Apaches in federal court to save their sacred land

SAN FRANCISCO – Apaches from Arizona were in federal court today to save their sacred site known as Oak Flat from being destroyed by a copper mine that would swallow their holy ground in a nearly 2-mile-wide crater deeper than the Eiffel Tower. If the court doesn’t intervene, the government will turn this historically protected land over to a foreign-owned mining company that will obliterate the sacred ground where the Apaches conduct their most important religious ceremonies.

In Apache Stronghold v. United States, Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to the defense of Native American sacred sites, is asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to stop a land swap, which would completely destroy the sacred land and religious exercise of the region’s first inhabitants. Becket is representing Apache Stronghold, arguing that the destruction of sacred sites is a flagrant violation of the free exercise of religion (watch their story).

“As it was at the beginning of our people with one prayer, one drum and one circle we again must defend our sacred land and our home with one prayer, one drum and one circle,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “We have worshipped on Oak Flat since time immemorial in reverence just as Abrahamic faiths reverence Mt. Sinai and we will continue to defend and protect our sacred place.”

Apache Stronghold is asking the Ninth Circuit to halt a land transfer to a foreign-owned mining company, which plans to destroy a traditional Apache sacred site as part of a multi-billion-dollar copper-mining plan. Oak Flat – known in Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel – is part of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. The federal government has protected the land from mining interests for more than six decades, recognizing that the Western Apaches and other tribes have long celebrated sacred ceremonies and gathered natural resources from the area. The worship of Western Apaches is inseparable from Oak Flat, where they gather medicinal plants, visit sacred springs, and conduct essential ceremonies such as the coming-of-age Sunrise Ceremony for Apache women—practices which cannot happen anywhere else.

Unfortunately, a midnight rider was slipped into a must-pass defense bill in 2014, directing the government to transfer the land to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company whose parent company, Rio Tinto, recently destroyed a sacred 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site in Australia. Now Apache Stronghold, a coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples, and non-Native allies, has asked the court to stop the land transfer because it would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

“The brazen destruction of a sacred site like Oak Flat is a tragic reminder of how terribly the United States government has treated, and still treats, Native peoples,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of Becket. “This kind of abuse would never be tolerated for other faith groups, and it is long past time for the courts to stop this injustice.”

A ruling in this case is expected in the coming months. In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael Nixon and Bill Carpenter.

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.

This week: Apaches in court to save their sacred land

WASHINGTON – Apaches in Arizona will be in federal court this week to save their spiritual lifeblood and sacred site known as Oak Flat from being destroyed by a copper mine that would swallow their holy ground in a nearly 2-mile-wide crater deeper than the Eiffel Tower. If the court doesn’t intervene, the government will turn this historically protected land over to a foreign-owned mining company that will obliterate the sacred ground where the Apaches conduct their most important religious ceremonies.   

In Apache Stronghold v. United States, Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to the defense of Native American sacred sites, is asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to stop a crooked land swap with a mining company that will completely destroy the sacred land and devastate the Apaches’ religious life. Becket is representing Apache Stronghold, arguing that the destruction of sacred sites is a flagrant violation of the free exercise of religion.  

Members of Apache Stronghold, Poor People’s Campaign and supporters will be protesting outside the courthouse during the virtual hearing. Details about the protest and hearing are below.  

What:
Oral Argument in Apache Stronghold v. United States 

Who:
Luke Goodrich, Becket vice president & senior counsel 
Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr., Apache Stronghold  

When:
Friday, October 22 at proximately 12 p.m. PST (time may change) 

Where:
Protest location (outdoors):
Civic Center Plaza
Larkin St between Grove St and Fulton St, San Francisco
9 a.m. – 1 p.m. PST

Oral argument will be held virtually at this link: Live Video Streaming of Oral Arguments and Events (uscourts.gov) 

Attorney Luke Goodrich and Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. will be available for comment immediately following the hearing. Join us for statements live on Twitter @BECKETlaw. 

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

Statements for media use:  

“As it was at the beginning of our people with one prayer, one drum and one circle we again must defend our sacred land and our home with one prayer, one drum and one circle,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “We have worshipped on Oak Flat since time immemorial in reverence just as Abrahamic faiths reverence Mt. Sinai and we will be outside the courthouse to defend and protect our sacred place.” 

“The government’s plan to destroy Oak Flat is a tragic reminder of how terribly our nation has treated, and still treats, native peoples,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Such callous disregard of religious practices would never be tolerated for other faith groups, and it is long past time for our nation to provide equal protection for Native Americans and their religious practices.” 

Photos © Russ McSpadden 

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. 

Supreme Court asked to protect clergy prayer for the condemned

WASHINGTON – A Texas death row inmate is asking the Supreme Court to protect his first freedom in his last hour. In Ramirez v. Collier, John Henry Ramirez has appealed to the Court to allow his spiritual advisor—a Southern Baptist pastor—to pray over him in the execution chamber. The Court will hear argument in the case on November 1. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief yesterday arguing that the First Amendment and federal civil rights law require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments. TDCJ’s ban on pastors praying aloud for the condemned or laying hands on them threatens centuries-old religious rituals that long predate the United States and continue to be practiced in prisons around the country. 

Becket argues that both audible clergy prayer and clergy touch stand at the center of the “historical practices and understandings” that define the Free Exercise right to clergy access for the condemned. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment requires TDCJ to prove that it has a really important reason to enforce these restrictions, and can accomplish its goals no other way—which it cannot do. 

“For some reason, Texas wants to turn back the clock hundreds of years on the rights of clergy to minister to the condemned,” said Eric Rassbach, VP & senior counsel at Becket. “If King George III could do it back then, and Alabama can do it today, Texas ought to be able to figure it out. The Supreme Court should tell Texas to allow Ramirez’s pastor to minister to him in the death chamber, including by praying aloud and laying hands on him. Human dignity and simple common sense demand no less.” 

Prior to 2019, Texas’ policy allowed Christian and Muslim chaplains into the death chamber. In a 2019 case, Patrick Murphy asked the TDCJ to allow his Buddhist priest into the execution chamber with him and to chant his prayers with him as he died. TDCJ denied Murphy this right, but after Becket filed a brief, the Supreme Court halted the execution. TDCJ responded to Murphy’s “equal treatment” claim by blocking spiritual advisors of all faiths from the execution chamber. After another Supreme Court ruling in favor of a prisoner supported by Becket, TDCJ’s policy now allows chaplains to be in the execution chamber, but still prohibits any spoken prayer or slight contact with the inmate. This runs contrary to centuries of religious practice, and even TDCJ’s own practices up until 2019. 

Ramirez’s request is not unusual. Clergy of choice have been allowed in most executions performed over the history of the United States, and in the lethal injection context, clergy members have offered touch and audible prayer in the final moments for decades.  

“Our country allowed clergy to minister to Revolutionary War traitors and Nazi war criminals at the gallows. We have always given condemned prisoners the chance to get right with God not because of who they are, but because of who we are,” said Rassbach. 

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in Ramirez v. Collier on November 1. 

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. 

Becket releases Season 2 of Stream of Conscience

WASHINGTON– Becket has just released Season 2 of Stream of Conscience, its highly acclaimed religious liberty podcast. In this brand-new season, hosts Katie Geary and Dr. Angela Wu Howard lead listeners on a deep dive into religious liberty’s fundamental constitutional components—the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause—and explore religious freedom in relation to other fundamental rights like the freedom of speech and the right to property. Over the coming months, Becket will release a total of ten new episodes, each featuring a case with lasting impact on religious freedom in America. 

In Season 2, Katie Geary and Dr. Angela Wu Howard bring to bear their collective expertise representing Americans of all faiths and telling their stories in the public square. The episodes include interviews with Americans who have put everything on the line to defend their First Amendment rights, the attorneys who have represented them, and experts in constitutional law. 

“Over the past decade, the Supreme Court has demonstrated a strong appetite for protecting Religious Freedom, setting critical precedents that benefit people of all faiths, and even people of no faith at all. There’s never been a more opportune time to dive into our First Freedom and learn more about its importance to every day Americans like you and me,” said Montse Alvarado, Vice President and Executive Director of Becket. “Stream of Conscience is designed to be thought provoking for everyone—from the veteran Supreme Court advocate to the student exploring religious freedom for the first time.” 

 The first three episodes will include: 

  • How the Lemon Test Soured the First Amendment. A look at how the meaning of the Establishment Clause was distorted—from its original purpose of preventing the establishment of a state-sponsored church, to a misunderstood “wall” keeping religion out of the public square—and how the Supreme Court is setting the record straight. 
  • Live Where You Serve. How one church in Chicago’s South Side provides a powerful example of the importance of a federal tax credit for the pastors who live among and serve underprivileged communities, and why it’s perfectly constitutional under the Establishment Clause.   
  • Why Won’t You Be my Neighbor? When a growing Chabad attempted to build a new synagogue and center, a small but vocal opposition used the court system to block its efforts—until Becket stepped in to correct the course.

An early, bonus episode of Stream of Conscience Season 2 was released on Tuesday, featuring the history of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, championed by Becket’s 2021 Canterbury Medal recipient, Senator Orrin G. Hatch.  

Episodes of Stream of Conscience Season 2 will premiere on a bimonthly basis and will be available for download on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, and Spotify.

 

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.

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). 

 

Supreme Court 2021-22: Goat-herding nuns, religious schools, prayer in the death chamber

WASHINGTON – Last year, in a range of cases concerning COVID-19, college campuses, the federal no-fly list, and foster care, the Supreme Court repeatedly strengthened religious liberty. In the upcoming 2021 Term, which opens October 4, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to protect rural families and their children’s access to religious private school education, prisoner’s comfort of clergy in the death chamber and goat-herding nuns from mandated abortion coverage in their insurance plan.  

In Carson v. Makin, the State of Maine has a religious discrimination problem. It provides funding to students in rural parts of the state who want to attend a secular elite prep school in another part of New England—or even overseas—but it won’t do the same for those who want to attend religious private schools down the street. Becket’s brief argues that this type of religious discrimination is unconstitutional because states can’t punish families and children for choosing religious schools. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in July of 2021 and oral argument is expected in late 2021 or early 2022.  

In Ramirez v. Collier, a condemned man is asking for his pastor to pray for him in the death chamber. The State of Texas has refused to allow John Ramirez’s pastor to pray aloud for Ramirez, or hold Ramirez’s hand in prayer, in the death chamber. As one of the oldest religious exercises in human history, allowing clergy to assist the condemned at the moment of death is at the heart of religious liberty. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Ramirez’s emergency application at the Supreme Court last week. That application was granted and the case was scheduled for argument before the Court on November 1, 2021.   

In Diocese of Albany v. Emami, nuns are back at the Supreme Court. This time, an order of nuns that provides healthcare services is among a coalition of religious groups fighting a New York state abortion mandate that would force them to cover abortion in their health plans. The mandate does have a narrow religious exemption—except Jesus himself wouldn’t qualify because Jesus served people of all faiths. That’s a problem for the Carmelite Sisters, because they perform social work for people of all faiths. Becket and the law firm Jones Day have filed a petition to the Supreme Court, and a decision to take the case could come as early as October 8.  

Join the Nation’s religious freedom experts to discuss these and other religious liberty cases to watch this coming term. On the call we will discuss the themes for the upcoming term, cases being heard this term and preview petitions currently pending before the Court. We will take questions at the end of the call. 

For more information about the agenda click here.

What:
Preview of the SCOTUS 2021-22 term 

Who:
Mark Rienzi, president of Becket
Montse Alvarado, COO of Becket 

When:
Tuesday, September 14, 2021 at 2:15 p.m. EDT 

Call-in:
Zoom ID: 849 8489 2727 or join us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727
Email questions in advance to: media@becketlaw.org.

This press call has already concluded. Click here listen to a recording.

Additionally, Becket has just launched season 2 of its Stream of Conscience podcast with the release of episode one: A Love Letter to RFRA. It can be found on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify and wherever else you stream!  

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. 

Becket to Supreme Court: Stop state discrimination against religious schools

WASHINGTON – Becket just filed its friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court in Carson v. Makin in support of religious schools’ ability to teach their faith without fear of government discrimination. The brief is in support of students in Maine who are wrongly barred from using Maine’s flexible schooling subsidy program to attend the school of their choice—a religious school.

Maine pays the private school tuition of students who live in certain thinly populated rural areas where no public schooling is available. This allows them to attend the school of their choice – unless they choose to attend a school with too much religious content according to the State, which reviews schools’ curriculums to ensure that they aren’t engaging in “sectarian” behavior. Students have used Maine student aid to attend elite New England prep schools such as Avon Old Farms, the Taft School, and Miss Porter’s. They are even entitled to use Maine student aid to attend private schools outside the country—as long as they aren’t religious.

“Maine will pay a student’s tuition if they want to attend a private school in England, but not if they want to attend a local faith-based school,” said Diana Thomson, senior counsel at Becket. “It is time for the Supreme Court to put an end to this unfair double-standard once and for all.”

States have a long history of excluding religious institutions from public benefits, often due to discriminatory Blaine Amendments that were passed during a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment starting in the late nineteenth century. However, as Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief points out, the Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution prevents laws that burden religious beliefs or actions simply because they are religious. In a previous case, Espinoza v. Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court ruled that Montana couldn’t single out religious schools for exclusion from a state scholarship program.

“It’s not right to target religious parents, students, and schools for a denial of government benefits,” said Thomson. “The Supreme Court has said that schools cannot be excluded for their religious status—that should have been enough. But now it should clarify that this rule includes schools that want to actually teach the faith to their students.”

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.

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).

Court affirms hiring rights for religious schools

WASHINGTON – A federal judge ruled today in favor of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, reaffirming its right to provide students and families with an authentic Catholic education. In Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a former co-director of guidance at a Catholic high school sued the Archdiocese after her contract was not renewed because she entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and of centuries-old Catholic teaching. Becket defended the Archdiocese, arguing that the government is constitutionally prohibited from forcing the Catholic Church to hire educators who reject Catholic teachings while serving in roles entrusted with passing on its faith. The court agreed, ruling that when an employee is “tasked with guiding students as they mature and grow into adulthood,” “[o]ne may reasonably presume that a religious school would expect faith to play a role in that work.”  

Every administrator, teacher, and guidance counselor at Roncalli High School signs an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives. In August of 2018, Lynn Starkey told Roncalli leadership that she was in a same-sex union in violation of her contract and centuries-old Catholic teaching. The school then explained that it could not renew her contract in light of her opposition to Catholic teaching. Ms. Starkey sued both Roncalli and the Archdiocese arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation. 

“Today’s ruling is common sense: religious groups have a constitutional right to hire people who agree with their religious beliefs and practices,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “At all levels of the judiciary, courts have made clear that the government has no place interfering with a religious organization’s decision about who can pass on the faith to the next generation.”  

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution forbids secular courts from interfering in important personnel decisions of churches and religious schools. The Court’s most recent decision came last year in Becket’s landmark case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berruin which it confirmed the principle of the “ministerial exception,” that religious schools should be free to choose their teachers without government interference. The full Seventh Circuit applied that ruling just last month in Becket’s win in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish. And today, the federal court in Starkey upheld the principle of church autonomy by keeping secular courts out of questions of faith. 

“Many parents make sacrifices so their children can attend Catholic schools that uphold the dignity of every human person and teach the fullness of the Catholic faith,” said Goodrich. “Today’s decision ensures that religious schools can remain faithful to their religious mission.” 

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. 

Federal court shuts down harmful Transgender Mandate

WASHINGTON – A federal court in Texas just blocked a harmful Biden administration policy known as the Transgender Mandate, which would force religious doctors and hospitals to perform gender transition procedures on their patients—including children—even when the procedures can be medically harmful. The case of Franciscan Alliance v. Becerra was brought by a religious hospital, an association of over 20,000 healthcare professionals, and nine states, and it is now the second court ruling blocking the administration from enforcing the policy.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for compassion, conscience, and common sense,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “No doctor should be forced to perform controversial, medically unsupported procedures that are contrary to their conscience and could be deeply harmful to their patients.” 

Five years and two presidents ago, the federal government issued a mandate that applied to nearly every doctor in the country — interpreting the Affordable Care Act to require them to perform gender transition procedures on any patient, including children, even if the doctor believed the procedure could harm the patient. Doctors who refused to violate their medical judgment would face severe consequences, including financial penalties and private lawsuits. Immediately, religious organizations and states sued, challenging the legality of the mandate in multiple courts. In 2016, a federal court in North Dakota put the rule on hold, and in 2019 another federal court in Texas struck it down. Recently, the Biden administration announced that it would revive the same policy. Today’s ruling stops that attempt.  

“These religious doctors and hospitals provide top-notch medical care to all patients for everything from cancer to the common cold,” said Goodrich. “Everyone benefits when doctors are able to follow their professional medical judgment and their Hippocratic Oath to ‘Do No Harm.’”  

The Biden administration will have 60 days to decide whether to appeal the court’s ruling. 

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. 

Three for three: student clubs prevail against religious discrimination

WASHINGTON – In Becket’s unanimous win today in InterVarsity v. University of Iowa, the federal court for the Eighth Circuit told University officials it was “hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination” than their discrimination against religious student groups, marking the third time religious groups successfully prevailed against discriminatory university administrators in recent months. The victory today and similar wins in InterVarsity v. Wayne State and BLinC v. University of Iowa make clear that universities must not discriminate against religious student clubs—and the Court warned that university officials who “make calculated choices about enacting or enforcing [such] unconstitutional policies” should be on notice that they are not entitled to qualified immunity but instead will be held personally accountable for their actions.  

“Schools are supposed to be a place of free inquiry and open thought, but the school officials here punished opinions they didn’t like and promoted ones they did—all while using taxpayer dollars to do it,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “The good news is that they’ve been held accountable, and school officials nationwide are on notice. We are optimistic that in the future, colleges will pursue policies of accommodation, not discrimination, when it comes to religious exercise on campus.”

In 2018, the University of Iowa deregistered InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship and numerous other religious groups—including Muslim and Sikh groups—because of their common-sense requirement that their leaders agree with their religious beliefs. As in the Wayne State and BLinC cases, the University justified its targeting of religious clubs by accusing the clubs of “discrimination” for wanting their leadership to share their values—even while the schools permitted other organizations (such as sororities, fraternities, and political or activist groups) to consider criteria such as a student’s sex, race, or ideology in the selection of club leadership and membership. Today’s victory will bring all campus religious student groups lasting protection from religious discrimination by officials at public universities. 

The Court encapsulated the situation—and the unconstitutionality—neatly: 

What the University did here was clearly unconstitutional. It targeted religious groups for differential treatment under the Human Rights Policy—while carving out exemptions and ignoring other violative groups with missions [the University] presumably supported. The University and individual defendants turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence or they proceeded full speed ahead knowing they were violating the law. 

Religious student clubs like InterVarsity provide a valuable place for students to meet, pray, study, and worship. They also help students serve the community, mentoring at-risk youth, raising funds to combat global poverty and cleaning up local neighborhoods. Religious student groups provide a way for students to take time from their studies to focus on their faith and on helping others. And religious groups rely on their student leaders to keep that focus strong.  

“Religious groups should be able to have religious leaders. Government officials don’t get to tell Christians, Muslims, or Sikhs who will lead their prayers or their worship,” said Blomberg. “That’s not just bedrock constitutional law, it’s also common sense. And now the University of Iowa knows it.”  

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 rules church allowed to select & supervise ministers

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled that religious organizations have the freedom to choose and supervise their religious leaders, free from government intrusion. In Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, the former music director of St. Andrew parish sued the Archdiocese of Chicago for requiring its liturgical leaders to follow the Catholic faith. After a Seventh Circuit panel ruled against the Archdiocese, Becket joined the Archdiocese to ask the entire court to rehear the case. On Friday, the en banc Seventh Circuit reversed the panel’s previous ruling and declared that the “ministerial exception,” a doctrine that protects against government intrusion into the employment relationships between churches and their ministers, protects the entire ministerial relationship and not just the beginning or end.  

“Worship is sacred. That’s why worship leaders who select and perform elements of worship are ministers of the faith, conveying its teachings to the faithful,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “That’s also why the church—not the state—gets to make sure that its music ministers are directing its congregation in a way that’s faithful to its beliefs.” 

The Seventh Circuit’s ruling upholds important First Amendment principles for the interaction of church and state, reminding lower courts that “we cannot lose sight of the harms—civil intrusion and excessive entanglement—that the ministerial exception prevents.” Thus, instead of merely safeguarding the beginning and end of a ministerial relationship, the First Amendment “covers the entire employment relationship, including hiring, firing, and supervising in between.”  

As a church music director and organist, Sandor Demkovich played a central role in planning and performing the liturgy and conveying the Catholic faith to St. Andrew’s congregation. When Mr. Demkovich entered into a same-sex marriage in violation of his employment agreement and 2,000-year-old Church teaching, the pastor had to terminate his employment. Mr. Demkovich then sued the Archdiocese.  

“The court ruled that the government can’t interfere in the ministerial relationship between a church and worship leaders,” said Blomberg. “It’s common sense that if the government can’t tell a church which ministers to hire or fire, it also can’t manage churches’ ministerial relationships in between.”  

The Archdiocese of Chicago is also represented by its General Counsel, James Geoly, who argued the case before the panel and the en banc court, and by Alex Marks at Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. 

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. 

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

Texas Supreme Court: First Amendment bars clergyman’s million-dollar suit against Catholic Church

WASHINGTON –The Texas Supreme Court, by a vote of 8-1, rejected a million-dollar defamation lawsuit today against the Catholic Diocese of Lubbock, ensuring that religious organizations are free to speak transparently with their flocks about their clergy. 

The Texas Supreme Court recognized the full scope of the First Amendment’s freedom for religious institutions to shape their own faith and missions. Religious institutions are not only free to make “internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission.” They are also free to make any “publications that relate to a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission.”  

As the court said, a religious institution’s freedom “is based not on whether a publication goes beyond church walls but rather whether the substance and nature of the … claims implicate ecclesiastical matters, including a church’s internal affairs, governance, or administration.” It is not enough that a secular court can think of a way to make a claim sound non-religious. As the court stated in its opinion, “a civil suit that is inextricably intertwined with a church’s directive to investigate its clergy cannot proceed in the courts.” Any other conclusion would mean that religious institutions are not free to make decisions “consistent with [their] own norms and policies.”   

 “The Church carries its mission well beyond its four walls,” said William Haun, counsel at Becket. “We are happy that the court recognized that fundamental truth today, and that the First Amendment does not allow government bodies—including courts—to interfere with internal religious decisions. Religious organizations do not surrender their freedom to govern themselves just because they speak in public on matters affecting their faith, clergy, and moral witness.”  

In 2019, the Catholic dioceses of Texas agreed to compile and release lists of clergy members credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor. This was part of the Catholic Church’s broader effort to reform its governance around transparency toward clergy misconduct, better protect vulnerable community members, and restore lost trust. The list was drawn up in accordance with the Canon Law of the Catholic Church, which defines a “minor” as any person habitually lacking the use of reason. Deacon Guerrero was placed on the list after he had been permanently removed from public ministry following allegations of sexual misconduct with a woman who has a history of mental and emotional illness.   

As a Catholic clergyman, Deacon Guerrero knew about Canon Law and was obliged to follow it. He sued the Diocese in 2019 claiming defamation because the woman he was accused of abusing was older than 18 years of age.   

After two lower courts ruled against the Diocese, Becket represented the Diocese on appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. The Diocese’s petitions received the support of 34 members of the Texas legislature, the Texas Attorney General’s Office, prominent legal scholars, and a diverse array of religious organizations.  

“Today the Texas Supreme Court said ‘Don’t mess with Texas churches,’” said Haun. “Any other decision would have amounted to punishing the Church for doing the right thing by its members.” 

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. 

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. 

Indiana court upholds religious freedom for Catholic schools

WASHINGTON – An Indiana trial court today issued an important ruling in favor of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, confirming its right to ensure students and families receive an authentic Catholic education. In Payne-Elliot v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a former Catholic high school teacher sued the Archdiocese after he was dismissed for entering a same-sex union in violation of his contract and millennia of Church teaching. The trial court initially ruled that the lawsuit could move forward, but the Indiana Supreme Court sent the case back down and authorized the trial court to reconsider. The court then threw out the entire case, vindicating the Archdiocese’s constitutional right to set religious standards for its schools.

Every Catholic school teacher in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis signs an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed. In 2017, Joshua Payne-Elliott, who taught at Cathedral Catholic High School in Indianapolis, entered a same-sex union in violation of both his employment agreement and centuries of Catholic teaching. After an extensive period of discernment and dialogue, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis informed Cathedral High School that if it wanted to remain affiliated with the Catholic Church, it needed to require its teachers to uphold Church teaching. After Cathedral separated from Mr. Payne-Elliott and provided him with a settlement, he sued the Archdiocese.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for asking Catholic educators to support Catholic teaching,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is representing the Archdiocese. “This has always been a very simple case, because the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the freedom of religious schools to choose teachers who support their religious faith.”

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution protects the personnel decisions of churches and religious schools. The Court’s most recent decision came earlier this year in Becket’s landmark cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, in which the Supreme Court affirmed the right of religious organizations to “autonomy” in matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance. Prior to that, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the same right in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, another Becket case. Today, the Indiana court applied that principle and affirmed that the government has no business interfering in religious standards at religious schools.

In September 2020, both the United States Department of Justice and the State of Indiana filed briefs in the case, arguing that “settled law on the church-autonomy doctrine makes clear that the First Amendment prohibits the [lawsuit].” It is not yet clear if the plaintiff intends to appeal.

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.

Corte Internacional es urgida a permitir que las iglesias, sinagogas y mezquitas elijan a maestros de religión, no el Estado

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WASHINGTON – Hoy, el Fondo Becket Pro Libertad Religiosa presentó un escrito amicus curiae en la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. El Fondo Becket aclaró la importancia de este derecho argumentando que las iglesias, sinagogas y mezquitas de todo el hemisferio occidental, no los funcionarios estatales, son quienes deberían elegir quién enseña religión en las escuelas. El caso, Sandra Pavez vs. Chile, se refiere a una demanda presentada contra la Diócesis de San Bernardo, Chile, por un maestro de escuela cuya certificación para enseñar la fe católica fue revocada por la diócesis por una violación del derecho canónico católico.

El escrito de Becket explica que los tribunales internacionales y nacionales de todo el mundo han reconocido el principio fundamental de autonomía de la iglesia: el control religioso sobre cuestiones religiosas, como es el caso de decidir quién enseña la fe a la siguiente generación. El escrito de Becket insta a la Corte Interamericana —un tribunal internacional con jurisdicción sobre 35 naciones del hemisferio occidental, incluidos los Estados Unidos, Canadá, México y Argentina, entre otras naciones— a reconocer dicho principio como ya lo han hecho otros tribunales internacionales.

“La autonomía de los grupos religiosos es fundamental para toda sociedad democrática”, dijo Diana Verm, asesora senior de Becket. “Los funcionarios estatales simplemente no deberían de ingerir en la elección de obispos, rabinos, imames o maestros de religión”.

En Chile, una nación predominantemente católica, las clases de religión se imparten en escuelas públicas, pero al tratarse de una cuestión de autonomía religiosa, los maestros de estas clases deben ser certificados por el obispo católico local como calificados para enseñar la religión católica. Cuando Sandra Pavez, profesora de religión en una escuela pública en San Bernardo se casó con una persona del mismo sexo en violación de la enseñanza de la Iglesia, la Diócesis de San Bernardo revocó su certificación.

A pesar de que la Sra. Pavez fue retenida en su empleo e incluso promovida a un mejor puesto por la escuela, demandó a la diócesis —que no era su empleador— por discriminación laboral. Cuando los tribunales chilenos fallaron en su contra, presentó una demanda contra la nación de Chile en la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, alegando que Chile había permitido una “injerencia arbitraria en la vida privada” en violación de la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos.

El escrito de Becket explica que una amplia gama de precedentes legales —provenientes del derecho internacional de los derechos humanos, de las constituciones y leyes de los Estados Unidos y del Tribunal Europeo de Derechos Humanos— apoyan sistemáticamente el principio de autonomía religiosa como fundamental para todos los Estados democráticos. De hecho, la autonomía religiosa proporciona una protección especial para los grupos minoritarios e impopulares. Por el contrario, estados autoritarios como Irán y Rusia no respetan ni la autonomía religiosa ni a las personas LGBTQ.

“Es mejor tanto para la Iglesia como para el Estado que el Estado no decida sobre cuestiones religiosas”, dijo Verm. “Todas las sociedades democráticas reconocen ese hecho fundamental. La Corte Interamericana debería estar del lado de esos países, no de violadores seriales de los derechos humanos como Arabia Saudita o Corea del Norte”.

Para obtener más información o para concertar una entrevista con un abogado de Becket comuníquese con Ryan Colby a media@becketlaw.org o al 202-349-7219. Las entrevistas se pueden realizar en inglés, chino, francés, alemán, portugués, ruso y español.

International court urged to let churches, synagogues, and mosques choose religion teachers, not the state

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WASHINGTON – The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief late yesterday at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, arguing that churches, synagogues, and mosques throughout the Western Hemisphere—not state officials—should choose who teaches religion in schools. The case, Pavez v. Chile, concerns a lawsuit brought against the Diocese of San Bernardo, Chile, by a schoolteacher whose certification to teach the Catholic faith was revoked by the diocese over a violation of Catholic canon law.

Becket’s brief explains that international and national courts around the world have recognized the fundamental principle of church autonomy: religious control over religious questions like who teaches the faith to the next generation. Becket’s brief urges the Inter-American Court—an international tribunal with jurisdiction over 35 nations in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Argentina, among others—to recognize the same principle that other international tribunals have.

“The autonomy of religious groups is fundamental to any democratic society,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “State officials simply should not be in the business of picking bishops, rabbis, imams, or teachers of religion.”

In Chile, a predominantly Catholic nation, religion classes are taught in government schools, but as a matter of religious autonomy, the teachers of these classes must be certified by the local Catholic bishop as qualified to teach the Catholic religion. When Sandra Pavez, a religion teacher in a government school in San Bernardo, entered a same-sex marriage in violation of Church teaching, the Diocese of San Bernardo revoked her certification.

Although Ms. Pavez was retained and even promoted by the school, she sued the diocese—which was not her employer—for employment discrimination. When Chilean courts ruled against her, she brought a case against the nation of Chile in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, alleging that Chile had allowed “arbitrary interference in private life” in violation of the American Convention on Human Rights.

Becket’s brief explains that a broad array of legal precedents—from international human rights law, from the constitutions and laws of American nations, and from the European Court of Human Rights—consistently support the principle of religious autonomy as fundamental to all democratic states. Indeed, religious autonomy provides special protection for minority and unpopular groups. By contrast, authoritarian states like Iran and Russia fail to respect both religious autonomy and LGBTQ persons.

“It is better for both church and state if the state does not decide religious questions,” said Verm. “All democratic societies recognize that fundamental fact. The Inter-American Court should side with those countries, not serial human rights violators like Saudi Arabia or North Korea.”

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.

New York tries forcing nuns to pay for abortions

WASHINGTON – Multiple orders of Catholic and Anglican nuns, alongside several Catholic dioceses, Christian churches, and faith-based social justice ministries asked the Supreme Court late last week to hear their case against New York’s abortion mandate. In Diocese of Albany v. Lacewell, the diverse coalition of religious organizations sued New York after its Department of Financial Services required that all employers cover abortions in their health insurance plans. After losing in the state court, the religious organizations have now petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to protect their right to operate their ministries without being forced to provide abortions.

“Our faith tells us that every life is precious from the moment of conception to the final breath. That’s why we spend our lives praying and serving to lift others’ burdens,” said Mother Miriam, of the Sisterhood of Saint Mary, the oldest religious order founded in America in the Anglican tradition. “New York has told us that if we want to hold our beliefs about the sanctity of life, we have to stop serving non-Anglicans. We cannot compromise on our religious beliefs, or in our service to people of all faiths or no faith at all. That’s why we need relief from the Supreme Court.”

When the New York State Department of Financial Services initially proposed the abortion mandate, it promised to respect the First Amendment by exempting employers with religious objections. But after facing pressure from abortion activists, New York narrowed the exemption to protect only religious entities whose purpose is to inculcate religious values and who primarily serve and hire coreligionists. This narrow exemption thus doesn’t apply to most religious ministries that serve people regardless of their faith. For example, the exemption doesn’t extend to the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm and their Teresian Nursing Home because they serve the elderly and dying regardless of religious affiliation. Nor does it extend to the First Bible Baptist Church, which operates social justice ministries for underserved community members.

“When New York instituted its abortion mandate, the Little Sisters of the Poor were already two Supreme Court victories into their battle against the contraceptive mandate. Now they’ve won for a third time, sending the clear message that the government can’t make nuns do its dirty work,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “New York’s failure to learn from the Little Sisters’ saga that you can’t make nuns pay for abortions is beyond reason. The Court needs to step in and teach New York that lesson.”

The story of nuns being ordered to pay for drugs and procedures that violate their religious beliefs has already played out at the federal level. In 2011, the United States Department of Health and Human Services ordered employers to cover controversial contraceptives and abortifacients in their health care plan or face crippling fines. Immediately, a lawsuit was brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor—an order of Catholic nuns who dedicate their lives to serving the elderly poor. Three times the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor, saying that if the government wanted to find a way to provide contraceptives and abortifacients, it couldn’t force the nuns to help.

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: Wayne State’s actions “obviously odious to the Constitution”

WASHINGTON – A federal court just ruled against Wayne State University, finding that it discriminated against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a religious student club, when it kicked the group off campus for requiring its leaders to be Christians. As the court stated, at Wayne State, “[s]tudent groups were permitted to restrict leadership based on sex, gender identity, political partisanship, ideology, creed, ethnicity, and even GPA and physical attractiveness.” However, religious groups were not allowed to require that leaders share any of a group’s religious beliefs and at Wayne State, it was a “small group of Christians, who were denied [student organization] benefits because they require their Christian leaders to be . . . Christian.” The court concluded that Wayne State’s actions to force religious groups to accept leaders “who may be hostile to [their] religious tenets” were obviously wrong and “strike at the heart” of the First Amendment: “No religious group can constitutionally be made an outsider, excluded from equal access to public or university life, simply because it insists on religious leaders who believe in its cause.” Because Wayne State’s actions were “obviously odious to the Constitution,” the court held Wayne State officials personally liable for violating the rights of Wayne State’s religious students.

“The law is crystal clear: universities can’t kick religious student groups off campus just because they choose leaders who share their faith,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “The court’s common-sense ruling today means that InterVarsity must be treated fairly, just as it had been for 75 years at Wayne State, and now can continue its good work serving a diverse campus community.”

InterVarsity’s student group had been a part of Wayne State for three-quarters of a century, holding Bible studies and providing a place for community discussion. InterVarsity is open to all students, but, like many other student groups, it requires its student leaders to adhere to its mission and purpose. The university never had a problem with their policy until 2017 when, during a routine club membership reapplication process, Wayne State told InterVarsity that asking its leaders to share its faith was “discriminatory” and deregistered the group.

But the court said Wayne State had things backward—it was the school that had discriminated against the small student group: “Disparate and discriminatory treatment of religious groups due to their religious character violates the Free Exercise Clause.” In fact, Wayne State’s attempt to control a religious group’s leadership selection was “categorically barred by the Constitution.” And the law on this point was so clear that the court held that Wayne State officials are personally liable for their actions.

In 2018, Becket sued Wayne State on InterVarsity’s behalf, since the group had been excluded. Wayne State relented and let InterVarsity back onto its campus but argued that it still had the right to remove the group later. Today’s ruling safeguards InterVarsity and sends a clear message that accommodation, not discrimination, is the best policy.

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.

Why are we treated worse than others?

WASHINGTON – A Christian student group will ask a federal court this week to rule that public universities must treat religious student groups equally with other campus organizations. In InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University, InterVarsity had its 75-year-old status as a registered student organization suddenly revoked by Wayne State University because the group asks its leaders to embrace its Christian faith. But other student groups—such as political and ideological groups, fraternities and sororities, club sports, and select groups favored by university officials—can select leaders and members based on their mission or purpose. InterVarsity is seeking a ruling that will guarantee equal treatment with those groups. The argument comes on the heels of yesterday’s federal appellate ruling in BLinC v. University of Iowa, holding that the First Amendment requires equal treatment for religious groups.

What:
Oral Argument in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University

Who:
Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket

When:
Wednesday, March 24, 2021 at 2:00 p.m. EDT

Where:
U.S. District Court
Eastern District of Michigan
Listen live HERE
Passcode: 015433

Lori Windham will be available for comment 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.

 

Native Americans appeal for protection of sacred sites

WASHINGTON – In the last week, two groups of Native Americans brought two different cases to a federal appeals court, seeking to protect their religious freedom and stop the government from destroying sacred sites where they have worshipped since time immemorial. The rare convergence of these two cases presents a major test of Native American religious freedom: Will Native Americans receive the same protections for their religious practices that other faith groups enjoy?

