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. The ruling comes just one day after a dramatic 168-page opinion from the en banc 10th Circuit recognizing that business owners have religious liberty rights. This was the first definitive federal appellate ruling against the HHS mandate.

“Hobby Lobby and the Green family faced the terrible choice of violating their faith or paying massive fines starting this Monday morning,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel with Becket, who represents Hobby Lobby. “We are delighted that both the 10th Circuit and the district court have spared them from this unjust burden on their religious freedom.”

In its landmark opinion yesterday, the 10th Circuit majority found that “no one” – not even the government – “disputes the sincerity of Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs.” The court ruled that denying them the protection of federal law just because they are a profit-making business “would conflict with the Supreme Court’s free exercise precedent.”

Today, following the 10th Circuit ruling, the trial court granted Hobby Lobby a temporary restraining order against the HHS mandate.  Further proceedings are scheduled for July 19, 2013, in Oklahoma City.

There are now 60 separate lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate. Becket led the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate. Becket currently represents: Hobby LobbyWheaton CollegeEast Texas Baptist UniversityHouston Baptist UniversityColorado Christian University, the Eternal Word Television NetworkAve Maria University, and Belmont Abbey College.

 

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.

VICTORY: 10th Circuit Overturns Denial of Hobby Lobby Injunction

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the en banc 10th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a major victory to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., by reversing and remanding the district court’s erroneous ruling.  The circuit court returned the case to the district court with instruction to consider whether to grant Hobby Lobby a preliminary injunction. 

“Today marks a milestone in Hobby Lobby’s fight for religious liberty,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel for Becket. “This is a tremendous victory not only for the Green family and for their business, but also for many other religious business owners who should not have to forfeit their faith to make a living.”

The 10th Circuit sent the case back to the district court for swift resolution of the injunction proceeding.  The court reasoned Hobby Lobby has, “established a likelihood of success that their rights under this statute are substantially burdened by the contraceptive-coverage requirement, and have established an irreparable harm. But we remand the case to the district court for further proceedings on two of the remaining factors governing the grant or denial of a preliminary injunction.”

“We are encouraged by today’s decision from the 10th Circuit,” said David Green, founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.  “My family and I believe very strongly in our conviction that life begins at conception, and the emergency contraceptives that we would be forced to provide in our employee health plan under this mandate are contrary to that conviction. We believe that business owners should not have to be forced to choose between following their faith and following the law. We will continue to fight for our religious freedom, and we appreciate the prayers of support we have received.”

Founded in an Oklahoma City garage in 1972, the Green family has grown Hobby Lobby from one 300-square-foot retail space into more than 500 stores in over 40 states. “It is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured,” said Green. “Therefore we seek to honor God by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.”

Hobby Lobby is the largest business to file a lawsuit against the HHS mandate. The Green family has no moral objection to the use of preventive contraceptives and will continue covering them in Hobby Lobby’s health plan. However, the Green family’s religious convictions prohibit them from providing or paying for the abortion-inducing drugs, the “morning-after” and “week-after” pills, which would violate their deeply held religious belief that life begins at conception.

The business’s lawsuit acts to preserve its right to carry out its mission free from government coercion.

There are now 60 separate lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate. Becket led the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate. Becket currently represents: Hobby LobbyWheaton CollegeEast Texas Baptist UniversityHouston Baptist UniversityColorado Christian University, the Eternal Word Television NetworkAve Maria University, and Belmont Abbey College.

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.

Hobby Lobby Has Its Day in Court; Argues Case for Religious Freedom

Christian Post, May 24, 2013

Kyle Duncan, general counsel for The Becket Fund, argued the case Thursday for the Green family, who own Hobby Lobby and the Christian bookstore Mardel, in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, and the government was represented by the Justice Department. Each side had 30 minutes to present their arguments to the court.

Hobby Lobby lawyer encouraged by latest hearing

EWTN News, May 24, 2013

On May 23, Duncan argued Hobby Lobby’s case before the full eight-member panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Such cases are usually heard by only three judges of an appellate court. “The mere fact we were standing there before the entire 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is encouraging in and of itself… it’s a really extraordinary thing,” he explained.

