The Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a Gun

By Matthew Adler, Secular AZ legal intern

In a recent unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that government officials may be sued in a personal capacity for money damages when they violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). This decision was a step towards providing much needed justice to a group of Muslim men who had been victimized by the FBI following 9/11, but it also served to strengthen a highly dubious piece of legislation that is routinely used to circumvent the law. Continue reading

Urgent: final votes imminent on dangerous religious exemptions bill

On short notice, religious exemptions bill HB2648 has been fast-tracked for final votes at the State Legislature today.

Proponents of HB2648 claim that the bill merely protects the right to worship during public emergencies. But the bill is much more extreme.

As written, HB2648 would essentially give any self-proclaimed religious organization — including extremist and fringe organizations — a “get out of jail free” card for nearly any violation of any law at any time. This would particularly jeopardize children, as it would diminish Arizona’s ability to enforce laws shielding them from abuse and other harms within the walls of such organizations.

HB2648 is not only dangerous. It is unnecessary. Current Arizona law  already protects religious freedom, even in times of crisis.

The bill could receive final votes in the Senate any minute. From there, it would go to quickly to the House and then the Governor.

Please join us in contacting our State Senators (again) ASAP.

State budget set to reflect Christian nationalist priorities

Voting resumed at the State Capitol this week after a long deadlock over the state budget.

This was an intense week. The majority party pushed through a budget that was neither discussed with nor vetted with the rest of the Legislature. This included several pieces of contentious Christian nationalist legislation that had previously failed as individual bills.

The bad news

  • The House and Senate approved $1.5 to be sent to the Human Coalition: a corporation that tracks and uses deceptive marketing to push pregnant people into religious limited-service pregnancy centers.
  • An additional $100,000 was also approved to be handed out piecemeal to various other such faux clinics.
  • Both chambers have now approved the anti-LGBTQ sex education bill HB2035, which passed the House on party lines.
  • SB1838 (formerly SB1022) has passed the Senate and will go to the House. This bill adds language to statute defining a fetus as an “unborn child.”
  • Both chambers have approved an amendment to the K-12 budget which prohibits “critical race theory” discussions in classrooms. This bill uses model language introduced in 16 other states to continue the ideologies of white Christian nationalism.
  • Both chambers approved an amendment requiring partisan “Freedom Schools” to write civics education for Arizona students, rather than using the rigorous process required of all other curricula.
  • HB2898 passed the House, with provisions that ban public schools and universities from requiring masks or COVID-19 vaccines.

The cautiously optimistic news

Holdout Representatives Joel John (R-4) and Michelle Udall (R-25) blocked the House majority from passing a big expansion of school vouchers, which send taxpayer money to private and religious schools.

This now puts the House’s version of the budget in opposition to the Senate’s when it comes to the expansion, diminishing its prospects (though not yet fully defeating it).

The good news

The end of session is near. Final votes could happen as soon as next week, closing out a difficult and complex year.

Join our full recap

2021 has seen an unusually high number of issues to follow in Arizona — even for people like us who live and breathe the Legislature.

That’s why we’re preparing a full Legislative recap on July 2nd, 12 PM via Zoom. We’ll fill you in there on our perspective of things happening behind closed doors at the Capitol.

Please join us by RSVPing today, and invite your friends.

Breaking Down Fulton v. Philadelphia

Last week, the US Supreme Court once again ruled in favor of forcing Americans to fund religious organizations — and handed those organizations another special license to discriminate.

Under Fulton v. Philadelphia, the Court ruled that the city could not deny a contract to a Catholic adoption agency due to its policy of turning away prospective LGBTQ+ parents — a policy that conflicted with Philadelphia nondiscrimination ordinance.

What Happened?

Catholic Social Services (CSS) alleged that their rights to Free Speech and Free Exercise were violated by a contract with the City, which stipulated that CSS must not discriminate based on sexual orientation.

No same-sex couple applied for CSS’s foster parent programs leading up to its initial lawsuit. Rather, a news story prompted the City to withdraw the contract after it highlighted CSS’s policy against certifying gay couples.

Initially, lower courts denied CSS relief and ruled that both the contract and ordinance did not single out CSS for discrimination. These courts cited earlier cases for precedent — notably the landmark Employment Division v. Smith, which ruled that states may enforce laws impacting religious exercise so long as they are neutral and  broadly applicable.