Members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde on Monday appealed to the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Slockish v. U.S. Federal Highway Administration, seeking justice after the government knowingly destroyed a sacred site in Oregon near Mount Hood that included ancient burial grounds, a campground, and a stone altar. The government bulldozed the site in 2008 during a highway-widening project, even though tribal members repeatedly alerted officials to the importance of the site, and highway officials protected a nearby wetlands and a tattoo parlor. The case has been stalled in court for over a decade—during which time one of the plaintiffs, Johnny Jackson, sadly passed away—but is finally moving forward. (Watch their story.)

Members of Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to the defense of Native American sacred sites, filed a request on Thursday in Apache Stronghold v. United States to save their spiritual lifeblood, a sacred site called Oak Flat, from being destroyed by a copper mine that would swallow their holy ground in a nearly 2-mile-wide 1,000-foot-deep crater. Oak Flat is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has been protected from mining for more than six decades, but, in a 2014 midnight backroom deal politicians slipped in a “rider” to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, letting the government transfer the land to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company. (See video.)

“The wanton destruction of Native American sacred sites is a tragic reminder of how terribly the United States government has treated, and still treats, native peoples,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of Becket. “This kind of abuse would never be tolerated for other faith groups, and it is long past time for the legal system to end it.”

“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 Grande Ronde and plaintiff in Slockish. “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.”

“Oak Flat is a holy, sacred, and consecrated place which remains central to our identity as Apache People,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “We have our own legacy of persistence and are never letting go of this place. Oak Flat’s religious value to our prayers, our ceremonies, and in our family histories cannot be overstated. Development of the Resolution Copper Mine would directly and permanently damage our traditional cultural property that is vital to us, which is why we strongly oppose this operation.”

The plaintiffs in Slockish are represented by Becket together with Oregon City attorney James Nicita and Keith Talbot of the Seattle-based law firm, Patterson Buchanan Forbes & Leitch. The plaintiffs in Apache Stronghold are represented by Becket together with attorneys Michael Nixon and Bill Carpenter.

Photos of Oak Flat and Apache Stronghold © Robin Silver Photography

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.

University of Iowa gets a lesson on the First Amendment

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court just ruled that University of Iowa officials who kicked a student club off campus because of its faith can be held personally accountable for the harm they caused. The university targeted Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC, for requiring its student leaders to affirm the Christian faith. The university oddly claimed this was a violation of its nondiscrimination policy, even though it allowed other religious groups to select faith-compliant leaders and openly encouraged other groups—like fraternities and sororities—to select leaders based on other characteristics covered by the nondiscrimination policy. Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recognized this selective enforcement of the university’s policy for what it is: blatant viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment. And its ruling makes clear that university officials are personally responsible for such knowingly unconstitutional conduct.

In a partial concurrence/partial dissent, Judge Kobes concluded with these words:

The law is clear: state organizations may not target religious groups for differential treatment or withhold an otherwise available benefit solely because they are religious. That is what happened here. The individual defendants may pick their poison: they are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution. Either way, they should not get qualified immunity.

BLinC is a Christian student group at the university that helps business students live out their faith in the workplace. The university initially recognized its members as some of the best students on campus and assured them they could select leaders who embraced their faith. But the university later did an abrupt about-face, accusing BLinC of discrimination and kicking it off campus.

“BLinC takes good students and makes them better by strengthening their resolve to remain true to their moral compass in the cutthroat business world,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Any wise university would be thrilled to have them on campus, but the University of Iowa tried hounding them off instead. Fortunately, the First Amendment protects their right to remain on campus on the same terms as every other student group.”

In October 2017, after a student complained about being denied a leadership position, school officials subjected BLinC to a lengthy investigation, ultimately demanding that it “revise” its beliefs and strip faith out of its leadership criteria. But while BLinC welcomes all students as members, to maintain its religious mission, it needs leaders who agree with its faith. While other campus clubs were allowed to set their own criteria for leaders, the school removed BLinC from campus for doing the same and told them their leadership selection was discriminatory.

Even after a federal judge warned the university about its double standards, university officials went on a deregistering spree to cover their tracks, ultimately kicking other Christian, Sikh, and Muslim student groups off campus for reserving leadership positions for students who shared their faith. But at the same time, fraternities and sororities, political groups, and other ideology-based organizations were left untouched, even though they discriminate based on sex, other characteristics protected by the nondiscrimination policy, or—like BLinC—agreement with their underlying mission. A lower court last year ruled that the court’s discrimination against BLinC was illegal, and that the university had to let BLinC back on campus once and for all. The Eighth Circuit’s decision affirms that ruling, while holding the individual officials personally responsible for their discriminatory application of the university’s nondiscrimination policy.

“It’s deeply ironic that school officials tried using the university’s nondiscrimination policy to discriminate against religion,” said Baxter. “They knew this was wrong, yet did it anyway. We’re pleased the court has recognized that such blatant religious discrimination brings personal consequences.”

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 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. 

Doctors fight mandate to perform gender transition procedures on children

WASHINGTON – Doctors and hospitals were in federal court today to protect both their conscience rights and child patients from unscientific meddling by government bureaucrats. In Franciscan Alliance v. Cochran, a federal initiative known as the Transgender Mandate threatens to drive religious doctors out of practice if they do not perform gender-transition procedures, even if they, exercising their best medical judgment, believe the procedures to be harmful. The mandate first appeared in a regulation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2016, which applied to virtually every doctor in the country, and included no medical-judgment or religious exemptions. Doctors who refused to violate their conscience would have faced severe consequences, including losing their job.

“Medical decisions related to gender transition have serious implications, and it is clearly in patients’ best interests to ensure that doctors are able to serve in keeping with their consciences and their medical judgment,” said Luke Goodrich, VP & senior counsel at Becket. “Government bureaucrats in Washington who want to force doctors to perform controversial, experimental procedures are putting children in harm’s way.”

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 required 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. Today, doctors and hospitals were in court to seek lasting relief and to protect their informed medical judgment.

“The harmful Transgender Mandate undermines the federal government’s own medical experts’ advice on treating children with gender dysphoria,” said Goodrich. “Yet, politicians and activists are trying to force private doctors, on pain of severe punishment, to perform controversial procedures that can be deeply harmful to patients.”

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 to decide whether feds can force doctors to give controversial drugs and treatments to children

WASHINGTON – With almost every doctor in America on the hook to perform gender transition procedures on children diagnosed with gender dysphoria under the federal government’s reading of the Affordable Care Act, Becket will be in court Wednesday to protect both medical conscience rights and child patients from unscientific meddling by Washington bureaucrats. In Franciscan Alliance v. Cochran, a healthcare network with a Catholic mission to follow the work of St. Francis of Assisi and an association of over 19,000 Christian healthcare providers sued the federal government after a 2016 mandate, known as the Transgender Mandate, required doctors to perform gender transition procedures on any patient, including a child, even if the doctor believed the procedure could harm the patient. Becket obtained a decision that the Transgender Mandate was unlawful in 2019 but is now back in court seeking lasting relief on behalf of doctors and hospitals whose medical judgment and religious beliefs alike forbid them from participating in transition procedures they believe to be harmful.

What:
Oral argument at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Franciscan Alliance v. Cochran

Who:
Joe Davis, counsel at Becket

When:
Wednesday, March 3, 2021, at 2:30 p.m. EST

Where:
Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
Listen live at https://5thcircuit.streamguys1.com/east.
(Link will be live once oral argument begins)

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 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Midnight backroom deal threatens to wipe out Apache sacred site

WASHINGTON – Apaches in Arizona filed an emergency appeal yesterday to save their spiritual lifeblood, a sacred site called Oak Flat, from being destroyed by a copper mine that would swallow their holy ground in 2-mile-wide crater deeper than the Eiffel Tower. If the court doesn’t intervene, the government will turn this historically protected land over to mining company that can begin the destruction in as few as 15 days.  

In Apache Stronghold v. United StatesApache Stronghold, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to the defense of Native American sacred sites, is pleading with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to stop a crooked land swap, which would completely destroy the sacred land and religious exercise of the region’s first inhabitants. Becket is representing Apache Stronghold, arguing that the destruction of sacred sites is a flagrant violation of the free exercise of religion.  

Long a sacred place for Apaches and other native peoples, Oak Flat (or Chi’chil Bildagoteel in Apache) also contains copper, making it vulnerable to the exploitation of mining companies. Recognizing its responsibility to Native peoples, the federal government has protected the sacred site from mining interests for more than six decades. But in 2014in a midnight backroom deal, Senator John McCain attached a “rider” to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, letting the government transfer the land to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company. In January 2021, when word leaked that the required environmental study was about to trigger the transfer, Apache Stronghold sued the government to save Oak Flat. But on February 12, 2021, a federal district court ruled that the destruction of their sacred land did not constitute a “substantial burden” on their religious liberty.  

Unfortunately, the U.S. government has a history of destroying Apaches lives and land for the sake of mining interests. In the 1870s, the government forced the Apache people onto the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation and authorized miners to take Apache land. Today, although many of their ancestral sacred sites have been destroyed, thousands of Apaches maintain the essential connection to their Creator by worshipping at Oak Flat. At this beautiful, ecologically rich location, Apaches harvest sacred medicinal plants, access sacred springs, and perform essential religious ceremonies, such as the coming-of-age Sunrise Ceremony. These practices must be performed at Oak Flat, which has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as a vital sacred site.  

“Being driven from our ancestral lands and imprisoned on reservations is still a deep wound borne by the Apache people. Now, the United States government is trying to sell us out again—making way for a foreign company to desecrate our sacred land,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “My people are pleading with the court to stop this unconstitutional destruction of native land and preserve Oak Flat so that we can continue taking our children and our grandchildren there to worship and pray.”

Resolution Copper, if given possession of Oak Flatwould completely destroy the sacred land with a 2-mile-wide1,100-foot-deep crater in order to access the copper underneath the land. Unless the courts halt the land transfer, Oak Flat will officially change hands as soon as March 11, 2021 

Our nation has a tragic history of destroying Apache lives and land for the sake of mining interests,” said Luke Goodrichvice president and senior counsel at Becket. The very least our legal system can do is ensure that Apache religious practices are treated with the same respect as all other faiths, and that this vital sacred site is preserved for generations to come. The Constitution, not to mention basic human decency, requires no less.”  

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

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. 

Supreme Court allows pastoral comfort for condemned in execution chamber

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court denied Alabama’s request to overturn a lower court’s order granting a death row prisoner the right to have his pastor accompany him to the death chamber. The Alabama Department of Corrections has banned all clergy from the death chamber, depriving prisoners like Willie Smith from praying with a clergy member during their final moments. Smith’s execution was scheduled for last night, but a federal appeals court ordered Alabama to allow Smith’s pastor in the death chamber, and the Supreme Court upheld that decision.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett, agreed with the Court’s decision, writing that “past practice, in Alabama and elsewhere, shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber.”

“If Willie Smith has to leave this world, he shouldn’t have to leave it all alone,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “Alabama used to know that, which is why it always required a chaplain to be with the condemned man until the end. Prisoners should be allowed to make peace with their Maker in their final moments. We are glad the Supreme Court has ensured that can happen in this case.”

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Dunn v. Smith in support of Smith’s request for Pastor Robert Paul Wiley, Jr. to accompany him to the gurney. Becket pointed out that most of the prisoners who were executed in the United States over the last year could have a clergy member of their choice present in the execution chamber. If the federal government and other states have been able to offer this religious accommodation, Alabama should be able to as well. In fact, Alabama required clergy in the chamber until 2019, when it changed its requirement as a result of prisoner litigation requesting equal treatment. In Murphy v. Collier, a Buddhist prisoner requested that his spiritual advisor be available instead of the Christian or Muslim chaplains that the prison provided. When the Supreme Court required at least equal treatment for all faiths, Alabama banned all clergy from the death chamber, even its own prison chaplains.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit required Alabama to allow clergy into the execution chamber and the Supreme Court agreed with that decision, delaying the execution until Smith is allowed a pastor in the chamber.

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

Alabama prisoner to Supreme Court: let me pray with my pastor at the hour of my death

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is now considering an Alabama prisoner’s request to have access to a clergy member of his faith in the chamber during his execution for prayer and spiritual guidance. The Alabama Department of Corrections has banned all clergy from the execution chamber, depriving prisoners like Willie Smith from praying with a clergy member during their final moments. Smith’s execution was scheduled for today, but late last night a federal appeals court ordered Alabama to allow Smith’s pastor to enter the chamber. Alabama has now asked the Supreme Court to reverse that decision and allow the execution to go forward without comfort of clergy.

“Allowing clergy to be present for condemned prisoners at the moment of death is an ancient and common practice, one that Alabama is familiar with,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “In fact, until 2019, Alabama not only allowed but required clergy in the death chamber. That shows Alabama is less concerned about security than it is about litigation tactics.”

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Dunn v. Smith in support of Smith’s request for Pastor Robert Paul Wiley, Jr. to accompany him to the gurney. Becket pointed out that most of the prisoners who were executed in the United States over the last year were allowed to have a clergy member of their choice present in the execution chamber. If the federal government and other states have been able to offer this religious accommodation, Alabama should be able to as well. In fact, Alabama required clergy in the chamber until 2019, when it changed its requirement as a result of prisoner litigation requesting equal treatment. In Murphy v. Collier, a Buddhist prisoner requested that his spiritual advisor be available instead of the Christian or Muslim chaplains that the prison provided. When the Supreme Court required equal treatment for all faiths, Alabama banned all clergy from the death chamber, even its own prison chaplains.

“The Constitution and federal law require more than equal treatment, they require that prisoners be allowed to exercise their sincere religious faith whenever possible,” said Verm. “That includes allowing clergy to pray with prisoners as they cross over into death.”

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit required Alabama to allow clergy into the execution chamber, likely delaying the execution that was scheduled for today. Alabama has asked the Supreme Court to reverse that order.

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

Chicago Church to Court: Keep government out of the mass

WASHINGTON – The Archdiocese of Chicago went to court today asking to keep the government from choosing who leads its masses. In Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, the former music director of St. Andrew parish is suing the Archdiocese of Chicago for requiring its liturgical leaders to follow the Catholic faith. Becket is defending the Archdiocese of Chicago and St. Andrew parish before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the full court to follow settled law and allow religious groups to supervise their own ministers of the faith without governmental entanglement.

Last August, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled against the Archdiocese. That decision was at odds with previous Seventh Circuit decisions, rulings of other federal circuits, and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, another Becket case in which the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of churches to select and supervise their ministers free from government interference. The full court vacated the panel’s opinion and reheard the case today.

“He who sings, prays twice—so whoever leads the singing is central to church worship,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “Allowing the government to entangle itself in the relationship between a church and its ministers runs headlong into the wall between church and state.”

As the church music director, Sandor Demkovich played a central role in planning the liturgy and conveying the Catholic faith to St. Andrew’s congregation. When Mr. Demkovich entered into a same-sex marriage in violation of his employment agreement and 2,000-year-old Church teaching, the pastor had to let him go. Mr. Demkovich then sued the Archdiocese for discrimination.

“Courts nationwide have consistently ruled that the government doesn’t get to inject itself into the church-minister relationship,” said Blomberg. “Churches, not judges or government officials, should control who stands at the pulpit or in front of the choir.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago is also represented by its General Counsel, Jim Geoly, and by Alex Marks at Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C.

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

Judge blocks Cuomo’s COVID restrictions—after he begs

WASHINGTON – A federal district court judge just issued an order blocking Governor Cuomo’s discriminatory limits on Orthodox Jewish synagogues permanently after Cuomo—in a peculiar move—asked the judge to rule against him and end the restrictions. The judge’s order applies to all of the houses of worship in red and orange “zones” in New York, and is one of the first in the country to block percentage-of-occupancy limits on worship attendance.

The decision comes after the Supreme Court found his 10- and 25-person caps on synagogues were discriminatory, other lower courts also ruled against him, and just days ago, a New York Times exposé revealed that nine top New York State health officials resigned after Cuomo told doctors to make up scientific justifications for his COVID lockdown orders. Cuomo’s retreat—which covered not only the 10- and 25-person caps but also the 25 percent and 33 percent occupancy limits—also came as he faced the prospect of Dr. Howard Zucker, New York’s commissioner of health, having to testify on the witness stand.

The judge’s decision to grant Cuomo’s request to end his own restrictions caps a series of unfortunate events for the Governor. In November, the Supreme Court ruled against his restrictions, saying, “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.” The Justices also emphasized that “there is no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID-19,” and, to the contrary, that they “have admirable safety records.”

“It’s not every day you see a Governor beg a federal district court ‘Stop me before I discriminate again!’ but that is exactly what Governor Cuomo asked for,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The Governor is desperately trying to avoid testimony showing that his orders shutting down synagogues and churches weren’t based on public health, but on politics. The court’s order is good news for the synagogues, churches, and other houses of worship of New York.”

Agudath Israel of America, a 98-year-old Orthodox Jewish umbrella group headquartered in New York City, succeeded in its first-ever lawsuit to go to the Supreme Court. Becket and law firm Troutman Pepper asked the Supreme Court for emergency protection on behalf of Agudath Israel and affiliated synagogues as part of an ongoing lawsuit against Governor Cuomo’s restrictions on their right to worship. The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn brought a parallel case challenging the restrictions, and the cases were decided together by the Supreme Court.

When the case returned to the district court level, the New York Times reported that nine top health officials resigned after Cuomo allegedly announced major changes to pandemic policy without consulting with them first. After Cuomo’s press conferences, he apparently asked New York health officials to match their policy documents with his announcements. One of the major changes the health officials were reportedly blindsided by were rules related to the “cluster initiative” that shut down houses of worship throughout Brooklyn.

“We welcome Governor Cuomo’s surrender, even if it took him way too long to figure out he was acting illegally,” said Rassbach. “And we hope he learned something along the way. If he writes another COVID book, maybe he can give it the title I Did It My Way—And Boy Was I Wrong!

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.

Windy City Wrangle: Chicago’s Catholic Church battles government overreach in court

WASHINGTON – The Archdiocese of Chicago will be in court this week for oral argument before the entire Seventh Circuit to defend its right to select and supervise its own ministers of the faithIn Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, the former music director of St. Andrew parish is suing the Archdiocese of Chicago for requiring its liturgical leaders to follow the tenets of the Catholic faithAs the church music director, Sandor Demkovich played a central role in conveying the Catholic faith to the congregationWhen Mr. Demkovich entered into a same-sex marriage in violation of his employment agreement and 2,000-year-old Church teachings, the pastor had to let him go. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru reaffirmed that religious groups have the right to choose who teaches the faithOn February 9, the Archdiocese, represented by Becket, will argue before the entire court that religious organizations must be free to select, supervise, and communicate with their own ministers of the faith without government interference. The Archdiocese is also represented by its General Counsel, Jim Geolywho will be presenting oral argument, and Alex Marks at Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. 

What:
Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals En Banc hearing in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish 

When:
February 9, 2021 at 11:00 a.m. EST 

Where: 
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
Watch the livestream: Court Of Appeals 7th Circuit – YouTube  

Who:
James C. GeolyGeneral Counsel, Archdiocese of Chicago
Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket 

A Becket attorney will be available for comment immediately following the argument 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Supreme Court nixes California’s ban on indoor worship

WASHINGTON – Late last night the Supreme Court issued an injunction stopping California’s extreme COVID-19 ban on indoor worship in churches, synagogues, and other houses of worshipThe Court ruled in two cases, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom and Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom. Both churches sued California Governor Gavin Newsom, challenging the state’s total ban on indoor worship servicesthe most extreme in the nation—which targeted churches for closure while allowing non-essential retail stores such as Macy’s to open to hundreds of customersas well as hair salonsnail salons, and Hollywood soundstages.  

The Justices wrote several opinions in addition to the Court’s order. Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, cited Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief, pointing out that California was the only state in the country with a complete ban on indoor worship. Justice Gorsuch also stated that “California no longer asks its movie studios, malls, and manicurists to wait.” “As this crisis enters its second year—and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan—it is too late for the State to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could. Drafting narrowly tailored regulations can be difficult. But if Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry. 

For his part, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “the State’s present determination—that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.” He went on to state that the Constitution entrusts the protection of the people’s rights to the Judiciary—not despite judges being shielded by life tenure, … but because they are. Deference, though broad, has its limits. 

California had no right to declare itself a religion-free zone,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. When every other state in the country has figured out a way to both allow worship and protect the public health, maybe you are doing it wrong. We are glad this extreme violation of our first freedom has finally come to an end.” 

Previously, some states imposed numerical caps on indoor worship, regardless of the size of the house of worship, while allowing businesses to open to a percentage of their capacity. On the night before Thanksgiving 2020, the Supreme Court struck down New York Governor Cuomo’s 10- and 25-person caps on religious worship in Becket’s previous case, Agudath Israel of America v. Cuomo—the first successful challenge of COVID-19 policies that unconstitutionally prioritize secular behavior over religious exercise. The Supreme Court’s decision today found California’s policies in violation of precedent set in Agudath Israel and its companion case, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo 

“When it comes to First Amendment rights, courts should not rubber-stamp public health restrictions,” added Rassbach. “That is especially so as we near the one-year anniversary of the lockdown orders. Instead courts should carefully balance the right to worship and public health. 

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.

Nativity scenes win big in Indiana

WASHINGTON – It turns out the ACLU can’t cancel Baby Jesus. A federal appeals court just ruled that the nativity scene at the Jackson County courthouse can stay, making it one of the first federal appeals courts to apply the Supreme Court’s recognition that religious displays like nativity scenes are allowed their place in the public square. The three wise men and the shepherds can now rest easy.     

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said that the County’s display “fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to depict the historical origins of Christmas—a traditional event long recognized as a National Holiday.’” 

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the group that owns the nativity scene, the Brownstown Area Ministerial Association, explaining that the lower court had incorrectly applied the Lemon test when it decided the nativity scene should be removed from the courthouse. Becket’s view is in line with the Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling that the Lemon test no longer applies to religious displays. The government is instead allowed to recognize the role religion has played—and continues to play—in our society. Fortunately, the Seventh Circuit’s opinion is clear: the Establishment Clause does not compel the government to sweep the public square clean of religious content.  

Most people don’t think Christmas decorations ought to be a federal issue,” said Diana Verm, Senior Counsel at Becket. This decision doesn’t just follow Supreme Court precedent, it also follows common sense: the Establishment Clause protects against coercive government action, not harmless displays of holiday cheer.” 

The Brownstown Area Ministerial Association first purchased the display in question in 2003, and it serves as part of the local “Hometown Christmas celebration,” an opportunity for members of the community to gather together around the courthouse, listen to the high school choir, judge Christmas tree decorations, and eat sweets. But in 2018, an out-of-town passerby drove through the area and was offended by the display. Legal threats and a lawsuit by the ACLU of Indiana threatened to stop the nearly two-decade-old display in its tracks.  

Two other courts have applied the Supreme Court’s American Legion decision to uphold religious displays in Becket cases. This is the third federal appeals to uphold a religious display.  

Court blocks mandate forcing doctors to perform controversial gender transition procedures

WASHINGTON – A federal court in North Dakota just blocked a requirement known as the Transgender Mandate that would force medical professionals and religious hospitals to perform gender transition procedures on their patients—including children—even when the procedures are potentially harmful. In Religious Sisters of Mercy v. Azar, an order of Catholic nuns, a Catholic university, and Catholic healthcare organizations sued the federal government challenging a provision of the Affordable Care Act that would have forced doctors to perform gender transition procedures even if doing so would violate their religious beliefs and medical judgment. Becket represented the plaintiffs, arguing that sensitive medical decisions should be kept between patients and their doctors without government interference, and that no one should be required by law to disregard their conscience or their professional medical judgment.

“Now more than ever, Americans are grateful for the sacrifices of our medical professionals who serve on the front lines and use their training and expertise to serve the vulnerable,” said Luke Goodrich, senior counsel at Becket. “The court’s decision recognizes our medical heroes’ right to practice medicine in line with their conscience and without politically motivated interference from government bureaucrats.”

In 2016, the federal government issued a mandate, applicable to nearly every doctor in the country, interpreting the Affordable Care Act to require them to perform gender transition procedures on any patient, including children, even if the doctor believed the procedure could harm the patient. Doctors who refused to violate their medical judgment would have faced severe consequences, including financial penalties and private lawsuits. Immediately, religious organizations and states sued, challenging the legality of the mandate in multiple courts. In 2016, a federal court in North Dakota put the rule on hold, and in 2019 another federal court in Texas struck it down. In June 2020, HHS passed a new rule aimed at walking back the requirement, but other courts have blocked that new rule. Today’s ruling is the second ruling from a federal court blocking the Transgender Mandate. The ruling protects patients, aligns with current medical research, and ensures doctors aren’t forced to violate their religious beliefs and medical judgment.

“These religious doctors and hospitals provide top-notch medical care to all patients for everything from cancer to the common cold,” said Goodrich. “All they’re asking is that they be allowed to continue serving their patients as they’ve done for decades, without being forced to perform controversial, medically unsupported procedures that are against their religious beliefs and potentially harmful to their patients. The Constitution and federal law require no less.”

Can universities kick out religious groups with impunity?

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit today heard arguments over whether university officials can be held personally accountable for intentional religious discrimination on campusOfficials from the University of Iowa appealed after a district court found them personally liable for kicking out InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and other Sikh, Muslim, and Christian groupsall supposedly for violating the University’s nondiscrimination policy by asking their leaders to agree with their respective faithsHowever, other groups were not held to the same standard. Greek groups and sports teams were allowed to select leaders and members based on sex, despite the University’s policy against sex discrimination. And dozens of groups were allowed to screen leaders for shared beliefs on issues like gender, race, and sexual orientation, even though those topics are also covered by the nondiscrimination policy. Only disfavored religious groups were punished for screening their leaders for mission alignment.  Today, InterVarsity asked the Eighth Circuit to affirm lower court ruling that school officials should be personally responsible for this religious discrimination 

“InterVarsity serves the University of Iowa, its students and faculty, and the local community,” said Greg Jao, Director of External Relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. “The policy should have been used to protect, rather than penalize, religious groups that seek to retain their religious identity on campus.” 

InterVarsity was a part of the campus community at the University of Iowa for over 25 years, during which time it was awarded and recognized by the University for exemplary service to students. But in 2018, InterVarsity received a notice from the school threatening deregistration. The school claimed that InterVarsitylongstanding requirement that its leaders be Christians violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy. The University gave InterVarsity two weeks to change its religious leadership requirement, refused to allow InterVarsity to even “strongly encourage” its leaders to agree with its faith, and then kicked it off campus. The University also deregistered several other religious groups, including Sikh, Muslim, and other Christian organizations, for requiring their leaders to agree with their religious missions. But secular groups—including Greek groups that counted almost 20% of campus among their members—were allowed to form around shared characteristics and beliefs 

University officials who target individuals or groups based on religion must be held accountable for their actions,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “No organization can live out its mission if its leaders don’t share its beliefs. Allowing all groups except religious groups to ensure that leaders are mission aligned is blatant religious discrimination.”  

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

University of Iowa officials’ immunity from liability on chopping block at Eighth Circuit

WASHINGTON – The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the latest challenge supporting free speech on university campuses in an appeal asking whether University officials can be held personally responsible for religious discrimination. A federal court found that University of Iowa officials were liable for booting InterVarsity Christian Fellowship off campus for asking its leaders to affirm the group’s beliefsThe University also deregistered numerous other religious groups, including Sikh, Muslim, and other Christian organizations, for requiring their leaders to agree with their missions yet it allowed groups such as fraternities, sororities, sports teams, and political groups, to retain their standards for membership and leadership. InterVarsity, with the help of Becket, is arguing this case before the Eighth Circuit after the University appealed InterVarsity’lower court victory.  

What:
Oral Argument in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. University of Iowa 

Who: 
Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket   

When:
January 13, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. EST 

Where:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
Via teleconference
Dial-in: 1-888-363-4749
Access code: 5800357  

Daniel Blomberg will be available for comment immediately following the hearing. 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Supreme Court considers vindication for silenced student

WASHINGTON  The Supreme Court just heard the case of Chike Uzuegbunam, a college student who was threatened with arrest for sharing his faith on campus. Chike, a passionate Christian believer, wanted to peacefully share his faith with other students at his schoolbut found himself threatened and silenced by school officials. After Chike sued, and after vigorously defending its unconstitutional policies in court at firstthe college changed course and argued that since Chike had graduated and was not asking for a large sum of “compensatory damages,” his case should be thrown out. Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether the rights of Chike and others like him can be vindicated, or whether government bureaucrats can use a technical loophole to wiggle out of the consequences of their actions. 

During argument, the Justices expressed concern that the college’s position could harm victims beyond this caseJustice Kagan pointed out that in Taylor Swift’s sexual assault case against a radio host, “it was unquestionable physical harm, but she just asked for this one dollar to say that she had been harmed. . . . In the same way that Taylor Swift’s dollar compensated her, so too here.” And Justice Gorsuch was concerned that many of the amicus briefs filed with the Court—including Becket’spoint out that some groups “have religious scruples against seeking damages for injuries suffered,” and that under the college’s rule, these religious groups lose out.  

Becket’s brief argues that prisons, universities, and other government actors frequently make insincere and temporary rule changes to escape justice for their unconstitutional policies.  

Georgia Gwinnett’s free speech policies were outrageous and their officials knew it. They tried to intimidate Chike Uzuegbunam into silence, and when he challenged them in court, they tried to duck and run,” said Adèle Keim, counsel at Becket. We’re confident the Supreme Court will see through the college’s dishonorable actions and decide in Chike’s favor.” 

Faith, free speech zones and tardy justice meet at the Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court this morning will hear the case of Chike Uzuegbunam, a student at Georgia Gwinnett College who was threatened with arrest after peacefully sharing his faith in his campus’ “free speech zone.” After silencing Chike and preventing him from sharing his faith, Georgia Gwinnett vigorously defended its discriminatory actions in court–until its lawyers realized they were going to lose. Georgia Gwinnett reversed its speech policies and arguethat the court should throw the case out without rulingBecket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of Chike, arguing that the Supreme Court should rule in his favor and prevent Georgia Gwinnett and other government forces trampling on fundamental rights from escaping justice simply because they found a last-minute loophole.  

What:
Supreme Court oral argument in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski 

When:
January 12, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. EST

Where: 
Live on C-Span
https://www.c-span.org/video/?506849-1/uzuegbunam-v-preczewski-oral-argument 

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 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Atheist organization robs kids of Christmas joy

WASHINGTON – As if things weren’t bad enough this holiday season, America’s most notorious grinches, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a noted anti-Christmas activist group, has found a way to steal presents from children. Last month, FFRF intimidated a Kansas school district into canceling its annual charity drive that sends Christmas gifts and necessities to underprivileged children abroad. The reason: the drive was sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian international disaster relief organization – and FFRF can’t abide the thought of a religious organization helping school children spread Christmas cheer. FFRF’s crusade makes the Grinch’s ransacking of Whoville look tame, which is why the atheist organization has earned Becket’s lowest (dis)honor, the 2020 Ebenezer Award, awarded for the biggest bah humbug of the holiday season.

As part of Operation Christmas Child, students at Liberty Middle School in Pratt, Kansas, were anticipating partaking in a charity drive to gather Christmas gifts and other necessities to send to underprivileged children abroad. But the school district abruptly canceled the program after FFRF attorney, Chris Line, sent a letter to the district’s superintendent claiming that “[o]rganizing a donation drive that for all intents and purposes employs school staff and resources to convert people to Christianity violates basic constitutional principles.” Regrettably, FFRF’s stunted idea of how constitutional law (and gift drives) work and their general aura of Grinchiness succeeded in shutting the charitable endeavor down. However, Samaritan’s Purse invited kids to send shoeboxes regardless of the school program, trying to avoid the chilling effect of FFRF’s Grinch-like campaign to “stop Christmas from coming!”

“Worse than taking candy from a baby, FFRF is stealing Christmas presents from impoverished children,” said Montse Alvarado, executive director of Becket, “The Constitution does not require Americans to quarantine their faith when they go to class. In a year when hope and joy are scarce, intimidating school children into abandoning charity is shameful and wrong.”

Each year the Christmas and Hanukkah season inspires a slew of outrageous offenses against the free exercise of religion. At Becket, we do Santa’s dirty work for him, delivering a lump of coal as an acknowledgment of scroogery on a grand scale. Previous Ebenezer Award winners include Dunwoody, Georgia City Counsel which banned all religious symbols in response to an email from a disgruntled citizen, the Department of Veteran Affairs, which banned employees at its Salem, Virginia facility from saying “Merry Christmas” to veterans, and the University of Minnesota, which three years ago banned from campus the colors red, green, blue, and silver; Santas; bows; dreidels; and even wrapped presents. (See list of previous winners).

In this year of unprecedented violations of civil liberties, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the everyday scroogery of our COVID curmudgeons in high office. The Ebenezer Award runners-up are none other than Governor Cuomo of New York, Governor Gavin Newsom of California, and Governor Sisolak of Nevada, who are barring the doors of houses of worship and turning Americans out into the cold innkeeper-style this Christmas and Hanukkah (read more here).

Finally, this year’s Eggnog Toast, given to an individual or group who has shown persistence in the face of adversity, goes to two Wisconsin state representatives, Paul Tittl and Shae Sortwell, who wanted to spread Christmas cheer after the governor tried to cancel the annual capitol Christmas tree. Although their permit to erect a tree was denied, Tittl and Sortwell took the initiative to put up their own tree anyway – and then put up a second tree when the first one was removed. We salute them for their dedication to good cheer!

“This year, of all years, Americans ought to come together in the Christmas season to support one another and spread joy and hope,” said Alvarado. “True to form, FFRF is hell-bent on purging the holiday season of any whiff of its true meaning. Let’s hope their hearts grow a few sizes this Christmas.”

Becket wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyous New Year!

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.

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. 

Cuomo’s discriminatory lockdown orders stopped by midnight order from Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – Just before midnight on the eve of Thanksgiving the Supreme Court stopped Governor Cuomo from imposing discriminatory 10- and 25-person caps on synagogues and churchesThe Court agreed that the Governor’s “rules can be viewed as targeting the ‘ultra-Orthodox [Jewish] community, and violate the First Amendment by treating religious exercise worse than secular activities. 

In its opinion the Supreme Court said that, “…even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.” The Justices also emphasized that “there is no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID-19, and, to the contrary, that they have admirable safety records.” Moreover, the Court explained that “there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services,” including tying maximum attendance to the size of a synagogue or church. 

Agudath Israel of America, a 98-year-old Orthodox Jewish umbrella group headquartered in New York City, succeeded in its first-ever lawsuit to go to the Supreme Court. Becket and Trouman Pepper asked the Supreme Court for emergency protection on behalf of Agudath Israel and affiliated synagogues as part of an ongoing lawsuit against Governor Cuomo’s restrictions on their right to worship – which were abruptly declared just 48 hours before a trio of sacred Jewish holidays, Hoshanah Rabbah, Shmini Atzeres, and Simchas Torah. The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn brought a parallel case challenging the restrictions.  

Governor Cuomo should have known that openly targeting Jews for a special COVID crackdown was never going to be constitutional,” said Eric Rassbachvice president and senior counsel at Becket and counsel to the plaintiffs. “But treating synagogues and churches worse than the pet stores, liquor stores, and department stores also just didn’t make any sense, particularly when Agudath synagogues and Brooklyn parishes have carefully and responsibly followed the rules. The Supreme Court was right to step in and allow Jews and Catholics to worship as they have for centuries.”  

New York had tried to avoid a Supreme Court ruling by changing its classifications while the application was pending at the Supreme Court. But the Justices rejected that cat-and-mouse game, finding that houses of worship “remain under a constant threat” that the Governor would reclassify them and “there may not be time for applicants to seek and obtain relief from this Court before another Sabbath passes.” 

The dissenting justices argued that the Court did not need to decide the issue now because of New York’s recent rule change. Even these justices, however, emphasized the importance of protecting religious liberty during a pandemic. For example, Chief Justice Roberts noted that the restrictions “do seem unduly restrictive” and “may well … violate the Free Exercise Clause.” Justices Sotomayor and Kagan agreed that “Free religious exercise is one of our most treasured and jealously guarded constitutional rights” and that “States may not discriminate against religious worship” even in times of crisis. 

The injunctions issued by the Court will remain in place while the appeal continues at the Second Circuit and the Supreme Court. 

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. 