Hobby Lobby argues case before federal judges

The Oklahoman, May 23, 2013

“Do you have any authority that a for-profit corporation can exercise religion? How does that work?” she asked Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby in the case.

Becket’s Statement Following 10th Circuit Hearing on Hobby Lobby

Following the en banc hearing before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Becket has released the following statement:

“We are encouraged by today’s hearing before the full 10th Circuit Court of Appeals,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel for Becket and counsel on the case. “Being heard before all eight judges – rather than the typical three-judge panel – signifies the importance of the case and the arguments being made. We stand firm in our belief that Hobby Lobby should have the right to opt out of a provision that infringes on their religious beliefs, and we look forward to a favorable outcome.”

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all faiths—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law.

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Media Advisory: Hobby Lobby Oral Argument Set for May 23, 2013

Washington, D.C. – Becket Law will represent Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. before an en banc hearing of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on May 23, 2013. The full court will consider whether to halt enforcement of the HHS mandate, which forces Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned-and-operated business, to provide and pay for emergency contraceptives, such as the “morning-after pill” and “week-after pill”, in violation of the religious beliefs of its owners, the Green family. The court announced on March 29, 2013 that Hobby Lobby’s appeal will be before the entire court rather than the usual three-judge panel.

What: Hobby Lobby oral argument before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Who: Kyle Duncan, General Counsel, Becket Law

When: Thursday, May 23, 2013, 2:00 pm MDT (4:00 pm EDT)

Where: Byron White United States Courthouse, 1823 Stout Street, Denver, CO 80294

For more information or to arrange an interview with an attorney, 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—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law.

Tenth Circuit Grants Hobby Lobby Full Court Hearing

WASHINGTON, DC – On Friday, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals granted Hobby Lobby’s petition for en banc hearing, agreeing to place Hobby Lobby’s appeal before the entire court rather than the usual three-judge panel. The full court will consider whether to halt enforcement of the HHS mandate, which forces Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a Christian-owned-and-operated business, to provide and pay for emergency contraceptives, such as the “morning-after pill” and “week-after pill”, in violation of the religious beliefs of its owners, the Green family. The court also announced it will expedite oral arguments, with a hearing date expected soon.

“We are grateful that the court granted Hobby Lobby’s petition,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel for Becket. “Full court review is reserved only for the most serious legal questions. This case asks whether the First Amendment protects everyone’s right to religious freedom, or whether it leaves out religious business owners like the Greens.”

In December, a two-judge panel of the 10th Circuit denied Hobby Lobby’s request to temporarily stop enforcement of the abortion pill mandate. Now, nine 10th Circuit judges will hear Hobby Lobby’s case. Arguments are expected to take place this Spring.

There are now 52 separate lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate, which is a regulation under the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”). Becket led the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate, and along with Hobby Lobby represents: Wheaton College, East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University, Belmont Abbey College, Colorado Christian University, the Eternal Word Television Network and Ave Maria University.

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

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Homeland Security admits it got it wrong on religious freedom

In essence FPS and the IRS are saying that having cake at employee birthday parties is more important than the First Amendment right to exercise one’s religion

homeland Tagore1

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

Tomorrow the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans will hear a major case concerning the clash between religious liberty and federal security policies. The case concerns Kawaljeet Tagore, an IRS accountant who was fired because she wore a kirpan to work after she underwent Sikh baptism. The kirpan is a Sikh article of faith similar to a short knife that baptized Sikhs must wear at all times; Ms. Tagore’s kirpan was similar to a small butter knife both in size and sharpness. An arm of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Protective Service (FPS) said Ms. Tagore could not enter the federal building in downtown Houston because she was wearing the kirpan. She refused to take it off in accordance with the beliefs of Sikhism and was then fired by her employer the IRS.

The worst thing about the case is that FPS allows all kinds of far sharper knives into the Houston federal building, including cake knives, box cutters, and very sharp maintenance tools. In essence FPS and the IRS are saying that having cake at employee birthday parties is more important than the First Amendment right to exercise one’s religion. That stands American values on their head.