In the Fulton case, however, the court said Smith did not apply. Justices decided that Philadelphia’s contact was not “generally applicable” — that it allowed individualized exemptions. Ironically at the heart of this matter was a clause allowing the City Commissioner to use his or her discretion to ignore the non-discrimination rule. The court decided this meant the contract allowed for too much subjective decision-making, and was therefore not generally applicable.

The court also claimed the city’s non-discrimination ordinance did not apply to the contract, since the “services” provided by the agency weren’t being made generally available to the public.

Lasting Impacts

Thankfully, while this ruling was harmful, its scope was mercifully narrow. The court did not consider CSS’s arguments about whether its rights to Free Speech were violated. And the City of Philadelphia may now re-write its next contact with CSS to remove the Commissioner’s discretionary powers — making the contract broad enough to fall under the precedent set in Smith.

So Fulton will not impact cities’ ability to enforce anti-discrimination ordinances overall. The impact of the case will instead remain confined to issues over this particular type of contract.

The problem, however, is that while there are several adoption agencies in metropolitan Philadelphia, there are many places in the US where a religious agency is the only foster parent certification program available. Fulton sets precedent for these organizations to enforce their own anti-LGBTQ+ policies when contracting with governments — paving the way for de facto prohibitions on all same-sex adoptions in these regions.

This case is the Christian nationalist mindset in a nutshell: carving out one special privilege for religious groups after another, regardless the collateral damage to vulnerable people — in this case, kids who will pointlessly languish in the foster system rather than go to a loving home.

Press release on extreme legal immunity bill for religious groups

Secular Coalition for Arizona – www.secularaz.org

Contact: Tory Roberg, Director of Government Affairs – tory@secularaz.org – 623-570-6396

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Extreme legal immunity for religious groups decried by community organizations

(Mon., Mar. 8, 2021) Phoenix, Ariz. — Faith communities, civil liberties organizations, and other community groups today released a joint statement raising the alarm about an Arizona bill that would provide unprecedented legal immunity for religious organizations that violate nearly any criminal or civil law at any time. The statement reads:

As community leaders and advocates committed to the safety of our communities, we are deeply concerned about the incredible danger posed by HB 2648. This bill is disguised as religious liberty legislation protecting the right to worship during public emergencies, yet whether intentionally or unintentionally, the bill as written would give religious organizations immunity from all criminal and civil liability for any behavior connected to that organization’s religious exercise. This means religious schools and organizations could avoid liability for child abuse; religious hospitals could avoid accountability for refusal of services; employees of religious schools and hospitals could lose the right to sue for harassment, discrimination, or criminal behavior; a house of worship could disregard fire codes; religious daycares could refuse to comply with child-protection laws. The list of potential abuses and harms is endless.

Religious freedom is indeed an essential right, and as such, it already has strong federal and state protection, even in a time of crisis — including during our current pandemic. The Arizona Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides that the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings protect worship services during a time of crisis.

HB 2648 goes far beyond the current law to allow religious organizations to directly endanger members of the public and the members of those organizations themselves. We implore our Arizona State Senators to vote down this dangerous bill that jeopardizes the lives and wellbeing of children and other vulnerable people.

The statement was signed by: National Council of Jewish Women AZ (NCJWAZ); Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition (PAFCO); American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona (ACLU of Arizona); Secular Coalition for Arizona (Secular AZ); NARAL Pro Choice America; Equality Arizona (EQ AZ); Desert Star Family Planning; Arizona Center for Women’s Advancement (ACWA); Arizona NOW; American Association of University Women Arizona (AAUWAZ); Affinis Humanity; Arizona Jews For Justice (AJJ).

HB 2648 passed the Arizona House on February 23 with a unanimous Republican majority along with Democrats César Chávez; Diego Espinoza; Alma Hernandez; Aaron Lieberman; Jennifer Longdon; Robert Meza; and Amish Shah. The bill passed the Senate Government Committee today [along party lines].

# # #

Secular Coalition for Arizona (Secular AZ) is a nonprofit advocacy organization that works to ensure a secular state government. We lobby on behalf of all individuals who believe that public policy free of religious preference is the best way to ensure freedom of conscience for Arizonans of all faiths and of none. Secular AZ is the local affiliate of the Secular Coalition for America.