Religious Freedom Index results: Americans still believe religion is a force for freedom

WASHINGTON  Becket has just released the second annual Religious Freedom Indexthe only annual poll that tracks trends across a full spectrum of opinions on American religious freedom. This year’s Index found that, despite the immense challenges of 2020, Americans are steadfast in their belief in the importance of religious freedom. In addition to the Index questions, this year’s poll asked about Americans opinions on the intersection of religious liberty and COVID-19, electionsand racial justice  

The Index reveals that Americans view religion and religious freedom as an anchor of civil societyespecially amidst the turbulence of 2020. More than three quarters of respondents said that religion is a stabilizing force in society during times of social unrest, and more than 60 percent said that faith and religion had been personally important during the COVID-19 pandemic. A majority of respondents said the government should treat worship services at least equally alongside businesses when reopening economies.  

Americans view faith as an essentialstabilizing force in the midst of a pandemic, and they want their elected officials to do a better job of protecting religious freedom,” said Luke Goodrich, senior counsel at Becket and co-editor of the Index. “We will all be better off if our leaders and government officials respect the foundational value of religious freedom. 

A majority of Americans agree that religion – and people of faith – are part of the solution to society’s problems, including a seven-percentage point increase from last year among those who said people of faith are definitely part of the solution. Respondents embraced a robust view of religious expression, with a majority considering it an important part of an individual’s identity and endorsing vibrant religious expression in public places. However, the Index signals that Americans thought elected officials could do more to defend religious freedomand that religious leaders could play a more active role in advancing the cause of racial justice.   

When Americans understand religion as a fundamental part of an individual’s identity, it is no surprise that that they support strong religious freedom protections in work and public life,” said Caleb Lyman, director of research and analytics at Becket and co-editor of the Index. “Respondents recognized that religion and people of faith can make unique contributions to the challenges faced this year.” 

The Religious Freedom Index is designed to give a high-level view of changes in American attitudes on religious freedom by surveying a nationally representative sample of 1,000 American adults each OctoberThe Index’s focus on core religious liberty principles, contextualized with questions on some of the year’s most pressing societal issues, provides a yearly cross section of public sentiment on the intersection of law, religion, and culture. The responses to these questions statistically group into six dimensions:  1) Religious Pluralism, 2) Religion and Policy, 3) Religious Sharing, 4) Religion in Society, 5) Church and State, and 6) Religion in Action.  

Surveying and scale construction for Becket’s Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment are conducted by Heart+Mind Strategies, using an online panel assembled by DynataBecket contributes its broad expertise representing people of all faiths in religious liberty cases to ensure that the polling instrument and analysis broadly reflect America’s many diverse religions and the full spectrum of religious liberty issues. 

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. 

Becket releases second annual Religious Freedom Index

WASHINGTON  On November 17, Becket will release the second edition of its annual Religious Freedom Index, a comprehensive study that tracks trends in American perspectives on religious freedom.  Each year, the Index questions and results cover American attitudes across six dimensions of religious liberty opinion. In addition to the second year’s Index resultsanalysis of additional questions included in the Index poll provide insights into the relevance of religion in a society grappling with a pandemic, social unrest, and an election year. Join us on November 17, 2020, for a presentation and panel discussion to examine the findings of the second annual Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment 

When:
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
1:00 p.m. EST 

Where:
Zoom: https://zoom.us/j/95403897306
Register Here 

Presenters
Dee Allsop, Ph.D. CEO and a managing partner at Heart & Mind Strategies
Caleb Lyman – director of research and analytics at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty  

Panelists
Jackie Rivers, Ph.D.  director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies
Amrith Kaur, J.D.  legal director at the Sikh Coalition
Jonathan Silver, Ph.D. – editor of Mosaic

Moderator:
Montse Alvarado  executive director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 

Media Contact:
Ryan Colby – associate communications director
media@becketlaw.org
(202) 349-7219 

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. 

Pint-sized powerhouse: Becket recognized on 2020 Hot List for Top Firms

WASHINGTON – Recognized for its extraordinary success before the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals courts, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joins 23 premier appellate firms across a number of practice areas as this year’s constitutional rights advocate on the “appellate hot list” and the only non-profit law firm chosen since thlist’s creation. 

 A non-profit law firm that defends religious freedom for all, Becket overcame the unprecedented challenges of 2020 by securing two Supreme Court victories on the same day in July and arguing on behalf of faith-affirming agencies at the High Court just last week.   

High profileHigh pressure. High stakes. These are the traits that defined our defense of religious believers amid a global epidemic,” said Montse Alvarado, executive director of BecketOur expert First Amendment litigators have worked tirelessly to protect the rights of nuns, heroic foster moms, and Jews who have been targeted and bullied by government officials. 

 Becket is the first nonprofit firm to earn a place in the National Law Journal’s annual Appellate Hot List. The List recognizes firms with success before the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals courts” and was launched in 2008.  

Becket was awarded a spot alongside a select group of other premier appellate practices like Jones Day, Kirkland & Ellis, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher due to its recent Supreme Court wins in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania.  

 It is not always easy or popular to defend First Amendment rights, particularly for people with minority views,” said Mark Rienzi, President of Becket. But it is the right thing to do and it is good for our country. We are honored that the National Law Journal has recognized Becket’s team as among the nation’s best.”  

Becket argued its most recent Supreme Court case, Fulton v. Philadelphia, last week. Since its founding, Becket has maintained an undefeated record in merits cases before the Supreme Court, with seven wins in the last eight years alone. 

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. 

BREAKING: Foster moms react to historic Supreme Court hearing

WASHINGTON – Two foster mothers, Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, asked the Supreme Court today to protect their freedom to partner with Catholic ministry to care for foster children in need. During oral argument, the Justices appeared poised to protect the women and their ability to work with Catholic Social Services, which pioneered foster care in Philadelphia over 200 years ago.  

My faith has led me to become a foster mother to children that society had abused and discarded,” said foster mom and named plaintiff, Sharonell Fulton. “As a single woman of color, I’ve learned a thing or two about discrimination over the years—but I’ve never experienced the vindictive religious discrimination the City’s politicians have expressed toward my faith.” 

“I’m grateful the Justices took our arguments seriously and seemed to understand that foster parents like me just want to provide loving homes for children,” said Toni Simms-Busch, also a foster mom and named plaintiffIt does not help anyone for the City to shut down the best foster-care ministry in Philadelphia—particularly when we have loving homes ready for children in need.”  

ISharonell 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, preventing kids from being placed with loving foster families. Becket Senior Counsel Lori Windham argued on behalf of Sharonell, Toni, and Catholic Social Servicestelling the Court that the First Amendment protects the right of religious organizations to serve those in need without giving up the religious beliefs that motivate their ministry. 

Religious organizations should be free to serve the public, regardless of their beliefs. The public square is big enough to accommodate everyone who wishes to do good – and that should be especially true when it comes to taking care of children in need,”said Lori Windhamsenior counsel at Becket and arguing attorney in Fulton. 

During oral argument, a majority of the Justices appeared inclined to protect the religious foster parents and Catholic Social Services:  

  • Justice Kavanaugh called the City’s position “absolutist and extreme,” noting that Philadelphia “created this clash,” even though no same-sex couple has ever come to Catholic Social Services for participation in this program.”  
  • Justice Breyer said what is “bothering me a lot” about the case is that “that no family has ever been turned down by this agencyindeed has never applied,” but the City still tried to shut them down. 
  • Justice Kagan pressed the City on the Free Exercise Clause, saying “I read Smith and Lukumi that you can’t get out of it so easily—that as long as there is an exemption, as long as it exists, as long as you could rely on it in the future, that there is not neutrality here. 
  • Justice Gorsuch expressed concern that the City could “effectively take over a service that had been provided privately for some time, and take it over so much so that it regulates it pervasively and this [Free Exercise] analysis shouldn’t apply at all.”  
  • Justice Alito said, “If we are honest about what’s really going on here, it’s not about ensuring that same-sex couples in Philadelphia have the opportunity to be foster parents. It’s the fact the City can’t stand the message that Catholic Social Services and the Archdiocese are sending by continuing to adhere to the old-fashioned view about marriage. 
  • As the federal government’s attorney, Hashim Mooppan put it, “What the City has done is worse than cutting off its nose to spite its face. What it is doing is cutting off homes from the most vulnerable children in the city to spite the Catholic Church.” 

A decision from the Court is expected by the end of June. 

Becket will hold a press call today at 12:30 PM EST 
featuring Foster mom Toni Simms-Busch and Becket Fund senior counsel Lori Windham who will deliver remarks and answer questions about the case, respectively.  

Call-in information: 
301-715-8592 | Pin #: 914-1188-8332| or join https://zoom.us/j/91411888332
 Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org 

Foster moms ask High Court to protect faith-affirming foster care

WASHINGTON– Foster moms, and single women of color, Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, will be at the Supreme Court on November 4 defending their right to foster vulnerable children in partnership with an agency that shares their religious beliefs and values. For over 200 years, Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia has been supporting parents like Sharonell and Toni and finding loving homes for children in need. But in 2018, the City abruptly ended its decadeslong partnership with the Catholic agency because of its 2000-year-old religious beliefs about marriage.  

Sharonell and Toni have asked the Supreme Court to defend the agency against the City’s religious discrimination so that they can continue fostering children and helping them break the destructive cycles of crime and addiction that often necessitate placement in foster care. On Wednesday, November 4, Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, will argue telephonically on behalf of Sharonell, Toni, and their foster agency, defending the right of religious ministries to serve their communities in accordance with their deeply held beliefs.  

What:
Oral Argument in Fulton v. Philadelphia 

Who:
Lori Windhamsenior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 

When:
WednesdayNovember 4, 2029 at 10:00 a.m. EST 

Where:
C-SPAN
https://www.c-span.org/supremeCourt/
Becket will host a press call at 12:30 p.m. EST.  

Press Call-in:
301-715-8592 (pin: 914-1188-8332) or join https://zoom.us/j/91411888332
Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org  

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

In a New York Minute: Cuomo caves to Jewish schoolgirls, loosens targeted lockdown order

WASHINGTON  Just hours after being ordered by a federal judge to explain his shutdown of Jewish schools in court, Governor Andrew Cuomo held a press conference in which he reversed course and agreed to allow the schools to open in Far Rockaway. The announcement came on the heels of the lawsuit filed by Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits, who send their daughters to Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam (BYAM) – an Orthodox Jewish school for girls. The lawsuit alleged that Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio had illegally discriminated against the school, even though there had been no cases of COVID and both officials had previously admitted that schools have not been spreading the virus. 

“We are grateful the lockdown order has been loosened and our children can get back to praying and learning together with their classmates,” said Chana Lebovits, mother of two Bais Yaakov students“The Governor should never have targeted the Jewish community with his lockdown or his statements.”  

It’s unfortunate it took a lawsuit to bring us to this point, but we are grateful the Governor has heard our plea and taken action to loosen the restrictions on Far Rockaway,” said Rabbi Nosson Neuman, menahel of Bais YakkovAt the end of the day, this is about the children, and getting our children and those of the entire community back into the classroom in a safe and legal way is the only goal.

In Lebovits v. Cuomowith help from Becket and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, Yitzchok and Chana asked the court to punish Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio for their unscientific and discriminatory targeting of the Orthodox Jewish community that has caused immense suffering and pain for their neighbors and for their children who will never get back the weeks of instruction stripped from them at BYAM.  Among other things, the lawsuit emphasized a recording of a conversation Governor Cuomo had with a group of rabbis in which he acknowledged that the policy was not tailored, was cut by a “hatchet,” and was driven by fear. 

The Governor’s policy—announced October 6—was set to continue until at least November 5. Yet hours after being ordered to justify his actions in this lawsuitGovernor Cuomo reversed course. He announced today that he iloosening a lockdown order on Jewish communities in Far Rockaway imposed earlier this month after several groups within the targeted lockdown zones took him to court. In early October following rates of COVID cases that Governor Cuomo admitted “would be a safe zone” in many other states, the State imposed new indefinite lockdowns on a select number of zip codes in New York that target the Orthodox Jewish community.The new restrictions completely banned in-person instruction at BYAM and other schools in Jewish neighborhoods in New York City—stripping parents of their right to direct the religious education and upbringing of their children. 

The Governor shouldn’t have needed a lawsuit to tell him that shutting down Jewish schools was wrong. This was the worst kind of unscientific and harmful scapegoating, as the Governor himself knew that schools weren’t a problem,” said Mark Rienzi, President of Becket and counsel to the plaintiffs. If Governor Cuomo wants respect, he has to give respect. Reopening the schools in Far Rockaway is a start, but elected officials have a lot of work to do to repair the pain and division they have caused.”  

Beginning in March, BYAM voluntarily transitioned to remote learning to protect its neighbors and in compliance with the law. In the months that followed, the school spent thousands of dollars equipping teachers with the resources they needed to effectively teach over Zoom. Nevertheless, remote learning proved to be a poor substitute for in-person instruction. Students have suffered academically. Teachers have reported alarming regression in reading skills, had to reteach prayers, and are requesting last year’s math textbooks. Since reopening, BYAM has followed rigorous health and safety protocol, including masking, social distancing, and daily temperature checks—the result of which has been zero COVID cases in the school.  

Since its founding in 2012 BYAM has worked to instill the value and tradition of Orthodox Judaism in the next generation of women. Religious education is a centuries-old tradition that is indispensable to practicing the Jewish faith and passing it on to the next generation. Communal prayer, participating in bible studies and engaging in group projects designed to instill ethical values are all just some of the vital activities BYAM provides for its girls. The selective lockdown has cost the girls weeks of instruction they won’t be able to get back.  

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. 

Jewish schoolgirls take on Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio targeting of Jewish schools

WASHINGTON – Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits, who send their daughters to Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam (BYAM) – an Orthodox Jewish school for girls– are taking New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio to court today over new COVID restrictions intended to close religious schools in Orthodox Jewish communities. In Lebovits v. Cuomo, with help from Becket and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, Yitzchok and Chana are asking the court to end Cuomo’s unscientific and discriminatory targeting of the Orthodox Jewish community and allow their children to get back to the classroom.

On October 6, following an increase in COVID-19 cases that Governor Cuomo admitted “would be a safe zone” in many other states, the state imposed new indefinite lockdowns on a select number of zip codes in New York that target the Orthodox Jewish community. The new restrictions have completely banned in-person instruction at BYAM and other schools in Jewish neighborhoods in New York City—stripping parents of their right to direct the religious education and upbringing of their children. The restrictions come after months of Cuomo and de Blasio scapegoating the Jewish community for the spread of COVID while praising nearby mass protests. Last week, a federal judge in New York found the new restrictions to be specifically targeting the Orthodox Jewish community.

“We are devastated for our daughters and their classmates who are needlessly suffering because of the Governor’s policy,” said Chana Lebovits, mother of two Bais Yaakov students. “Governor Cuomo should not take away part of my daughters’ childhood because other people are afraid of Orthodox Jews. We hope the court will let our daughters go back to school so they can pray and learn together with their classmates.”

Beginning in March, BYAM voluntarily transitioned to remote learning to protect its neighbors and in compliance with the law. In the months that followed, the school spent thousands of dollars equipping teachers with the resources they needed to effectively teach over Zoom. Nevertheless, remote learning proved to be a poor substitute for in-person instruction. Students have suffered academically. Teachers have reported alarming regression in reading skills, had to reteach prayers, and are requesting last year’s math textbooks. Since reopening, BYAM has followed rigorous health and safety protocol, including masking, social distancing, and daily temperature checks—the result of which has been zero COVID cases in the school.

Since its founding in 2012 BYAM has worked to instill the value and tradition of Orthodox Judaism in the next generation of women. Religious education is a centuries-old tradition that is indispensable to practicing the Jewish faith and passing it on to the next generation. Communal prayer, participating in bible studies and engaging in group projects designed to instill ethical values are all just some of the vital activities BYAM provides for its girls. These opportunities simply can’t be fulfilled through telelearning and the new lockdown orders threaten the vitality of BYAM’s traditions and the religious messages they convey in the lives of the girls that attend.

“There is no place for bigotry in the Big Apple,” said Mark Rienzi, president and senior counsel at Becket. “By Cuomo’s own admission, schools are not significant spreaders of COVID-19, and the new policy was not driven by science but was made from ‘fear’—fear of Orthodox Jews. Cuomo and de Blasio need to follow the science, follow the law, and stop scapegoating Jews. The Mayor and the Governor should be ashamed.”

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 upholds Seminary’s freedom to train faith leaders

WASHINGTON – In a landmark decision with nationwide impact, a federal judge ruled that a seminary has the right to train students for ministry according to its sincere religious beliefs, free from government entanglement. Yesterday, in Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary, the Central District of California blocked claims by two individuals who sued Fuller Theological Seminary, arguing that federal law made it illegal for the seminary to dismiss them from its School of Theology for violating its religious standards. Becket is defending the seminary, arguing that the government cannot control how religious schools train future ministers and other religious leaders.

When students apply to Fuller Theological Seminary, they agree to faithfully follow the seminary’s religious standards throughout their training for ministry and other religious service. Like all their peers, the plaintiffs made that agreement. But after the seminary learned that the plaintiffs had violated the standards, the seminary regretfully dismissed them and refunded their costs for the classes they were unable to complete. The plaintiffs then sued.

The judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, explaining: “It is well established . . . that courts should refrain from trolling through a person’s or institutions religious beliefs.”

“This is a huge win for seminaries, yeshivas, madrasas, and every other religious institution of higher education,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior attorney at Becket. “That’s because houses of worship, and not government officials, should be deciding how to teach the next generation of religious leaders.”

Fuller Theological Seminary is one of the world’s leading Christian educational institutions. It is a multidenominational, international, and multiethnic seminary committed to training global Christian leaders for the fulfillment of their religious callings. Each student who graduates from the seminary is prepared to be a leader in the faith and to practice and teach the gospel to their diverse communities.

As a religious educational institution, the seminary has the First Amendment right to uphold specific standards of faith and morality for the members of its Christian community. Federal civil rights law has affirmatively protected this fundamental constitutional right for decades. Until now, no court had ever been required to apply those laws to protect a seminary. Fuller’s win helps protect religious schools nationwide.

“Personal persuasion, not government coercion, is how the First Amendment allows citizens to engage with religious beliefs they don’t like,” said Blomberg. “This lawsuit threatened to impose a government straitjacket on all Americans, and it’s good for everyone that the court said no.”

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.

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.

Supreme Court to decide the value of First Amendment rights

WASHINGTON – What is the price tag on constitutional rights? Becket has just filed a brief at the Supreme Court in support of a college student who was threatened with arrest by police at Georgia Gwinnett College when he tried to share his faith with his classmates. In Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, two campus police officers told Chike Uzuegbunam they would arrest him for disturbing the peace if he continued to speak and share religious literature with his classmates – even though Uzuegbunam was standing inside one of the college’s tiny “free speech zones” at the time, which make up less than 0.0015% of campus.

When Uzuegbunam and another student sued, school officials changed their policy and asked the court to dismiss the case without ruling against them. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said that Uzuegbunam’s case was moot because he asked for only token damages to vindicate his rights instead of demanding heavy compensatory damages for the college’s discrimination. Becket’s brief argues that governments should not be allowed use legal loopholes like this to escape justice.

“Georgia Gwinnett campus police threatened to arrest Mr. Uzuegbunam for exercising a core First Amendment right—peacefully and respectfully sharing his faith,” said Adèle Keim, counsel at Becket. “The college can’t just walk away and pretend nothing happened.”

Uzuegbunam is part of a concerning trend: government bureaucracies, when sued for unconstitutional behavior, revise their policies and then argue that the court should never rule on whether they violated anyone’s rights.

Governments that violate individuals’ constitutional rights shouldn’t get away with it on a technicality. This fall, the Supreme Court will determine if schools, prisons, and other government bureaucracies can escape justice through temporary policy changes or if students, inmates, and other Americans will have their fundamental rights protected from abuse.

Bureaucrats shouldn’t get to tell victims of civil rights violations Heads, I win, tails, you lose,’” said Keim. “The Supreme Court should say, ‘No’ to governments that try to paper over violations of peoples’ fundamental rights.”  

Chike Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford are represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

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.

Families and children affected by Supreme Court case share their stories

WASHINGTON – In anticipation of the upcoming Supreme Court oral argument in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia—the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s case defending faith-affirming foster care—Becket has launched a new online resource to highlight what is at stake for children and families in Philadelphia and around the country. FreetoFoster.com gives readers an opportunity to go beyond the editorial pages and Twitter feeds to meet the real families that are harmed when governments kick faith-affirming agencies out of the foster care system.

In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, foster moms Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch are fighting for Catholic Social Services—the agency that has supported them throughout their foster care journeys. This resource provides background and details on the case while also explaining how foster children, foster families, and all those who rely on faith-affirming agencies for social services would be harmed if the Supreme Court were to rule against Sharonell, Toni, and Catholic Social Services.

At FreetoFoster.com, you can learn more about:

  • Plaintiffs Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch. Sharonell has fostered more than 40 children over 25 years in partnership with Catholic Social Services. Toni is a former foster care social worker who worked professionally with all 29 agencies in the city. But when Toni decided to become a foster parent herself, she decided to work with Catholic Social Services—the agency she trusted the most. Both foster moms, single women of color, state that their affiliation with Catholic Social Services is the reason they were able to do so much for so many children.
  • Who is excluded from foster care. Willing foster parents like Toni are unable to care for the over 200 foster children in the city living in institutions instead of loving homes. FreetoFoster.com tells the stories of Sharonell, Toni and many other families that were able to give a loving home and a new life to children in need thanks to the support of faith-affirming foster agencies.
  • How people of all faiths are part of this important case. Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic families rely on their religious groups for support. Closing down Catholic Social Services and agencies like it means fewer families are available to foster and, in turn, more children are kept waiting for loving homes.
  • The history of foster care in Philadelphia. The Catholic Church in Philadelphia pioneered foster care 150 years before the government got involved. Read about the history of Catholic Social Services and how it was part of the solution for children and families in need from the beginning.
  • Catholic Social Services’ foster care ministry. Catholic Social Services serves all children regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. Their scope of work includes support services for all children and wraparound services for LGBTQ families except for home studies.
  • How the exclusion of Catholic Social Services harms racial minorities. More than 60% of the families and 70% of the children served by Catholic Social Services are racial Learn more about how excluding faith-affirming partners from the foster care system disproportionately harms Black families—like those of Toni and Sharonell—who are more likely to partner with faith-affirming agencies in the foster care system.

“I was so grateful to see my story told alongside that of the many other children and families directly affected by the City’s actions. Our hearts broke when we realized Catholic Social Services’ foster program might close down over what seems like a common sense issue: we need more families to care for children, not less,” said Catherine Knapke, a Philadelphia foster parent. “If Catholic Social Services is allowed to remain open, my husband and I would love to foster again in a heartbeat. I just pray we get that chance.”

In addition to telling the stories of heroic foster families, FreetoFoster.com provides resources on how foster care works, the history of faith-affirming foster care in the United States, and common misconceptions about the current foster care debate. The website is a great resource for anyone who wants more information about the debate over the place of faith-affirming agencies in the foster care system which will come to a head on November 4, 2020 with oral argument at the Supreme Court in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.

“So many people don’t understand how hard it is to care for foster children—up to half of foster families quit within the first year. It’s no wonder that so many successful foster parents say that the support of their faith community and the religious agencies they partner with has been a vital resource,” said Naomi Schaefer Riley, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute specializing in child welfare and foster care issues.FreetoFoster.com tells the stories of these families, bringing a face to an often faceless problem. This case is about ensuring the greatest number of stable, loving homes is available to our nation’s most vulnerable children.”

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.

Faith on trial: targeted Christian student group seeks justice

WASHINGTON – University of Iowa officials were put on notice today after a Christian student group asked a federal appeals court to hold them accountable for targeting and booting the group off campus because it requires its leaders to follow its religious beliefs. In BLinC v. University of Iowa, school officials at the University of Iowa kicked Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) off campus and put it on a religious watchlist for simply requiring its leaders to sign a statement of faith.

Setting the bar for double standards, the university allows fraternities to remain single-sex and allows non-religious groups to limit their leaders (and even members) to students who share their mission. Last year, after the university admitted that it knowingly targeted and deregistered BLinC and other religious groups—and, in fact, kept a watch list of 32 religious student groups—a district court ruled that the university must end its targeting of religious student organizations.

“This is a textbook case of religious discrimination. The University kicked BLinC off campus because of its beliefs, while another group with opposing beliefs was left untouched. And that is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “BLinC has been dragged through the court system for years over what should be common sense for any group: choosing leaders that follow the group’s beliefs.”

The University of Iowa’s treatment of BLinC is part of a larger and ongoing pattern of targeting. After kicking BLinC off campus, the university deregistered 10 other religious groups, including Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, the Imam Mahdi Muslim organization, the Latter-day Saint Student Association, and the Sikh Awareness Club, for the same reason. Ultimately 32 religious groups were targeted by the university by being put on a watchlist. This past summer, in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court reaffirmed decades of precedent and sent a clear message that religious groups must be free to choose their leaders according to their faith. The Eighth Circuit should follow suit.

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.

Targeting on the quad: student group booted off campus, put on religious watchlist

WASHINGTON– A Christian student group at the University of Iowa will be asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit tomorrow to hold school officials accountable for targeting the group’s religious beliefs, in BLinC v. University of Iowa.

Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) was booted off-campus in 2017 because it asks its leaders to follow its religious beliefs, even though it accepted and served all students. University officials also put 32 religious groups on a special watchlist and deregistered 10 other religious groups, including the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, the Imam Mahdi Muslim organization, and the Sikh Awareness Club—all for the sin of requiring religious leadership. But the university broadly exempted secular groups and even some favored religious groups from its rules, holding BLinC and disfavored religious groups to a very different standard.

This past summer the Supreme Court sent a strong message in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru that religious groups should be allowed to choose their own leadership. The Eighth Circuit should follow suit and ensure that public universities like the University of Iowa can’t target religious groups and suppress people of faith on campus.

What:
Oral Argument in BLinC v. University of Iowa

Who:
Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket

When:
Tuesday, September 22, 2020 at 10:00 a.m. EDT

Where:
Virtual hearing, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals
Call-in: 888-363-4749 (pin: 4423562)

Eric Baxter will be available for comment immediately following the hearing.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Heroic foster moms fight for the oldest foster care agency in Philadelphia

WASHINGTON – Becket filed the final brief before November’s oral argument in the much anticipated Supreme Court case defending foster moms and faith-affirming care in Philadelphia. In Fulton v. Philadelphia, Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch are defending the faith-affirming foster agency that brought their families together. The Catholic Church has successfully served Philadelphia foster children and families since 1797, over 150 years before the city government got involved. But, starting in 2018, city officials targeted and threatened to shut down Catholic Social Services’ foster care ministry because it upholds Catholic beliefs about marriage. Sharonell and Toni will be asking the Supreme Court on November 4 to protect the freedom of Catholic Social Services to serve its community without violating its religious beliefs.

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 chose to foster through the same agency because of its stellar reputation. Over 70 percent of the children Catholic Social Services support come from Black and other minority communities, as do well over half of the agency’s foster families. These are the families and children who will be harmed by the city’s actions.

“I chose Catholic Social Services after having worked professionally with numerous other foster agencies in Philadelphia because I wanted to foster with an agency that understood and shared the faith that motivates me to serve,” said Toni Simms-Busch. “If I ever have the chance to give a new life to another child in need, I can’t imagine doing so without the support of the agency I trust.”

In March 2018, city officials stopped allowing foster children to be placed with families who partner with Catholic Social Services when they claimed to discover that Catholic Social Services, an arm of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia, upholds Catholic beliefs about marriage. But city officials’ actions are based on politics, not reality: there was no evidence of any same-sex couple even asking Catholic Social Services for foster care certification. And no couple has been prevented from fostering or adopting by Catholic Social Services, which serves all children in need, regardless of race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.

In fact, the only people currently prevented from fostering in the city are CSS foster families like Toni and Sharonell. Families’ foster homes are sitting empty because they chose to partner with a Catholic agency. Catholic Social Services has loving homes—and empty beds—available today for kids in need. But city officials—who have acknowledged that there are children in need of foster homes today—are keeping these families on the sidelines.

“The heroic work of foster moms like Sharonell and Toni simply cannot be done without the support of faith-affirming agencies like Catholic Social Services,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “Catholic Social Services pioneered foster care in Philadelphia. We are eager for the Court to weigh in and affirm the rightful place of faith-affirming agencies in the child welfare work that they have been doing since long before the government got involved.”

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.

Supreme Court 2020-21: Heroic foster moms, keeping the Sabbath holy, No Fly List meets RFRA

WASHINGTON – The 2019 Supreme Court term was a banner year for religious liberty, with big Becket wins in Our Lady and Little Sisters. In the upcoming 2020 term, which begins September 29, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to protect heroic foster families, address the liability of government officials who violate RFRA and consider the case of a practicing Seventh-day Adventist who lost his job for requesting an accommodation for his Sabbath observance.

Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, two women of color who have fostered more than 40 children between them, have a life-saving legacy in the Philadelphia community. Sharonell and Toni chose to partner with Catholic Social Services, which shares and affirms their most deeply held beliefs. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Sharonell and Toni are challenging the City’s anti-Catholic discrimination after the City stopped partnering with Catholic Social Services over their home study referrals. On November 4, Becket will represent these foster moms at the Court, arguing that religious groups shouldn’t have to give up their beliefs in order to serve those most in need.

Mitche Dalberiste had just been hired for his first job after college when his offer was rescinded because he requested a scheduling accommodation so he could observe his Sabbath day. Forced to choose between his faith and providing for his family, Mr. Dalberiste sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to reasonably accommodate religious practice. In Dalberiste v. GLE Associates, Becket is asking the Court to revisit past Supreme Court precedent in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison and vindicate the right of Americans of all faiths to live and work according to their religious beliefs.

In the early days of the Obama administration three Muslim men were put on the FBI’s No Fly List to coerce them into becoming informants against their own Muslim communities. Fast-forward a decade and the Trump administration has taken the lead from its predecessor in defending the FBI’s alleged bullying tactics at the Supreme Court. In Tanzin v. Tanvir, Becket is arguing that individual government officials can be held liable for violating religious freedom under RFRA.

Join the nation’s religious freedom experts to discuss these and other religious liberty cases to watch this coming term including Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski and Presbytery of Seattle v. Schulz. On the call we will discuss the themes for the upcoming term, cases being heard this term and preview petitions currently pending before the Court. We will take questions at the end of the call.

For more information about the agenda click here.

What:
Preview of the SCOTUS 2020-21 Term

Who:
Mark Rienzi, president of Becket
Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket

When:
Tuesday, September 22, 2020, at 11:00 a.m. EDT

Call-in:
301-715-8592 (pin: 914-1188-8332) or join https://zoom.us/j/91411888332
Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org. 

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.

Canterbury Medal Gala honoring Senator Orrin G. Hatch Postponed

WASHINGTON – As with many long-anticipated celebrations, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced flexibility for Becket’s annual gala. In order to ensure the safety of the event, Becket will postpone its bestowal of religious liberty’s highest honor until Thursday, May 27, 2021.  

Hatch was named Becket’s 2020 Canterbury Medalist for his instrumental role in the passing of fundamental legislation in defense of religious liberty for people of all faiths. He will receive the award in 2021, marked by an extended period of celebration of his legacy that will launch in the fall. The Canterbury Medal recognizes an individual who has demonstrated courage and commitment to defending religious freedom in America and around the world. Senator Hatch’s legacy is marked by civil discourse, principled leadership and unfailing dedication to the defense of religious liberty for all. At a time when our country is experiencing so much unease and unrestthe right to exercise our religious freedom is more important than ever. Becket honors a man who championed this right throughout his career and continues to stand for it as a thought leader encouraging America’s conscience.  

In his 42 years of serviceSenator Hatch became the longestserving Republican and Utahan in U.S. Senate history and earned the reputation as one of the most effective and bipartisan lawmakers of all time. In addition to sponsoring or cosponsoring over 750 bills that have become law, one of his most prized legislative successes is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993which was passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. In 2000, he was the primary author of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which also passed unanimously in both houses of Congress. 

Outside of public service, Hatch is a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day SaintsA trained pianist and poetry aficionado, Senator Hatch has composed hundreds of songs for many different artists, and even boasts a holiday albumSenator Hatch continues to advance issues relating to freedom of conscience, religion, and belief through his foundation, the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.   

Now more than ever, I am proud to lead Becket in honoring the ‘Father of RFRA,’ Senator Orrin G. Hatch,” said Mark Rienzi, president of BecketSenator Hatch’s legacy of championing protections for people of all faiths—and working across partisan lines to do so—has greatly strengthened religious liberty in the United States. We continue to rely on his courage and commitment to freedom for all as we advocate for similar robust support for this important human right at the highest courts in the land  

The Canterbury Medal draws its name from one of history’s most dramatic religious liberty stand-offs, which occurred between Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket, the law firm’s namesake, and King Henry II of England. The annual Canterbury Gala honors the award recipient in a black-tie event and is attended by the world’s most distinguished religious leaders and religious liberty advocates. 

Past medalists include the late Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; Cuban poet and former political prisoner Armando Valladares; Orthodox rabbi of the oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S.Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik; First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day SaintsPresident Dallin H. Oaks; and 62nd Chaplain of the U.S. SenateChaplain Barry C. Black. It is rumored the annual gala will be celebrated in Utah, rather than New York—a fitting tribute and historic opportunity to celebrate Senator Hatch’s great work. 
 

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. 

Indiana Locals defend beloved Christmas display from outsider

WASHINGTON – A local group of ministers in Brownstown, Indiana is defending a beloved nativity scene from an out-of-town stranger represented by the ACLU. After driving by the nativity scene in the close-knit community of Brownstown, the out-of-towner felt offended by the mere sight of the display in the town square and sued the county. Despite the landmark Supreme Court decision in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, which protects public religious symbols, fights like this over popular traditions with religious elements haven’t subsided. Should the outsider and the ACLU prevail at the federal court of appeals, the small town of nearly 3,000 residents will be stripped of a beloved local tradition.

In Woodring v. Jackson County, the district court applied an outdated legal rule (the Lemon test) and struck down the display. Now on appeal to the Seventh Circuit, Becket (representing the Ministerial Association), filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the nativity scene, which is part of a broader “Hometown Holiday” display that includes Santa, carolers, and several reindeer. Becket’s brief explains that the Supreme Court meant what it said in American Legion: governments need not scrub the public square of references to religion. They are instead permitted to recognize the role religion has played—and continues to play—in our society.

“The annual nativity isn’t just a beloved holiday tradition, it’s a symbol of unity and God’s “goodwill to all men” during the Christmas season, said Doug Pogue, President, Brownstown Area Ministerial Association. “In a time of such fear and uncertainty in our country, it’s heartbreaking to think that our town could lose this important symbol of hope.”

Since 2019, three courts of appeals have applied American Legion to uphold religious symbols in the public square. If the nativity scene here is struck down, the Seventh Circuit will have ventured off on its own path, splitting from this consensus regarding American Legion’s meaning.

“Scrubbing religious symbols from the public square isn’t neutral—but hostile to religion,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “Three courts of appeals have already followed the Supreme Court’s lead and recognized that principle. We are confident that the Seventh Circuit will follow suit and preserve this beloved local display.”

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.

Supreme Court to Little Sisters: you are free to serve elderly poor without violating faith

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor 7-2 today, allowing them to continue serving the elderly poor and dying without threat of millions of dollars in fines. In Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Little Sisters made their third trip to the Supreme Court, dragged by several states that tried to force Catholic nuns to provide coverage for contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs. Today’s ruling grants them protection to freely serve the elderly poor without violating their conscience.

Writing for the Court, Justice Thomas held that “For over 150 years, the Little Sisters have engaged in faithful service and sacrifice, motivated by a religious calling to surrender all for the sake of their brother. . . . But for the past seven years, they—like many other religious objectors who have participated in the litigation and rulemakings leading up to today’s decision— have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.” The Court held that the federal government was right to protect those beliefs.

“We are overjoyed that, once again, the Supreme Court has protected our right to serve the elderly without violating our faith,” said Mother Loraine Marie Maguire of the Little Sisters of the Poor. “Our life’s work and great joy is serving the elderly poor and we are so grateful that the contraceptive mandate will no longer steal our attention from our calling.”

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 would have 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 rule protecting 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.

“America deserves better than petty governments harassing nuns. The Court did the right thing by protecting the Little Sisters from an unnecessary mandate that would have gutted their ministry,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket. “Governments don’t need nuns to distribute contraceptives. But they do need religious groups to care for the elderly, heal the sick and feed the hungry. These governments all have real work they ought to be doing rather than dividing people with old and unnecessary culture wars.”

What:
Press Call to discuss Supreme Court’s opinions in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel

Who:
Mark Rienzi, president at Becket (Available for interviews)

Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket (Available for interviews)

When:
Today at 11:30 a.m. EDT/8:30 a.m. PDT

Press Call Information:
301-715-8592  | Pin #: 914-1188-8332 | or join https://zoom.us/j/91411888332

 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.