The remarkable development in the past week is that the feds are now *admitting* that they got it wrong all along. In the runup to their day in court, the feds revealed a new policy that had apparently been in the works for months: not only will there be no categorical ban on religious items like Ms. Tagore’s kirpan, but FPS also has to make an extra effort to allow in religious items that pose no danger to federal buildings. This new policy was embodied in a FPS Directive that went into effect last year but was kept under seal at the government’s request until days ago. The policy contains specific provisions to deal with Sikh religious objects, but it is designed to accommodate *all* religious groups who do not want to give up their religious identity when they walk through the door of a federal building. In short, Ms. Tagore — whose lawsuit surely led to the issuance of the Directive — has already won a major victory for the religious freedom of not just Sikhs, but believers of all faiths.

The Fifth Circuit appeal will be argued by Scott Newar, a prominent Houston civil rights attorney who has been co-counsel with the Becket Fund and the Sikh Coalition in representing Ms. Tagore. People of good will of all faiths should support Ms. Tagore’s effort to vindicate her rights as an American citizen. Here’s hoping the Fifth Circuit does too.

 

 

 

New DOD regulations a belated step in the right direction

“The members of our nation’s military give their lives to protect our liberties. But in recent years, our national commitment to protecting the religious liberty of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines has appeared to waver. As a remedy, Congress passed not one, but two laws instructing the Department of Defense to issue strong legal protections for religious liberty. Yesterday, the Administration took a tardy but welcome step in the right direction. Under its new regulations, the military is now more respectful of diverse religious viewpoints. It is also signaling a new willingness to accommodate the attire requirements of religious minority groups who, under the previous regulations, were all but barred from access to military service. Further, the military expressly imported the gold standard for religious liberty protection—the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act—and made it a part of every commander’s toolkit for safeguarding the free exercise of religion.
But there are problems. Most glaring, the regulations redefine RFRA’s shield for religious exercise in a way that forces government officials to make theological judgments about which religious beliefs deserve respect. Courts have overwhelmingly rejected such unwieldy definitions, and the military will both harm our service members and invite litigation until it corrects this error. In addition, the new accommodations for religious attire aren’t accommodating enough—one even requires religious minorities to violate their beliefs before they can obtain protection for those beliefs. This means that the door to military service remains presumptively closed to many religious Americans. We can, and should, do better than that. Still, the new regulations are a good start, and Becket looks forward to working to ensure that the Administration continues the military tradition of protecting religious liberty.” – Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel for Becket Law

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Koskinen & Holy Cross Anglican Church

As a minister with over 25 years of service and a Benedictine abbot, Father Patrick Malone has long been serious about his faith.

So when he  became the vicar of Holy Cross Anglican Church, Father Malone carried that commitment into preaching how to live as faithful Christians. This includes guiding Holy Cross’s 55 members about seeking justice and protect the disadvantaged in society, especially those who are threatened by unjust laws.

To Father Malone and Holy Cross, this requires preaching on issues like abortion and against the politicians and candidates who support abortion. They believe that silence on the sanctity of life, even while remaining true to other Anglican beliefs with fewer public policy implications, would be just as unfaithful to God as churches that preached against gambling in the antebellum South while failing to stand against slavery. Instead, they follow the tradition of their Anglican forbears who preached to reform child labor laws, the slave trade, and prison policies.

But the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit demanding that the IRS enforce a law banning Father Malone’s sermons to Holy Cross. While the IRS has long banned sermons that concern political candidates or certain hot-button moral issues, it has generally avoided actually enforcing the ban against churches, likely because it knows that its rules stand on shaky constitutional ground.

The anti-religious FFRF noticed, and sued in a Wisconsin-based federal district court to force the IRS to start enforcing the ban against churches like Wisconsin-based Holy Cross Anglican.  FFRF wanted the IRS to punish Father Malone and the Church for his sermons by imposing regulations that would revoke the Church’s tax-exempt status, involve the IRS in the Church’s finances, and levy fines against both the Church and individual leaders, such as Father Malone.