Attachments:

Arizona HB 2648

HB 2648 one page talking points

Christian Nationalism is Coming for You

“[Christian Nationalists’] 20-year court packing scheme has resulted in decisions that imprint Christianity in society as privileged, and they use the court system to create exceptions for them. The recent decisions allowing churches to violate public safety standards and continue spreading Covid is a clear example.  Now our state legislators want to enshrine that favoritism in law with HB2648.  The bill passed the House 38-22 with seven Democrats voting with the Republican majority. Exemptions from the law for “sincerely held religious beliefs” are simply code to be able to discriminate. Religious doctrine said that it was permissible for one people to enslave another, that the races could not intermarry, and that a certain race could not join the church. The court has declined to question these so those called “beliefs.”  Religious freedom to the Christian nationalists means privilege for those with the “right” religion.  To claim they want neutrality is a farce when one sect already has a leg up….

…America is special not because we are a chosen people, but because we did not organize a government based on religion. The countries that are based on religion – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – are notorious for their violations of human rights, violence toward women, and silencing of those who disagree. Christian nationalism fueled the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.  We must not underestimate its danger to our democracy.”

Read the entire op-ed by Secular AZ Legal Director Dianne Post in the March 2, 2021 Arizona Capitol Times.

Does Separation of Church and State Mean Kids Can’t Pray in Public Schools?

Myth: Thanks to separation of church and state, kids can’t pray in public schools.

Some Arizona lawmakers have made headlines claiming that we don’t need to keep guns out of schools; we need to bring more prayer in.  Once again, a legislator has introduced a bill (HB2060) to mandate a quiet reflection and moral reasoning time as a way to stick the camel’s nose under the tent.

But as long as there are algebra tests, there will be prayer in school.  What the U.S. Supreme Court banned in 1962 (Engel v. Vitale)  and 1963 was government-sponsored, compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  Voluntary prayer was never banned but, given the diversity of religions in the U.S. (1,500 to 2,000 estimated), it is a very good idea to prohibit government-sponsored or compulsory prayer.  

Prior to those rulings, Jewish and Muslim kids were required to recite Christian prayers.  Catholics were required to listen to verses from the King James version of the Bible that was written by the Anglican church that ridiculed the beliefs of the Catholics.  The non-religious were required to accept it all.  Parents rights regarding how and in what religion to bring up their children were ignored.

Legitimate Educational Goals v. Coercion and Retaliation

Today, young people can pray and read religious books in a non-disruptive way but no one can be compelled or singled out for refusing to do so.  Kids can set up religious clubs in non-instructional time but they have to be open to all, student run, and voluntary. Religion can be discussed in classes like history, art, literature and others. The Bible and other religious texts can even be read as part of a comparative religion course. As long as the approach has legitimate educational goals, public school officials will not get into trouble for teaching about religion.  This is truly the American way, not coercion and retaliation.  

It’s the Bible, after all, that says in Matthew 6:5-6, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”  Those advocating for public prayer in the school ought to pay attention to their own good books. 

The hysteria about praying in schools is just that, hysteria, or perhaps worse.  It is the shifting of blame from the state legislature’s refusal to regulate guns as the vast majority of Arizonans want to, claiming that the problem is prayer.  It’s the shifting of blame from the state legislature’s depletion of funding for our schools, to blaming our schools’ poor scholastic record on lack of prayer.  Those making these claims would not argue that the Koran should be read in class or the Torah or the Humanist Manifesto.  

In “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law,” 35 religious and civil liberties organizations give the following summary of the rights of students to express their faith in a public school:  Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive.

The Premise and Promise of Democratic Pluralism

Because the Establishment Clause does not apply to purely private speech, students enjoy the right to read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray before tests, and discuss religion with other (willing) student listeners.

In the classroom, students have the right to pray quietly, except when required to be actively engaged in school activities (e.g. students may not decide to pray just as a teacher calls on them).

In informal settings, such as the cafeteria or in the halls, students may pray either audibly or silently, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other speech in these locations.

However, the right to engage in voluntary prayer does not include, for example, the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate. (Student Religious Expression in Public Schools: United States Department of Education Guidelines) 

So first, know the facts: prayer is not excluded, it just cannot be government-sponsored or compelled. 

