Charles Haynes

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

During the year-end news rush, many or most media – and The Religion Guy as well – missed a significant development in the ongoing religious liberty wars that will be playing out in 2019 and well beyond. 

 On Dec. 10, Business Leaders in Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Iowa for removing the group’s on-campus recognition on grounds of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This club for business students requires its leaders to uphold traditional Christian beliefs, including that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife.” See local coverage here.

These sorts of disputes across the nation are thought to be a factor in religious citizens’ support for Donald Trump’s surprise election as president. And the Iowa matter is a significant test case because the Trump Department of Justice filed in support of the club Dec. 21, in line with a 2017 religious liberty policy issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

The DoJ’s court brief is a forthright presentation of the argument the Iowa club and other such organizations make for freedom of association, freedom of speech and “free exercise of religion” under the Constitution. Contact: Eric Treene of the Civil Rights Division, 202–514-2228 or eric.treene@usdoj.gov.

More broadly, what does the American nation believe these days regarding religious freedom?

That’s the theme of a related and also neglected story, the Nov. 29 issuance of a new “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” (info and text here). The years-long negotiations on this text were sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute, which evolved from a Georgetown University initiative, and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. 

The Religion Guy finds this document important, although at 5,000 words needlessly repetitive.  In essence, it asserts that freedom of religiously grounded thought, observance and public action, and the equal rights of conscience for non-believers, are fundamental to the American heritage and the well-being of all societies. 

Adopting lingo from federal court rulings, the charter says these freedoms are not absolute. But any “substantial burden” limiting them “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest” and implemented by “the least restrictive” means possible. The charter also endorses the separation of religion and state.

It is remarkable — and discouraging to The Guy — that basic Bill of Rights tenets even need to be reiterated in this dramatic fashion, because that tells us they are too often neglected -- or rejected.  

The charter has won a notably varied list of initial endorsers because it purposely avoids taking stands on the “sometimes bitter debates” over how to apply these principles, in particular clashes between religious traditionalists and the LGBTQ community.

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Monday Mix: Church vs. football, religion in schools, scandalized bishops, His (Islamic) Holiness

Monday Mix: Church vs. football, religion in schools, scandalized bishops, His (Islamic) Holiness

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. "I think we can all thank the Lord for Saturday night services and TiVo." The Tennessee Titans played the Los Angeles Chargers at 8:30 a.m. CDT Sunday in London (they lost a heartbreaker).

In advance of the odd kickoff time, religion writer Holly Meyer of The Tennessean had a timely, interesting feature on the clash between Sunday morning church and football:

While the extra-early Titans game is atypical, it is not uncommon for late Sunday morning worship services to run past the usual noon-or-later kickoffs in the 17-week regular season.

Die-hard, church-going Titans fans devise game-day routines that ensure they can watch their team and worship their God.

2. "(T)here is more student religious expression today in public schools than probably anytime in the last hundred years." For two decades, Charles Haynes has been a go-to source for journalists (including myself) reporting on the intersection of religion and public schools.

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Almost heaven, West Virginia: How to cover dispute over Bible classes in public schools the right way

Almost heaven, West Virginia: How to cover dispute over Bible classes in public schools the right way

Almost heaven, West Virginia ...

I won't say the Washington Post's front-page story today on a lawsuit over a Bible elective in a West Virginia public school district is "almost heaven," but it's pretty good.

Excellent, actually.

Three months ago, I highlighted an Associated Press story on the same federal lawsuit at the heart of the Post's report.

In my earlier post, I said:

I don't have a real problem with The Associated Press' coverage of a religion-related federal lawsuit filed against a West Virginia school district.
I mean, it's a threadbare account — roughly 400 words — but that's typical of AP news these days. At least this one makes an attempt to present both sides.
However, the story does — IMHO — raise more questions than it answers.

After supplying a bit more commentary and explanation, I concluded:

To understand what's really happening in the West Virginia school district — and the constitutionality of it or not — AP or another news organization would need to do much more reporting: Interview students, parents and teachers. Review the curriculum. Talk to church-and-state experts. Study past U.S. Supreme Court decisions on religion in public schools.
Of course, reporting all of the above would require more than 400 words.

Which leads us back to today's Post story, which, by the way, tops 2,000 words.

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Are Bible classes in public schools constitutional? The answer is complicated

Are Bible classes in public schools constitutional? The answer is complicated

I don't have a real problem with The Associated Press' coverage of a religion-related federal lawsuit filed against a West Virginia school district.

I mean, it's a threadbare account — roughly 400 words — but that's typical of AP news these days. At least this one makes an attempt to present both sides. 

However, the story does — IMHO — raise more questions than it answers. I'll elaborate below.

First, though, here's the lede:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — A kindergartner's mother sued her public school system in West Virginia, saying a 75-year practice of putting kids in Bible classes violates the U.S. and state constitutions.
The woman, identified as "Jane Doe" in the federal lawsuit backed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said her child will be forced either to take these weekly classes at her Mercer County elementary school or face ostracism as one of the few children who don't.
"This program advances and endorses one religion, improperly entangles public schools in religious affairs, and violates the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students," the suit said.
The school district said the courses are voluntary electives.

GetReligion readers are, of course, familiar with the agenda of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It's no surprise at all that the organization has an issue with teaching the Bible in public schools.

But does that make the courses unconstitutional? Not necessarily.

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How to stack the deck against Christian teachers expressing their faith at public schools

How to stack the deck against Christian teachers expressing their faith at public schools

"These Christian teachers want to bring Jesus into public schools," declares the clickbait headline on the Washington Post's long, winding profile of the Christian Educators Association International.

Read all 2,400 words, and the Post actually provides quite a bit of firsthand information from the organization itself about its purpose and approach.

But up high, the newspaper seems intent on stacking the deck against the Christian Educators Association and making it clear that these teachers are really, really scary. 

As in: Run for your politically correct lives!

The piece opens with this three-paragraph, 144-word lede featuring the association's executive director:

Finn Laursen believes millions of American children are no longer learning right from wrong, in part because public schools have been stripped of religion. To repair that frayed moral fabric, Laursen and his colleagues want to bring the light of Jesus Christ into public school classrooms across the country — and they are training teachers to do just that.
The Christian Educators Association International, an organization that sees the nation’s public schools as “the largest single mission field in America,” aims to show Christian teachers how to live their faith — and evangelize in public schools — without running afoul of the Constitution’s prohibition on the government establishing or promoting any particular religion.
“We’re not talking about proselytizing. That would be illegal,” said Laursen, the group’s executive director. “But we’re saying you can do a lot of things. . . . It’s a mission field that you fish in differently.”

How does the Post follow up that opening? By doubling down — literally — against the Christian teachers. 

The next seven paragraphs and 288 words explain what's wrong with the organization:

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