Becket successfully intervened on behalf of Father Malone and Holy Cross to defend their rights to freely preach. While there’s room for religious disagreement over what pastors should preach, those religious decisions should be left to churches, not the IRS or FFRF. This case presented a unique opportunity to defend a church’s right to preach free from IRS censorship.

On August 1, 2014, the Court granted FFRF’s request to dismiss its own lawsuit, fleeing from its attempt to use the IRS to censor houses of worship who preach on moral issues with political implications.

 

Becket Fund Defends Photographer in New Mexico Supreme Court

Becket Fund amicus brief steps in for religious freedom of New Mexico photographer forced to pay fines for exercising beliefs, argues that RFRA applies to private suits

By: Asma Uddin

Last week, the Becket Fund filed an amicus brief to aid the New Mexico Supreme Court in its review of the case of an Albuquerque photographer forced to pay almost $7,000 for declining to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony.

Among the issues the Court will consider is whether the photographer, Elaine Huegenin, is entitled to an exemption under New Mexico’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (NMRFRA). The lower court had refused to apply NMRFRA, holding that it did not apply to a suit that did not involve a government party.

The Becket Fund brief argues forcefully that the lower court was wrong:

“That conclusion was incorrect. It contradicts the holdings of most of the United States Courts of Appeals with respect to the federal RFRA; it contradicts the text, history, and purpose of NMRFRA; and it produces anomalous results. This conclusion is confirmed by new research into the legislative history of the disputed language—research that goes far beyond the evidence considered by any previous court.”

Through extensive analysis into NMRFRA’s text, purpose, and legislative history, along with an overview of relevant policy implications, the brief makes critical and novel arguments sure to make an impact beyond this case.

In the photo: Elaine Huguenin of Elane Photography. Courtesy: Alliance Defense Fund

 

Colorado Christian University First Evangelical University to Fight Abortifacient Mandate

 

Colorado Christian University (CCU) today became the first interdenominational Christian college to challenge in federal court a new “Affordable Care Act” (aka “Obamacare”) mandate for abortifacients (drugs which induce abortions). Colorado Christian joins the monks at Belmont Abbey College pushing back against government intrusion into personal religious convictions that is unprecedented in the health care realm. Becket represents both colleges in their separate lawsuits.

“If the Administration thought that conscience objections to this HHS mandate would be muted or isolated, Colorado Christian’s lawsuit proves otherwise. Evangelical Christians have now joined Catholics to defend their religious rights,” said Hannah Smith, Senior Legal Counsel at Becket.

“Abortion is a highly controversial issue in American life,” explains CCU President Bill Armstrong. “Some of our fellow citizens believe abortion is a fundamental right while others are equally sincere in the conviction that abortion is morally wrong in all, or almost all circumstances. But that is not the issue raised by the HHS regulations. The question is—may a government agency compel support of abortions by those whose religious convictions forbid them from doing so. The law does not permit such compulsion, in our opinion, nor will the conscience of our fellow citizens, whether abortion proponents or opponents.”

The Health and Human Services regulation mandates that all group health insurance plans must provide FDA-approved contraceptives at no charge to consumers, including the abortifacients Plan B (morning-after pill) and ella (week-after pill), and sterilization services. Many Evangelical Christians do not share Catholics’ objection to contraception and sterilization, but most—including Colorado Christian—strongly oppose abortion, including abortifacient drugs.

“This mandate forbids us from practicing what we preach,” said Armstrong. “How can we train our college students to advocate for limited government and personal freedom—especially religious freedom—if we don’t fight this unparalleled attack on those very principles?”

CCU is a non-denominational Evangelical University whose main campus is located in Lakewood, Colorado. Nearly 100 years old, CCU now serves approximately 4200 students. The University is a member of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.

CCU’s lawsuit was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Belmont Abbey’s lawsuit was filed on November 10th in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The two lawsuits challenge the HHS regulations as violations of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

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.

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. To stay updated on this case, please visit our case page.

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Tagore v. Department of Homeland Security

In April 2005, Kawal Tagore reported to her IRS job, as she always did. But that day was different: her supervisor sent her away from the office and told her not to return.