And second, the rules that apply to one, apply to all.  The Williamsburg Charter that was signed in 1988 by Presidents Carter and Ford, two then-living Chief Justices, and 200 other leaders states in part: 

We affirm that a right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for all. A right for a Protestant is a right for an Eastern Orthodox is a right for a Catholic is a right for a Jew is a right for a Humanist is a right for a Mormon is a right for a Muslim is a right for a Buddhist—and for the followers of any other faith within the wide bounds of the republic. 

That rights are universal and responsibilities mutual is both the premise and the promise of democratic pluralism. The First Amendment, in this sense, is the epitome of public justice and serves as the golden rule for civic life.

Rights are best guarded and responsibilities best exercised when each person and group guards for all others those rights they wish guarded for themselves. 

 

Dianne Post

Legal Director, Secular Communities for Arizona

Does This Communion Come with COVID?

Does This Communion Come with COVID?

by Sophie Carney, Secular Communities for Arizona Legal Intern

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.68 on March 7, 2020 which, in part, placed limitations on the capacity allowances for houses of worship. In the zones of New York most severely affected by COVID-19, houses of worship were to be subjected to a capacity limit of 25% of maximum capacity or 10 people, whichever was fewer.

In moderately affected zones, houses of worship were to be subjected to a capacity limit of 33% of maximum capacity or 25 people, whichever was fewer. The least affected zones were to be subjected to a capacity limit for houses of worship of 50% of maximum capacity. 

In response to this executive order, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York and Agudath Israel of America and its affiliated entities applied for injunctive relief in order to prevent Governor Cuomo from enforcing Executive Order 202.68 while they seek appellate review of the Order.

Their applications were based on the idea that the Executive Order violates the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment holds that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise [of religion] … .” 

Under the law, plaintiffs seeking preliminary injunctions have to prove that they are likely to succeed on the merits, that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tip in their favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest. The Supreme Court held that both the Roman Catholic Diocese and Agudath Israel of America met all of these standards for relief.

To succeed on the merits, the applicants had to make a showing that the restrictions they are challenging are not neutral. The Supreme Court held that the applicants were able to show this through the lack of evidence that they have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 and the admittedly more relaxed rule for other non-religious services that have been deemed “essential.” For example, the order allows certain large retail stores to allow, “literally hundreds of people shopping there on any given day,” while restricting houses of worship to 10 or 25 people.

The Supreme Court voted in the majority that, “[t]here can be no question that the challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm.” The basis for this opinion is that those who want to go to religious services in person will suffer harm that will never be fixed, such as Roman Catholic Diocese patrons’ inability to receive communion and Orthodox Jewish peoples’ inability to meet their requirement for personal attendance. 

Finally, the Court held that the granting of the applicants desired relief will not harm the public. This, according to the Supreme Court, is because the State has not claimed nor shown that the public health would be in jeopardy if less restrictive measures were imposed.

Free Religious Exercise? Not in Question

The dissenting opinions in this case provide a different viewpoint on the matter. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s dissent points out that free religious exercise is an important constitutional right, but it is not being called into question in this case. The Constitution, Sotomayor writes, “does not forbid States from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorable than comparable secular institutions … .”

This is the case for New York Executive Order 202.68, which treats houses of worship far more favorably than their secular counterparts. For example, large gathering places such as movie theaters and concert venues have been forced to shut down completely and places like grocery stores and shopping malls have capacity limits, mask mandates, and even special hours for people who are more likely to suffer from COVID-19. These types of ordinances have been upheld in lower courts across the country and should serve as a precedent for all places that seek to have large gatherings, whether it is a house of worship or not.  

Further, the hypocrisy in applying heightened scrutiny to Cuomo’s Executive Order is illuminated by the Court’s failure to apply heightened scrutiny to clearly religious-based laws such as Donald Trump’s self-described “Muslim Ban” that was designed to thoroughly prohibit Muslim people from entering the United States. If the Executive Order that Cuomo proposed, which does not specify any one religion or even treat houses of worship more harshly than their secular counterparts, is not neutral enough to meet the aforementioned requirement of neutrality to religion to avoid heightened scrutiny, how is it that a Presidential Proclamation singling out the Muslim religion is neutral enough?

Even more, the Supreme Court has refused to enjoin restrictions on churches in places like California and Nevada, so why are they doing so in New York? We place trust in the Supreme Court, in part, because of its consistency in decision-making, but this strays from that standard and calls into question the legitimacy of the Court as a whole. 