Supreme Court rejects government control over religion teachers

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of two California Catholic schools today, finding that the government cannot control a church school’s decision about who teaches its religion classes. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty defended two Catholic elementary schools that chose not to renew the contracts of two fifth-grade teachers who were not effectively carrying out the schools’ missions. Becket argued that both Church and State are better off when the government doesn’t entangle itself in the internal religious decisions of religious groups about who best teaches the faith to the next generation.

Justice Alito wrote for the Court that for religious schools, “educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission.” He also wrote about the “the rich diversity of religious education in this country,” citing examples of schools from many different religious traditions. The Court also cited “the close connection that religious institutions draw between their central purpose and educating the young in the faith.”

“Religious schools play an integral role in passing the faith to the next generation of believers,” said Adrian Alarcon, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Schools. “We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized faith groups must be free to make their own decisions about who should be entrusted with these essential duties.

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel involve two fifth-grade teachers who taught in-depth classes on the Catholic faith to their students for several hours each week, integrated Catholic values into every other subject, prayed with their students daily, and accompanied them to Mass and other religious services. The schools chose not to renew the teachers’ contracts due to poor performance, which ranged from failure to follow basic educational expectations to chaotic classrooms with children crawling on the floor. But the teachers sued, and lower courts ruled that government officials could be permitted to second-guess the schools’ decision about whether these teachers could effectively teach the Catholic faith to their students. Numerous judges, scholars, and faith groups warned these rulings violated fundamental civil rights for religious communities, especially minority groups.

The Supreme Court’s decision built on its previous unanimous decision in Becket’s 2012 case, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, confirming that the First Amendment protects all teachers who teach religion devotionally to their students. The decision recognizes that many denominations rely on non-ordained employees to pass the faith to the next generation and rejects formalistic requirements—like having a religious-sounding title—which create obstacles to the vital protections afforded by the First Amendment. A broad and flexible approach is especially important to minority religious groups, who often must partner with people from other faith backgrounds to operate their religious schools. A recent survey confirmed that Americans overwhelmingly support letting religious groups select their own religion teachers and reject government entanglement in such important decisions.

“Today is a huge win for religious schools of all faith traditions,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, who argued the case to the Court. “The last thing government officials should do is decide who is authorized to teach Catholicism to Catholics or Judaism to Jews. We are glad the Court has resoundingly reaffirmed that churches and synagogues, not government, control who teaches kids about God.”

What:
Press Call to discuss Supreme Court’s opinions in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania

Who:
Mark Rienzi, president at Becket (Available for interviews)
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket (Available for interviews)

When:
Today at 11:30 a.m. EDT/8:30 a.m. PDT

Press Call Information:
301-715-8592  | Pin #: 914-118-5568 | or join http://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, or Spanish.

Supreme Court says bye bye Blaines

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled in favor of three low-income Montana mothers today, reviving a state tax-credit program designed to generate private scholarships for Montana students to attend private schools of their choice. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the scholarship program, claiming that it would violate the state’s Blaine Amendment, an archaic anti-religious law that forbids any direct or indirect aid to schools owned or operated by a “church, sect, or denomination.” Today, the Supreme Court overturned the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling and made it clear that children in Montana cannot be stripped of their right to participate in a scholarship program simply because they attend religious schools.

In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court said that the Blaine Amendments were “born of bigotry” and that the “no-aid provisions of the 19th century hardly evince a tradition that should inform our understanding of the Free Exercise Clause.” The Court also said that “exclusion [of religious schools] from the scholarship program here is ‘odious to our Constitution’ and ‘cannot stand.’”

“It was high time for the Blaine Amendments to bite the dust,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “Our Constitution requires equal treatment for religious people and institutions. Relying on century-old state laws designed to target Catholics to exclude all people of faith was legally, constitutionally, and morally wrong. The Court was right to kick the Blaine Amendments to the curb.”

In 2015, the Montana state legislature passed the Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows Montanans a tax credit for $150 of their contributions to privately-run scholarship programs. However, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the whole program, citing the state’s Blaine Amendment, even though only some of the recipients used their scholarships at religious schools. The decision to strike down the scholarship program stood in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which said that religious groups cannot be barred from participating in widely available public programs simply because they are religious.  

In September 2019, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court in support of three low-income parents, arguing that religious organizations cannot be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public benefit programs. Justice Alito repeatedly referred to Becket’s brief in his concurring opinion, which detailed the history of discrimination behind the Blaine Amendments. Justice Alito reproduced one of the famous Thomas Nast cartoons that Becket had included in its brief to the Court as an example of anti-Catholic bigotry. Today’s decision goes beyond the Trinity Lutheran decision, extending non-discrimination protections to religious schools.

“Blaine Amendments are a nasty part of our nation’s history, representing the worst kind of religious bigotry from our past,” said Verm. “The Supreme Court was right to recognize the unconstitutionality of Montana’s Blaine Amendment and we are confident that this ruling will rid our country of these pernicious laws.”

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.

New survey finds widespread support for letting Church, not State, control internal religious direction

WASHINGTON– In a new survey of a nationally representative sample of American adults, respondents showed an intuitive understanding of and support for the First Amendment principles that protect a religious organization’s ability to determine its own religious mission and beliefs, including by selecting those who pass its faith to the next generation. The survey especially focused on this ability to pass on the faith to the next generation free from government interference, a protection often referred to as the “ministerial exception.” Respondents were tested on their understanding of these constitutional protections, and surveyed on how they think they should be applied.

The survey, fielded in late April, found that more than two-thirds of respondents agreed that keeping the government out of a religious organization’s internal religious disputes is an important facet of a healthy separation of church and state. A majority of respondents also said that the religious organization should have the final say when a dispute arises over who can or cannot teach its beliefs to the next generation. In fact, more respondents chose this option than all other options combined.

“When it comes to important decisions about who can pass on a religious organization’s faith on to the next generation, Americans agree that the buck stops well before Uncle Sam,” said Montse Alvarado, executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Leaving important decisions about a religion’s future in that religion’s hands is a commonsense application of the First Amendment.”

Although the term “ministerial exception” may not be as familiar as other First Amendment freedoms, on a section of the survey that tested respondents’ knowledge of the status of this constitutional protection, Americans typically answered at least three out of four questions correctly.  Older generations performed slightly better than younger generations. Education level was not a predictor of accuracy in these questions, nor was political party or the self-reported importance of religion.

This survey and others to follow serve as a companion to Becket’s annual Religious Freedom Index. Where the Index provides a macro view of religious freedom sentiment, this survey provides a more detailed view of principles covered in the Index that are central to current religious freedom cases.

The study surveyed a representative sample of n=1,004 American adults from April 20-22. Weighting was used to ensure a representative population with regard to age, gender, race, geographic region, and education. The survey was conducted online and has an estimated margin of error of +/-3.1 percent at 95 percent confidence.

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.

Feds modify controversial transgender mandate

WASHINGTON – The Department of Health and Human Services has just finalized a new rule that protects patients, aligns with current medical research, and complies with rulings from two federal courts. An older rule, imposed in 2016, had required doctors to perform gender transition procedures even if doing so would violate their religious beliefs and potentially harm their patients. That rule was struck down in two lawsuits brought by nine states, several religious organizations, and an association of over 19,000 healthcare professionals. The new rule finalized today complies with those court decisions and ensures that sensitive medical decisions are kept between patients and their doctors without government interference.

In May 2016, the federal government issued a mandate, applicable to virtually every doctor in the country, requiring them to perform gender transition procedures on any patient, including a child, even if the doctor believed the procedure could harm the patient. Doctors who refused to violate their medical judgment would have faced severe consequences, including financial penalties and job loss. At the same time, HHS’s own medical experts acknowledged that gender transition procedures could be potentially harmful.

“No doctor should be forced to perform a procedure she believes would harm a patient,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The new rule will help ensure that all patients receive top-notch care without forcing doctors to perform potentially harmful procedures in violation of their religious beliefs and medical judgment.”

When the federal government’s transgender mandate was passed in 2016, nine states, several religious organizations, and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations sued the federal government challenging the legality of the mandate. A federal court in North Dakota put the rule on hold, and another federal court in Texas struck it down. The new rule is aimed at bringing the regulations into compliance with these court decisions, helping to ensure that the personal decision to undergo transgender medical procedures is kept between a patient and their doctor, free from government interference.

“Today marks a significant step forward for compassion, conscience, and sound medical judgment,” said Goodrich. “Our clients look forward to 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.”

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.

Canterbury Medal Gala honoring Senator Orrin G. Hatch postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic

WASHINGTON – Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Becket postponed its annual Canterbury Medal Gala to October 15. Becket will bestow religious liberty’s highest honor, the Canterbury Medal, on Utah Senator Orrin G. Hatch on Thursday, October 15 in New York City. Hatch was named Becket’s 2020 Canterbury Medalist for his instrumental role in the passing of fundamental legislation in defense of religious liberty for people of all faiths. The Canterbury Medal recognizes an individual who has demonstrated courage and commitment to defending religious freedom in America and around the world. Senator Hatch’s legacy is marked by civil discourse, principled leadership and unfailing dedication to the defense of religious liberty for all. At a time when our country is experiencing so much unease and unrest, the right to exercise our religious freedom is more important than ever, and to honor a man who championed this right throughout his career is particularly fitting.

In his 42 years of service, Senator Hatch became the longest-serving Republican and Utahan in U.S. Senate history and earned a reputation as one of the most effective and bipartisan lawmakers of all time. In addition to sponsoring or co-sponsoring over 750 bills that became law, one of his most prized legislative successes was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, which was passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. In 2000, Senator Hatch was the primary author of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which passed unanimously in both houses of Congress.

“Over more than four decades of Senate service, I worked to build coalitions of common interest to preserve religious liberty for people of all faiths. Protecting these rights is essential to the future of our republic,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch. “Receiving the Canterbury Medal is an incredible honor, and I am committed to always live worthy of it by remaining steadfast in my devotion to religious liberty.”

Outside of public service, Hatch is a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A trained pianist and poetry aficionado, Senator Hatch has composed hundreds of songs for many different artists, and even boasts a holiday album. Senator Hatch continues to advance issues relating to freedom of conscience, religion, and belief through his foundation, the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.

“Few lawmakers have done more for the cause of religious liberty than the ‘Father of RFRA,’ Senator Orrin G. Hatch,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket. “Senator Hatch’s legacy of championing protections for people of all faiths—and working across partisan lines to do so—has greatly strengthened religious liberty in the United States. His vital efforts will not soon be forgotten by advocates for religious liberty and those who can now freely practice their faith.”

The Canterbury Medal draws its name from one of history’s most dramatic religious liberty stand-offs, which occurred between Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket, the law firm’s namesake, and King Henry II of England. The annual Canterbury Gala honors the award recipient in a black-tie event at the Pierre Hotel in New York and is attended by the world’s most distinguished religious leaders and religious liberty advocates.

Past medalists include the late Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; Cuban poet and former political prisoner Armando Valladares; Orthodox rabbi of the oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S., Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik; First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Dallin H. Oaks; and 62nd Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Chaplain Barry C. Black.

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 Supreme Court to decide whether clergyman credibly accused of sexual abuse can sue his own church for defamation

WASHINGTON – The Texas Supreme Court announced Friday it will decide whether churches can warn their members about clergy who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. In Guerrero v. Diocese of Lubbock, the Diocese of Lubbock published the name of an ordained deacon on a list of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse. The deacon sued the Diocese for defamation. The lower courts ruled that the clergyman could sue the Diocese for doing so. Becket appealed the Diocese’s case to the Texas Supreme Court, and the Court has now agreed to take up the case.

In January 2019, following calls for greater transparency from Pope Francis and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, all 15 Texas dioceses published lists of clergy members credibly accused of sexual abuse. Deacon Guerrero sued the Diocese of Lubbock for defamation. State courts in Texas allowed his defamation claim to go forward despite the Diocese’s argument that it has a right to communicate freely with its members about matters of church discipline, saying that because local media had broadcast the list beyond the “confines” of the “church”, the Diocese had no defense.

“Churches should not be punished for doing the right thing,” said Montse Alvarado, vice president and executive director at Becket. “Clergy hold a unique position of trust within their communities, and churches should be free to notify members and other affected individuals when clergy violate that trust. That is true even when the warning goes beyond the four walls of the church building.”

In its briefs, the Diocese argues that courts cannot interfere in a church’s internal discipline of clergy, and that punishing the Diocese for including Guerrero’s name on its list could chill efforts at continued transparency.

“We are committed to transparency for the trust and safety of the members of our parishes,” said Most Rev. Robert Coerver, bishop of the Diocese of Lubbock. “At a time when many religious messages are being shared digitally, courts must protect churches’ ability to communicate effectively with their members.”

Recognizing that religious autonomy matters for all religious groups, leaders from Jewish and Protestant traditions, Texas legislators, and prominent legal scholars, filed briefs supporting the Diocese. They ask the Court to uphold the right of all religious groups to demonstrate transparency on issues arising from clergy discipline.

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.

Wisconsin officials have a change of heart after Catholic Church stands up for religious rights

WASHINGTON –The Public Health Department for the City of Madison and Dane County, Wisconsin put out a new “Forward Dane” order today, removing a 50-person cap on in-person religious services that did not apply to any similar secular activities. The new order came after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison stood up for its right to free exercise of religion. Global law firms Sidley Austin and Troutman Sanders, along with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent a letter to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, and Public Health Director Janel Heinrich on Wednesday, June 3. The letter explained that Madison/Dane County’s arbitrary 50-person cap on houses of worship violated the First Amendment as well as the Wisconsin Constitution. Because the Diocese stood up for its rights, Catholic churches in Madison/Dane County will now conduct in-person Masses at the same 25 percent capacity level as secular activities such as malls and theaters, but with even more rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols.

Under Madison/Dane County’s previous order, shopping malls, bars, restaurants, spas, gyms, salons, museums, movie theaters, community centers, bowling alleys, skating rinks, and trampoline parks were allowed to open at 25 percent capacity, while houses of worship were subject to an arbitrary 50-person cap regardless of how large the church building was. This meant that in some cases, Catholic churches in Madison were held to less than five percent capacity. Madison’s mayor also announced that public protests were not subject to government restrictions at all. The legal letter sent on Wednesday explained that capping in-person worship at just 50 people was discriminatory and targeted the Catholic Church for selective enforcement.

“We are pleased that the County and the City have ended the unequal 50-person cap on religious gatherings. As bishop, it is my duty to ensure that Sunday Mass be available as widely as possible to the Catholic faithful, while following best practices when it comes to public health,” said Bishop Donald Hying, Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison. “Indeed, in a time of deep division, it is more important than ever for the Church to provide solace and comfort to all, in the great tradition of American religious freedom. We look forward to working together with the County and City to continue the reopening process in a safe, cooperative, and responsible manner.”

After Madison-Dane County officials released the first “Forward Dane” executive order on May 18 which listed houses of worship as “essential services” thus allowing them to resume in-person services at 25 percent capacity, the Diocese of Madison quickly put together a plan for safely reopening with rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols developed in accordance with CDC and WHO guidelines. But after the Diocese announced its careful plan, the City of Madison/Dane County abruptly reversed course, adding a brand-new restriction on houses of worship, limiting them to just 50 people at each religious service regardless of the size of the building. Following its May 22 order, the Madison/Dane County Health Department multiple times called and visited Diocesan officials and parishes to inform them that surveillance officials would be sent to churches and fines of up to $1000 would be imposed for every instance in which more than 50 people were gathered for Mass.

“We’re glad that Madison and Dane County came to their senses, but it shouldn’t have taken so long,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The First Amendment protects both prayer and protest. Putting an arbitrary numerical cap on worship services while allowing thousands to protest makes no sense from a legal or public health perspective. Most other governments nationwide have already lifted their COVID-related restrictions on worship. The few remaining holdouts should take note and come into compliance with the First Amendment.”

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.

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.

Catholic Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin demands equal treatment from county and city officials

WASHINGTON –Global law firms Sidley Austin and Troutman Sanders, along with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, sent a letter today to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison explaining that the City and County’s May 22 public health order that capped in-person worship at just 50 people is discriminatory and targets the Catholic Church for selective enforcement. Under the order, shopping malls, bars, restaurants, spas, gyms, salons, museums, movie theaters, community centers, bowling alleys, skating rinks, trampoline parks and more are not subject to the 50-person cap. Madison’s mayor has also announced that public protests are not subject to government restrictions at all. Madison/Dane County threatened to send government officials to Catholic Masses to find out how many people are there and impose $1000 fines if too many people came to church. The letter explains that Madison/Dane County’s actions violate the First Amendment and the Wisconsin Constitution.

After Madison/Dane County officials released the “Forward Dane” executive order on May 18 which listed houses of worship as “essential services” thus allowing them to resume in-person services at 25 percent capacity, the Diocese of Madison quickly put together a plan for safely reopening with rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols developed in accordance with CDC and WHO guidelines. But after the Diocese announced its careful plan, in an abrupt and inexplicable reversal, the City of Madison/Dane County added a brand-new restriction on houses of worship, limiting them to just 50 people at each religious service regardless of the size of the building. This means that some churches are held to while trampoline parks, movie theaters and virtually all other entities can operate to at least 25%.

“In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the racial injustice of the past week, our community is crying out for unity, for grace and for spiritual healing. We are ready and able to answer that call, but the 50-person cap has unjustly stifled our pastoral mission,” said Bishop Donald Hying, Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison. “Our Diocese has been, and remains, committed to promoting and protecting the health and safety of our fellow Madisonians, but the county and city have wrongly subordinated the spiritual needs of the community to the operations of non-essential businesses.”

Since May 22, the Madison/Dane County Health Department has multiple times called and visited Diocesan officials and parishes to inform them that surveillance teams would be sent to churches and fines of up to $1000 would be imposed for every instance in which more than 50 people were gathered for Mass.

“Madison and Dane County think mass protests, movies and malls are just fine, but churches have to be put under surveillance to make sure not too many people go,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “If it’s safe enough for thousands to shop together at malls, and to sit in a theatre for a two-hour film, it’s safe enough to spend 45 minutes safely socially distanced in worship. Madison and Dane County should end their unequal treatment of religious people.”

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.

Broad support to protect doctors, nurses from discriminatory firing

WASHINGTON – A diverse group of states, Members of Congress, minority groups, medical affiliate organizations, and legal experts recently filed half-a-dozen briefs supporting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) Conscience Rule, which provides federal conscience protections for medical professionals. In New York v. HHS, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is defending Dr. Regina Frost and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA) from attempts by states to discriminate against doctors and nurses who refuse to violate their consciences and medical judgment by performing procedures such as abortions or physician-assisted suicide.  This case is now in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Highlights from the friend-of-the-court filings in New York v. HHS:

  • A congressional brief filed by dozens of Members of Congress explained why the new rule’s provisions flowed directly from unchallenged—and bipartisan—statutory protections for medical conscience that have been on the books for decades.
  • Former Senator Coats and former Representative Weldon (the named sponsors of two key statutory conscience protections for healthcare providers) filed their own brief in support, explaining why conscience protections are important for health care providers and how the government’s new regulation supports key bipartisan statutory protections that have long been on the books.
  • The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and the Coalition for Jewish Values also highlighted the disproportionate impact that New York’s lawsuit would have on medical professionals of minority faiths.
  • The Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence explained why this new rule helps the government better enforce existing federal conscience protections.
  • A coalition of medical professional organizations—including the American College Of Pediatricians, the Catholic Medical Association, and the National Catholic Bioethics Center—filed a brief highlighting ongoing threats to medical professionals of faith and explaining why this rule will help ensure medical providers cannot be coerced by employers to either violate their conscience or lose their job.

“Healthcare is one area where protecting conscience is particularly vital,” said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, in a brief on behalf of sixteen states. “That is why Congress has routinely enacted laws to ensure that these professionals can provide care without violating their beliefs.”

Polling from last year shows that religious healthcare professionals are committed to serving all patients, but face increasing pressures to engage in procedures such as abortions that violate their faith, which could force over ninety percent of religious doctors out of the medical field.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a Conscience Rule last year to better enforce bipartisan laws that, for decades, have promised to allow religious doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals to serve patients without facing employment discrimination directed against their consciences. The Rule simply clarifies and enforces existing federal statutes designed to ensure religious health professionals won’t be forced out of the practice of medicine by entities that voluntarily choose to accept federal tax money. But, led by the State of New York, several states and abortion providers are suing to keep the federal funds while preventing the government from enforcing the conscience protections that they agreed to when they accepted the funds.

“It is encouraging to see this broad coalition stand up in support of conscience rights,” said Dr. Regina Frost. “I hope the Court will recognize that the Rule simply enforces common-sense, bipartisan protections that protect both medical professionals from unjust discrimination and patients from losing their doctors.”

Dr. Frost is an OB-GYN and one of nearly 19,000 medical professionals in CMDA serving the sick and vulnerable in the United States and abroad. CMDA members serve the homeless, prisoners living with HIV, and victims of opioid addiction, sex trafficking, and gang violence. Overseas, CMDA members serve in war zones, refugee clinics, and remote areas without quality healthcare. New York’s lawsuit needlessly threatens the health and well-being of at-risk, underserved populations across the globe.

Dr. Frost and CMDA are also represented by Allyson Ho and Daniel Nowicki of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.

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, or Spanish.

Minnesota to reopen all churches after Catholics and Lutherans stand up for Religious Freedom

WASHINGTON  After Catholic and Lutheran Churches announced plans to reopen their churches to groups larger than ten without the Governor’s blessing, Minnesota announced today that it would lift that limitation, and clear the way for houses of worship of all faith traditions to open to larger groups starting Wednesday, May 27, 2020. The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod worked cooperatively with Governor Tim Walz to develop a plan for reopening churches by Pentecost SundayGovernor Walz returned to the negotiating table after the Churches acted in defense of their free exerciseannouncing on Wednesday that they would resume in-person worship services despite the Governor’s COVID-19 executive order, which wrongly subordinated Minnesotans’ spiritual well-being to economic interests. Minnesota’s reopening plan is a model for other states, as it shows that it is possible for in-person religious worship to resume in a safe, cooperative, and responsible manner. 

On May 13, 2020, Governor Tim Walz issued an executive order with guidelines for reopening commerce in the State of Minnesota as of June 1. The order allowed malls, shops, and other retailers—from pet-grooming services to medical cannabis operations—to open their doors at fifty percent capacity. A phased plan for reopening barsrestaurantstattoo parlors, and salons was also announced. But in-person worship was not mentioned at all. Rather, worship gatherings greater than ten people remained banned—until “TBD.” The Churches sent Governor Walz separate letters on Wednesday announcing that they would be resuming worship services before May 31, Pentecost Sunday. At the same time, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Sidley Austin LLP sent Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a legal letter explaining why continuing to keep churches closed would violate the First Amendment. The governor has now recognized that churches can reopen safely and carefully in the same way as malls and other business operations 

We are grateful that Governor Walz entered into respectful dialogue with us, recognized the spiritual needs of our faithful, and agreed that it is possible to resume worship services safely and responsibly,” said Archbishop Bernard HebdaRoman Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. “Hopefully, our experience of constructive dialogue can serve as a roadmap for churches across the country suffering from similar inequities, whether intended or unintended, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are grateful that Becket and Sidley Austin LLP helped us to guard our first freedom—religious freedom—so that Catholics can receive the Eucharist and be strengthened in their response to the challenges of this trying time. 

The ability to meet in person to worship God and support one another is invaluable to our community of faith,”  said Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, President of the Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.  We are so pleased that Minnesota decided to reopen churches, without needing to resort to legal actionWe will remain prayerful and watchful, so that this agreement is just the beginning of a return to full, in-person worship.” 

Minnesota’s reopening plan allows churches to hold indoor services at 25 percent capacity with up to 250 people. The churches have also published extensive safety and hygiene protocols to ensure a safe and responsible return to worship. After Minnesota’s change, only 8 states continue to impose facially unequal treatment on religious worship during the reopening process, including California and New Hampshire. Becket released a resource that tracks state treatment of churches in their reopening plan 

Good things happen when people of faith stand up for their rights, said Eric Rassbachvice president and senior counsel at Becket. Governor Walz is to be commended for seeing the light. Minnesota is setting an example by recognizing the importance of giving equal treatment to churches and other houses of worship, and that worship services can be conducted safely, cooperatively, and responsibly. Other closed-church states are on notice.

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. 

TODAY: Press call to discuss Minnesota churches’ decision to reopen without Governor’s blessing

WASHINGTON – The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in Minnesota sent Governor Tim Walz letters yesterday announcing that they would be resuming worship services on May 26 despite Governor Walz’s current COVID-19 executive order, which allows retailers to operate at 50 percent capacity but caps church worship services at ten people. Governor Walz’s latest re-opening order allows the Mall of America to open its doors to those seeking retail therapy but disallows churches from providing spiritual healing to their congregations. At the same time, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a legal letter explaining why continuing to keep churches closed violates the First Amendment.  

Join Becket for a press call this morning to discuss the churches’ decision to resume in-person worship services, while observing rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols, without the state’s support. 

What:
Press Call to discuss Minnesota Churches Challenge to COVID-19 Executive Order  

Who:
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket (Available for interviews)
Archbishop Bernard HebdaArchdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis
Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, President of The Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod 

When:
Today at 10:00 a.m. EDT/9:00 a.m. CDT

Press Call Information:
646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or join http://zoom.us/my/comms.line.external 

 Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org 

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. 

Minnesota churches tell Governor Walz they are resuming in-person worship services

WASHINGTON – The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota sent Governor Tim Walz separate letters today announcing that they would be resuming worship services on May 26 despite Governor Walz’s current COVID-19 executive order which allows retailers to operate at 50 percent capacity but caps church worship services at ten people. Governor Walz’s latest re-opening order allows the Mall of America to open its doors to those seeking retail therapy but disallows churches from providing spiritual healing to their congregations. At the same time, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a legal letter explaining why continuing to keep churches closed violates the First Amendment. Also representing the Catholic and Lutheran Churches is global law firm Sidley Austin LLP.

On May 13, 2020, Governor Tim Walz issued an executive order with guidelines for reopening commerce in the State of Minnesota. The order allows malls, shops, and other retailers to open their doors at fifty percent capacity, allows businesses—from pet-grooming services to medical cannabis operations—to resume in-person operations, and even announces a phased plan for reopening bars and restaurants, but explicitly leaves in place bans on in-person worship services for more than ten people. Even Minnesota casinos are reopening starting May 26. After weeks of dialogue with Governor Walz to try to achieve equal treatment for houses of worship, today the Catholic and Lutheran Churches announced that they would resume worship services for their congregations at thirty-three percent capacity on Tuesday, May 26, with Pentecost Sunday, May 31, as the first day of Sunday services. The churches have committed to instituting rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“Darkness and despair have taken hold of so many of our fellow Americans in the face of the economic and social hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Archbishop Hebda. “Faith has always been a source of comfort and strength and now more than ever it is of the utmost importance that we are able to meet the spiritual needs of our community.”

“Throughout this crisis, we have been committed to modeling Christ’s love by protecting people from the spread of illness. That’s why it is so disheartening that the Governor has subordinated our spiritual well-being to the economic well-being of the State,” said Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, president of the Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. “Now that the State has deemed the risk of spreading coronavirus low enough to reopen non-essential business, we respectfully believe that it is our right and duty to safely resume public ministry to the faithful even without the support of the Governor.”

Since the beginning of Minnesota’s stay-at-home order suicide hotlines have seen spikes in calls as high as 300 percent in parts of the state, as well as a 25 percent increase in calls about domestic violence. Millions of Americans seek comfort and strength in their faith communities, which also serve as safe spaces for victims of domestic violence and those suffering with addictions.

In March, well before statewide stay-at-home orders came into effect, both the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod voluntarily suspended in-person worship services to preserve the health and safety of their communities. On May 7, and again on May 16 the churches presented Governor Walz with proposed protocols for resuming in-person worship services in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and United States Centers for Disease Control.

“If malls, casinos, liquor stores, bars, and restaurants are reopening, why can’t Minnesota churches?” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Our Constitution stands for ‘equal justice under law’ and imposing a special disability on churches is anything but. Governor Walz and Attorney General Ellison should ensure equal treatment for churches and houses of worship—especially because they are crucial to helping our nation overcome this crisis.”

The head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice yesterday sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom explaining that under federal law California could not force houses of worship to lag behind other organizations during the reopening process.

Becket will host a press call on Thursday, May 21 at 10:00 a.m. EST.

Call-in:
646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or join http://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.

Supreme Court hears major Church-State case

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court heard oral argument today in a case that will determine if the government can control who a church school chooses to teach its religion classes. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and in St. James Catholic School v. Biel, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is defending two California Catholic elementary schools that chose not to renew the contracts of two fifth-grade teachers who were not effectively carrying out the schools’ missions. Becket argued that the government has no place entangling itself in the internal religious decisions of religious groups about who best teaches the faith to the next generation.

A number of the Justices’ questions focused on the Court’s landmark 2012 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, in which the Court ruled unanimously in favor of a Lutheran school defended by Becket. A majority of the Justices expressed broad support for Becket’s argument that religious schools must be free to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation. By contrast, Justice Kagan expressed “surprise” that the plaintiffs’ lawyer thought the government could interfere even with the selection of full-time religion teachers.

“This is an important moment for our community of faith, especially our schools,” said Adrian Alarcon, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Schools. “We are defending our freedom to choose who may teach, inspire, and advance the faith at our Catholic schools, free from government interference.

The case concerns fifth-grade teachers who taught an in-depth class on the Catholic faith to their students for several hours each week, integrated Catholic values into every other subject, prayed with their students daily, and accompanied them to Mass and other religious services. Nevertheless, when the schools chose not to renew the teachers’ contracts because of classroom performance, the lower courts said that governments should be permitted to second-guess the decision.

At the Supreme Court, a broad coalition of minority-faith groups, leading law professors, members of Congress and state governments sided with the schools, advising the Court about the dangerous consequences of allowing the government to control who religious groups choose to teach the faith, and asking the Justices to uphold a common sense rule the Court protected unanimously in 2012.

“For any faith to continue, someone has to teach the faith to the next generation,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “And under our system of separation of church and state, the government cannot decide who carries out that crucial task. We are confident that the Court recognizes how important a role teachers play in the lives of their students, and will reaffirm its precedent that the government can’t control who teaches kids about God.”

Becket will host a press call at 1:45 p.m. ET. Audio from the press call can be found here.

Press call information:
646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or join http://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, or Spanish.

Supreme Court to hear historic telephonic argument over religious schools’ right to select religion teachers

WASHINGTON  Two California Catholic elementary schools will be at the Supreme Court Monday, defending their right to pick religion teachers without interference from the governmentIn Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, two fifth-grade teachers are suing their former employers after their annual contracts were not renewedAs fifth-grade teachers in Catholic elementary schoolsMs. Morrissey-Berru and Ms. Biel were both primary teachers of the Catholic faith for their studentsAfter concerns about the effectiveness of their teaching, observations of poor classroom management, and an unwillingness by the teachers to improve, both schools chose not to give the teachers new one-year contracts because they were not effectively carrying out the schools’ religious and educational mission. Becket argues that the government has no place interfering with the internal decisions of religious organizations about who best teaches the faith to the next generation.  

For the first time in Supreme Court history, the Court has decided to hear a handful of the previously postponed cases telephonically in the interest of safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the Our Lady and St. James cases on MondayMay 11The consolidated cases will be heard beginning at 11:00 a.m. EDT.   

What:
Oral Argument in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru & St. James Catholic School v. Biel 

Who:
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket 

When:
Monday, May 11, 2020, 11:00 a.m. EDT 

Where:
The audio of the arguments will be accessible live via one of the C-SPAN TV networks, online via C-SPAN.org, and on the free C-SPAN Radio app 

Becket will host a press call at 1:45 p.m. EDT. 

Press Call-in:
646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or join http://zoom.us/my/comms.line.external
Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org 

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. 

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. 

Little Sisters of the Poor return to Supreme Court in historic telephonic argument

Update: Becket’s press call has been delayed due to prolonged oral argument. It will take place at 12:30 p.m. ET. 

WASHINGTON – The Little Sisters of the Poor will once again be at the Supreme Court (virtually) Wednesday to defend their ministry of serving the elderly poor. In Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Sisters are asking the Supreme Court to put a stop to Pennsylvania’s attempt to take away their hard-earned religious exemption from the HHS contraceptive mandate, and end their seven-year legal battle once and for all. For the first time in Supreme Court history, the Court has decided to hear a handful of cases telephonically in the interest of safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, as the Little Sisters work tirelessly to preserve the physical and spiritual health of the elderly poor in their care, it is important for Pennsylvania and other state governments to leave the Little Sisters alone and let them carry out their ministry in peace.

Information for oral argument and press call is below. Further, from 8:45-10:00 a.m. EDT, Wednesday, May 6, the morning of oral argument, please join a virtual rally to show support for the Little Sisters and all religious ministries that rely on religious exemptions. Information on rally speakers will be made available.

What:
SCOTUS Oral Argument in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Who:
Paul Clement, Kirkland & Ellis LLP (Arguing)
Mark Rienzi, president of Becket (Available for interviews)
Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket (Available for interviews)

When:
Wednesday, May 6, 2020 at 10 a.m. EDT

Where:
The audio of the arguments will be accessible live via one of the C-SPAN TV networks, online via C-SPAN.org, and on the free C-SPAN Radio app.

Becket will host a press call following arguments at 12:30 p.m. EDT.

Call-in for Press Call:
646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or join http://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.

Texas lawmakers, legal scholars, and diverse religious groups support Catholic diocese at Texas Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – Dozens of Texas lawmakers, prominent law professors, a range of religious organizations, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, filed briefs supporting the Diocese of Lubbock, defending its right to religious autonomy in conducting its internal Church affairs. In Guerrero v. Diocese of Lubbock, a Catholic deacon sued the diocese after it published his name on a list of clergy members credibly accused of sexually abusing a “minor” within the meaning of Catholic Church law, known as “canon law.” Becket is asking the Texas Supreme Court to rule in favor of the diocese’s right to speak transparently about clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse.

In January 2019, consistent with the exhortations of Pope Francis and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Young People, all 15 Texas dioceses published lists of clergy members credibly accused of abusing a “minor.” According to canon law—the centuries-old body of law of the Catholic Church, which clergy are bound to follow—a “minor” includes any person who lacks the mental faculties of an adult. Based on that standard, the Diocese’s review of internal clergy files led it to include Deacon Guerrero on the list.

Following the list’s publication, Deacon Guerrero demanded that his name be removed, claiming that he was wrongly listed because his accuser was not a child at the time of the alleged misconduct, even though he does not dispute that the Church defines “minor” to include vulnerable adults as well. In March 2019, Deacon Guerrero sued the Diocese for defamation. Becket is representing the Diocese of Lubbock at the Texas Supreme Court arguing that the courts have no business interfering in the internal disciplinary action of the Church, and that punishing the diocese for including Guerrero’s name on its list could chill Church efforts to be more transparent in the future. Recognizing that religious autonomy matters for all religious groups, not just for Catholics, leaders from Jewish and Protestant traditions, as well as legal scholars, have joined in asking the Court to uphold the right of all religious groups to advocate transparency on issues arising from the discipline of clergy.

“The courts should not punish the Church for doing the right thing,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It is hardly justice to drag the Diocese through a lawsuit because it is trying to right past wrongs and be more transparent about clergy sexual abuse. And suing the Church for being transparent certainly doesn’t help victims.”

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.

Supreme Court reschedules religious liberty cases for historic telephonic oral arguments

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has rescheduled oral argument in three Becket cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, St. James Catholic School v. Bieland Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for early MayIn the interest of safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court made an unprecedented announcement Monday that it would hear a select number of the postponed cases telephonically this spring. The remainder of the postponed cases will be heard during the Court’s next term. Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will be heard on Wednesday, May 6, 2020and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel are scheduled for argument on Monday, May 11, 2020 

The Court has never before heard arguments telephonically. C-SPAN has announced that it will broadcast the telephonic oral arguments live. 

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. 

Press call: What does COVID-19 mean for Becket’s Supreme Court cases?

WASHINGTON – Amid flurry of cancellations and postponements in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many are wondering how the virus will affect the religious liberty cases scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court this term. Already the Supreme Court has postponed oral arguments for the March and April sessions, but some are speculating that there are further postponements or even cancellations to come 

On Tuesday, April 7, Becket’s president, Mark Rienzi will host a press call to examine the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the 2020 Supreme Court term, discuss what it may mean for Becket’s three Supreme Court cases, and address the impact that postponements and cancellations could have on the religious liberty issues before the Court  

What:
Press call on implications of COVID-19 pandemic for SCOTUS term 

Who:
Mark Rienzi, Becket Fund President 

When:
TuesdayApril 7, 2020 at 10:15 a.m. EDT 

Call-in:
646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or join http://zoom.us/my/comms.line.external  

Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org. 

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. 