Ms. Tagore had recently been formally initiated into the Sikh faith and thus begun carrying a kirpan, one of the five articles of faith that Sikhs are required to carry. A kirpan resembles small, blunt knife – symbol meant to remind Sikh believers of their commitment to a just and humane society.

Even though she went through security without a problem, and even though the building contained sharper, more dangerous blades than Ms. Tagore’s kirpan—scissors, box cutters and cake knives—Ms. Tagore was banned from the federal building. She worked from home for about nine months before she was fired altogether.

Becket defended Ms. Tagore’s right to wear her kirpan. In November 2014, the federal government agreed to settle the case and change its nationwide policies to accommodate Sikh federal employees – a victory for Sikh Americans and religious freedom.

 

McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Jewell

What would you do if an undercover federal agent came into your church service, confiscated your communion wine, and threatened you with criminal prosecution? Sound crazy? Not if you are Native American.

Meet Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache tribe

Robert Soto is an award-winning feather dancer and Lipan Apache religious leader. In 2006, he attended a powwow – a Native American religious ceremony involving drumming, dancing, and ceremonial dress. But an undercover federal agent infiltrated the powwow and cut the celebration short when he noticed that Pastor Soto and others possessed eagle feathers.

Threatened for worshiping with eagle feathers

Click to view full size infographic

The agent interrogated Soto and other powwow participants, confiscated their feathers, and threatened them with criminal prosecution unless they signed papers abandoning their feathers. The agent claimed to be enforcing the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits possession of eagle feathers without a permit. Under the law, permits are available for museums, scientists, zoos, farmers, and “other interests” – such as power companies, which kill hundreds of eagles every year. They are also available for Native Americans – but only for federally recognized tribes.

Pastor Soto is a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe, which is recognized by historians, sociologists, and the state of Texas – but not by the federal government. Thus, while millions of other Americans are allowed to possess eagle feathers, Pastor Soto – a renowned feather dancer and ordained religious leader – was not.

Becket defends Pastor Soto’s religious freedom

With the help of Becket, Pastor Soto challenged this arbitrary law in federal court, arguing that it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Pastor Soto in 2014, stating that the federal government failed to adequately justify this restriction on religious freedom.

Soon after, the federal government entered a historic settlement agreement with Pastor Soto and over 400 members of his congregation. The agreement recognizes their right to freely use eagle feathers in observance of their Native American faith and promises that the government will reconsider its policies for enforcing feather restrictions in the future.

In April 2019, in response to Pastor Soto’s legal victory, the Department of the Interior published a petition for rulemaking from Becket to end the criminalization of eagle feather possession and expand existing protections for federally-recognized Native American tribes to cover members of state-recognized tribes as well. The public was able to comment on the petition through July 16, 2019. Becket analyzed the submitted public comments and found that there was significant support for the rule change from the general public and tribes.

For over a decade, Becket has actively defended the religious freedom of Native Americans. We currently represent members of the Klickitat and Cascade Tribes of the Yakima Nation in a case that calls government bureaucrats to account for the desecration of sacred burial grounds. We have urged government officials to protect the right of Native Americans to wear long hair or a symbolic headband in accordance with their faith. We have also filed legal briefs defending the right of Native American tribes to practice centuries-old religious ceremonies at sacred sites like the Medicine Wheel and Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.


Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual Freedom: Religious liberty encompasses more than just freedom of thought or worship—it involves the right to practice one’s faith visibly and publicly. The government must respect the right of all people to practice their faith, and it must be especially careful to protect religious minorities who are at risk of discrimination by the government.
  • RFRA: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act ensures that the government cannot burden the religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives to doing so.

Merced v. Kasson

“Ask not why I defend goat sacrifice. Ask me how you can too.”  
-Eric Rassbach, Vice President & Senior Counsel at Becket 

An ancient religion carries out a unique tradition 

Jose Merced is a priest in the Santeria faith, an Afro-Caribbean religion with roots that go back centuries in West Africa, and later evolving into new forms in Cuba and the Americas. Central to the Santeria religion is the passing on of rituals and beliefs from generation to generation. One of these sacred rituals includes animal sacrifice, which is performed humanely and privately for worship, healing, or the initiation of new priests.