There is also, of course, the fact that there actually is a possibility that this preliminary injunction could have a detrimental effect on public health. The Court notes that New York has not claimed that attendance at various religious services has resulted in the spread of the disease. However, there is no way to ensure that allowing houses of worship to operate at their desired capacity will not lead to an increase in the spread except for granting the injunction and hoping for the best. The majority opinion of the Court even admits that they are not public health experts, and that they should defer to scientists who are more educated on the matter, yet they continue to maintain their decision to allow the injunction to be granted.

The Supreme Court of the United States, on November 25, 2020, granted the preliminary injunction to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York and Agudath Israel of America. By granting these injunctions, the state of New York was prohibited from enforcing the restrictions on the applicants’ religious services that were present in Executive Order 202.68.

It is not clear the public health consequences this decision will bring, nor the costs of the Constitutional injustices brought about by allowing powerhouses in the religious world to pick and choose what laws they want to follow rather than adhering to the secular conventions of the Constitution.

 

No, Children Cannot Be Required to Recite the Pledge of Allegiance

Children cannot be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Let the shenanigans begin. Now that the state legislature has started, lawmakers are working hard to figure out ways to impose group think. Representative Fillmore from the far East Valley and Pinal County has introduced HB2060, that would require school children in the first through fourth grade to recite the Pledge every morning. Under current law, they may if they like; his change would require they do so unless their parents write an excuse. 

Today’s pledge is credited to Francis Bellamy in 1892. Bellamy’s version did not include “under God,” though he was a Baptist minister and Christian socialist. The language of the Pledge has been changed several times since Bellamy’s version. In 1923, “my flag” was changed to “the Flag of the United States” so that immigrants knew it meant their new flag, not their old one.  The words “of America” were added in 1924. That new version was recognized by Congress in 1942.  

The words “under God” were not added until 1954 during the Cold War, when the U.S. wanted to differentiate itself from the godless communists.  Several previous attempts to add that wording had failed; it was finally achieved by a joint resolution of Congress.  However, some historians argue that in fact it was not the fear of godless communists that motivated the addition of “under God” but the desire to conflate Christianity and capitalism as a challenge to the New Deal legislation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The “prosperity gospel” of today has certainly conflated Christianity and capitalist excess.  

The pledge was first used in public schools in 1892 in connection with the World’s Fair in Chicago. My friends from other countries are astonished that school children are required to recite such a pledge, as they consider it akin to brainwashing.  Five states do not require the pledge (CA, HA, IA, VT, and WY) and the U.S. Supreme Court has said that schools may not require students to do so.  So Fillmore’s bill is unconstitutional.  However, that has not stopped this legislature in the past.

Over the years, many lawsuits have been brought against mandatory recitation of the Pledge and the wording “under God.”  Jehovah’s Witnesses brought many of the cases because they consider the pledge to be idolatry and against their religion.  In 1943, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court said that public school students cannot be required to say the Pledge and that such ideological dogmata is antithetical to the principles of our country.  

The justice concluded with: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

Other objections have been that for a democratic republic built on freedom of dissent, citizens should not be required to speak, as in reciting a pledge, because it violates the First Amendment.  Secondly, children who are forced to recite the Pledge are not of an age that they can consent to the speaking. Third, the addition of “under God” in 1954 violates the First Amendment protection against the establishment of religion.  

In 2005, a CA court ruled that forcing children to say “under God” was an endorsement of monotheism that violated the First Amendment.  In 2006, a FL court ruled that requiring students to stand and pledge violated both the First and Fourteenth amendments.  In that case, the student had been ridiculed by the teacher. In 2009, a mother in Maryland sued and won when a teacher berated her child and had her removed from class for refusing to say the Pledge. Should the existence of actual facts come back into fashion, neither the Pledge of Allegiance nor the saying “under God” had any connection with the founding of the nation. 

• • •

Dianne Post, Legal Director

Secular Communities for AZ

No Religious Test for Public Office

No Religious Test for Public Office

Today’s political campaigns, from president on down, often include references to the religion of the candidate and how pious the candidate is. This should not be a political bellwether.

The only mention of religion in the body of the Constitution of the United States is in Article VI, which states: 

3: The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. 