Postponed: Oral argument in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has postponed oral argument in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. After Pennsylvania and several other states sued to take away the Little Sisters of the Poor’s hard-earned religious exemption from the HHS contraceptive mandate, the Little Sisters are asking the Supreme Court to protect them again and end their legal battle once and for all. The hearing was originally scheduled for Wednesday, April 29, but has been postponed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Court will likely reset the case for oral argument at a later date.

“In this trying time for our nation, the Little Sisters of the Poor are dedicated to protecting their elderly residents from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “Now more than ever the Sisters need the freedom to focus solely on that mission.”

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.

Postponed: Oral argument in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has postponed oral argument in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, the cases of two California Catholic elementary schools defending their right to select their religion teachers without interference from the government. The hearing was originally scheduled for Wednesday, April 1, but has been postponed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Court will likely reset the case for oral argument at a later date 

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. 

States, scholars, members of Congress and diverse religious groups defend Little Sisters of the Poor at High Court

WASHINGTON – Twenty states, leading scholars, 161 members of Congress and several diverse faith groups including Muslims, Jews and Christians filed briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday supporting the Little Sisters of the Poor in their legal battle against the HHS contraceptive mandate. In Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Little Sisters are defending their hard-won religious exemption from a lawsuit by the Pennsylvania Attorney General that threatens their ministry of serving the elderly poor. On April 29, the Little Sisters of the Poor will once again stand before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend their religious liberty and try to end this legal battle once and for all.

The HHS contraceptive mandate required the Little Sisters to provide services such as the week-after pill in their health care plans or pay millions of dollars in fines. Since their legal battle began seven years ago, the Little Sisters have been protected twice at the Supreme Court, and a new federal rule issued in 2018 secured a religious exemption for all religious non-profits when the government admitted it has many other less-burdensome ways to distribute contraceptives. Yet several states, including Pennsylvania and California, have sued the federal government to take that protection away, forcing the Little Sisters back to the Supreme Court. Several diverse groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs to the High Court yesterday in support of the Little Sisters and to defend the religious exemptions at stake.

“Nothing in our Nation’s tradition of religious exemptions, in RFRA, in the APA, or in the ACA suggests that the agency lacked authority to grant the religious exemption here,” stated Doug Laycock, the Robert E. Scott Distinguished Professor of Law and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, in his friend-of-the-court brief filed in support of the Little Sisters. “To the contrary, any reasonable effort to comply with RFRA requires the agency to grant religious exemptions, and those exemptions need not precisely match ultimate judicial interpretation of RFRA’s minimum requirements.”

A brief from the Independent Women’s Law Center urged the Court to bring these cases to a complete end by holding “that RFRA mandated the final rule’s exemption” and explained that doing so would help both the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts “avoid rendering unnecessary opinions on a host of related but more complicated issues.”

In 2016, the government admitted before the Supreme Court that it has ways to get contraceptives to women without forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to participate. California and Pennsylvania each have programs for providing free contraceptives to women who want them. Yet, both states are suing to force the federal government to enforce the federal mandate against the Little Sisters, even after the federal government granted them an exemption.

“The broad support for the Little Sisters shows that, even in a divided country, people of good will can agree that no one needs to punish Catholic nuns for not giving out contraception.” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket. “Pennsylvania’s effort to punish the Little Sisters and their elderly residents is petty and unconstitutional. The Supreme Court should end this needless culture war fight once and for all.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on April 29.

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.

Postponed: Hearing in Payne-Elliott v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis

WASHINGTON – The court has postponed hearing on the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ case defending its right to provide students with an authentic Catholic education. The hearing was originally scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, March 10th, but has been postponed for medical reasons. The court will reset the case for a hearing at a later date 

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. 

Supreme Court will decide fate of faith-based foster care

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has agreed to take a case that will clarify the role of faith-based agencies in the foster and adoption system. In Fulton v. PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia foster moms Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch are defending the faith-based agency that brought their families togetherStarting in 2018, the City of Philadelphia began targeting and threatening to shut down Catholic Social Services unless it violates its sincere beliefs. 

Sharonell Fulton has fostered more than 40 children over 25 years in partnership with Catholic Social Services (CSS) in Philadelphia, and Toni Simms-Busch is a former social worker who recently adopted the children she fostered through CSSBoth 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 CSSwho are now urging the Supreme Court to protect the a ministry that serves Philadlphia’s most vulnerable, at-risk children.   

CSS has been a godsend to my family and so many like ours. I don’t think I could have gone through this process without an agency that shares my core beliefs and cares for my children accordingly,” said Toni Simms-Busch. “We are so grateful that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear our case and sort out the mess that Philadelphia has created for so many vulnerable foster children. 

In March 2018—and just days after putting out a call for 300 more foster families—the City of Philadelphia stopped allowing foster children to be placed with familes who work with CSS. Philadelphia argued that the Catholic agency had to either endorse and certify same-sex relationships or close downThe City did this despite the fact thatfor 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 

Faith-based agencies place over 57,000 Children in loving homes nationwide each year. Across the country, five major cities and one state have already shut faith-based agencies out of the foster system. Meanwhile, our nation is in the midst of a foster care crisis: there is a shortage of families and a surplus of at-risk children due in part to the opioid epidemic. Religious agencies like CSS are particularly successful at placing high-risk children (those with disabilities, large sibling groups, and older children) in loving families 

I’m relieved to hear that the Supreme Court will weigh in on faith-based adoption and foster care, said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “Over the last few years, agencies have been closing their doors across the country, and all the while children are pouring into the system. We are confident that the Court will realize that the best solution is the one that has worked in Philadelphia for a century—all hands on deck for foster kids.”  

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. 

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

WASHINGTON – Orrin G. HatchSenator from the State of Utahhas been named Becket’s 2020 Canterbury Medalist for his instrumental role in the passing of fundamental legislation in defense of religious liberty for people of all faiths. The Canterbury Medal, religious liberty’s highest honor, recognizes an individual who has demonstrated courage and commitment to defending religious freedom in America and around the world. Senator Hatch’s legacy is marked by civil discourse, principled leadership, and unfailing dedication to the defense of religious liberty for all. Becket will honor Orrin G. Hatch with the 2020 Canterbury Medal at its annual gala in New York on Thursday, May 21. 

In his 42 years of serviceSenator Hatch became the longestserving Republican and Utahn in U.S. Senate history and earned the reputation as one of the most effective and bipartisan lawmakers of all time. In addition to sponsoring or cosponsoring over 750 bills that have become law, one of his most prized legislative successes is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993which was passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. In 2000, he was the primary author of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was passed unanimously in both houses of Congress. 

Over more than four decades of Senate service, I worked to build coalitions of common interest to preserve religious liberty for people of all faiths. Protecting these rights is essential to the future of our republic,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch. “Receiving the Canterbury Medal is an incredible honor, and I am committed to always live worthy of it by remaining steadfast in my devotion to religious liberty.” 

Outside of public service, Hatch is a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day SaintsA trained pianist and poetry aficionado, Senator Hatch has composed hundreds of songs for many different artists, and even boasts a holiday albumSenator Hatch continues to advance issues relating to freedom of conscience, religion, and belief through his foundation, the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.   

Few lawmakers have done more for the cause of religious liberty than the ‘Father of RFRA,’ Senator Orrin G. Hatch,” said Mark Rienzi, president of BecketSenator Hatch’s legacy of championing protections for people of all faiths—and working across partisan lines to do so—has greatly strengthened religious liberty in the United States. His vital efforts will not soon be forgotten by advocates for religious liberty and those who can now freely practice their faith.”  

The Canterbury Medal draws its name from one of history’s most dramatic religious liberty stand-offs, which occurred between Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket, the law firm’s namesake, and King Henry II of England. The annual Canterbury Gala honors the award recipient in a black-tie event at the Pierre Hotel in New York and is attended by the world’s most distinguished religious leaders and religious liberty advocates. 

Past medalists include the late Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel; Cuban poet and former political prisoner, Armando Valladares; Orthodox rabbi of the oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S., Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik; First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Dallin H. Oaks; and 62nd Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Chaplain Barry C. Black.

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 protects historic Pensacola cross

WASHINGTON – A historic World War II-era cross in Pensacola, Florida, will remain standing thanks to a victory at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals today. In Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola, an atheist group sued the City of Pensacola to remove the monument, which has been standing since 1941. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, protecting a World War I memorial cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the cross is constitutional, acknowledging that that it has become “embedded in the fabric of the Pensacola community” and that removing it could “strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.”

The Bayview Cross is one of over 170 displays in Pensacola parks memorializing the City’s diverse history and culture. In 2016, four individuals, represented by the American Humanist Association, sued the City, demanding the cross be torn down, even though three of the individuals do not live in Pensacola and the fourth has held his own ceremonies at the cross. The trial court and an earlier decision by the Eleventh Circuit reluctantly agreed that the cross was unconstitutional under the notorious Lemon test (see video), which has often been successfully invoked by anti-religious plaintiffs to push religion out of the public square. Earlier this year, however, the Supreme Court ordered the Eleventh Circuit to rethink its ruling in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in American Legion, which finally scrapped the Lemon test in cases involving longstanding symbols.

“The Supreme Court has now made clear that religious symbols are an important part of our nation’s history and culture,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket.

The 78-year-old cross was built in the City’s Bayview Park in 1941, as the U.S. prepared to enter WWII, as a place for the community to unite. Since then, Pensacola citizens have held community events such as Easter sunrise services, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day remembrances, and other voluntary gatherings at the monument, which has become a significant symbol for the Pensacola community.

“Pensacola is a city with a rich and diverse history. The Bayview Cross is an important part of that history as a symbol of our community’s coming together during a national crisis,” said Grover C. Robinson IV, mayor of Pensacola. “We are pleased by the court’s ruling in this case, and today we celebrate our long-awaited victory and the preservation of the Bayview Cross.”

In the June 2019 Supreme Court ruling upholding the World War I memorial cross in Maryland, Justices cited Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief multiple times. Becket has also successfully defended a statue of Jesus in Montana commemorating fallen World War II soldiers, a historic cross artifact at Ground Zero, and a Pennsylvania county seal.

Supreme Court will hear Little Sisters’ plea to keep caring for the elderly poor

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will once again weigh in on the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor in their legal battle against the HHS contraceptive mandate. The Supreme Court has twice protected the Catholic nuns, and an HHS rule issued in 2018 protects religious non-profits, but several states have dragged the Little Sisters of the Poor back to court. In Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Little Sisters are defending their hard-won religious exemption from a lawsuit by the Pennsylvania Attorney General and a recent Third Circuit ruling against them threatening their ministry of serving the elderly poor.

The HHS contraceptive mandate required the Little Sisters to provide services such as the week-after pill in their health care plans or pay millions of dollars in fines. In 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned lower court rulings against the Little Sisters, granting them an exemption from the mandate, and in 2018, HHS announced a new rule protecting 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 now turn to the High Court to finally put an end to their long legal journey.

“It is disappointing to think that as we enter a new decade we must still defend our ministry in court,” said Mother Loraine Marie Maguire of the Little Sisters of the Poor. “We are grateful the Supreme Court has decided to weigh in, and hopeful that the Justices will reinforce their previous decision and allow us to focus on our lifelong work of serving the elderly poor once and for all.”

In 2016, the government admitted before the Supreme Court that it has ways to get contraceptives to women without forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to participate. California and Pennsylvania each have programs for providing contraceptives to women who want them, yet both states are suing to enforce the federal mandate on religious non-profits like the Little Sisters.

“Pennsylvania needs to give it a rest,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket. “Why is Pennsylvania still trying to fight tired and unnecessary culture wars that were settled years ago? There are plenty of ways to provide people with contraceptives without forcing Catholic nuns to participate. It’s too bad that the Supreme Court is being forced by Pennsylvania to deal with this issue again, but at least the Court can now bring this litigation to a permanent end.”

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.

Montana mothers ask SCOTUS to strike discriminatory law

WASHINGTON – Three low-income Montana mothers will be at the Supreme Court on Wednesday, Jan. 22 defending a state tax-credit program designed to generate private scholarships for Montana students to attend private schools of their choice. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, passed in 2015 by the state legislature, out of concern that some students might take their private scholarships to religiously affiliated schools. The Montana high court claimed this would violate the state’s Blaine Amendment, an archaic anti-religious law that forbids any direct or indirect aid to schools owned or operated by a “church, sect, or denomination.”

In September 2019, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the discriminatory history of the Montana Blaine Amendment renders it unconstitutional and that religious organizations cannot be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public benefit programs. The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue on Wednesday, January 22. On Tuesday, January 14, Becket will be hosting a press call to examine the implications of this case.

What:
Press call on oral argument in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue

Who:
Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket

When:
Tuesday, January 14, 2020, at 11:00 a.m. EST

Call-in:
646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or join http://zoom.us/my/comms.line.external

Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org.

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.

 

City ices religious symbolism just in time for the holiday season, earns Becket’s lowest (dis)honor

WASHINGTON  It’s beginning to look a lot like the secular holiday season in Dunwoody, Georgia, where the city council has banned all religious symbols in response to an email from a disgruntled citizenThe Dunwoody City Council voted unanimously to bar religious symbols and displays in common areas of city-owned buildingsWith this sterilization of religious symbols that would make the Grinch grin with pride, the City of Dunwoody has earned Becket’s lowest (dis)honor, the 2019 Ebenezer Award, awarded for the biggest bah, humbug of the holiday season.  

The curmudgeonly city council originally proposed a list of acceptable and unacceptable symbols. But after (rightly) coming under fire for prohibiting the menorah, the city council scrapped the list for a more blanketly discriminatory ban. The city council cited a 1989 Supreme Court case, County of Allegheny v. ACLUas the basis for their policy, demonstrating a flawed understanding of Supreme Court jurisprudence concerning religious displays. Decorating with religious symbols is not appropriate in common areas of the city building unless the decorations are part of a display celebrating religious diversity or religious freedom,” the policy reads. 

The United States Constitution doesn’t prohibit religious symbols and displays in the public square,” said Montse Alvarado, executive director of BecketThe Supreme Court has long protected religious holiday displays from the affronts of rabid secularists.”  

Each year the Christmas and Hanukkah season inspires a slew of outrageous offenses against the free exercise of religion. At Becketwe do Santa’s dirty work for him, delivering a lump of coal as an acknowledgment of scroogery on a grand scale. Previous Ebenezer Award winners include the American Humanist Association, which tried to stop schools from sending care packages to children in need, the Department of Veteran Affairs, which banned employees at its Salem, Virginia facility from saying “Merry Christmas” to veterans, and the University of Minnesota, which two years ago banned from campus the colors red, green, blue, and silver; Santas; bows; dreidels; and even wrapped presents. (See list of previous winners). 

This year’s Ebenezer Award runners-up feature some familiar faces. Making a repeat appearance is last year’s Ebenezer Award Winner, the Durham, New Hampshire City Council for canceling its tree lighting ceremony to “remove religious overtones from its “Frost Fest.” Durham is joined (again) by last year’s runner-upthe city of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for (now twice) banning a local church from displaying a Nativity scene on the city’s bandstand as it had done every year since the 1930sAnd this year’s Eggnog Toast, given to an individual or group who had a Grinch-like change of heart, goes to the Mayor of Charleston, West Virginia, for reinstating the town’s traditional “Christmas Parade” after first rebranding it the Winter Parade” in October.  

Year after year, bureaucrats come together to micromanage the holiday season, unwilling to let people of goodwill and diverse beliefs live side by side in peace without the strong arm of local government instructing them in how best to get along,” said AlvaradoNothing says ‘re-elect me’ like a prohibition on Christmas Spirit, but that’s a lesson secularists seem to want to learn the hard way.” 

Becket wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyous New Year to all!

Christian doctors continue the fight for conscience protections

WASHINGTON – Religious medical professionals in New York have announced that they appealed a district court’s decision to block vital conscience protections for doctors and nurses. In New York v. HHS, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is defending Dr. Regina Frost and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA) from attempts by Planned Parenthood and New York officials to force religious doctors to perform life-ending procedures that violate their consciences. The Trump administration has until Jan. 6 to join the appeal from the district court’s decision, which struck down one of the administration’s signature regulations.

In May 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a Conscience Rule to better enforce longstanding, bipartisan laws that, for decades, have promised to allow religious doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals to serve patients without being required to violate their consciences. Medical professionals of all faith backgrounds and with moral objections rely on these well established protections. The Rule holds HHS funding recipients to agreements that they made under existing federal statutes to accommodate religious health professionals. But several states and abortion provider and advocacy organizations—including the State of New York and Planned Parenthood, which have long accepted HHS funds—immediately sued to avoid enforcement of their existing agreements under the Rule and to push religious healthcare professionals like Dr. Frost out of the medical profession.

“My faith is at the heart of who I am. It is what drives me to put the needs of women and their children first every day, and to serve everyone in my care with dignity and respect,” said Dr. Regina Frost. “If the government forces me to violate my faith and my medical judgment to perform abortions, I’ll have no choice but to leave the profession.”

Dr. Frost is an OB-GYN and one of nearly 19,000 medical professionals in CMDA serving vulnerable populations in the United States and abroad. Across the country, CMDA members serve the homeless, prisoners living with HIV, and victims of opioid addiction, sex trafficking, and gang violence. Overseas, CMDA members serve in war zones, refugee clinics, and remote areas without quality healthcare. The lawsuit by Planned Parenthood and New York needlessly threatens the health and well-being of at-risk, underserved populations across the globe. New polling shows that healthcare professionals are committed to serving all patients but are facing increasing pressures to perform in certain procedures, which they believe end life and violate their faith—and these pressures could force 91 percent of religious doctors out of the medical field.

In Nov. 2019, a New York district court ruled against the Conscience Rule. Yesterday, Dr. Frost and CMDA appealed this ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The deadline for the Trump administration to appeal the district court’s decision is Jan. 6, 2020.

“Like an ideological Grinch stealing conscience rights, Planned Parenthood is robbing not only religious doctors and nurses but also the patients that they serve,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “To hear Planned Parenthood tell it, one pro-life OB-GYN is one too many. That’s wrong and it’s bad for healthcare. In a big, diverse country like ours, we can ensure that everyone will receive the care they need while still respecting the consciences of religious doctors and nurses.”

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, or Spanish.

Supreme Court to decide if government can pick religion teachers

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed today to weigh in on whether the government can control who a church school chooses to teach its religion classes. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and in St. James Catholic School v. Biel, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is defending two California Catholic elementary schools’ right to choose ministers that embody their faith without government interference. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against both schools and rejected the prevailing common-sense standard for allowing religious schools to choose their teachers, Becket appealed to the Supreme Court, which has now agreed to hear both cases.

In Hosanna-Tabor, a similar Becket case in 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the “ministerial exception” for a church school, a First Amendment right that allows religious schools to choose their own religion teachers. The ministerial exception protects all religious groups’ freedom to choose “ministerial” employees without interference from bureaucrats or courts. Most courts have ruled that ministerial employees are those employees who perform important religious functions, like instructing young children in the precepts of the Catholic faith. But in both Our Lady of Guadalupe School and St. James School, the Ninth Circuit rejected this widely accepted rule.

“Parents trust Catholic schools to assist them in one of their most important duties: forming the faith of their children,” said Montserrat Alvarado, vice president and executive director at Becket. “If courts can second-guess a Catholic school’s judgment about who should teach religious beliefs to fifth graders, then neither Catholics nor any other religious group can be confident in their ability to convey the faith to the next generation.”

Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel played crucial roles in teaching the Catholic faith to their fifth-grade students. Both taught a religion class, integrated Catholic values into every subject they taught, joined their students in daily prayer, and accompanied students to Mass and other religious services. However, when each school decided not to renew the teachers’ contracts based on a history of poor performance, both teachers sued.

In December 2018, the Ninth Circuit ruled against St. James Catholic School. In April 2019, the court also ruled against Our Lady of Guadalupe School. Even though both teachers had significant religious responsibilities, the Ninth Circuit still decided that their work was not religious enough. Nine Ninth Circuit judges wrote a scathing dissent criticizing the rulings, and leading legal scholars and diverse religious groups condemned the rulings as dangerously wrong.

“Do we really want judges, juries, or bureaucrats deciding who ought to teach Catholicism at a parish school, or Judaism at a Jewish day school? Of course not,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Religion teachers play a vital role in the ecosystem of faith. We are confident that the Supreme Court will recognize that under our Constitution government officials cannot control who teaches kids what to believe.”

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, or Spanish.

 

Becket launches first-ever Religious Freedom Index

WASHINGTON – Becket has just launched the nation’s first annual Religious Freedom Index, a comprehensive study that uses rigorous scale-construction methods to track trends in perspectives on American religious freedom. The questions asked in the Index poll measure American sentiment across six dimensions of religious freedom and contribute to an annual composite Index indicator. This year’s composite score of 67 serves as a baseline for future trends. With each consecutive year, the Religious Freedom Index will become an increasingly powerful tool for all who seek to lead data-driven, meaningful conversations about broad trends in attitudes on First Amendment freedoms.

The central finding from this first year’s Index is that broad public support for religious freedom has survived the culture wars. After years of religious freedom being pushed to the center of polarizing debates, rather than reveal a partisan 50-50 split, at 67, the Index scored in the upper third on the scale of favorability toward robust religious freedom protections. Across dimensions, we saw public support well above 70 percent on many issues, indicating that the concept of religious freedom maintains its place as a core component of American cultural values. The study also found evidence for a preference for a hands-off government approach and support for a culture of accommodation of religious beliefs and practices.

“Over the last 25 years, Becket has made a name for itself as the premier religious liberty law firm in the nation, representing people of all faiths and political views. We are eager to contribute a new tool for understanding Americans’ sentiments towards our first freedom,” said Mark Rienzi, president and senior counsel at Becket. “Over time, we hope the Religious Freedom Index will become an essential resource to anyone who studies attitudes about religion and religious freedom in America.”

The Religious Freedom Index is designed to give a 30,000-foot view of changes in American attitudes on religious freedom by surveying a nationally representative sample of 1,000 American adults each October. Rather than focus on the most hot-button issues dominating the news-cycle, questions asked in the Index cover a broad spectrum of religious freedom protections under the First Amendment. The responses to these questions statistically group into six dimensions:  1) Religious Pluralism, 2) Religion and Policy, 3) Religious Sharing, 4) Religion in Society, 5) Church and State, and 6) Religion in Action.

Surveying and scale construction for Becket’s Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment are conducted by Heart+Mind Strategies. Becket contributes its broad expertise representing people of all faiths in religious freedom cases to ensure that the polling instrument and analysis broadly reflect America’s many diverse religions and the full spectrum of religious freedom issues.

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.

Becket launches Religious Freedom Index

WASHINGTON – On November 20, Becket will launch the nation’s first annual Religious Freedom Index, a comprehensive study that uses rigorous scale-construction methods to track trends in perspectives on American religious freedom.  The new study will provide in-depth information about American views on a wide range of religious liberty questions, with the aim of moving past the usual partisan talking points and culture war battles and toward a deeper understanding of how our society deals with religious differences.

Join us on November 20, 2019, for a presentation by Caleb Lyman, Becket’s Director of Research and Analytics, and panel discussion to examine the findings of the first annual Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment.

When:
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
8:00 a.m. EST

Where:
Edelman Offices
1850 K St. NW Suite 900, Washington, D.C. 20006

Presenters:
Dee Alsop, Ph.D. – CEO and a managing partner at Heart & Mind Strategies.
Caleb Lyman – director of research and analytics at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Panelists:
Adelle Banks – production editor and a national reporter at Religion News Service.
Asma Uddin – senior scholar at the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, D.C., and a visiting scholar at Brigham Young University.
Tim Carney – commentary editor at the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Moderator:
Montse Alvarado – vice president and executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Media Contact:
Ryan Colby, Media Relations Manager
media@becketlaw.org
(202) 349-7219

 

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.

Fifth Circuit upholds stay of execution for Buddhist inmate seeking right to priest in death chamber

WASHINGTON – In an emergency ruling, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Murphy v. Collier has upheld a stay of execution for inmate Patrick Murphy, who seeks access to a Buddhist priest in the hours before his death. The decision came after Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that prisoners condemned to death have a fundamental First Amendment right to the comfort of clergy in their last hours. Murphy’s execution had been scheduled for tomorrow, November 13. Texas may still appeal the decision to the entire Fifth Circuit or to the United States Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court had first stayed Murphy’s execution in March, after Becket filed a prior emergency friend-of-the-court brief in support of the right to comfort of clergy. When that stay expired, on Thursday a Houston federal district court stayed Murphy’s execution a second time, prompting the State of Texas to file an emergency appeal to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans the same day. Texas had adopted a new policy blocking all spiritual advisors from entering the chamber, in addition to restricting Murphy’s access to his spiritual advisor in the hours before death.

“The Fifth Circuit did the right thing in stopping this execution,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior attorney at Becket. “Death row should not be a religion-free zone.”

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.

Buddhist inmate still fighting for clergy in the Texas death chamber after second stay of execution

WASHINGTON – After a federal court issued a second stay of execution on Thursday to Buddhist death row inmate Patrick Murphy, Becket is now urging the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to allow Murphy access to a Buddhist priest in the execution chamber. Murphy’s execution is scheduled for November 13. The U.S. Supreme Court first stayed the execution in Murphy v. Collier in March, following Becket’s argument that depriving Patrick Murphy access to a priest of his own faith violated his free exercise rights under the First Amendment. A Houston federal district court stayed Murphy’s execution a second time Thursday, prompting the State of Texas to file an emergency appeal to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. The Fifth Circuit ordered briefing in the appeal to be filed over the weekend.

Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief argues that prisoners condemned to death have a fundamental First Amendment right to the comfort of clergy in their last hours. Because Texas changed its policy specifically to deny Murphy comfort of clergy at the hour of his death, the Fifth Circuit should apply the highest level of constitutional scrutiny to Texas’s decision to ban Buddhist priests from the death chamber and even from speaking with the condemned close in time to the execution. Particularly because Texas long allowed Christians and Muslims to accompany the condemned to the death chamber, there is no logical or moral reason to exclude Buddhist priests.

The following statement can be attributed to Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket:

“Our country has long afforded the comfort of clergy to the condemned at the hour of his death. That we do so says more about who we are as a nation than it does about the condemned. Texas long allowed ministers in the death chamber, so there is no practical reason why Texas can’t allow it for Buddhists also. The Fifth Circuit should order Texas to allow Murphy access to a Buddhist priest at the time of his death.”

Texas’s previous policy allowed Christian and Muslim clergy to accompany prisoners in the execution chamber, but following the Supreme Court stay in March, the State changed its pre-execution procedure to block all spiritual advisors from entering the chamber. The new policy does allow employed chaplains to be with an inmate just before execution. Murphy has argued, and Becket agrees, that depriving inmates of access to a spiritual advisor of their own faith in the final moments before death flies in the face of the First Amendment.

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.

Becket launches landmark Religious Freedom Index

WASHINGTON – On November 20, Becket will launch the nation’s first annual Religious Freedom Index, a comprehensive study that uses rigorous scale-construction methods to track trends in perspectives on American religious freedom.  The new study will provide in-depth information about American views on a wide range of religious liberty questions, with the aim of moving past the usual partisan talking points and culture war battles and toward a deeper understanding of how our society deals with religious differences.

Join us on November 20, 2019, for a presentation and panel discussion (participant announcement forthcoming) moderated by Caleb Lyman, Becket’s Director of Research and Analytics, to examine the findings of the first annual Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment.

When:
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
8:00 a.m. EST

Where:
Edelman Offices
1850 K St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, D.C. 20006

Media Contact:
Ryan Colby, Media Relations Manager
media@becketlaw.org
(202) 349-7219

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.

PRESS CALL: How Christians get religious freedom wrong— and how to get it right

WASHINGTON – Many Americans feel like their religious freedom is under attack and fear that their beliefs will soon be marginalized as a form of bigotry. Others think these fears are overblown and say Christians should stop complaining about imaginary persecution. In Free to Believe, Luke Goodrich challenges both sides of this debate, offering a fresh perspective on the most controversial religious freedom conflicts today, including battles over gay rights, abortion rights, Islam, and the public square. He argues that threats to religious freedom are real—but they might not be quite what you think.

Join Luke Goodrich for a discussion of the themes of this timely book this morning.

When:

Tuesday, October 22, 2019 at 11 a.m. EST

Call-in: 646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or join http://zoom.us/my/comms.line.external
Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org.

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.

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.

Nuns return to the Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – The Little Sisters of the Poor asked the Supreme Court last night to protect them from the HHS contraceptive mandate again. Over the past three years the Supreme Court has twice protected the Catholic nuns, but the states have dragged them back to court. In Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Trump, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro threatened the Little Sisters’ ministry by challenging their religious exemption, forcing the Little Sisters to continue to defend themselves in court. After a loss in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the order of Catholic nuns is asking the Supreme Court to end their six year-long legal battle and let them keep their focus on serving the elderly poor.

In May 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned lower court rulings against the Little Sisters and granted them an exemption from the HHS contraceptive mandate, which required the nuns to provide services such as the week-after pill in their health care plans or pay millions of dollars in fines. In 2018, HHS announced a new rule protecting religious non-profits, including the Little Sisters, but several states, including Pennsylvania and California, immediately sued the federal government to take that protection away, forcing the Little Sisters back to court.

“It has been six long years since we began our legal battle against government mandates that threaten our ministry,” said Mother Loraine Marie Maguire of the Little Sisters of the Poor“We hope we have finally reached the end of this arduous process, that the Supreme Court will reaffirm their previous decision, and that we will soon be able to keep our focus on the elderly poor.”

In 2016, the government admitted, before the Supreme Court, that it has ways to get contraceptives to women without forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to participate. In fact, California and Pennsylvania each have programs for providing contraceptives to women who want them. Yet these States sued to enforce the federal mandate on religious non-profits like the Little Sisters.

“This is a nonsensical political battle that has dragged on six years too long. These states have not been able to identify a single person who would lose contraceptive coverage under the new HHS rule, but they won’t rest until Catholic nuns are forced to pay for contraceptives,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket. “It is time for the Supreme Court to finally put this issue to rest.”

U.S. Justice Department supports Archdiocese of Indianapolis in religious freedom case

WASHINGTON – The United States Department of Justice filed a statement of interest on Friday supporting the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’s right to decide what it means to be Catholic without government interference. In Payne-Elliott v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a former teacher is suing the Archdiocese after he lost his job at a Catholic high school for entering a same-sex civil union in violation of his employment agreement. The Justice Department’s statement says, “The First Amendment demands that this lawsuit be dismissed.”

All teachers in the Archdiocese’s schools agree to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives. In 2017, Joshua Payne-Elliott, who taught at Cathedral Catholic High School in Indianapolis, entered a same-sex civil union in violation of both his employment agreement and centuries of Catholic teaching. After two years of discernment and dialogue, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis informed the school that if it wanted to remain affiliated with the Catholic Church, it needed to require that its teachers not live in defiance of Church teaching. Cathedral then separated from Mr. Payne-Elliott, who sued the Archdiocese, alleging that the Archdiocese illegally interfered with his agreement.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for saying who is Catholic,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is representing the Archdiocese. “This lawsuit fails on so many levels; we’re glad to see the Department of Justice weighing in.”

It is relatively rare for the Department of Justice to file a statement of interest in state court. The Department tends to file statements of interest only when a violation of federal law is particularly clear or significant. Mr. Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit was filed on July 10 in Marion Superior Court in Indianapolis. The Archdiocese has asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, and a decision is expected in the coming weeks.

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.

UIowa officials personally liable for religious discrimination

WASHINGTON – A vice president and other officers at the University of Iowa must pay out of their own pockets for discriminating against a religious student group. In InterVarsity v. University of Iowa, a federal court ruled that the University and its officers violated the law when they kicked InterVarsity off campus for asking its leaders to be Christian. A dozen other religious groups—including Sikhs, Muslims, and Latter-day Saints—were also kicked off campus for requiring their leaders to share their faith. But all secular groups and a few religious groups favored by the University got a pass. In a ruling last Friday, the court held that this discrimination was so egregious that the officers involved would be personally accountable for any money InterVarsity lost fighting to stay on campus. The court left open the possibility that the University’s president, Bruce Harreld, could also be found liable.

InterVarsity has been at the University for over 25 years. It welcomes all students as members, and only requires the students who lead its ministry to affirm its faith. In the past, the University has honored InterVarsity for its contributions to campus life. But in June 2018, the University claimed that, by requiring leaders to affirm their faith, InterVarsity was violating the University’s nondiscrimination policy. The University then limited InterVarsity’s access to campus, froze its bank account, shut down its website, and advertised that it was “defunct” for lack of student interest. As a result, InterVarsity suffered its sharpest membership decline in over twenty years. Friday’s ruling confirmed that the University’s actions violated the Constitution and ordered the University to respect InterVarsity’s right to select religious leaders going forward.

“We must have leaders who share our faith,” said Greg Jao, Director of External Relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. “No group—religious or secular—could survive with leaders who reject its values. We’re grateful the court has stopped the University’s religious discrimination, and we look forward to continuing our ministry on campus for years to come.”

InterVarsity USA is on 772 campuses nationwide. Its University of Iowa chapter hosts weekly Bible studies and monthly meetings for prayer, worship, and religious discussions on current issues. In upholding the group’s right to be on campus, the court noted that, just last January—in the related case of BLinC v. University of Iowa—it already warned the University against enforcing its policy unevenly. The court stated it “would never have expected the University to respond to that order by homing in on religious groups[]” like InterVarsity, while “carving out explicit exemptions for other groups. But here we are.” The court did “not know how a reasonable person could have concluded this was acceptable,” since it “plainly” doubled down on the exact same conduct the court had already held unlawful. In a hearing last week, the court described the University’s conduct as “ludicrous” and “incredibly baffling.”

“It’s too bad it took twice for the University to learn its lesson,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “There was no excuse the first time for squashing students’ First Amendment rights. University officials nationwide should now take note that religious discrimination will hit them in the pocketbook.”

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.

Press call: A potentially blockbuster Supreme Court term for religious liberty

Join the nation’s religious freedom experts to discuss the religious liberty cases the Supreme Court is hearing this term and the opportunities the Court will have to revisit landmark precedents, clear up longstanding confusion over the Religion Clauses and address the constitutionality of religious exemptions.

On the call we will discuss the themes for the upcoming term, cases being heard this term and preview petitions currently pending before the Court. We will take questions at the end of the call.

For more information about the agenda click here.

When:
Tuesday, Sept.17, 2019
11 a.m. EST

Call-in:
646-876-9923 (pin: 930-944-5568) or join https://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.

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.

Facing suit, high-school sports regulator drops religious exclusion rule

WASHINGTON – In a common-sense win for religious minorities yesterday, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) changed a rule that would have barred high-school tennis star Joseph Chung from participating in any postseason competition this fall. In Chung v. WIAA, Becket is representing Joseph and his older sister, Joelle, a Seventh-day Adventist who was disqualified from Washington state tennis postseason competition last season because the last day of the championship tournament fell on a Saturday, their faith’s Sabbath.

WIAA rules formerly required all participants to certify that they would be able to participate in each level of the tournament to qualify for the championships, with exceptions for injury, illness or unforeseen events, but not for sincerely held religious beliefs. This meant that if even one day of the postseason were scheduled to conflict with the Sabbath, Saturday Sabbath observers would be barred from participating in every day of the postseason, even for games or matches that presented no conflict at all. That is what happened to Joelle last year, who was excluded from postseason play in her senior year after having never faced a conflict between a regular season match and the Sabbath in her entire four-year career.

Under the amended rules, religious observance has been added to the list of exceptions allowing a player to withdraw from competition without being penalized. However, the rule change is only a partial victory because the WIAA continues to insist that it cannot adjust the schedule of the 2020 championship, even if one of the remaining contenders has a Sabbath conflict.

“No student-athlete should be kept on the sidelines because he has the ‘wrong’ faith,” said Joe Davis, counsel at Becket. “It’s a step in the right direction that Joseph is now able to play in postseason, but we will continue fighting for a solution that will ensure that Sabbath observers can compete all the way through the state championships on the same terms as all other student-athletes.”

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.

10 states and 44 members of Congress back foster kids at Supreme Court

WASHINGTON Ten states and 44 members of Congress urged the Supreme Court yesterday to hear Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case brought by two Philly foster mothers challenging the City of Philadelphia’s harmful actions which threaten the future of the faith-based foster agency that brought their families together. Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma, among other states, joined a friend-of-the-court brief agreeing with Becket that faith-based foster agencies play a vital role in addressing the national foster crisis that has become even more urgent in light of today’s opioid epidemic.

Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch are Philadelphia foster mothers standing with Catholic Social Services (CSS) and all foster children in need of homes. Sharonell has fostered more than 40 children over 25 years. Toni is a former social worker who fostered two young brothers through Catholic Social Services and has now adopted them. In July, Becket asked the Supreme Court to hear Sharonell and Toni’s case and prevent vulnerable foster children from losing out on the opportunity to be placed in a loving home.

