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.

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.

Supreme Court Building, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

Supreme Court Building, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

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.

 

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.

Richard Wolf 3-21-2014

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.

Tom Ehrich 3-04-2014

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.

Richard Wolf 2-28-2014

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.

Joe Kay 2-24-2014
Mug of beer, Yellowj / Shutterstock.com

Mug of beer, Yellowj / Shutterstock.com

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.

A man holds a gay pride flag in front of the Supreme Court on June 26, 2013. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks.

Gay rights are colliding with religious rights in states like Arizona and Kansas as the national debate over gay marriage morphs into a fight over the dividing line between religious liberty and anti-gay discrimination.

More broadly, the fight mirrors the national debate on whether the religious rights of business owners also extend to their for-profit companies. Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether companies like Hobby Lobby must provide contraceptive services that their owners consider immoral.

The Arizona bill, which is headed to Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk for her signature, would allow people who object to same-sex marriage to use their religious beliefs as a defense in a discrimination lawsuit.

Prabhdeep Suri speaks about his experiences with bullying at the Guru Nanak Foundation of America. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks.

Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, Prabhdeep Suri has been the only Sikh in his class, and it’s been obvious.

Like all Sikh boys, he wore a patka, a head covering for his uncut hair that’s worn out of respect for his gurus. To his classmates, the patka was a license to stare, taunt, isolate, punch, and kick him. It was a target to knock off his head. It was the reason they called him “Osama bin Laden” and “terrorist.”

“He came home crying three days out of five,” his mother, Harpreet Suri remembered. “They were taking his patka off almost every day.”

Judd Birdsall 1-22-2014

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current doctoral candidate at Cambridge University. Photo: Courtesy Judd Birdsall

Barack Obama’s critics allege that the president doesn’t practice what he preaches on international religious freedom policy. Last week they pounced on an apparent gap between presidential rhetoric and reality.

On Thursday, the same day that Obama issued his annual Religious Freedom Day proclamation, Religion News Service published an article highlighting his administration’s failure to quickly nominate a new ambassador at large for religious freedom.

Suzan Johnson Cook resigned in October and a successor has yet to be named. It took the administration well over a year to nominate Johnson Cook in the first place, and then a skeptical Senate took an additional year to confirm her. During her brief tenure Johnson Cook never escaped criticism that she was unqualified for the job.

Even so, Obama used his proclamation to affirm, “America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose.” He promised that his administration “will remain committed to promoting religious freedom.”

RNS photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Suzan Johnson. RNS photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON — It’s been three months since the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned as the State Department’s religious freedom watchdog, and those who decry religious persecution in Syria, Sudan, and elsewhere are wondering how long it’s going to take the White House to name a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Many in the field hope it’s someone with a more diplomatic background than Johnson Cook, a former Clinton administration official and popular Baptist minister whose international experience was mostly acquired on the job.

The other factor: the more than two years it took for the Obama administration to choose Johnson Cook and to get her confirmed by the Senate.

“A continued vacancy will confirm the suspicion that already exists among foreign governments, persecutors, victims and American diplomats that the issue is not a priority,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

The White House has been tight-lipped about the timeline for a decision, as well as about any candidates it may be considering for the position, which Congress created in 1998 to highlight and alleviate religious persecution worldwide.

Here’s a short list of five names swirling around Foggy Bottom, culled from experts who work in the field and were asked who they see as likely to be under consideration, or as particularly qualified for the job.

“Levels of government restrictions on religion” map courtesy of Pew Research Center / Via RNS

Global religious hostilities reached a six-year high in 2012 and affected more people than government curbs on religious freedom, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest report on religious restrictions around the world.

The report, released Tuesday ahead of National Religious Freedom Day on Thursday, shows that 74 percent of the world’s population experienced high levels of social hostility toward religion, up from 52 percent in 2011.

The sharp rise is due to hostilities in China, which for the first time in the survey’s six-year history, scored a “high” level of religious strife. Home to more than 1.3 billion people, China experienced an increase in religion-related terrorism, mob violence and sectarian conflict in 2012.

The greatest levels of social hostilities toward religion were felt in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Somalia, Israel, and Iraq, according to the report.