The founders made it clear: no official religion or government support for any particular religion; no religious test for office; and anyone can practice any religion they want… or none at all. An oath is not required, an affirmation will do. When Senator Sinema was sworn in, her left hand rested on the Constitution, emphasizing that her duty is to the law and the Constitution not a Bible.

No Official Religion: It’s Constitutional

Many of us have forgotten this provision that was written into the Constitution itself. At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, most of the colonies still had religious establishments or religious tests for office. It was unimaginable to many Americans then that non-Protestants — Catholics, Jews, atheists, Muslims and others — could be trusted with public office. But surprisingly it was Charles Pinckney from South Carolina who proposed the provision, though South Carolina had a state religion at that time. This thinking represented the new spirit of religious liberty exemplified in the Enlightenment thinking of Jefferson. It passed with little dissent. 

It still took until 1961 for Maryland to abolish the last religious test. Torcaso was appointed to the office of Notary Public by the Governor but was refused the commission because he would not declare his belief in God.  He sued and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 81 S. Ct. 1680, 6 L. Ed. 2d 982 (1961).  

As the Supreme Court pointed out:  

It is true that there is much historical precedent for such laws. Indeed, it was largely to escape religious test oaths and declarations that a great many of the early colonists left Europe and came here hoping to worship in their own way. It soon developed, however, that many of those who had fled to escape religious test oaths turned out to be perfectly willing, when they had the power to do so, to force dissenters from their faith to take test oaths in conformity with that faith.

This brought on a host of laws in the New Colonies imposing burdens and disabilities of various kinds upon varied beliefs depending largely upon what group happened to be politically strong enough to legislate in favor of its own beliefs. The effect of all this was the formal or practical ‘establishment’ of particular religious faiths in most of the Colonies, with consequent burdens imposed on the free exercise of the faiths of nonfavored believers.3

The Kind of “Faith” We Need

Still today, we see those who are in a position of power ready and willing to burden those from another faith or no faith, even to the extent of refusing to wear a mask and possibly infecting them with a deadly disease. But the Torcaso court kept to the founding father’s principles and said, “We renew our conviction that we have staked the very existence of our country on the faith that complete separation between the state and religion is best for the state and best for religion.”  

That is the kind of “faith” we need.  

Until the nomination of Al Smith in 1928, all presidential and vice-presidential candidates nominated by the two parties were Protestants. In 1960, the election of John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, broke the informal political barrier that had long excluded non-Protestants from the presidency.

Churches didn’t just fight against each other: they fought within their own religion.  Today, politicians fight to declare who is the most sincerely “born again.”  The Deist religious convictions of Thomas Jefferson — based on reason, rather than revelation —were attacked, as was Romney, a Mormon, when he ran for president.  

In Arizona, Article II section 12 of the State Constitution provides:

12. Liberty of conscience; appropriations for religious purposes prohibited; religious freedom 

Section 12. The liberty of conscience secured by the provisions of this constitution shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state. No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment. No religious qualification shall be required for any public office  or employment, nor shall any person be incompetent as a witness or juror in consequence of his opinion on matters of religion, nor be questioned touching his religious belief in any court of justice to affect the weight of his testimony. 

The Arizona Constitution protects not only public office holders from any religious test, but also witnesses and jurors. In Kelley v. ADBO, M.D., 2005, the decision was reversed because of prejudicial cross examination about the plaintiff’s belief in Wicca, which the court found was not necessary for any valid purpose in a Mormon community except to be prejudicial.

So Arizona, too, has made it clear that a religious test may not be imposed in the public square to bar anyone from their duties or responsibilities.  Unfortunately, our current state leaders honor the Constitution in the breach by posting religious messages on government communication sites and refusing to adhere to health and science requirements in a pandemic.

We need each of you to step up and report such violations so action can be taken.

Dianne Post

1/4/2021

Dianne Post: Update

Earlier, I reported on the pages of Black Collar crime from FFRF; one of the cases reported in that edition was two Amish brothers who had impregnated their 13-year-old sister.  They were given a 15-year-suspended sentence with 5-years probation, community service, and have no contact with the victim. 

Within 3 days, they had violated the document they both just signed. So they were sent to prison.  How arrogant must you be to risk 15 years in prison?