Ten states argued that “[W]orking with a diverse coalition of child-placing agencies provides better services to children in foster care and the potential parents eager to care for them,” and asked the Supreme Court to take the case to protect their ability to work with diverse agencies, including faith-based agencies.

Forty-four members of Congress urged the Court to take the case because “Religiously motivated providers and parents have played a critical role in filling this need for centuries from coast to coast, and to drive them out ignores the critical need and the grave harm to children that would be caused by their loss.”

Last year, Philadelphia put out a call for 300 more foster families to care for the growing number of children in need. Just days later, the city stopped placing children in homes certified and overseen by CSS solely because the city disagreed with the agency’s religious beliefs on marriage. Worse still, the city took these actions even though not a single same-sex couple had ever come to CSS seeking to foster. Without new referrals, the number of children in homes certified and cared for by CSS has dwindled, leaving foster families’ homes empty and forcing CSS to reduce their staff. The only way CSS can care for foster children is through a contract and license with the city. If the city cuts ties with CSS, the agency will soon be forced to close its 100-year-old foster care ministry.

“The foster care system relies on agencies that reflect the diversity of our communities,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “That’s why it is so important to have faith-based agencies working alongside agencies that cater to ethnic and racial minorities, children with disabilities, and LGBT families.”

The court is expected to decide whether to take the case sometime this fall. Becket is defending another faith-based foster agency from government discrimination in Michigan in Buck v. Gordon.

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.

 

Penn. court: Don’t toss county seal cross

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, is free to continue honoring its history and culture with its 70-year-old seal, including an image of a Latin cross. In FFRF v. Lehigh County, a federal appellate court today rejected an attempt by the Wisconsin-based atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation to censor the image of a cross from Lehigh County’s historic seal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia ruled 3-0 that after the Supreme Court upheld the Bladensburg Cross war memorial as a historic monument, Lehigh County can maintain its seal as a symbol that “has become part of the community.”

Lehigh County’s seal, which has been in use for over 70 years without any complaints, features a cross representing the county’s early German settlers who fled persecution in their homeland seeking religious freedom in America. The seal also features over a dozen other images – such as grain silos, textiles, the Liberty Bell, and a red heart – representing important aspects of the county’s rich history and culture. Becket represented Lehigh County, arguing that the Constitution allows communities to maintain religious symbols in the public square in recognition of the significant role of religion in our history and culture.

“It is common sense that religion played a role in the lives of our nation’s early settlers. Recognizing that is just as constitutional as honoring symbols like the Liberty Bell,’” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “It is only right that Lehigh County can continue honoring its history and culture.”

Images of historic significance are common on the seals and flags of states, counties, and towns across America. But in 2016, FFRF sued trying to censor the cross from Lehigh County’s seal. In September 2017, a federal judge ruled in FFRF’s favor, following a Supreme Court case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, which requires courts to guess whether the government is trying to “endorse” religion whenever it mentions God or religion (What is the Lemon Test? Watch this short video).

Becket argues that judges must apply the actual text and historical meaning of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has since moved away from the so-called Lemon test, ruling that religious symbols in government and in the public square that were acceptable at our nation’s founding are still acceptable today. The court today followed that precedent. Becket has also defended a World War II religious memorial in a Montana ski resort, a 9/11 Ground Zero cross artifact, and a historic Pensacola park cross monument, among others.

“This decision is another nail in the coffin of the Lemon test, making room for our nation’s founding principle that religion is not a blight to be scrubbed from the public square, especially when it represents our history,” said Verm.

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

No love for the Sabbath: High school tennis star nixed from tournament over faith

WASHINGTON – Two siblings and star high-school tennis players are going to court to defend their right to compete in the state championships while keeping their Sabbath day. In Chung v. WIAA, Joelle Chung was barred from competing in the Washington state tennis postseason tournament because the championships fell on a Saturday, her faith’s Sabbath. Becket argues that no student-athlete should be kept on the sidelines for their faith when accommodations are possible and is asking that the rule that kept Joelle from competing be changed so that her brother Joseph can participate in the state championships this fall.

As faithful Seventh-day Adventists, the Chung family observes the Sabbath by devoting time for rest and worship every week from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. In 2019, her senior season, Joelle was undefeated and expected to win in the qualifying tournaments and advance to the state championships. But the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) scheduled the state championships for Saturday, her Sabbath. This meant that, according to WIAA rules, she was disqualified from participating at all in the postseason, even though the only conflict between the Sabbath and the tournament would have been the very last day.

“As a senior, it was hard giving everything I had to support my team all season, only to be forced to sit out the entire postseason simply because of my faith,” said Joelle Chung. “I’ll never get the chance to play for a state championship again, but hopefully this case will protect other Seventh-day Adventists like my brother from having to choose between sports and their faith.”

Each year the WIAA holds a statewide postseason tennis tournament. According to WIAA rules, all participants must certify that they will be able to participate in each level of the tournament to qualify for the championships, with exceptions for injury, illness or unforeseen events. Hoping to make a compromise, 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. The WIAA flatly denied their requests, forcing the Chung siblings to court.

“No student-athlete should be kept from competition because of their faith,” said Joe Davis, counsel at Becket. “The WIAA’s rule hurts religious minorities and students of many faiths who honor the longstanding practice of keeping the Sabbath.”

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.

Philly foster mothers ask Supreme Court to protect foster kids

WASHINGTON  Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-BuschPhiladelphia foster mothers standing up for faith-based foster agencies and all foster children in need of homes, asked the Supreme Court yesterday to hear their caseIn Fulton v. Philadelphia, the City of Philadelphia is threatening to close one of its most successful foster care agencies because it disagrees with their religious views on marriage—and foster kids are paying the price. 

Catholic Social Services has been serving the foster children of Philadelphia and their families since 1917, long before the city got involved. Ms. Fulton was a longtime foster parent who fostered more than 40 children with the help of Catholic Social Services, and Ms. Simms-Busch is a former social worker in the foster care system who recently decided to become a foster and adoptive parent herself. After two federal courts ruled against them, Ms. Fulton, Ms. Simms-Busch, and Catholic Social Services are now turning to the Supreme Court to protect the agency that has brought so many families together.

“As a social worker I evaluated the quality of care provided by all of the foster agencies in Philadelphia. When I decided to become a foster parent myself, I chose to go through the agency that I trusted the most,” said Ms. Simms-Busch. “The consistency, integrity, and compassion of Catholic Social Services has made all the difference in my journey through the foster care process.”

In March 2018, the city put out a call for 300 new families to help support the growing number of Philly foster children, a need caused in part by the opioid crisis. Just days later Philadelphia stopped allowing children to be placed in the homes of families who work with Catholic Social Services, all because of the agency’s beliefs on same-sex marriage. The City did this even though the agency had not had a single complaint filed against it and had never been approached by a same-sex couple hoping to foster.

“As the City of Philadelphia attempts to shamelessly score political points, dozens of beds remain empty and children are suffering the consequences,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “It’s time for the Supreme Court to weigh in and allow faith-based agencies to continue doing what they do best: giving vulnerable children loving homes.” 

On April 22, 2019, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled against Catholic Social Services. Becket has asked the Supreme Court to hear the foster mothers’ case 

Becket advierte a escuela en Texas: Alto al bullying de niños por su fe

WASHINGTON – Una familia católica en Texas está demandando a su distrito escolar para que permita a sus hijos participar en actividades deportivas y extracurriculares sin que tengan que cortarse un pequeño mechón de pelo trenzado como parte de una promesa a Dios.  En una carta enviada a la escuela Mathis Independent School Board el día de hoy, Becket advirtió a la escuela que “perderá cientos de miles de dólares si no respeta los derechos de estos estudiantes” y le dio a la escuela hasta el 12 de agosto, cuando empiezan las actividades escolares, como plazo para que resuelva el caso.

En 2017, cuando Cesar y Diego Gonzales entraron a séptimo grado en la escuela Mathis Middle School en Texas, se les dijo que tenían que cortase su mechón de pelo. Este mechón es parte de una promesa religiosa que los niños han cumplido desde que nacieron. Y por esa promesa religiosa se les excluyó de todas las competencias inter escolares de la liga University Interscholastic League (UIL) tanto deportivas como de clubes. Desde hace dos años a Cesar no se le permite jugar en el equipo de football y a Diego se le prohíbe ser parte del consejo estudiantil y de los clubes de arte y de programación de computadoras. Los entrenadores de la escuela le dijeron a Cesar: “Lo único que necesitas para tener tu equipo de football es una cortadita con las tijeras”.

“La promesa religiosa de dejarse crecer un mechón de pelo no debería ser causa para que una escuela le impida a los niños hacer touchdowns o participar en el consejo estudiantil”, dijo Montse Alvarado, directora ejecutiva de Becket. “La directiva de la escuela debería dar a estos niños la oportunidad de participar activamente en los clubes y actividades que elijan, no únicamente porque no ganarían este caso en la corte, sino porque lo correcto es permitirles participar”.

Cuando Cesar era bebé contrajo una grave enfermedad, y Pedro y Belen Gonzales hicieron una promesa a Dios de dejarle un mechón de su pelo sin cortar para que sanara.  Desde entonces, la familia ha mantenido esta práctica religiosa personal y sus hijos la han adoptado también como suya. Y a pesar de que el código de vestir de la escuela prohíbe que los estudiantes varones se dejen crecer el pelo más allá de la altura del cuello de la camisa, el distrito escolar aprobó una exención de este requisito para los niños de kínder a sexto grado, y pudieron participar sin problema en las actividades escolares. La asociación de consejos de escuelas en Texas, The Texas Association of School Boards, dictamina que los distritos escolares “deben tomar en consideración las peticiones de exención [del código de vestir] provenientes de una sincera creencia religiosa del estudiante o de sus padres.” Pero al empezar el séptimo grado, se les prohibió participar en todas la competencias deportivas y clubes de la UIL.

“En la época en que vivimos, las escuelas deben abrir sus puertas y recibir a los estudiantes de distintas creencias”, dijo Alvarado. “Pero estos niños están siendo traumatizados innecesariamente y son el blanco de los mismos profesores que tienen el deber de protegerlos de este tipo de bullying”.

La carta de Becket le informa al distrito que, si no llegan a una resolución con la familia Gonzales para el 12 de agosto, Becket esta preparado para intervenir y defender el derecho de Cesar y de Diego de aprender y jugar al igual que sus compañeros de clase. La familia Gonzales esta siendo representada por el abogado Frank Rey Gonzales de Corpus Christi, Texas.

Para obtener más información o para concertar una entrevista con un abogado de Becket, favor de contactar a Ryan Colby en media@becketlaw.org o 202-349-7219. Las entrevistas se pueden hacer en inglés, chino, francés, alemán, portugués, ruso y español. 

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.

Christian student group asks court for equality with Quidditch Club

WASHINGTON – A Christian student group asked a federal court today to rule that public universities must treat religious student groups equally with other campus groups. In InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University, InterVarsity had its 75-year-old student organization status suddenly revoked by Wayne State University’s administration because the Christian student group asks its leaders to embrace its faith. But other student groups, such as the Quidditch Club, are allowed to select leaders and members based on the groups’ missions. InterVarsity is seeking equal treatment with those groups.

InterVarsity’s Wayne State chapter is one of over 400 student organizations at the university, which allows dozens of groups to have requirements for membership and leadership positions. The Secular Student Alliance can require their leaders to be secularists, Students for Life can require their leaders to be pro-life, and both Greek groups and sports clubs (like the Quidditch Club) can limit members or leaders to a single gender. But in the fall of 2017, after 75 years of serving the campus community, InterVarsity’s student organization status was revoked, all their meetings were cancelled and they were scrubbed from the school’s website because they require their leaders to be Christian. According to Wayne State, InterVarsity’s common-sense leadership policy was suddenly “discriminatory.” In court today, Becket argued that Wayne State’s actions were unfair and unconstitutional.

“InterVarsity seeks to serve Wayne State University, its students and faculty, and the local community,” said Greg Jao, Director of External Relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. “We invite the university to embrace a common-sense understanding of its nondiscrimination policy. The policy should protect, rather than penalize, religious groups that seek to retain their religious identity on campus.”

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.

With Becket’s help, InterVarsity took Wayne State to court to defend its right to select leaders who share the group’s beliefs and mission, just like other student groups on campus. After the lawsuit was filed, Wayne State temporarily relented, but still argued that InterVarsity was discriminating in violation of the law and could be kicked off at any time.

“If the Campus Democrats can pick progressive leaders, and Sigma Pi can require their members to be only men, Wayne State should have known they were asking for a fight by denying InterVarsity the same treatment,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “There is no excuse for the blatant religious targeting that these students have faced.”

The court is expected to issue a decision in this case in the fall.

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.

TODAY: Christian student group to ask court for equal treatment

WASHINGTON A Christian student group will ask a federal court today to rule that public universities must treat religious student groups equally with other campus groups. In InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University, InterVarsity had its 75-year-old student organization status suddenly revoked by Wayne State University because the Christian student group asks its leaders to embrace its faith. But other student groupssuch as political and ideological groups, fraternities and sororities, and even the Quidditch Clubare allowed to select leaders and members based on the groups’ mission or purpose. InterVarsity is seeking a ruling that will guarantee equal treatment with those groups. 

What:
Oral Argument in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University  

Who:
Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket  

When:
Wednesday, July 10, 2019 at 2:00 p.m. EST  

Where:
U.S. District Court
Eastern District of Michigan
526 Water St., Port Huron, MI 48060 

Daniel Blomberg will be available for comment immediately following the hearing. 

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

Supreme Court orders lower court to reconsider Bayview Cross ruling

WASHINGTON  The U.S. Supreme Court today ordered a lower court to rethink its earlier ruling against a historic World War II-era cross in Pensacola, Florida. In Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacolaa federal appeals court had ruled that the 78-year-old cross must come down, with two of the three judges saying that the outcome was “wrong” but that their “hands were tied” because of the notorious Lemon test (see video)In today’s order, the Supreme Court instructed the lower court to reconsider its ruling in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding another cross monument in Bladensburg, Maryland. 

In American Legion v. American Humanist Association, decided last week, the Supreme Court rejected an atheist group’s attempt to tear down a nearly 100-year-old World War I memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland, known as the “Peace Cross.” In its 72 decision, the Court refused to apply the Lemon test, instead adopting a “strong presumption of constitutionality” for longstanding monuments. The ruling recognized that a “government that roams the land, tearing down” religious symbols “will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion,” which the Constitution does not require. The Court today told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to apply these same principles to the cross in Pensacola.  

The Supreme Court’s order is an encouraging sign that the Bayview cross can stay in Pensacola just like the Peace Cross can stay in Maryland,” said  Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. We fully expect the lower court to follow the Supreme Court’s lead.” 

A wooden cross was first placed in Pensacola’s Bayview Park in 1941 by the Jaycees, a local community service group, as the U.S. prepared to enter World War II. The cross has been a popular gathering place for over 75 years and is one of over 170 displays in Pensacola’s parks commemorating the city’s history and culture. In 2016, an atheist organization sued the city, claiming that the cross is “offensive” and establishes a government religion. 

Becket is representing the City of Pensacola free of charge together with Stanford Law Professor and former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael W. McConnell. The city is also represented by J. Nixon Daniel, III, and Terrie L. Didier of Beggs & Lane. 

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

Supreme Court protects Maryland “Peace Cross”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in favor of a nearly 100-year-old World War I memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland, known as the “Peace Cross,” allowing it to remain standing. In American Legion v. American Humanist Association, a group of anti-religious atheists had sued to tear down the memorial, claiming that it was offensive and “endorsed” religion. The Court’s opinion overturns a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit against the Peace Cross and states that, for many, “destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.”

In its friend-of-the-court brief, Becket urged the Supreme Court to abandon the Lemon test and uphold the cross based on the historical understanding of what constituted an “establishment” of religion at the time of the nation’s founding (watch video here). In their opinion, the Justices agreed that religious expression in the public square has been common throughout our history and need not be erased just because it includes religious elements. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch both cited Becket’s brief in their concurring opinions.

“The Supreme Court rightly recognized that religious symbols are an important part of our nation’s history and culture,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “We look forward to the coming gap in cable-news programming, as atheist organizations that made bank by suing over harmless religious symbols find a new line of work and learn to look the other way.”

The Bladensburg memorial was designed by mothers who lost their sons in the World War I and was erected in 1925 on private land with funds raised by the American Legion, a military veterans association. In 2014, the American Humanist Association, an anti-religion activist group, sued to tear down the Peace Cross. The same group also sued to tear down a World War II cross monument in Pensacola, Florida, in a case the Court is expected to act on soon.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which maintains the cross, is represented by Hogan Lovells. The American Legion is represented by Jones Day. Becket was represented on its brief by Stanford law professor and former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael W. McConnell.

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.

Atheists give up $1B church tax lawsuit

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An atheist group last night gave up its lawsuit threatening low-income churches and their communities nationwide. In Gaylor v. Mnuchin, the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the IRS to end the parsonage allowance, a federal tax provision that allows churches, mosques, and synagogues to provide faith leaders a tax-free housing allowance to help them live in the communities they serve (Learn more in this 3 min. video). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently rejected the atheists’ challenge and unanimously upheld the tax exemption as constitutional, and last night the atheist group declined to appeal to the Supreme Court, ending the lawsuit.

In 2016, the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the IRS, demanding that it end the parsonage allowance and begin imposing nearly $1 billion in new taxes per year on churches nationwide. Represented by Becket, Pastor Chris Butler of Chicago Embassy Church and several other religious leaders intervened in the case to defend the parsonage allowance. The Seventh Circuit agreed with the churches, ensuring that they will remain free to continue using the parsonage allowance and serving their communities as they have for decades.

“This is a victory for all houses of worship that serve needy communities across the country,” said Pastor Chris Butler of Chicago Embassy Church. “I am grateful that my church can still be a home for South Side Chicago’s at-risk youth, single mothers, unemployed, homeless, addicted, victims of gang violence and others on the streets.”

Pastor Chris leads a predominantly African-American congregation that ministers to Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. His church can’t afford to pay him a full salary, but it offers him a small housing allowance so he can afford to live near his church and the community he serves. For over 60 years, federal law has recognized that ministers’ housing allowances shouldn’t be taxed as income under the same tax principle that exempts housing allowances for hundreds of thousands of secular workers—including teachers, business leaders, military service members, and many more. This tax exemption also keeps the IRS from becoming entangled in religious matters.

“The tax code has long exempted housing allowances for ministers under the same principle that it exempts housing for soldiers, diplomats, peace corps workers, prison wardens, non-profit presidents, oil executives, school superintendents, teachers, nurses, fisherman, and many more,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The court rightly recognized that providing this kind of equal treatment to churches is perfectly constitutional, and churches should be allowed to serve the neediest members of their communities without the tax man breathing down their neck.”

Becket represented Pastor Chris Butler and Bishop Edward Peecher of Chicago Embassy Church, Father Patrick Malone of Holy Cross Anglican Church, and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in this case.

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

Today: 13 States & District of Columbia force Little Sisters of the Poor back to court

WASHINGTON – The Little Sisters of the Poor will be in court today to ask for protection from a lawsuit by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra threatening their religious ministry. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear arguments in California v. Little Sisters of the Poor and decide if California, 12 other states and the District of Columbia can force Catholic nuns to provide services such as the week-after pill in their health care plan in violation of their faith. In 2017, following an Executive Order, a five-year legal battle resulting in a Supreme Court victory, and a new HHS rule protecting religious non-profits, the Little Sisters finally received a religious exemption that applies to non-profits nationwide. Yet California immediately sued the federal government to take that exemption away. Joined now by 12 other states and the District of Columbia, Attorney General Becerra is forcing the Little Sisters back to court to defend their hard-earned religious protection.

What:
Oral Argument in California v. Little Sisters of the Poor

Who:
Becket President Mark Rienzi

When:
Today at 2:30 p.m. PST

Where:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
95 7th St, San Francisco, CA 94103
James R. Browning U.S. Courthouse, San Francisco

Becket President Mark Rienzi will be available for comment immediately following the hearing. Join us for a statement live on Twitter @BECKETlaw.

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.

BREAKING: HHS to fix controversial transgender mandate

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) proposed a new regulation today that protects patients, aligns with current medical research, and complies with rulings from two federal courts. A prior rule, issued in 2016, had required doctors to perform gender transition procedures on any patient, including a child, even if the doctor believed the procedure would be harmful. That rule was struck down in two different federal courts after it was challenged by nine states, several religious organizations, and an association of over 19,000 healthcare professionals. Today, HHS proposed bringing its regulations into compliance with those decisions and ensuring that the personal decision to undergo gender transition procedures is kept between patients and their doctors, free from government interference.  

The following statement can be attributed to Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket: 

“The transgender mandate allowed the government to insert itself into the private, irreversible, and sensitive medical decisions. No wonder two courts ordered the government to change its ways. Now patients can be reassured knowing their doctors are free to follow their best medical judgment as well as the most accepted medical research, including research relied on by HHS medical experts themselves. This new rule follows medical consensus and common sense.”

Becket attorneys will hold a press call at 11:45 a.m. EST today at 646-876-9923 (pin: 930-944-5568) or join https://zoom.us/my/comms.line.external to discuss the new rule. Email questions in advance to: media@becketlaw.org.

More information can be found at www.transgendermandate.org.

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

U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black awarded religious liberty’s highest honor

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Dr. Barry C. Black, 62nd Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, has been named Becket’s 2019 Canterbury Medalist for his honorable defense of religious liberty for people of all faiths. The Canterbury Medal, Becket’s highest honor, recognizes an individual who has demonstrated courage and commitment to defending religious liberty in America and around the world. In carrying out a tradition that goes back to the first Continental Congress in 1774, Chaplain Black honors his position just as the founding fathers asked – with courage and faith in democracy. Becket will honor Chaplain Black with the 2019 Canterbury Medal at its annual Gala in New York on Thursday, May 23.

Chaplain Barry C. Black has served as Senate Chaplain since 2003. First-ever Seventh-day Adventist and African American Senate Chaplain, he is the spiritual advisor for not only 100 of the most powerful lawmakers in the nation, but also their staff and families – a combined constituency of over seven thousand people. Each morning as he opens the Senate with a prayer, Chaplain Black sets the discourse for the day in one of the highest chambers in the nation, in turn setting the spiritual tone of the country.

In her tribute to Chaplain Black, Evangelist Alveda King noted, “There are those who would separate the soul of an individual from the actions they take. The chaplaincy, and Chaplain Black can be a bastion against this excessive separation. May Chaplain Black follow in the footsteps of Christ, while seeking human rights and civil rights as leaders like my uncle, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did. May God bless Chaplain Black as he seeks the fostering of a well-developed conscience in the Senate.”

Prior to serving on Capitol Hill, Rear Admiral Barry C. Black (Ret.) served in the U.S. Navy for over 27 years, ending his distinguished career as the Chief of Navy Chaplains. Affectionately known for sporting his signature bowtie on the Senate floor, Chaplain Black is a sought-after spiritual guide and unfailing source of encouraging words on faith and unity. His books on those themes include The Blessing of AdversityNothing to FearMake Your Voice Heard in Heaven, and his autobiography of overcoming personal adversity, From the Hood to the Hill.

“Few spiritual leaders are as gifted as Chaplain Black in providing caring, courageous ministry in a pluralistic religious environment,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket. “For almost two decades, our nation has benefited from his chaplaincy and this year we humbly thank him for his work to safeguard religious liberty.”

The Canterbury Medal draws its name from one of history’s most dramatic religious liberty stand-offs, which occurred between Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket, the law firm’s namesake, and King Henry II of England. The annual Canterbury Gala honors the award recipient in a black-tie event at the Pierre Hotel in New York and is attended by the world’s most distinguished religious leaders and religious liberty advocates.

Past medalists include the late Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; Cuban poet and former political prisoner Armando Valladares; Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, Carl Anderson, New York Times bestselling author and radio host Eric Metaxas; Learned Hand Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard; Orthodox rabbi of the oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S., Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik; and First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Dallin H. Oaks.

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.

Today: Little Sisters of the Poor back in court

WASHINGTON – The Little Sisters of the Poor will be in court this morning to ask for protection from a lawsuit by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania threatening their religious ministry. On May 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit will hear arguments in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Trump to decide if Attorney General Josh Shapiro can threaten the Sisters’ hard-won religious exemption from the HHS mandate, which was finalized last year following a five-year legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. A new HHS rule protects religious non-profits, including the Little Sisters, from providing services such as the week-after pill in their health care plans. Yet in two separate lawsuits, Pennsylvania and California are suing the federal government to take those rights away, forcing the Little Sisters back to court to protect their vital ministry of caring for the elderly poor.

What:
Oral Argument in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Trump

Who:
Becket President Mark Rienzi

When:
Today at 10:00 a.m. EST

Where:
James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse
601 Market St. Philadelphia, PA 19106

Becket President Mark Rienzi will be available for comment immediately following the hearing. Join us for a statement live on Twitter @becketlaw.

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.

End the feather ban: Government considers protecting Native American rights

WASHINGTON – The Department of the Interior is considering a petition to end the criminalization of eagle feather possession for Native American religious exercise. The petition—published last week—follows a 2014 court victory and is part of a settlement agreement in which the government promised to consider stronger legal protections for Native Americans like Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, who fought in court for nearly 10 years to defend his religious rights (watch video here).

Although current regulations allow permits for power companies, airports, and construction projects to kill thousands of eagles every year, many Native Americans are criminally banned from possessing even a single feather for religious worship. The proposed regulations, if enacted, will ensure stronger, lasting protections so that Native Americans like Pastor Soto can use feathers for worship, and it will not change the existing ban on harming eagles or commercializing their feathers.

“After fighting in court for almost a decade to defend our centuries-old religious practices, I am thankful that Native Americans are one step closer to freely worshipping with eagle feathers,” said Pastor Robert Soto, spiritual leader of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. “It is time for the government to recognize that feathers are a gift of the Creator, not the government, and Native Americans deserve lasting legal protections that can’t be revoked at the government’s whim.”

In 2006, an undercover agent from the Department of the Interior infiltrated a powwow, a sacred Native American religious ceremony involving drumming, dancing, and eagle feathers. The agent interrogated Pastor Soto, confiscated his eagle feathers, and threatened him with fines and prison time. Pastor Soto fought back in court and in 2014 won a major victory in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said the federal government could not justify its restriction on the religious use of eagle feathers. With Becket’s help, Pastor Soto negotiated a historic settlement agreement allowing for the return of his feathers and the right to use feathers in his religious worship. Pastor Soto is now asking the federal government to extend the same treatment to all Native Americans.

The government is seeking public comment on the petition until July 1. More information can be found at www.endthefeatherban.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. 

Court rules to keep Philly foster kids from families

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sharonell Fulton and other foster parents will continue fighting to provide stable, loving homes for Philadelphia foster children after a court ruled against them and the religious foster care agency they work with today. In Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, a federal court of appeals sided with a new, discriminatory city policy that forbids the Catholic Social Services from doing what it has done for almost a century: uniting foster children with loving families.

Catholic Social Services is one of Philadelphia’s best agencies and has partnered with the city for over 50 years. Yet in March 2018 the city suddenly threatened to shut down the agency because it disagreed with the agency’s longstanding religious beliefs about marriage—even though not one LGBTQ couple has ever approached Catholic seeking certification and the agency never prevented a child from finding a home. Represented by Becket, Sharonell Fulton, a single mother who has fostered more than 40 children in 26 years, joined other foster parents licensed through Catholic Social Services to file a lawsuit against the city.

“As a single mom and woman of color, I’ve known a thing or two about discrimination over the years,” said Sharonell Fulton, a foster parent represented by Becket (Read her op-ed here). “But I have never known vindictive religious discrimination like this, and I feel the fresh sting of bias watching my faith publicly derided by Philadelphia’s politicians.” Today’s court ruling lets Philadelphia continue that religious discrimination.

There are 6,000 foster children in the City of Philadelphia. The need to find those children homes is so dire that earlier this year the city put out an urgent call for 300 new families to become foster parents. But shortly after this call for help, the city inexplicably prohibited Catholic Social Services from placing any more children with the families it has certified—solely because of the agency’s religious beliefs. There are dozens of families licensed to foster through Catholic Social Services who are willing to take in children, but because of the city’s actions, their beds have remained empty for close to a year.

“This ruling is devastating to the hundreds of foster children who have been waiting for a family and to the dozens of parents working with Catholic Social Services who have been waiting to foster a child,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “We’re disappointed that the court decided to let the city place politics above the needs of kids and the rights of parents, but we will continue this fight.”

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 take Michigan’s AG to court 

WASHINGTON – Melissa Buck, mother of five children with special needs, along with one of the area’s most successful adoption agencies are back in court today to fight the Attorney General of Michigan’s attempt to shut down the faith-based agency that brought their families together. In this new case, Buck v. Gordon, the foster families are now suing Michigan and federal Health & Human Services to allow faith-based adoption agencies to continue what they do best: uniting children with loving families. 

When the ACLU sued the State of Michigan in 2017 to stop working with faith-based foster and adoption agencies, Becket defended several foster children, families and St. Vincent Catholic Charities to maintain this vital partnership. However, last month the Attorney General of Michigan and the ACLU signed a settlement agreement to try to stop the state from working with faith-based adoption agencies like St. Vincent simply because of their religious beliefs. Today, Becket filed a new lawsuit defending St. Vincent and foster families in federal court.  

The following statement can be attributed to Melissa Buck, a mother of five children with special needs adopted through St. Vincent: 

My five children have a home and a future today thanks to St. Vincent, and my husband and I still rely on St. Vincent’s vital support in every step of our journey together as a family. We are hopeful that the courts will step in, do the right thing and allow faith-based agencies to continue to help vulnerable families like mine.” 

The following statement can be attributed to Mark Rienzi, president at Becket, which represents St. Vincent Catholic Charities and Melissa Buck and her family in this case: 

Faith-based agencies like St. Vincent consistently do the best work because of their faith, and we need more agencies like them helping children—not fewer. The actions by the Attorney General of Michigan do nothing but harm the thousands of at-risk children in desperate need of loving homes.” 

Becket attorneys will hold a press call at 3:30 p.m. EST today at 646-876-9923 (pin: 930-944-5568to discuss the new case. 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. 

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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 stays execution, requires Texas to allow Buddhist prisoner access to priest in execution chamber 

WASHINGTON Late tonight, and two and a half hours after the scheduled start to the execution of Patrick Henry Murphy by the State of Texas, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to stay his execution. The Supreme Court ruled that Texas could not proceed with the execution unless it permitted a Buddhist spiritual advisor to be with Murphy in the execution chamber. Texas already allows Christian and Muslim clergy to accompany prisoners in the execution chamber. 

The following statement can be attributed to Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket: 

Religious liberty won today. The Supreme Court made it clear that the First Amendment applies to every American, no matter their faith. As we said in our brief to the Court, you can’t give fewer rights to Buddhists than you give to Christians or Muslims. In his last moments, a condemned man can receive both comfort from a minister of his own faith, and equal treatment under the law. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling followed Becket’s recommendation, after Becket filed an emergency amicus brief at the Court earlier today urging the Court to require Texas to allow a Buddhist minister to accompany Murphy to the execution chamber. 

Justice Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion, reinforcing the fact that “governmental discrimination against religionin particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech violates the Constitution.  

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. 

Additional Information: 

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). 

BREAKING: Michigan AG and ACLU discriminate against faith-based adoption agencies

WASHINGTON – Moments ago,  the Attorney General of Michigan and the ACLU  signed a settlement agreement  in Dumont v. Lyon 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. 

The following statements can be attributed to Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket: 

“The  Michigan Attorney General and the ACLU are trying to stop the state from working with faith-based adoption agencies. The result of that will be tragic.  Thousands of children will be kept from finding the loving homes they deserve.  

This settlement violates the state law protecting religious adoption agencies. This harms children and families waiting for forever homes and limits access for couples who chose to partner with those agencies.”

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 protects ministers from $1B tax lawsuit

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An appeals court today protected Pastor Chris Butler, a leader of a South Side Chicago congregation, and religious leaders across the country from nearly $1 billion per year in new taxes. In Gaylor v. Mnuchin, an atheist group sued the IRS to end the parsonage allowance, a federal tax provision that allows churches, mosques, and synagogues to provide faith leaders a tax-free housing allowance to help them live in the communities they serve (Learn more in this 3 min. video). The Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit unanimously rejected the atheists’ challenge, ruling that the tax exemption is constitutional.

In 2016 the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the IRS, demanding that it end the parsonage allowance and begin imposing almost $1 billion in new taxes per year on churches nationwide. Pastor Chris of Chicago Embassy Church and several other religious leaders who rely on the parsonage allowance, represented by Becket, intervened in the case. In 2017, the district court ruled the parsonage allowance was unconstitutional. But Becket appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which today ruled that the parsonage allowance “is simply one of many per se rules” that “allow hundreds of thousands of employees (including ministers) to receive tax-exempt housing every year,” and that it is consistent with the nation’s “lengthy tradition of tax exemptions for religion, particularly for church-owned properties.”

“This ruling is a victory not just for my church but for the needy South Side Chicago community we serve – our youth, our single mothers, our homeless, our addicted, and our victims of gang violence,” said Pastor Chris Butler of the Chicago Embassy Church. “I am grateful that I can continue serving them and living side by side with them to make our neighborhood a safer, more peaceful place.”

Pastor Chris is the leader of a predominantly African-American congregation, and devotes his life to mentoring at-risk youth, decreasing neighborhood crime, and caring for the homeless in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. His church can’t afford to pay him a full salary, but it offers him a small housing allowance, so he can afford to live near his church and the community he serves. For over 60 years, federal law has recognized that housing allowances shouldn’t be taxed as income under the same tax principle that exempts housing allowances for hundreds of thousands of secular workers—including teachers, business leaders, military service members, and many more. This tax exemption also keeps the IRS from becoming entangled in religious matters.

“The tax code treats ministers the same as hundreds of thousands of nonreligious workers who receive tax-exempt housing for their jobs—that’s not special treatment, it’s equal treatment,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The court rightly recognized that striking down the parsonage allowance would devastate small, low-income houses of worship in our neediest neighborhoods and would cause needless conflict between church and state.”

Becket represents Pastor Chris Butler and Bishop Edward Peecher of Chicago Embassy Church, Father Patrick Malone of Holy Cross Anglican Church, and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

Supreme Court hears case to decide fate of WWI memorial

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, where a group of anti-religious atheists sued to tear down a World War I memorial in Maryland. During oral argument, Chief Justice Roberts raised the argument Becket had urged in its friend-of-the-court brief, suggesting that a historical approach offers a clear way for resolving disputes about religious symbols in the public square.

In October 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled against the Bladensburg Peace Cross memorial using the notorious Lemon test, a vague legal standard that requires courts to guess whether the government is trying to “endorse” religion whenever it mentions God or religion. In its brief to the Supreme Court, Becket urged it to abandon the Lemon test and uphold the cross based on the historical understanding of what constituted an “establishment” of religion at the time of the nation’s founding.

“The nation’s founders knew what an unconstitutional establishment of religion looked like, and a passive symbol like a memorial cross wasn’t it,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The Supreme Court should drive a pencil through the monstrous Lemon test’s heart once and for all and recognize the important role of religious symbols in our nation’s history, culture, and in the public square.”

The Bladensburg memorial was designed by mothers who lost their sons in the World War I and was erected in 1925 on private land with funds raised by the American Legion, a military veterans association. The cross shape is an internationally recognized symbol of sacrifice and loss and a frequently used symbol to honor fallen soldiers. The American Humanist Association, an anti-religious activist group, is suing to take the memorial down.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which maintains the cross, is represented by Hogan Lovells. The American Legion is represented by Jones Day. Becket was represented on its brief by Stanford law professor and former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael W. McConnell. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision this summer.

Supreme Court rejects abortion groups’ attack on Texas Catholic bishops

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an attempt by abortion groups to pry into Texas Catholic bishops’ private discussions about religious doctrine. In Whole Woman’s Health v. Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, several abortion advocates targeted and subpoenaed Texas’ Catholic bishops to demand their internal deliberations regarding abortion. Last year, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans rejected the surveillance attempt as intimidation and an invasion of the church’s right to privacy. Today’s Supreme Court ruling finally puts an end to the abortion group’s intrusion efforts.

In 2016, Whole Woman’s Health, a Texas-based abortion facility chain, sued 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. Because of the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance, the Texas Catholic Church’s leadership––the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops––acted according to its faith and offered to provide burials to all unborn children who were aborted. Although the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops was not part of that lawsuit, last year the abortion groups retaliated against the bishops by subpoenaing decades of internal religious deliberations among the bishops regarding abortion.

“Thank goodness the Supreme Court saw this appeal for what it was: a nasty attempt to intimidate the bishops and force them to withdraw their offer to bury every child aborted in Texas,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Abortion groups may think the bishops ‘troublesome,’ but it is wrong to weaponize the law to stop the bishops from standing up for their beliefs.”