A Catholic priest converses with an Anglican pastor at Christ the King Anglican Cathedral in Tripoli. Photo: Fredrick Nzwili/RNS

Church leaders in Libya remain hopeful that Christians in the mostly Muslim country will be allowed to practice their faith, even as the country appears to be moving towards Shariah law.

In December, Libya’s General National Congress voted to make Shariah the source of all legislation and institutions. The vote came amid international concerns over the diminishing Christian populations in North Africa and the Middle East, and increased Islamist influence in countries engulfed by the Arab Spring revolution.

Libya has undergone a two-year transition since 2011 when demonstrations toppled Moammar Gadhafi. Before the revolution, Christians were granted religious freedom, but with the change of power, they have been arbitrarily arrested, attacked, killed, and forced by the Islamist groups to convert to Islam.

Rep. Frank Wolf, at the National Day of Prayer on May 2, 2013. Photo: RNS / Adelle M. Banks

Rep. Frank Wolf, one of the loudest and most persistent voices in Congress for the right of people around the globe to practice their religions freely, will not seek an 18th term.

“As a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for justice and reconciliation, and to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Wolf, a Presbyterian, said in a statement Tuesday.

The Republican from Northern Virginia, who will turn 75 in January, said he will work on human rights, religious freedom, and other social issues in his retirement.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz (center left) of Louisville, Ky. RNS photo by David Gibson

After a closed-door session at their annual meeting in Baltimore this month, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued an unusual "special message" reaffirming their long-standing opposition to the Obama administration’s birth control insurance mandate.

On one level, the declaration and the united front were no surprise: The American church hierarchy has made opposition to the mandate a hallmark of its public lobbying efforts, framing the issue as an unprecedented infringement of religious freedom.

Several bishops even vowed to go to jail rather than comply with the mandate. Others threatened to shutter the church’s infrastructure of hospitals, charitable ministries, schools, and universities rather than accept a policy that they say would force Catholic employers to provide health insurance that covers sterilization and perhaps abortion-inducing drugs as well as contraception.

Demonstrators hold signs in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

The Supreme Court struggled Wednesday with a case that asks whether government bodies can open with prayers that some people find overly religious and excluding.

From their lines of questioning, it’s unclear whether the court is ready to write new rules on what sort of prayer falls outside constitutional bounds. And more than one of the justices noted that just before they took their seats, a court officer declared: “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

Few court watchers believe the justices will rule all civic prayers unconstitutional — the nation has a long history of convening legislative bodies with such language.

Rather, the question raised by Town of Greece v. Galloway is how sectarian these prayers can get.

Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson. Photo via RNS

Suzan Johnson Cook, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, will announce this week that she is resigning after 17 months on the job, according to two sources familiar with her office.

President Obama nominated the former Baptist minister to serve as his top adviser on protecting religious freedom around the world. When confirmed by the Senate in April 2011, she became the first woman and the first African-American in the position, which had been held by two people before her.

Obama had been criticized for taking too much time after his own swearing-in to nominate a religious freedom ambassador, a position created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Shaun Casey speaks at the Center for American Progress. Photo via RNS/flickr.

Shaun Casey speaks at the Center for American Progress. Photo via RNS/flickr.

Amid persistent criticism that the U.S. marginalizes religion and religious people in its foreign policy, Secretary of State John Kerry Wednesday tapped ethicist and campaign adviser Shaun Casey to lead the State Department’s new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives.

Casey is a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington and advised President Obama’s campaign and other Democrats on outreach to religious voters.

 
Photo courtesy RNS.

Sudan Church choir sings during a Sunday service at All St. Saints (Anglican) Cathedral Khartoum. Photo courtesy RNS.

Despite a promise by the Sudanese government to grant its minority Christian population religious freedom, church leaders there said they are beset by increased restrictions and hostility in the wake of the South Sudan’s independence.

In 2011, South Sudan, a mostly Christian region, split from the predominantly Muslim and Arab north, in a process strongly supported by the international community and churches in the West.

The two regions had fought a two-decade long civil war that ended in 2005, following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The pact granted the South Sudanese a referendum after a six-year interim period and independence six months later. In the referendum, the people of South Sudan chose separation.

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