Religious Freedom

State Dept. Should Act on Pakistan's Religious Freedom Violations, Watchdog Group Says

U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 as an independent, bipartisan body. Public domain image.

An independent religious freedom watchdog panel has welcomed the State Department’s annual religious freedom report and its list of the world’s worst offenders, which had laid dormant for three years.

The list of “countries of particular concern” had remained unchanged since 2006 — and hasn’t been formally issued by the State Department since 2011 — when Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan were cited.

In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the list be doubled to include Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Vietnam, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Egypt. Turkmenistan was the only new addition to this year’s CPC list, bringing the total to nine countries.

The State Department and the independent USCIRF have often been at odds on who makes the list of worst offenders, and in a statement, USCIRF noted the “disappointing omission” of Pakistan in particular.

“Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as CPCs,” said USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett.

China's Grim Religious Freedom Problem

A man waves a flag in May 1989 at China’s Tiananmen Square. Creative Commons image by Robert Croma

While last month marked the 25th anniversary of China’s silencing freedom in Tiananmen Square, this month China has been cementing this grim legacy — particularly regarding religious freedom.

From repressing Muslims to bulldozing churches and tearing down crosses, Chinese officials have been denying the internationally guaranteed right to believe or not believe. The simple proposition that individuals have the right to live out their beliefs openly and peacefully, without fear or intimidation, clearly frightens Chinese authorities, as evidenced by their repressive persecution of numerous faith communities.

During the just-concluded month of Ramadan, China denied Uighur Muslim students, teachers, professors, and government employees the freedom to fast and fulfill related duties. With Ramadan coinciding this year with the commemoration of the Communist Party’s founding, Chinese authorities used the occasion to identify fasting Muslims, particularly in Xinjiang province. Those defying the ban have been subject to threats, detention, and arrests.

In recent years, officials have shut down religious sites; conducted raids on independent schools, leading to multiple injuries and even deaths; confiscated religious literature; restricted private study of the Quran; monitored the sermons of imams and forced them to undergo political training; restricted Muslim dress and religious expression; banned children from being brought to mosques; and arbitrarily deemed religious gatherings and activities “illegal.”

Rabbi David Saperstein Tapped as First Non-Christian to Serve as U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in Washington, D.C. in 2002.

President Obama on Monday said he plans to tap Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, the first non-Christian to hold the job, which was created in 1998.

As ambassador, the man named as the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine in 2009, will head the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, and will be tasked with monitoring religious freedom abuses around the world.

“When it comes to the work of protecting religious freedom, it is safe to say that David Saperstein represents the gold standard,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, announcing the nomination at the State Department.

A Reform rabbi and lawyer, Saperstein, 66, has led the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for 40 years, and has spent his career in Washington, focusing on social justice and religious freedom issues. He was instrumental in the 1993 passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to show a compelling reason for any action that impinges upon the exercise of religion.

Did Obama Finally Thread the Needle on Gay Rights and Religious Freedom?

President Obama signing an executive order on July 21 against hiring discrimination by federal contractors. Public domain image

One of the toughest political calculations in Washington is balancing competing claims of gay rights with the traditional prerogatives of religious freedom. After a number of setbacks on that front, President Obama may have finally found a small patch of middle ground with Monday’s move to bar federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Obama’s executive order shields gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees from discrimination by companies that do work for the federal government by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to long-standing protections from bias based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Yet Monday’s action also leaves in place a 2002 order signed by President George W. Bush that gives religious groups with federal contracts some leeway by allowing them to use religious beliefs as a criterion in making hiring and firing decisions; as a candidate in 2008 Obama pledged to overturn that exemption.

At the same time, Obama did not expand the exemption to explicitly allow religious groups that receive federal funds to use sexual orientation as grounds for hiring and firing, as some demanded.

What Does the Hobby Lobby Decision Mean?

Supreme Court Building, Orhan Cam /

Supreme Court Building, Orhan Cam /

The Supreme Court on Monday sided with the evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., ruling 5-4 that the arts-and-crafts chain does not have to offer insurance for types of birth control that conflict with company owners’ religious beliefs.

Beyond the specifics of the Hobby Lobby case before them, the justices broke new legal ground by affirming that corporations, not just individual Americans or religious non-profits, may claim religious rights.