Last June, a trial judge ordered the bishops to hand over their internal communications about abortion to Whole Woman’s Health—even though they had already provided 4,000 pages of external communications. The bishops appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted them permanent protection from the order. The court ruled 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.” Whole Woman’s Health asked the full Fifth Circuit to rehear the case. The full court rejected their request. They then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which today also rejected the group’s bid.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is also represented by Steven Levatino and Andrew McRae of Levatino | Pace PLLC in Austin, Texas.

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).

White House addresses foster care crisis at National Prayer Breakfast

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As guests of the White House, Melissa and Chad Buck, who are parents to five adopted children with special needs, were recognized this morning by the President at the 67th annual National Prayer Breakfast. During his remarks, President Trump brought attention to the national foster care crisis. He also thanked the Buck family “for inspiring us all,” and stated, “My administration is working to ensure that faith-based adoption agencies are able to help vulnerable children find their forever families while following their deeply held beliefs.”

Melissa and Chad Buck adopted five children with special needs through St. Vincent Catholic Charities, a faith-based adoption agency that partners with the State of Michigan. St. Vincent is motivated by its faith to serve families and is very successful at finding homes for sibling groups, older children, and children with special needs. However, the ACLU is suing the state of Michigan trying to end this important partnership – and families like the Bucks are fighting back.

“I came to Washington today because I want to ensure that the needs of vulnerable children are put first,” said Melissa Buck (read her op-ed here). “My children suffered abuse, hunger, and neglect, but today they have a family and are thriving thanks to St. Vincent supporting us every step of our journey. If we want other children to have a chance for a home and a future, we need more agencies like St. Vincent – not fewer.”

Currently there are thousands of children in Michigan foster care, and each year, hundreds of children “age out” of the foster system, meaning that at the age of 18 they are on their own, never having found a family or a home. With so many children in need, and not enough families willing to take them in, the state relies on religious adoption agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities. In 2017, St. Vincent recruited more new adoptive families than nearly 90 percent of the other agencies in its service area.

But the ACLU’s lawsuit is threatening to close their doors because it disagrees with St. Vincent’s religious beliefs about marriage. That’s despite the fact that St. Vincent’s beliefs have never prevented a child from being placed in a loving home. LGBT couples working with other agencies have been able to adopt children in St. Vincent’s care in the past. But even with other adoption agencies much closer by, the ACLU plaintiffs nevertheless went miles out of their way to target St. Vincent.

“The Buck family is just one of the many success stories made possible through religious adoption agencies like St. Vincent,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “Children need an ‘all hands on deck’ approach. They need families, homes, an education, medical support, and a dedicated staff in order to have a future. They need religious adoption agencies to keep doing their important work.”

Court schools Univ. of Iowa, says religious groups deserve equal treatment

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Christian student group won equal treatment and a permanent place on campus today when, moments ago, a federal court ruled that the University of Iowa illegally targeted religious groups for requiring their leaders to believe in and follow their faith. In BLinC v. University of Iowa, the university kicked Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) off campus because the group requires its student leaders to affirm and live by its religious beliefs. After the university admitted that it knowingly targeted and deregistered BLinC and other religious groups, the court today ruled that the university must end its unequal treatment of religious student organizations.

Before a hearing last Friday, the university revealed a watch list of 32 groups–all religious–that it had placed on probation simply for requiring its leaders to follow their beliefs. Yet the university permits fraternities to remain single-sex and allows other groups to limit their leaders (and even members) to students who share their mission. The court’s ruling states, “The Constitution does not tolerate the way [the University] chose to enforce the Human Rights Policy. Particularly when free speech is involved, the uneven application of any policy risks the most exacting standard of judicial scrutiny, which [the University] ha[s] failed to withstand.”

“We are grateful the court protected our rights today—to let us have the same right as all student groups to express our viewpoints freely on campus, and to be who we are,” said BLinC’s Jake Estell. “This victory reinforces the commonsense idea that universities can’t target religious student groups for being religious.”

Membership in BLinC is open to all university students. To preserve its religious mission, BLinC asks its leaders to affirm that they believe in and live according to its religious beliefs. But after a complaint was filed with the university about BLinC’s leadership requirements and its religious views on marriage, university officials told BLinC that it must “revise” its Statement of Faith and submit an “acceptable plan” for selecting its leaders. When BLinC informed the university that it could not change its faith or stop asking its leaders to share its faith, it was kicked off campus. The university then deregistered 10 other religious groups, including Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, the Imam Mahdi Muslim organization, the Latter-day Saint Student Association, and the Sikh Awareness Club, for the same reason.

“The university wanted a license to discriminate, and Judge Rose said no way,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which represents BLinC. “This ruling is a win for basic fairness, but it is also an eloquent plea for civility in how governments treat Americans in all their diversity. As a governmental body bound by the First Amendment, the university should have never tried to get into the game of playing favorites in the first place, and it is high time for it to stop now.”

A parallel lawsuit by another Christian group kicked off the University of Iowa campus, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. University of Iowa, is still pending before Judge Rose and will likely be decided later this year.

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.

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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).

University publishes religious watch list

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The University of Iowa admitted in court Friday it has a watch list of 32 groups – all religious – that it  has placed on a “probationary status.” The list just came to light in BLinC v. University of Iowa, where the university kicked Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) off campus for requiring its leaders to affirm and follow its faith. The disclosure was made in response to the court’s demand that the university identify all groups it had deregistered late last year and the reasons why.

The university’s list of the 579 registered student groups on campus highlights only the names of Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and other religious student clubs, placing them on probationary status. Yet while these religious groups were targeted, the university admitted that it still grants full registered status to dozens of secular groups, which explicitly restrict or control access to leadership or membership based on race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and U.S. military service. The watch list is the latest evidence confirming that the university has been singling out religious groups and discriminating against them.

“For a public institution to single out religious student groups and threaten their expulsion is textbook Big Brother,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which represents BLinC. “The university’s blatant double-standard and its desire to target and track religious groups in the name of ‘nondiscrimination,’ while ignoring dozens of other bigger groups who engage in more so-called ‘discrimination,’ is doublethink that would make the Ministry of Truth blush.”

The university claims that religious groups cannot even “encourage” their leaders to uphold a group’s specific faith, saying it would violate the university’s policy against religious discrimination. Yet the university allows other student groups to select leaders and members who align with each group’s mission, including fraternities, sports clubs, musical groups, advocacy organizations, political groups, and minority support groups—only flagging religious groups for monitoring. Thus, for example, the university is allowing the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Chinese Dance Club, Chinese in Iowa City group, and Chinese Music Club to remain on campus, while the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship is threatened to be kicked off campus.

“For an institution handing out Ph.D.’s, the university displays an embarrassing ignorance of our nation’s first liberty,” said Baxter. “The First Amendment prohibits the university from telling religious groups who can be their leaders, especially while allowing every other group on campus free reign to pick their leaders—and in many instances their members too.”

Oral argument in the case was heard in federal district court in Des Moines, Iowa on February 1, 2019. A decision is expected in the spring.

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).

 

Students to court: let our leaders be believers

WASHINGTON, D.C.–  A Christian student group argued in federal court Friday afternoon to defend its right to remain on campus at the University of Iowa and choose student leaders who embrace its religious mission. In BLinC v. University of Iowa, the university kicked Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) off campus because the group requires its student leaders to live by and affirm its religious beliefs. The court will decide if the university can continue its unequal treatment of religious student organizations, especially after the university admitted that it knowingly targeted and deregistered BLinC and other religious groups. 

In 2017, university officials targeted and kicked BLinC off campus because it asks its leaders to embrace its faith. Not long later, the university deregistered 10 other religious groups, including Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, the Imam Mahdi Muslim organization, the Latter-day Saint Student Association, and the Sikh Awareness Club, for the same reason. Now a total of 32 religious groups are on probation. Meanwhile, the university permits the largest groups on campus, fraternities and sororities—which comprise almost 20 percent of the student body—to remain single-sex, as well as sports clubs, feminist groups, and advocacy groups to limit their leaders and even members to students who share their mission.  

“Instead of fostering a free exchange of diverse ideas, the university’s policy is to discriminate against beliefs it doesn’t like,” said BLinC’s Jake Estell. “We asked the Court for equal treatment—to let us have the same right as all student groups to express our viewpoints freely on campus, and to be who we are.”  

Membership in BLinC is open to all university students. To preserve its religious mission, BLinC asks its leaders to affirm that they believe in and live according to its religious beliefs. But after a complaint was filed with the university about BLinC’s leadership requirements and its religious views on marriage, university officials told BLinC that it must “revise” its Statement of Faith and submit an “acceptable plan” for selecting its leaders. When BLinC informed the university that it could not change its faith or stop asking its leaders to share its faith, it was kicked off campus. 

“The university has admitted that it treats religious groups as second-class citizens,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is representing BLinC in its lawsuit. “It’s time for the university to put an end to this religious discrimination and allow Christian groups to be Christian, just as it allows pro-choice groups to be pro-choice and fraternities to be fraternities.”  

Becket Vice President and Senior Counsel Eric Baxter argued the case telephonically Friday afternoon before a federal court in Des Moines. A decision is expected this spring.  

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 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 here). 

 

RESCHEDULED : Christian student group in court this week to seek equal treatment

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Christian student group at the University of Iowa will defend its right to remain on campus and choose student leaders who embrace its religious beliefs before a federal judge this Friday. The oral argument has been rescheduled as a telephonic hearing. In BLinC v. University of Iowa, the University of Iowa kicked Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) off campus and told it to “revise” its Statement of Faith and submit an “acceptable plan” for selecting leaders if it wanted a place on campus. BLinC’s membership is open to all university students, but university officials targeted BLinC and other religious groups because they require leaders to live by and affirm the group’s religious beliefs. Meanwhile, the university allows several student groups – such as fraternities and sororities, sports clubs, feminist groups, pro-life groups, and advocacy groups – to enforce leader and membership restrictions. BLinC is asking the court for permanent protection from the university’s religious discrimination, especially after the university admitted that it knowingly targeted the religious student groups.

What:
Oral Argument in BLinC v. University of Iowa

Who:
Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket

When:
Friday, February 1, 2019, at 3:00 p.m. CST

Where:
Telephonic hearing with Judge Stephanie M. Rose

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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).

 

Religious exemptions back on the chopping block in HHS cases

WASHINGTON D.C.–The Little Sisters of the Poor will now be forced to continue defending themselves from lawsuits by California and Pennsylvania that attempt to take away the nuns’ hard-won religious exemption from the HHS mandate. In State of California v. HHS and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Trump, the order of Catholic nuns asked two separate federal courts to protect their religious exemption, following a five-year legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. But moments ago, the Pennsylvania court ruled that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro can continue his challenge to the HHS religious exemption. This follows California’s ruling late yesterday, which allows Attorney General Xavier Becerra to continue his challenge to the HHS religious exemption, threatening the Little Sisters’ ministry of caring for the elderly poor.

The new HHS rule, which was supposed to go into effect today, was the federal government’s effort to comply with injunctions requiring it to protect the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious non-profits from providing services such as the week-after pill in their employee health care plans. Last week in court, Becket defended the Little Sisters of the Poor from the California and Pennsylvania-led lawsuits, arguing that the government was simply obeying federal civil rights laws by providing the religious exemption.

“We never wanted this fight, and we regret that after a long legal battle it is still not over. We pray that we can once again devote our lives to our ministry of serving the elderly poor as we have for over 175 years without being forced to violate our faith,” said Mother Loraine Marie Maguire of the Little Sisters of the Poor. 

The Little Sisters spent five years battling the HHS mandate that would have forced them to violate their faith or pay millions in fines. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the government admitted that it has ways to get contraceptives to women without using the Little Sisters of the Poor. Following the 2016 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court and an Executive Order, HHS issued a new rule that finally protects the Little Sisters and other religious non-profits. The government had long exempted big businesses and even its own health care plans, yet California never sued the Obama administration for creating the exemptions that reach tens of millions more women than the Little Sisters’ exemption.

“Government bureaucrats should not be allowed to threaten the rights of the Little Sisters of the Poor to serve according to their Catholic beliefs. Now the nuns are forced to keep fighting this unnecessary lawsuit to protect their ability to focus on caring for the poor,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket and lead attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “We are confident these decisions will be overturned.”

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.

In court today and tomorrow: Little Sisters of the Poor fight in Penn. and Calif.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Little Sisters of the Poor will be in Pennsylvania and California federal courts today and tomorrow defending themselves from lawsuits by state Attorneys General Josh Shapiro (PA) and Xavier Becerra (CA), which threaten their ministry of serving the elderly poor. In Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Trump and State of California v. HHS, the order of Catholic nuns is asking the court to protect their religious exemption to the HHS mandate, which was finalized in November, following a four-year legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The new rule protects religious non-profits, including the Little Sisters, from providing services such as the week-after pill in their health care plans. Yet California and Pennsylvania are suing to take those rights away, forcing the Little Sisters back to court. Becket is defending the Little Sisters of the Poor, arguing that the new rule is a sensible protection of their religious belief and is required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The court will hear the cases Thursday and Friday and must decide whether the Little Sisters of the Poor can focus on their vital ministry of caring for the elderly poor.


What:

Oral Argument in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Trump
Today at 9:00 a.m. EST
James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse
601 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

 

Oral Argument in State of California v. HHS
Friday, January 11, 2019 at 10:00 a.m. PST
Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building & United States Courthouse
1301 Clay Street
Oakland, CA 94612

 

Becket president Mark Rienzi will argue both cases. Join us for a statement live on Twitter immediately after each court hearing.

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).

Town gives Jewish menorah the cold shoulder, earns Becket’s 2018 Ebenezer Award

WASHINGTON, D.C. – It’s feeling extra frosty in one New Hampshire town this year after a local town administrator banned a menorah from the town’s holiday display. Durham town leaders denied the local Chabad’s request to display a menorah next to the town Christmas tree because it wasn’t “secular” or “inclusive” enough for the annual “holiday” tree lighting in a local park. This blatant bah-humbugging has earned the Durham town administration the 2018 Ebenezer Award, Becket’s lowest (dis)honor, awarded for the most ridiculous affront to the Christmas and Hanukkah season.  

Rabbi Berel Slavaticki of the University of New Hampshire & Seacoast Chabad Jewish Center applied for a permit to display a menorah in the town’s Memorial Park for Hanukkah. But the Commission rejected the application claiming that the menorah was “too religious.” Local residents armed with common sense disagreed at a town council meeting last week, saying the Christmas tree—also a religious symbol—and the menorah belonged in the park.  

“In the name of inclusivity the town administration excluded an entire religious minority from participating in the town holiday celebrations—talk about missing the mark,” said Montse Alvarado, VP & executive director of Becket, “It makes no sense to celebrate the holiday season by editing out the true meaning of Christmas and relegating Hanukkah to the broom closet. Do you throw a party and blacklist the guests of honor?”  

Each year Becket reflects on the most absurd affronts to the Christmas and Hanukkah season and bestows upon the most outrageous offender a lump of coal. Previous Ebenezer Award winners include the American Humanist Association, which tried to stop schools from sending care packages to children in need, the Department of Veteran Affairs, which banned employees at its Salem, Virginia facility from saying “Merry Christmas” to veterans, and the University of Minnesota, 1qA“which last year banned from campus the colors red and green, blue and silver, Santas, bows, dreidels and even wrapped presents. (See list of previous winners). 

This year’s Ebenezer Award runner up is the city of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for demanding a local church take down a nativity display after granting permission just days earlier. And this year’s Eggnog Toast, given to an individual or group who had a Grinch-like change of heart, goes to the Omaha Manchester Elementary School in Nebraska for suspending its principal after she prohibited classrooms from having Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Santa and even candy canes, concerned that the shape might make students think of the letter J for “Jesus.”

“Religious holidays are an important part of human culture and the government is allowed to recognize and celebrate those holidays with the appropriate symbols,” said Alvarado. “The Supreme Court has long protected holiday displays that remind us of our country’s pluralism and religious liberty during the holiday season.”  

Becket wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, a (retroactive) Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyous New Year to all!  

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

University of Iowa tells court: Frats in, God out

WASHINGTON, D.C. – After the University of Iowa admitted in court that it discriminates against religious student groups, the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship asked a federal court yesterday to permanently require equal treatment for all organizations. The case, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. University of Iowa, arose after more than a dozen student religious groups were purged by the University last summer for asking their leaders to affirm their respective faiths. The Sikh Awareness Club, Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, Imam Mahdi organization, and Latter-day Saint Student Association were among the other faith groups kicked off campus. All religious groups were temporarily reinstated after InterVarsity filed suit, but the university continues to resist a permanent fix and insist that it can treat religious groups different from other groups.

Last summer’s purge came after the university took the hard-line stance that a religious group is guilty of religious discrimination when it asks its leaders to affirm the group’s religious beliefs or even “encourages” them to do so. But recently, the university admitted in court that it:

  • Gives “many exceptions” from its non-discrimination rules for “various clubs, sports teams, and even scholarship programs”;
  • Allows many groups to engage in “apparent violations” of its rules, such as by discriminating on such bases as sex, race, and nationality, if they “provide safe spaces for minorities” or support the university’s unspecified “educational and social purposes”;
  • Permits the largest groups on campus—fraternities and sororities, which constitute almost 20 percent of the student body—to remain single-sex, as well as sports clubs, acapella groups, and various other university programs;
  • “[F]reely admits” that its treatment of student groups “is inconsistent.”

“In the name of non-discrimination, the University of Iowa discriminated against more than a dozen diverse religious groups–including Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, which represents InterVarsity. “That’s Orwellian. Real diversity requires real differences. The university has – quite rightly – long respected the differences inherent in Greek groups, sports clubs, and ideological groups. The First Amendment requires the university to do the same for religious groups.”

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has been on the university of Iowa campus for over 25 years, hosting Bible studies, worship services, and discussions on important religious and social issues. It is one of the largest contributors to the annual C.R.O.P. walk to combat global poverty. The group welcomes all students to join as members and only requires its leaders follow its Christian faith. In 25 years, no student has ever complained about its leadership selection standards. There are over 500 student groups at the university, including numerous religious, cultural, political, and ideological groups that have long been allowed to choose leaders who share their mission.

“InterVarsity seeks to serve the University of Iowa, its students and faculty, and the local community,” said Greg Jao, Director of External Relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. “We invite the university to embrace a common sense understanding of its non-discrimination policy. The policy should protect, rather than penalize, religious groups that seek to retain their religious identity on campus.”

At Becket’s request, the university agreed to allow InterVarsity and all other deregistered religious groups to temporarily remain on campus during the pendency of existing litigation. A final decision could come before March 2019.

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).

BREAKING: New Mexico court shuts the book on religious discrimination

WASHINGTON, D.C. – New Mexico kids won equal access to quality educational resources today, regardless of where they go to school. In Moses v. Ruszkowski, a group of activists sued the State of New Mexico to end a textbook program designed to ensure all students receive a quality education. The New Mexico Supreme Court’s ruling says students can’t be denied state-approved textbooks and other learning materials simply because they attend a religiously affiliated school. The decision comes after the 2017 Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheranv. Comer. 

New Mexico is ranked lowest of all 50 states in terms of education. The textbook lending program seeks to lift the state’s literacy levels by ensuring that all children have equal access to quality textbooks. The program especially benefits low-income and minority students living in rural areas.  But in 2012, activists sued the state arguing that the textbook lending program violates the state constitution because students at religiously affiliated schools can participate on equal footing with all other students. Today’s court ruling rejects the activists’ arguments, stating, “The textbook loan program furthers New Mexico’s legitimate public interest in promoting education and eliminating illiteracy.” 

“In shutting the book on religious discrimination, the New Mexico Supreme Court has opened access to quality textbooks for all students,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is defending the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools (NMANS) and the state’s textbook program. “All kids deserve an education free from discrimination.”

The lawsuit relied on a discriminatory 19th century state law—called a Blaine Amendment—that has been used in New Mexico and across the country to keep religious organizations from participating in government programs on the same terms as everyone else. For example, activists have used Blaine Amendments to try to stop children with disabilities from attending schools that best meet their needs, to prevent schools from making their playgrounds safer, to stop food kitchens from helping the poor, and to close service providers that help former prisoners successfully reintegrate into society. The Court acknowledged the Blaine Amendments’ malicious history, noting that “New Mexico was caught up in the nationwide movement to eliminate Catholic influence from the school system.”  

“New Mexico’s kids are better off today because the New Mexico Supreme Court rejected 19th Century religious discrimination,” said John Foreman, state director of the New Mexico Association of Non-public Schools.

Both the trial court and the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the textbook lending program, but in 2015 the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional based on the Blaine Amendment. In 2017 Becket appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Following a 7-2 ruling in Trinity Lutheran, a similar case involving Missouri’s Blaine Amendment, the Supreme Court ordered the New Mexico Supreme Court to reconsider its decision on the textbook lending program. Today’s decision reinstates the textbook lending program.

World’s largest religious media network wins right to follow faith

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A court ruling yesterday ensures Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the world’s largest religious media network, can freely follow the religious teachings that drive its mission. In Eternal Word Television Network v. Azar, the previous administration’s HHS mandate tried to force the Catholic network to provide services such as the week-after pill in its healthcare plan. Yesterday’s decision, which comes on the heels of a settlement with the federal government, ends EWTN’s seven-year legal battle.

In 2013, EWTN sued the federal government and challenged the HHS mandate in court. A federal appeals court ruled against the network in 2016, but that decision was tossed out after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that protected other religious non-profits, including the Little Sisters of the Poor. Yesterday’s decision follows a formal settlement agreement, a Presidential Executive Order, and a recently finalized HHS rule issued in November ensuring a religious exemption preventing non-profits like EWTN from having to violate their faith.

“It shouldn’t take years to prove the obvious: you can’t tell a religious media network to say one thing and do another” said Michael P. Warsaw, chairman and CEO of EWTN. “We are grateful that—finally—EWTN no longer has to worry about being forced to choose between massive fines and following our faith.”

EWTN was founded in 1981 by Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, also known as Mother Angelica, who was a cloistered nun and well-beloved TV personality worldwide. She started EWTN as a small television network in a garage on her monastery grounds with the purpose of sharing the Catholic faith with the public. Today, EWTN is now the largest religious media organization in the world, reaching into over 300 million television homes in 145 different countries.  The Network also includes global radio, digital media, print, publishing and news services.

“EWTN lives by its Catholic faith all day every day, expressing its beliefs worldwide in TV, radio, and print,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, which represented EWTN. “We are glad that the government and the courts agree that it can continue doing that without being forced to violate its faith.”

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).

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).

Press call: New HHS rule and Little Sisters of the Poor

Call Audio Here

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new rule issued late yesterday by Health & Human Services (HHS) finalizes the interim religious exemption that the Little Sisters of the Poor received in October 2017. Becket will hold a press call at at 10 a.m. EST tomorrow to discuss this latest update and its effect on ongoing cases in California and Pennsylvania against the Little Sisters, an order of Catholic nuns who dedicate their lives to serving the elderly poor.

On October 6, 2017, HHS provided the Little Sisters and other religious non-profits an interim religious exemption from having to provide services such as the week-after pill in their employee healthcare plans against their religious beliefs. This new rule finalizes that exemption after HHS considered public comments. The new rule follows an Executive Order issued May 2017 and the 2016 unanimous Supreme Court decision protecting the Little Sisters in Zubik v. Burwell 

What:
Press call to discuss the HHS mandate rule and the Little Sisters of the Poor

Who:
Mark Rienzi, president of Becket

When:
November 8, 2018, at 10 a.m. EST

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

The following statement may be attributed to Mark Rienzi, president of Becket: “For the last four years the Little Sisters have said that the government has other ways to provide services like the week-after pill without involving nuns. Today, at long last, the federal government finalized the rule providing a religious exemption from the HHS Mandate to the Little Sisters and other religious non-profits. This long unnecessary culture war is now almost over–all that is left is for state governments to admit that there are many ways to deliver these services without nuns, and the Little Sisters can return to serving the elderly poor in peace.”

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).

Empty foster homes, full courtroom for Philly foster families

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Foster families were in the court today fighting the City of Philadelphia’s decision to discriminate against a religious foster care agency and prevent at-risk kids from being placed with a loving foster family. In Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, the City of Philadelphia barred one of the city’s top foster care agencies, Catholic Social Services, from placing children with dozens of certified foster families solely because of the agency’s religious beliefs about marriage. The hearing took place at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which must decide whether the city can continue to discriminate against Catholic Social Services and the children and families it serves (watch recap of arguments live on Twitter).

Catholic Social Services has worked with the city to place children with foster families for more than five decades and has provided this ministry to Philadelphians since the early 1900s, long before the city got involved. And to this day, neither the city nor the ACLU has pointed to anyone that has been prevented or even discouraged from fostering by Catholic Social Services. Yet earlier this year the city barred Catholic Social Services from placing children with foster parents like Sharonell Fulton–who has served as a loving foster mother for 25 years. 

“With every passing day, vulnerable kids wait for the chance to sleep in their own beds in a loving place they can call home,” said Sharonell Fulton, a single mother who has fostered over 40 children through the agency. “I worry for these kids, and the two children with special needs in my care, whose futures are threatened because of the city’s decision to discriminate.” 

There are 6,000 foster children in need of a family in the City of Philadelphia. The need to find those children homes is so dire that earlier this year the city put out an urgent call for 300 new families to join the foster care network. But shortly after this call for help, the city inexplicably prohibited Catholic Social Services from placing more children with families—solely because of the agency’s religious beliefs. There are currently dozens of families licensed to foster through Catholic Social Services who are willing to take in children, but because of the city’s actions, those homes remain empty. 

“The wait to find a foster family is long enough for a vulnerable child, yet the City of Philadelphia has decided to keep at-risk children out of loving homes,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, which represents Catholic Social Services and three foster families. “The court should put an end to the city’s religious discrimination and allow Catholic Social Services to continue doing what it does best: giving children loving families.” 

Becket is representing foster children, families, and Catholic Social Services in federal court. A decision can be expected by early next year. 

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

Today: Foster families fight Philly discrimination in court

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Philadelphia-based foster families will be in court today fighting the City of Philadelphia’s decision to target a religious foster care agency, keeping hundreds of at-risk kids out of loving homes.

In Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, the City of Philadelphia barred one of the city’s top foster care agencies, Catholic Social Services, from placing children with dozens of certified foster families solely because of the agency’s longstanding religious beliefs about marriage. Catholic Social Services has worked with the city for more than five decades to find foster families for children in need and has provided this ministry to Philadelphians since the early 1900s—well before the city got involved. But earlier this year the city enacted a new policy abruptly barring Catholic Social Services from placing children with foster parents like Sharonell Fulton—who has fostered over 40 kids in the last 25 years—even though there has never been a single complaint against the agency’s policy. Instead, the undisputed evidence shows that not a single person has been prevented or even discouraged from becoming a foster parent because of Catholic Social Services’ religious ministry. Today the Third Circuit Court of Appeals must decide whether to grant Catholic Social Services’ ability to place children while the case is ongoing; if not it will be forced to close within the next few months.

 

What:
Oral Argument in Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia

Who:
Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket

When:
Today at 2:00 p.m. Eastern

Where:
James A. Byrne United States Courthouse
601 Market Street
Philadelphia, Pa. 19106

Becket attorney Lori Windham will give a statement live on Twitter immediately after the hearing.

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).

Chicago pastor fights atheist lawsuit, nearly $1B tax on churches

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Pastor Chris Butler, a South Side Chicago pastor, was in court today defending his ministry from a discriminatory lawsuit that would impose nearly $1 billion per year in new taxes on churches across the country. In Gaylor v. Mnuchin, an atheist group is suing the IRS to end the parsonage allowance, a 64-year-old federal tax provision that allows churches, mosques, and synagogues to provide faith leaders a tax-free housing allowance to help them live in the communities they serve. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit must now decide if the law requires the government to discriminate against religious groups by denying them a tax exemption similar to exemptions used by hundreds of thousands of secular employees.

In 2016 the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the IRS, claiming that the parsonage allowance was an illegal establishment of religion and demanding its end. Pastor Chris of Chicago Embassy Church and several other religious leaders who rely on the parsonage allowance, represented by Becket, intervened in the case. In 2017, the district court ruled the parsonage allowance was unconstitutional. Becket appealed to the Seventh Circuit and today argued that the parsonage allowance is fair tax treatment, not a special benefit for faith leaders.

“The tax code treats ministers the same as hundreds of thousands of nonreligious workers who receive tax-exempt housing for their jobs—that’s not special treatment, it’s equal treatment,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Striking down the parsonage allowance would devastate small, low-income houses of worship in our neediest neighborhoods and would cause needless conflict between church and state.”

Pastor Chris is the leader of a predominantly African-American congregation, and devotes his life to mentoring at-risk youth, decreasing neighborhood crime, and caring for the homeless in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. The church can’t afford to pay Pastor Chris a salary, but it offers him a small housing allowance so he can afford to live near his church and the community he serves. Ending the housing allowance for faith leaders like Pastor Chris would harm poor communities by diverting scarce resources away from essential ministries and even forcing some small churches to close (Learn more in this 3 min. video).

For over 60 years, federal law has recognized that housing allowances like Pastor Chris’s shouldn’t be taxed as income. This is the same tax principle that allows hundreds of thousands of secular workers including teachers, business leaders, and military service to receive tax-free housing for their jobs. It also keeps the IRS from becoming entangled in religious matters. If the parsonage allowance ends, it would impose nearly $1 billion per year in new taxes on churches, making it impossible, particularly for leaders of small and minority faiths, to live in the communities they serve.

“Today I asked the court to protect our ability to serve our South Side Chicago community – our youth, our single mothers, our homeless, our addicted, our lost, and all those who seek a church family,” said Pastor Chris Butler of the Chicago Embassy Church. “I hope the court will keep letting religious leaders like me not only preach from the pulpit, but live among the people we serve.”

Becket represents Pastor Chris Butler and Bishop Edward Peecher of Chicago Embassy Church, Father Patrick Malone of Holy Cross Anglican Church, and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. A decision in the case is expected early next year.

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).

 

Little Sisters defend their Supreme Court Victory from Calif. AG

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Little Sisters of the Poor were in federal court today defending themselves from a new lawsuit by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is attempting to strip the nuns of their religious exemption to the HHS mandate. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments today in State of California v. Little Sisters of the Poor and will decide if the order of Catholic nuns can continue caring for the elderly poor without violating their Catholic faith.

Last October, as directed by the Supreme Court in Zubik v. Burwell, HHS issued a new regulation giving religious non-profits, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, legal protection from having to provide services such as the week-after pill in their healthcare plan in violation of their faith. Yet shortly after the regulation was passed, Becerra sued to take away the Little Sisters’ religious exemption, forcing the nuns back to court. Becket defended the Little Sisters in court today, arguing that the religious exemption is required by civil rights law.

“We pray that the court will protect our ability to continue serving the elderly poor as we have for over 175 years without being forced to violate our faith,” said Sister Theresa Gertrude of the Little Sisters of the Poor. (Watch her full statement here).

The Little Sisters spent four years battling the HHS mandate that would have forced them to violate their faith or pay millions in fines. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the government admitted that it has ways to get contraceptives to women without using the Little Sisters of the Poor. Following the 2016 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court and a Presidential Executive Order, HHS issued a new rule that finally protects the Little Sisters and other religious non-profits. The government had long exempted big businesses—such as Exxon, Chevron and Pepsi—and even its own health care plans, yet California never sued the Obama administration for creating the exemptions that reach tens of millions more people than the Little Sisters’ exemption.

“Politicians have no right pushing around religious women like the Little Sisters of the Poor,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket and lead attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “The Little Sisters already endured a lengthy legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court; they don’t need this unnecessary lawsuit to try to take them away from caring for the poor.”

Becket President Mark Rienzi argued on behalf of the Little Sisters. A ruling is expected sometime in 2019.

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).

Court to consider nearly $1 billion tax threat to churches

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Pastor Chris Butler, the minister of a predominantly African-American congregation on Chicago’s South Side, will defend his ministry in court next week from a discriminatory lawsuit threatening churches across the country with nearly $1 billion per year in new taxes. In Gaylor v. Mnuchin, the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing the IRS to end a 64-year-old federal tax provision that allows churches, mosques, and synagogues to provide faith leaders a tax-free housing allowance so they can live in the communities they serve. The tax provision, known as the parsonage allowance, operates under the same tax principle that allows teachers, business leaders, military service members, and hundreds of thousands of other secular employees to receive tax-free housing for their jobs. It also keeps the IRS from becoming entangled in religious matters. Yet last October, a federal court struck down the parsonage allowance, threatening vital ministries across the country. Becket is defending Pastor Chris and other faith leaders in their appeal to the Seventh Circuit, which must decide if the parsonage allowance is constitutional.

What:
Oral argument in Gaylor v. Mnuchin

Who:
Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket
Chris Butler, pastor of Chicago Embassy Church

When:
Wednesday, October 24, 2018 at 9:30 a.m. CDT

Where:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
Everett McKinley Dirksen United States Courthouse
219 S. Dearborn Street, Room 2722
Chicago, IL 60604

Becket attorney Luke Goodrich and Pastor Chris Butler will give statements on Twitter live immediately after the hearing.

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).

 

Court to hear California’s attack on Little Sisters next week

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Little Sisters of the Poor will be in federal court next week defending their right to live according to their religious beliefs. In State of California v. Little Sisters of the Poor, the State of California is suing to end a 2017 regulation that gives religious nonprofits, including the order of Catholic nuns, legal protection from the HHS mandate. The HHS mandate, center of a seven-year legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, requires employers to provide services such as the week-after pill in their health care plans. The new regulation is a result of the 2016 Supreme Court decision in Zubik v. Burwell, which told HHS to revise its rules. Yet shortly after the regulation was passed, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued to take away the Little Sisters’ religious exemption, forcing the nuns back to court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear arguments and decide whether the Little Sisters of the Poor can get back to their vital ministry of caring for the elderly poor.

What:
Oral Argument in State of California v. Little Sisters of the Poor

Who:
Mark Rienzi, president of Becket

When:
Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, at 8:30 a.m. PST

Where:
James R. Browning U.S. Courthouse
95 7th St, San Francisco, CA 94103

Becket attorney Diana Verm and Mother Theresa Gertrude of the Little Sisters of the Poor will give Twitter live statements immediately after the hearing.

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 nonprofit, 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).

Morris County, NJ: Let us preserve our history!

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Morris County, New Jersey, filed a petition Tuesday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to protect its historic preservation program after the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered a halt to participation by historic houses of worship. In FFRF v. Morris County Board of Freeholders, the Freedom From Religion Foundation—a Wisconsin-based militant atheist organization—sued the county for allowing historic houses of worship to apply for preservation funds on equal terms with all other historical sites. Grants are awarded under neutral criteria, and houses of worship can only use the grants to repair a historic building’s exterior and mechanical systems. But the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that giving neutral treatment to houses of worship constituted religious activity in violation of the New Jersey Constitution. Yesterday’s filing asks the Supreme Court to let Morris County continue treating all historic sites the same, without having to engage in religious discrimination.

In its 2017 Trinity Lutheran ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court protected a church’s right to participate in a generally available public program, stating that excluding the church because of its religious status would violate the First Amendment. But lower courts have been divided on how far that extends. Several courts, including the New Jersey Supreme Court, have ruled that historic preservation funding cannot be given to houses of worship, while several other courts have ruled that houses of worship cannot be excluded without violating the Constitution.

“Time does not discriminate,” said Diana Verm, legal counsel at Becket, a non-profit religious liberty law firm representing Morris County in its petition before the Supreme Court. “It takes its toll on all our historic structures, secular and religious alike. The county should not be forced to discriminate by favoring secular sites in its preservation efforts.”

The state of New Jersey has a long history of funding historic preservation for buildings, including churches. One of the state’s earliest grants was to the 1850 Solomon Wesley Church, an active house of worship originally built to serve a community of freed slaves.

“In Morris County, we want to preserve all of our historical sites, including our magnificent houses of worship, some of which date back to the 1700s and were designed by the leading architects of their time,” said Doug Cabana, the freeholder director of Morris County. “Preserving the character and beauty of our county is a critical element of the county’s cultural and economic success.

Last year Becket along with Thomas A. Gentile of Wison Elser in Florham Park, New Jersey filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending Morris County’s grant program and the Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches whose buildings have been restored thanks to the program. Becket is now counsel for the county in this case.

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).

Pensacola to Supreme Court: Historic cross can fix First Amendment dross

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The City of Pensacola, Florida, asked the U.S. Supreme Court late yesterday to protect a historic World War II-era memorial cross that has stood in a city park for over 75 years. In Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola, a federal appeals court ruled that the cross must come down, but two of the three judges who decided the case said the result was “wrong” and called the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence a “hot mess.” The appeal comes as the Supreme Court is considering a similar case involving the Bladensburg Peace Cross, a World War I memorial in Maryland. Pensacola has asked the Supreme Court to join the two cases together and decide if historic symbols like the cross are permitted in the public square.