I also mentioned the 93,000 men who had filed claims in the Boy Scout bankruptcy. All BSA units are owned and operated by chartered organizations and 65% of them are chartered to faith-based groups.

The Mormons lead the pack with 37,933 units and 437,160 members and withdrew from scouting in 2019; the United Methodist Church was a distance second with 10,703 units and 349,614 members; and the Catholic Church third with 8,131 units and 259,297 members.  

Are Mormons Christians? The Question and its Implications

Are Mormons Christians?  The Question and its Implications

by Matthew Adler, Secular Communities for Arizona Legal Intern

In a recent Arizona appellate case, the court was confronted with the age-old question of whether Mormons can be considered Christians.  The lower court had declared unequivocally “that Mormonism does not fall within the confines of Christian faith.”  The appellate court, however, cried foul and vacated the judgement. 

In so ruling, the court held that to address such a question would violate the little-known but long-established judicial rule known as the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”  This doctrine, which has its genesis in an 1871 Supreme Court case, essentially states that courts may not adjudicate issues that require the resolution of theological questions. For most of its history, this doctrine has been relatively uncontroversial.  Recently, though, some courts around the country have expanded the doctrine in ways that endanger the public’s access to justice.

The vast majority of the applications of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine have been to issues that fall squarely within the realm of religious dogma. As such, the doctrine has not historically been the subject of much public debate or scrutiny. One example of a typical application of this doctrine is whether a church can fire a priest for the alleged violation of some specific religious tenet. Were the priest to sue for wrongful termination, the court would likely dismiss the case on the grounds that the court is both ill-equipped to and prohibited by the free exercise clause of the first amendment from addressing such a question. Recently, however, certain courts have weaponized this doctrine in order to dismiss cases that do not actually have anything to do with religion.

Take, for example, a recent case in Texas in which a student was expelled from a religiously affiliated school merely because he was alleged to have smoked marijuana off-campus, despite the fact that he tested negative for the drug and that the school has a lenient first-offense policy enshrined in its code of conduct. When the parents sued, both the trial and appellate courts refused to even consider the case, citing as justification the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. 

This rationale is highly dubious for a few reasons.First, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not prohibit courts from issuing rulings that affect religious institutions.It only prohibits rulings that explicitly address questions of theology.For example, if a church were to get into a contractual dispute with its electricity provider, the court could and would hear the case because it does not touch on any religious issues.

Likewise, in the Texas case, the issues were whether it could be shown that the student smoked marijuana in the first place and whether the expulsion violated the school’s own disciplinary policy. The issue was emphatically not whether the Christian faith condones the use of marijuana. 

Additionally, the school in question is not even a religious institution. It is neither owned nor operated by a church; it merely self-identifies as religiously affiliated. In applying the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine to a secular organization, the court charted a stark departure from judicial precedent. The school was able to avoid even the possibility of liability by merely invoking “religion,” despite the fact that the issues presented by the case were not of a religious nature. This case seems to be yet more evidence of the growing trend of judicial deferment to religious institutions in contexts that deal fundamentally with a person’s civil rights.

Thankfully, the Arizona case discussed in the first paragraph of this post does not present the same problems as the Texas case. The Arizona appellate court was prudent in its application of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, as the question of whether Mormons are Christians is a genuine theological dispute that is still the subject of vociferous debate. The court would be unable to resolve such a question, and any attempt to do so would be extraordinarily damaging to the court’s status of impartiality and would be a clear violation of the first amendment.

The ruling does, however, raise a few interesting hypotheticals. I am by no means an expert on religion, but Mormonism and Christianity seem highly intertwined, considering that Jesus Christ is a central figure of both faiths. One would assume that if the court had instead been presented with the question of whether or not Islam could be considered a form of Christianity, the court would not have hesitated to rule on the matter. But what if the father had instead converted to the Native American Church, in which the Great Spirit is often held to be synonymous with Jesus Christ, and in which the ritual use of Peyote is an integral practice of the faith.

In such a hypothetical scenario, would the court rule that exposing the child to such religious practice violates the parenting agreement, or would the court still have applied the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine?  Luckily for the court, it was not presented with such a thorny question.

Although the recent Arizona case was not problematic, it does serve to draw our attention to related issues that do seem to pose a genuine threat to the religiously neutral administration of justice.

 

Matthew Adler

Secular Communities for Arizona Legal Intern