As a Santeria priest, Mr. Merced regularly carried out these sacred religious rituals within his home in Euless, Texas. But in 2006, city officials tried to stop him from practicing his religion, threatening the very existence of the Santeria faith.

Religious liberty means protecting people of all faiths—including minority faiths 

In 2006, officers from the City of Euless, Texas appeared at Mr. Merced’s home and informed him he could not perform his religious rituals in his own home, claiming that his practices violated city ordinances.

Becket stepped in, with Douglas Laycock (Robert E. Scott Distinguished Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law), to represent Mr. Merced at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Although the government argued two reasons for forbidding the practice—public health and animal treatment— Becket pointed out that the city had never enforced their ordinances against Mr. Merced in 16 years, and that the city had broad secular exemptions to these ordinances, such as hunting, fishing, meat production, pest control, and veterinary euthanasia. In fact, the city was selectively enforcing its ordinances against Mr. Merced because of his religion.

Fifth Circuit rules for Santeria priest 

On July 31, 2009, a unanimous panel of the Fifth Circuit sided with Becket. The court said that city ordinances forbidding the slaughter of certain animals prevented the Santeria priest from performing ceremonies essential to his faith, which was a substantial burden on his religious exercise. The court pointed out that Mr. Merced had conducted these rituals for 16 years without incident, and that the government had other ways to protect public health and animal treatment without forbidding Mr. Merced from practicing his religion in his home.

The Fifth Circuit’s ruling was an important ruling under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, protecting the right to worship freely in one’s own home.


Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedomReligious freedom includes the freedom to practice one’s faith in all areas of life, both public and private, free of government interference.  
  • 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.  

Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal

In a case challenging the federal government’s restrictions on a controlled substance— hoasca tea —used in the ceremonies of a religious group, Becket’s amicus brief defended the constitutionality of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that provides accommodations for religious organizations. The Supreme Court held that the government had not shown under RFRA’s standard a sufficiently compelling governmental interest to ban the substance for religious use by this group. Nancy Hollander was counsel to the religious group.

Rigdon v. Perry

Priests and rabbis must be free to preach

In May 1996, the Catholic Church announced a nationwide pro-life campaign to urge Congress to override the President’s veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. The campaign urged priests to preach about abortion, lead prayer services, and invite parishioners to write to their Congressional representatives.

Father Vincent Rigdon, a Catholic priest of almost 20 years and U.S. Air Force Chaplain, joined the campaign. As a military chaplain, he regularly provided spiritual counseling and celebrated mass for servicemembers and their families. Preaching about abortion, an issue important to the Catholic Church, was no different. Yet in June 1996, the Pentagon issued a gag order forbidding military chaplains of all faiths from preaching freely about legislation on important moral issues.

The act also barred Rabbi David Kaye, a Jewish rabbi and military chaplain, from speaking about abortion to his congregation. Torn between following a moral imperative and a military order, Fr. Rigdon and Rabbi Kaye had no choice but to go to court to defend their freedom to preach.

Becket defends muzzled military chaplains from Pentagon gag order

In September 1996, Becket sued on behalf of Fr. Rigdon, Rabbi Kaye, the Muslim American Military Academy, and several service members arguing that the gag order violated the chaplains’ rights under the First Amendment and under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In April 1997, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with Becket that the gag order was an unconstitutional restriction of their free speech and free exercise rights.

Censoring sermons is unconstitutional. Every chaplain must be free to speak as their faith dictates, whether from the pulpit or inside the confessional. Thanks to Becket and the First Amendment, military chaplains are free to preach according to their conscience.

Learn more about this case by listening to our Podcast episode, “Orders and Obedience.”


Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Free Speech: The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when that view is unpopular. Chaplains must be free to preach without government censorship.
  • Individual Freedom: Becket defends the right of all individuals to live according to their consciences without government coercion. In this case, chaplains must be free to exercise their faith by addressing important moral issues.