A wooden cross was first placed in Pensacola’s Bayview Park in 1941 by the Jaycees, a local community service group, as the U.S. prepared to enter World War II. The cross has been a popular gathering place for over 75 years and is one of over 170 displays in Pensacola’s parks commemorating the city’s history and culture. In 2016, an atheist organization sued the city, claiming that the cross is “offensive” and establishes a government religion.

“Religious symbols aren’t like graffiti that the government has to erase as soon as someone complains,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is representing the city. “The Constitution lets the government recognize the important role of religion in our history and culture.”

The court of appeals based its ruling on the notorious “Lemon test” (see video), which has been criticized by scholars and Supreme Court justices as inconsistent with the historical meaning of the Constitution. Nevertheless, the court said the Lemon test hasn’t been “directly overruled,” so “our hands are tied.” Two of the three judges said the law should be fixed and the cross should remain.

“Pensacola is a diverse city that welcomes people of all faiths and none,” said Ashton Hayward, mayor of Pensacola. “The cross is a valuable part of our history; tearing it down would needlessly signal hostility toward religion. The city looks forward to a victory in the Supreme Court.”

Becket is representing the City of Pensacola free of charge together with Stanford Law Professor and former Tenth Circuit Judge Michael W. McConnell. The city is also represented by J. Nixon Daniel, III, and Terrie L. Didier of Beggs & Lane.

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).

BREAKING: Court wants to uphold historic Pensacola cross, but can’t — yet

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A historic World War II-era memorial cross in Pensacola, Florida, must come down, according to a federal appeals court that ruled in favor of an atheist activist group in Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola. But the court said it ruled that way only because it was bound by “flawed precedent” from thirty-five years ago that “needs to be reversed.” The city says it will appeal.

In 2016, the American Humanist Association sued the city on behalf of four individuals who said the cross was offensive. Last year, a federal judge ruled that the cross violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and must be torn down. The ruling relied on a case decided by the Eleventh Circuit in 1983, called ACLU v. Rabun County, which also struck down a cross. The Eleventh Circuit today stated that it was “bound” by Rabun to rule against the cross, but two of the three judges said Rabun was “wrong” and “needs to be reversed.” They urged the full Eleventh Circuit “to rehear this case” to “correct the errors that Rabun perpetuates” and uphold the cross.

“The Constitution doesn’t require the government to scrub every religious symbol from the public square,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is representing the city. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that the government can recognize religion as a fundamental part of our history and culture, and we’re glad that the majority of the court agreed that the cross is constitutional.”

A wooden cross was first placed in Pensacola’s Bayview Park in 1941 by the local chapter of the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees)—a private, civic, nonprofit organization—as the United States prepared to enter World War II. For decades, the Jaycees and other groups have hosted community events at the memorial, including Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day remembrances. Today it continues to serve as a gathering place for both religious and nonreligious groups within the Pensacola community and as a significant symbol of the city’s history. The cross is one of over 170 displays in Pensacola parks reflecting different aspects of the city’s unique history and culture.

“This cross is more than a religious symbol,” said Ashton Hayward, mayor of Pensacola. “It’s an important part of our city’s history and culture – just like many other monuments celebrated throughout Pensacola’s parks. To tear down this symbol just because a few are offended by it shows hostility to religion, not neutrality. The city looks forward to being vindicated on appeal—as the majority of the court said it should be.”

The city has 14 days to ask for rehearing by the Eleventh Circuit or 90 days to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. The Supreme Court is also considering whether to review a challenge to the Bladensburg Cross, a World War I memorial in Maryland. Becket, which is representing the City of Pensacola free of charge, recently filed a brief in that case. Pensacola is also represented by J. Nixon Daniel, III, and Terrie L. Didier of Beggs & Lane.

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).

Atheists try to kick cross to the curb in Penn. county seal case

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Lehigh County, Pennsylvania defended its historic seal in court today from a militant atheist lawsuit suing to scrub the seal of a religious symbol representing one aspect of the county’s rich history. In FFRF v. Lehigh County, the Wisconsin-based atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Lehigh County, demanding the county remove the image of a cross from the seal on the theory that it establishes Christianity as the official religion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit must decide whether the law requires stripping all religious symbols from the public square or, instead, protect them as a legitimate part of our country’s history and culture. (Watch Twitter Live statement here.)

The seal, which has been in use for over 70 years without complaint, features a cross, representing the county’s early German settlers who fled persecution in their homeland for religious freedom in America. The seal also features over a dozen other images – such as cement silos, textiles, a farm, the Liberty Bell, and a red heart – representing important aspects of the county’s rich history and culture. Becket represents Lehigh County before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, arguing that the Constitution allows religious symbols in the public square in recognition of the importance of religion in our history and culture.

“FFRF is like the wicked witch of the west: A drop of religion and they scream ‘I’m melting!’” said Eric Baxter, VP & senior counsel at Becket, which is representing Lehigh County. “But flags with historically-significant religious images are part of American culture: New Mexico’s flag has the sacred sun symbol of the Zia Native American tribe, Louisiana’s has a Catholic symbol of a pelican with a bleeding heart to feed its hatchlings the Eucharist, and Utah’s has multiple images that recall the Mormon pioneers.”

Images of historic significance are common on the seals and flags of states, counties, and towns across America. Yet in 2016, FFRF sued Lehigh County, trying to censor the cross from the seal. In September 2017, a federal judge ruled in FFRF’s favor. Instead of applying the actual text and original meaning of the First Amendment, the judge felt bound by an old Supreme Court case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, which requires courts to guess whether the government is trying to “endorse” religion whenever it mentions God or religion (What is the Lemon Test? Watch this short video.)

But the Supreme Court has moved away from the Lemon test, ruling that religious symbols in government and in the public square that were acceptable at our nation’s founding are still acceptable today and that recognizing the role of religion in our nation’s history and culture does not violate the Constitution. Becket has also defended a World War II religious memorial in a Montana ski resort, a historic Pensacola park cross monument, and a 9/11 Ground Zero cross artifact, among others.

“There is nothing unconstitutional about using our flags and seals to accurately reflect history and culture—even if it happens to be religious,” said Baxter.

A decision is expected by early next year.

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.

Pittsburgh church wins right to choose its pastor

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, a historic congregation in one of Pittsburgh’s poorest communities, is free to choose its own religious leaders without fear of government interference. In Lee v. Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, a federal appellate court today ruled for the small African-American congregation, stating that the First Amendment prevents courts from deciding questions of spiritual leadership. The decision was 3-0 in favor of the church. 

The church was facing a $2.6 million lawsuit from its former pastor, Rev. David Lee, whom the church dismissed after attendance plummeted and church expenses doubled under his leadership. A federal trial court previously ruled against Rev. Lee, but he appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, which today ruled to protect the congregation’s right to choose its leaders. The Third Circuit’s ruling bolsters the right of all houses of worship to select their leaders—a right called the “ministerial exception”—stating that “While the amount of church contributions and members is a matter of arithmetic, assessing Lee’s role … requires a determination of what constitutes adequate spiritual leadership.” That raises “questions that would impermissibly entangle the court in religious governance and doctrine prohibited by the Establishment Clause.” 

“The government has no right to entangle itself in choosing a church’s ministers,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, which represents Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church. “As the Supreme Court unanimously ruled six years ago, houses of worship have the right to choose who leads the flock.” 

The church chose Rev. Lee to be its pastor in 2012. Soon after, however, he demanded a 20-year contract from the church, telling the church that it could still fire him if it was unhappy with his religious leadership. By 2015, it was clear that church ministries had deteriorated: attendance and offerings had both dropped by nearly 40 percent, while church expenses had increased by 200 percent. The congregation, unhappy with Rev. Lee’s leadership, then voted to dismiss Rev. Lee from the pulpit. Rev. Lee sued Sixth Mount Zion for $2.6 million later that year.  

Founded in 1899, Sixth Mount Zion serves one of Pittsburgh’s poorest communities: one-third of the households in its neighborhood are headed by single moms, one quarter of the houses sit vacant, and one person is unemployed for every three that have a job. To support its community, the church hosts a number of ministries to the poor, including a monthly food-bank and a program to help provide affordable housing.   

Becket, which represents Sixth Mount Zion, also successfully defended the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York in the Fratello case and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. Today’s decision was the first Third Circuit case to apply Hosanna-Tabor, and the first appeal nationwide to apply Hosanna-Tabor to a contract claim.  

Amicus briefs in support of Sixth Mount Zion were filed by Professors Douglas Laycock, Michael McConnell, Thomas Berg, Carl Esbeck, Rick Garnett, and Robert Cochran, represented by Victoria Dorfman, Todd Geremia, Mark Kubisch, and Daniel Benson of Jones Day, and by the Church of God in Christ, mPact Churches, Plymouth Brethren, and Bishop William Stokes, represented by Andrew Kilberg, David Casazza, and Brian Lipshutz of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. 

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 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 here). 

 

Former foster children, states, Congressional coalition and religious groups support foster families’ appeal

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Former foster children, eight states, a Jewish advocacy group, a large  Congressional coalition and others urged an appeals court yesterday to reverse a district court ruling that will allow the City of Philadelphia to shut down Catholic Social Services, one of the City’s best foster agencies. The friend-of-the-court briefs filed in Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia argue that the ruling discriminates against the foster agency and the families it serves, violates the Constitution, is detrimental for religious minorities, and, above all, causes devastating harm to the City’s foster children in need of loving homes.

The City of Philadelphia’s harmful new policy enacted in March abruptly barred Catholic Social Services from placing dozens of children with foster parents like Sharonell Fulton, who has fostered over 40 kids in the last 25 years, and Cecelia Paul, who has fostered over 100 children. The City’s policy needlessly keeps at-risk children away from available homes solely because the City disagrees with the foster agency’s religious beliefs about marriage. After a district judge ruled against the agency in July, the families appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which will consider the case this fall.

“I gotta keep fighting for all these other kids so that they can have the life I had. If you have a good foster home—one where a parent treats you like their child—you can make it. Without one, you can fall through the cracks. CSS needs to keep open. It saved my life,” said Jamie Hill, a former foster child, who thinks that “a foster home is the difference between life and death” for some kids. (Read the former foster children’s brief here).

The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty also wrote to support Catholic and condemn Philadelphia’s actions, noting that “Jews have frequently faced the specter of government actors directing ‘proper’ understandings of their faith,” and emphasizing “the threat such overreach poses to Jews and all minority faiths.” (Read the Coalition’s brief here).

Eight states also filed a brief explaining why “promoting a diversity of child-placing agencies, religious and nonreligious, maximizes the placement opportunities for children.” The states further noted that “[r]eligious child-placing agencies add to this diversity, and states want to work with organizations motivated by a sense of duty and obligation to help children and those in need.” (Read the states’ brief here).

Forty-three members of Congress joined a brief to emphasize the importance of protecting religious social service providers and to highlight the long national history of religious social service providers helping children and families in need.  A group of non-profits who work with foster agencies and promote religious freedom also filed a brief highlighting the fact that hundreds of religious agencies nationwide serve children and families in need, and that their work could be endangered by Philadelphia’s unreasonable actions.

Catholic Social Services has served Philadelphia children for over 100 years and partnered with the City for the past 50 years to place children in loving homes. The agency also provides resources, training, and guidance for the foster families it supports. Catholic Social Services does this work because of its religious beliefs. Although Catholic Social Services has dozens of open homes available right now, City officials won’t allow any children to be placed in them because they think the agency’s religious beliefs—the same beliefs that inspire it to serve those in need—are outdated and need to change.

“Philadelphia’s actions have left foster parents and religious foster agencies nationwide wondering who’s next,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, which is representing Catholic Social Services and three foster families. “We’re grateful for this outpouring of support by those who don’t want to see Catholic, or other successful foster care agencies, punished for following their faith.”

Becket is representing Catholic Social Services, Sharonell Fulton, Cecelia Paul, and Toni Simmons-Busch.

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).

Penn. county seal on trial at Third Circuit

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, will be in court on Friday, September 7, defending its official seal from a lawsuit by a militant atheist organization that wants to strip a religious image from the seal despite its historic significance. In FFRF v. Lehigh Countythe Wisconsin-based atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Lehigh County arguing that the image of a cross on its seal must be removed to avoid establishing Christianity as the official County religion. The sealwhich has been in use for more than 70 years without any controversy, features a cross recalling the County’s early German settlers who fled persecution in their homeland for religious freedom in America, as well as a dozen other images representing important aspects of the County’s rich history and cultureBecket is representing the County before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which will decide whether the law requires stripping religious symbols from the public square, despite their historical, cultural, or artistic significance 

What:
Oral Argument in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Lehigh County

Who:
Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket

When:
Friday, September 7, 2018 at 9 a.m. EST

Where:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
601 Market Street Philadelphia, PA 19106
Maris Courtroom

A Becket attorney will be available for comment immediately following the hearing and will give a statement on Twitter live.

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.

Appeals court upholds “In God We Trust,” affirms “sea change” in law

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A federal appeals court protected religion in the public square today, rejecting an attempt to strip the national motto “In God We Trust” from U.S. coins and bills. New Doe Child # 1 v. The Congress of the United States is atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow’s most recent loss in a string of cases trying to remove any mention of God in government. Crucial to the Eighth Circuit’s decision was its adoption of Becket’s argument that under a 2014 Supreme Court case, all Establishment Clause rulings must now align with U.S. history on religion in the public square. Becket uniquely raised this argument in a friend-of-the-court brief, after the federal government failed to do so.

The court found that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway “offered an unequivocal directive: ‘[T]he Establishment Clause must be interpreted by reference to historical practices and understandings.” The court recognized that Galloway was “‘a major doctrinal shift’ in Establishment Clause jurisprudence,” one that overrules past case law that would threaten “Government acknowledgments of religions,” such as the National Motto. Previous cases had abandoned objective historical analysis for free-floating judicial tests that led to absurd results.

“The good news is you no longer need to be afraid that the pennies in your pocket are gateway drugs to theocracy,” said Diana Verm, counsel at Becket. “The Court was right to say that the First Amendment does not ban ‘In God We Trust.’ For too long, the country has been stuck in what Justice Gorsuch once described as ‘Establishment Clause purgatory.’ The court’s decision today is a huge step towards setting things right.”

Newdow’s lawsuits have long been fueled by the Lemon test, a notorious legal test that ignores what the Founders considered to be an establishment of religion and invites anti-religious activists to file lawsuits against anything that looks vaguely religious. Lemon has been much reviled by justices, judges, and legal experts for its incoherence and invited hostility toward religion. The Supreme Court’s landmark Galloway decision implicitly rejected Lemon and replaced it with an objective evaluation of our nation’s history.

Yet lower courts have still been using the Lemon test, allowing Newdow to claim that the national motto, which has appeared on U.S. currency since 1864, violates his rights as an atheist. Conspicuously absent from the court’s opinion today was any discussion of Lemon, and the court noted that it was breaking with other federal appeals courts to follow Galloway’s “unequivocal directive.”

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

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

Talk to the hand: Entire Fifth Circuit rejects renewed church intrusion bid

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans late yesterday protected the right of religious groups to discuss important religious doctrine free from government interference. In Whole Woman’s Health v. Smith, an abortion group subpoenaed the Catholic church in Texas for access to internal communications regarding abortion. After a three-judge panel of the court protected the church in July, the abortion group demanded a full-court rehearing. The appeals court’s decision yesterday ensures that religious groups are free to discuss important matters of religious doctrine and ministry without fear that government or opposition groups will interfere.

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. Because of the church’s pro-life stance, it offered support to bury or cremate all unborn remains—as an act of ministry. Although the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is not part of that lawsuit, the abortion group subpoenaed all communications among the bishops regarding abortion.

“It turns out that suing the Good Samaritan was a bad idea,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The Church should not have been dragged into this lawsuit solely because it offered free burials for babies. We’re glad the full Fifth Circuit recognized that.”

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is also represented by Steven Levatino and Andrew McRae of Levatino|Pace PLLC in Austin, Texas.

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.

Additional Information:                                                 

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

Christian student group beats religious purge—for now

WASHINGTON, D.C. –One week after an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship student group filed a lawsuit against the University of Iowa, the University agreed to temporarily reinstate InterVarsity and all other religious groups that the University had recently deregistered. In InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. University of Iowa, the Christian student group sued after it and almost 40 other student groups were purged by the University, including the Sikh Awareness Club, the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, the Imam Mahdi Organization, and the Latter-day Saint Student Association. The agreement obtained by InterVarsity will temporarily reinstate all deregistered religious groups until the end of pending litigation with the University.

InterVarsity had been a part of campus life for decades, welcoming all students as members. But in June, the University abruptly ordered the group to drop its religious leadership standards within two weeks, insisting that the group could not even “strongly encourage” its leaders to embrace its faith. Many other groups faced the same demand. And in late July, the University officially derecognized InterVarsity and almost 40 other groups. But just one week after InterVarsity sued over the mass purge, and just hours after the group warned it would need to file a motion for a temporary restraining order in order to participate in important student organization activities, the University reversed course to allow all religious groups back on campus.

“This win is a win for everyone—Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs alike,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, which is handling the litigation against the University. “Everyone loses when state officials pick who leads students in prayer and worship, and everyone wins when religious students can make those decisions for themselves. Here’s hoping the courts make the University’s temporary patch into a permanent fix.”

InterVarsity is made up and led by a diverse community of multiethnic and international students, and it welcomes all to join as members. As a Christian student group, it hosts Bible studies and worship services, sponsors discussions on important issues, and participates in community service activities such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and the Johnson County C.R.O.P. Hunger Walk. Following the end of the school year, the University deemed InterVarsity’s religious leadership requirement “non-compliant” with new school policy, while giving a pass to the leadership and membership restrictions set by other non-religious student groups, such as sports clubs, fraternities, and political organizations.

“As we all prepare to head back to school, we’re excited to know InterVarsity will also be back on campus and part of the community we love,” said Katrina Schrock, student president of InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship. “These last few months have been crazy, but we’re grateful to be able to get back to focusing on meeting and serving the new graduate and professional students in our Hawkeye community.”

The University has only promised to allow religious groups to remain on campus during the pendency of existing litigation. A final decision could come as early as next spring.

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

Additional Information:                                                   

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

Christian student group fights religious purge

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA student group at the University of Iowa is fighting for the right to ask its leaders to be Christians. In InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. University of Iowa, a student group is suing the University after it was kicked off campus for requiring its leaders to agree with its faith. Almost 40 other student groups —including the Sikh Awareness Club, the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, the Imam Mahdi Organization, and the Latter-day Saint Student Association—were also expelled by the University at the same time. Becket will file the lawsuit today on behalf of InterVarsity, seeking to get the group back on campus in time for the fall semester.

InterVarsity has been a part of campus life for 25 years, welcoming all students as members. But like the over-500 other student groups on campus, it has a distinct mission and asks its leaders to embrace that mission. In June, the University abruptly ordered the group to drop its religious leadership standards within two weeks, stating that leaders could not even be “strongly encouraged” to share its faith. And in late July, after InterVarsity explained why it couldn’t eliminate its leadership standards, the University officially deregistered the group, along with dozens of other religious and ideological student groups.

“We’re grateful to have been part of the University community for 25 years, and we think that the University has been a richer place for having Sikh, Muslim, Mormon, Catholic, Jewish, atheist, and Christian groups,” said Katrina Schrock, student president of InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship. “Because we love our school, we hope it reconsiders and lets religious groups continue to authentically reflect their religious roots.”

InterVarsity’s 25 years on campus include hosting Bible studies and worship services, sponsoring discussions on important issues, and participating in community service activities such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and the Johnson County C.R.O.P. Hunger Walk (where it’s been the top fund-raiser in six of the last seven years). The group is made up of a diverse collection of multiethnic and international students, and it welcomes all to join as members. While the University deemed InterVarsity’s religious leadership requirement “non-compliant” with its non-discrimination policy, it has exempted or ignored leadership and membership restrictions set by other student groups, such as sports clubs, fraternities, and political organizations. The University’s action against InterVarsity comes after another religious group’s lawsuit challenged the school’s discriminatory application of its policy.

“If public universities really want to foster an intellectually diverse environment, this isn’t how to do it,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, which is representing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. “Universities should allow students the space to form their own groups that challenge and grow their sincere beliefs. Banning religious groups from having religious leaders just flattens diversity and impoverishes the campus.”

Becket lauds naming of M. Elizabeth Magill as Univ. of Virginia provost

WASHINGTON, D.C. –The University of Virginia announced late Friday that current Stanford Law School Dean M. Elizabeth Magill will become the school’s new provost starting summer of 2019. Magill’s Stanford legacy will include the Religious Liberty Law Clinic that has flourished under her leadership. The Clinic is led by Professor James Sonne and provides law students with hands-on experience in defending religious liberty for people of diverse faiths. Launched in partnership with Becket in 2013, the Clinic has since successfully defended free exercise in a variety of cases including four Sikh truck drivers who faced employment discrimination, Native American inmates who sought to grow their hair according to their faith, a Muslim congregation who fought to build a mosque, a church that was banned from running its homeless ministry and Seventh-Day Adventists who were fired for refusing to work on their Sabbath day.

“Dean Magill is an innovative and thoughtful leader. She ensured Stanford Law’s leadership role in clinical education by promoting intellectual diversity and inclusion, and a strong commitment to civil rights. I look forward to seeing the impact she will have as provost of the University of Virginia,” said Bill Mumma, chairman & CEO of 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. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

Florida rabbi speaks on DOJ religious liberty panel

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Rabbi Ruvi New, head of the Chabad of East Boca Raton, Florida, today discussed Gagliardi v. The City of Boca Raton, the lawsuit that was a part of his congregation’s 10-year battle to build a house of worship, at the U.S. Department of Justice event Religious Liberty: Our First Freedom and Why it Matters. The event highlighted diverse perspectives on religious liberty as experienced by Americans today, including opening remarks by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and addresses by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of the Archdiocese of Louisville and Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma. (Watch footage here).

“America’s promise of religious liberty is deeply personal to me,” said Rabbi Ruvi New, head of the Chabad of East Boca Raton. “My mother fled religious persecution in communist Russia, and my father’s parents escaped Poland just before the Nazis took over. I love it that, in America, we don’t have to run. But we still have work to do to keep the promise alive.”

Rabbi New is the lead rabbi of Chabad of East Boca, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Florida that for over ten years faced hostile, well-financed opposition to its plans to build a new house of worship, some of which was driven by admitted anti-Semitism (watch this 4-minute video about the Chabad’s story). After the building was unanimously approved by the City in 2015, two landowners filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent construction, bizarrely claiming that allowing a synagogue equal rights to build violated the Establishment Clause. They also claimed that building the two-story synagogue would cause “inevitable” floods and prevent emergency vehicles from accessing the area – even though the area is already surrounded by 22-story condos and several strip malls. Becket represented the Chabad in court, defeating the lawsuit twice in the district court and again on appeal earlier this year.

The Chabad has also suffered a string of attacks in recent years. It was vandalized twice: its glass mezuzahs containing sacred scripture were destroyed and stolen, and a glass synagogue door was smashed. And a teenage member of the synagogue was physically assaulted on a public sidewalk and told to “go back to Auschwitz.”

“Rabbi New’s journey to defend his religious freedom is a powerful reminder to all of us that protecting this right for one group ensures religious liberty for people of all faiths,” said Montse Alvarado, executive director of Becket, the religious liberty law firm that represented the Chabad. “I was pleased to see the work of Becket’s courageous clients celebrated at this event—clients in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and California who are working to live by their deeply held convictions, tackle difficult issues, and find common sense solutions. Feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and helping kids find forever homes should not come at the expense of your religious beliefs.”

While the overwhelming majority of the community supports the Chabad’s right to build, the Chabad still faces opposition to its efforts to build a permanent home.

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).

Philly foster families appeal court ruling

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Several foster families and a foster agency late yesterday appealed a Philadelphia district court ruling that allows a harmful new City policy to target religious foster care agencies and keep at-risk foster children from loving homes. The appeal in Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia argues that the City violated both Pennsylvania law and the Constitution in its efforts to shut down a religious foster care agency.

In March, the City put out a call for 300 more homes willing to foster some of the 6,000 children currently in the City’s foster system. Yet shortly after, the City abruptly barred Catholic Social Services, one of the City’s best foster agencies, from placing numerous children with foster parents like Sharonell Fulton, who has fostered over 40 kids in the last 25 years, and Cecelia Paul, who has fostered over 100 children. The City’s policy prohibits Catholic Social Services from placing at-risk children in available homes solely because the City disagrees with the foster agency’s religious beliefs about marriage.

“Catholic Social Services has meant so much to me and to the children I’ve loved and cared for,” said Sharonell Fulton, a single mother who has fostered over 40 children through the agency. “I don’t understand why the city is threatening to shut down the agency that has given hope and a family to so many children.” (Read her Op-ed online.)

A hearing last month revealed that the City’s policy is directly motivated by religious hostility, and that high-ranking City officials have criticized Catholic Social Services’ religious beliefs. This discriminatory policy has caused devastating problems for at-risk children. Although Catholic Social Services has dozens of open homes available right now, City officials won’t allow any children to be placed in them because they think the agency’s religious beliefs, which drive its mission to help children, are outdated and need to change.

Catholic Social Services has served Philadelphia for over 100 years, and partnered with the City for the past 50 years, to place children in loving homes. The agency also provides resources, training, and guidance for the foster families it works with. Catholic Social Services does this work because of its religious beliefs.

“Foster children deserve loving homes, and foster parents like Ms. Paul have been waiting with open arms to welcome them,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, which is representing Catholic Social Services and three foster families. “But the trial court allowed the City to continue its harmful policy – a decision we expect to change with this appeal.”

Becket is representing Catholic Social Services, Sharonell Fulton, Cecelia Paul, and Toni Simmons-Busch.

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).

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).

Michigan Governor, Attorney General defend student religious freedom

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Michigan Governor Richard Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette have sided with the student group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in its fight to continue serving its campus community, stating that Michigan universities must respect the rights of religious student groups to choose their own leaders. The announcement comes as a blow to Detroit-based Wayne State University in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University, where the University claims InterVarsity cannot choose leaders who agree with its faith, even though the University lets more than 90 other student groups choose their leaders.  

In March, after being kicked out by Wayne State, InterVarsity sued the University as well as the Michigan Attorney General and Governor to defend its right to remain a part of the campus community it has served for over 75 years. Since the Attorney General and Governor have now acknowledged that state universities may not punish religious student groups for selecting religious leaders, InterVarsity late yesterday dropped its lawsuit against them.  

“This is a great day for religious freedom and free speech in Michigan,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, which represents the student group. “Governor Snyder and Attorney General Schuette have recognized that state universities can’t discriminate against religious student groups. We hope Wayne State will take notice.”  

InterVarsity welcomes all students to join as members and only requires that its leaders agree with its faith. But in late 2017, Wayne State kicked the group off campus, canceled the group’s reserved meetings, and forced it to pay thousands to continue holding Bible studies on campus—all because it disagreed with InterVarsity’s leadership requirement. After the student group filed a lawsuit, represented by Becket, the University let the group back on campus. But the University is now asking the court for the power to keep its old, discriminatory policy. The court is set to decide soon whether Wayne State violated InterVarsity’s rights.  

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. 

Foster families to court: Don’t let ACLU take away kids’ futures

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Shamber Flore, a former foster child, and several foster families were in Michigan court today to fight back against the ACLU’s efforts to shut down the adoption programs that brought their families together (watch Twitter Live statement here). In Dumont v. Lyon, the ACLU is suing the State of Michigan to end its partnerships with religious adoption agencies, threatening the futures of thousands of foster children who desperately need homes. Today’s hearing will decide whether religious adoption agencies can continue doing what they do best: uniting children with loving families. 

Each year 600 youth age out of Michigan’s foster care system, and are more likely to end up in poverty, without an education, and back on the streets. With nearly 13,000 children in Michigan foster care, and not enough families to take them in, the State relies on private agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities, which last year successfully recruited more new adoptive families than nearly 90 percent of the other agencies in its service area. St. Vincent is also particularly good at placing sibling groups, older children, and children with special needs (watch video here). 

“St. Vincent rescues children from the most vulnerable, most disadvantaged backgrounds like mine and gives them a chance to be part of a loving family and have a normal, healthy, happy childhood,” said Shamber Flore, a former foster child who found her adoptive family through St. Vincent. “We can’t let the ACLU take that away.” 

Last year 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, even though St. Vincent cares for children regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, and its beliefs have never prevented a child from being placed in a loving home. In fact, gay couples working with other agencies have been able to adopt children in St. Vincent’s care in the past and the ACLU’s clients live closer to four other foster and adoption agencies that would have helped them adopt. Yet instead of going to one of those agencies they have gone out of their way to try and shut down St. Vincent.  

“ACLU is trying to punish St. Vincent because of its beliefs but the only casualties from its needless lawsuit are the kids,” said Stephanie Barclay, counsel at Becket, which represents the foster families and St. Vincent Catholic Charities. “Shutting down one of the most effective adoption agencies in the city helps no one and instead hurts thousands of vulnerable children.”  

“We couldn’t have adopted without the support of St. Vincent,” said Melissa Buck, a mother of five children with special needs adopted through St. Vincent. “And we continue to rely on vital support services St. Vincent provides to this day. If these programs were shut down, it would be devastating for our family.”  

Becket is defending St. Vincent Catholic Charities, Shamber Flore and Melissa and Chad Buck in this case against the ACLU’s lawsuit. A new website highlights the foster care crisis in Michigan and the harm the ACLU’s lawsuit will cause for thousands of children. A decision is expected by the end of August.  

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. 

Foster families in court to defend agency that brought them together

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Shamber Flore, a former foster child, and several foster families will be in court on Thursday, July 12, to stand up for Michigan’s vulnerable foster children. In Dumont v. Lyon, the ACLU is trying to stop the state of Michigan from working with private religious adoption agencies because they run their programs based on their religious beliefs. At the hearing, the court will decide whether religious adoption agencies can continue doing what they do best: uniting children with loving families (watch video here).

With nearly 13,000 children in Michigan’s foster care system, and not enough families to take them in, the State relies on private agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities to help place foster children in desperate need of homes. Becket is defending St. Vincent Catholic Charities, Shamber Flore, who was adopted as a foster child through St. Vincent in 2005, and Melissa and Chad Buck, parents of five children with special needs adopted through St. Vincent. 

What:
Oral Argument in Dumont v. Lyon 

Who:
Stephanie Barclay, counsel at Becket
Shamber Flore
Melissa Buck 

When:
Thursday, July 12, 2018 at 10:00 a.m. EST 

 Where:
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan
231 W. Lafayette Boulevard, Detroit
Room 737  

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

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.  

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). 

Historic church goes to court to defend right to choose its pastor

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, a historic church founded in the late 1800s and located in one of the City’s poorest communities, will be in federal appellate court next Thursday, July 12, to defend its right to choose its own religious leaders free from government interference. In Lee v. Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, the small African American congregation is facing a $2.6 million lawsuit from its former pastor, Rev. David Lee, who was fired after worship attendance plummeted and church expenses doubled under his leadership. A federal trial court previously rejected Rev. Lee’s lawsuit, protecting the church’s right to choose its own leaders under Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a case Becket won at the Supreme Court in 2012. Rev. Lee appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The appeal will be the first time since Hosanna-Tabor for the Third Circuit to consider the First Amendment right of churches to select their ministers.

What:
Oral Argument in Lee v. Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church

Who:
Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket

When:
Thursday, July 12, 2018 at 9:30 a.m. EST

Where:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
601 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19106

A Becket attorney will be available for comment immediately following the hearing a Twitter Live statement.

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.

New evidence: Philly engaged in discrimination that hurts foster kids

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following a three-day court hearing, Philadelphia-based foster families urged the court last night to end the City’s harmful decision that is currently keeping foster children from loving homes. In Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, the City barred one of the best foster agencies, Catholic Social Services, from placing children with foster families, solely because of the agency’s religious beliefs about marriage. The City’s actions are denying children homes and preventing loving foster parents from caring for kids.

Last week’s hearing revealed that the City’s policy is directly motivated by religious hostility toward Catholics. This discriminatory policy has caused devastating problems for at-risk children. Although Catholic Social Services has 35 open homes available right now, City officials won’t allow any children to be placed in them because they think the agency’s religious beliefs, which drive its mission to help children, are “outdated” and “need to change.” Becket filed a brief last night defending foster children, families, and Catholic Social Services from the City’s religious discrimination. Becket will hold a press call this afternoon to discuss evidence from the three-day hearing and the pending decision.

What:
Press Call in Sharonell Fulton et. al. v. City of Philadelphia 

Who:
Lori Windham, senior attorney at Becket

When:
Friday, June 29, 2018, at 1:00 PM EST

Where:
888-670-9385 | Pin #: 54523

Email questions to media@becketlaw.org

 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).

Supreme Court protects Calif. pregnancy centers’ free speech

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 protecting a pregnancy center’s right to serve women and children according to their religious mission. In National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, the pregnancy centers pushed back against a 2015 California law that targeted pro-life clinics, forcing them to advertise messaging regarding abortion and contraceptive services that undermined their mission.

The following statement can be attributed to Mark Rienzi, president of Becket, a non-profit religious liberty law firm that protects people of all faiths, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting NIFLA:

“The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that both sides of a debate matter, and the government cannot silence one side’s speech just because it may be unpopular. Crisis pregnancy centers like NIFLA serve women and children according to their religious mission, and California should respect that. This ruling proves that when it comes to important issues, the government doesn’t get to tell people what to believe, and it also doesn’t get to tell people what to say about it.”

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 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 here).

Appeals court rules for Texas bishops in privacy dispute

AUSTIN, TEXAS – Late yesterday a federal appeals court suspended a trial judge’s order that would have forced the 23 Roman Catholic bishops in Texas to hand over their emails and other private religious communications to an abortion facility. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops had appealed an Austin-based federal trial court’s order issued Sunday afternoon giving the bishops just 24 hours to hand over private documents they say are protected by the Constitution.

Two years ago, Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion facility chain based in Austin, Texas, sued the State of Texas over a state law requiring abortion facilities to dispose of aborted human remains by burial or cremation, rather than in a landfill. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is not a party to that lawsuit. Nevertheless, earlier this year Whole Woman’s Health sought access to decades of the Catholic bishops’ communications regarding the topic of abortion, including internal communications regarding moral and theological deliberations among the bishops. The move was apparently related to the bishops’ decision to allow free burial of aborted fetal remains in Catholic cemeteries throughout the state. After the federal district court upheld the facilities’ demand for internal emails and documents, the bishops requested emergency protection of their internal religious communications from the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is headquartered in New Orleans. Yesterday that court halted the lower court’s order until it can consider arguments on the important constitutional issues at stake.

“In an age where Facebook watches our every move, privacy is more important than ever,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the bishops. “Government should not have unbounded power to insert itself into the private conversations of any group, much less the leadership of the Catholic Church. Constant surveillance of religious groups is a hallmark of totalitarian societies, not a free people.”

The Fifth Circuit also ordered the parties to submit additional briefs to the court by Monday, June 25. While the bishops have already handed over thousands of communications with outside groups, it would gravely interfere with the functioning of their ministry to have to hand over all their private internal religious deliberations as well.

“In our ministry we stand for the marginalized, the poor, and the vulnerable,” said Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston. “But we cannot act on our faith and religious convictions as effectively if we have to give up our ability to deliberate in private as the price of admission to the public square.”

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is also represented by Steven Levatino of Levatino|Pace PLLC in Austin, 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.

Additional Quotes available for use:

The following may be attributed to Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio: “God calls us to reason together as we work to protect human dignity, and that is what my brother bishops and I must often do in order to carry out our mission of service to both our Church and our communities. We are grateful for the court’s ruling yesterday and hope for a common-sense resolution.”

The following may be attributed to Bishop Edward J. Burns, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas: “The bishops of Texas, and indeed everyone throughout the United States, are gravely concerned about the plight of immigrant children being tossed aside and separated from their mothers at our southern border, yet we are also having to answer to a lawsuit regarding our concerns for aborted children being tossed into a landfill.  From my perspective, the similarities of these stories are striking. It is an outrage to have children taken from their mothers and tossed aside without any real regard for their needs or human dignity. Children are not disposable. We believe that life is sacred from the moment of conception. We also believe that we have a right to discuss in private how to address this issue and uphold the dignity of every human life, and that while upholding the sacredness of life may seem at odds with some people, our religious liberties and religious rights should not be eroded.”

The following may be attributed to Bishop Joe S. Vásquez, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin: “As bishops we have not just a right but a duty to speak out on issues that concern justice, mercy, and a consistent ethic on life. But if we bishops are to speak with one voice, we must be able to deliberate with one another privately to reach a consensus. That is why the court’s protection is so vital for our Church.”

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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,