Does Monday’s decision mean, however, that the religious beliefs of business owners stand paramount? That they are more important than a female employee’s right to choose from the full array of birth control methods she is promised under the Affordable Care Act? Or that a business owner may invoke his religious rights to deny service to a gay couple?

Not necessarily, legal experts say.


Religious Rights Watchdog Pushes to Add Pakistan, Syria to List of Worst Offenders

Robert P. George, chairman of U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom on Thursday. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe.

One of the nation’s leading — and official — champions of religious freedom implored the Obama administration to add Pakistan and Syria to the list of nations that most egregiously violate religious rights.

Before a congressional subcommittee on Thursday Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said it makes little sense that the roster compiled by the U.S. has barely changed in a decade.

The congressionally chartered commission George heads recently advocated that the State Department add eight nations to the eight already designated as “countries of particular concern.” But among the recommended additions, he singled out Pakistan and Syria for their deteriorating and troublesome records on religious liberty.

Justices May Decide if Photographers can Snub Gay Weddings

Elaine Huguenin, co-owner of Elane Photography in Albuquerque, N.M. Photo courtesy Alliance Defending Freedom. Via RNS.

When Vanessa Willock wanted an Albuquerque photographer to shoot her same-sex commitment ceremony in 2006, she contacted Elane Photography. The response came as a shock: Co-owner Elaine Huguenin said she only worked on “traditional weddings.”

“Are you saying that your company does not offer your photography services to same-sex couples?” Willock asked by e-mail.

“Yes, you are correct in saying we do not photograph same-sex weddings,” Huguenin responded.

Now 7 1/2 years after that e-mail exchange, the Supreme Court is considering whether to referee the dispute.

A Parched Patch of Prejudice

The U.S. Constitution with an American flag. Photo courtesy of Mark Hayes via Shutterstock

Conservative Christians are claiming that their religious freedom requires free rein for legalized discrimination.

That’s a clever argument. It seems to claim the moral high ground, to align itself with basic constitutional principles, and to put bigots in the victim role.

The argument is utter nonsense, of course. Freedom of belief has nothing to do with compelling other people to bow to that belief. If anything, freedom of belief should lead to a broad umbrella of diversity, not a parched patch of prejudice.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, after all, sought to guarantee freedom — of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petitioning the government — not to grant freedom to some and not others, depending on the whims of the powerful or pious.

Religious Liberty vs. Civil Rights: A Balancing Act

A man exits the Supreme Court building with an American flag after its rulings on same-sex marriage. RNS photo: Adelle M. Banks

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer may have ended the latest controversy in her state by vetoing a “religious freedom” bill that threatened gay men and lesbians, but the nation’s legislatures and courts are just getting started.

While religious liberty remains a “core value” in Arizona, Brewer said Wednesday, “so is non-discrimination.” And therein lies the balancing act that’s at the root of several other disputes.

The answer isn’t simple. Congress and the states often carve out exceptions for religious beliefs. The Supreme Court has consistently made room for religious exercise. And unlike race and gender, sexual orientation is not a protected class — yet.

You Brought Me a Beer — and Took My Picture

Mug of beer, Yellowj /

Mug of beer, Yellowj /

My flight home from Phoenix over the weekend got pushed back, so I wound up spending an extra night at an airport hotel. Also, I got an $8 food voucher from the airline. I decided to eat at the hotel.

The restaurant was located on the top floor of the hotel with a nice view of downtown. There was a small bar near the entrance. A handful of hotel visitors were enjoying complimentary drinks and watching the Olympics on a flat-screen television.

I was greeted at the door by Melody, a transplant from Erie, Pa., who doubles as a bartender and a server. When I mentioned that I had a food voucher, she offered condolences for my scrambled travel plans. She also offered me a free beer.

Glass of red ale in hand, I picked a table in a corner of the restaurant, ordered a spinach salad and went back to reading a book about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the long struggle to get the country to live up to its ideal that everyone should be treated as an equal child of God.

I couldn’t help but think about my 10 days in Arizona watching the state legislature debate and ultimately pass a bill that would allow business owners and individuals to refuse service to anyone on grounds of religious freedom. The impetus was a New Mexico case involving a photographer who refused to take photos of a gay couple.

The bill was promoted as a religious liberty issue. Opponents pointed out that it was the definition of discrimination — people would be singled out for unequal treatment.