Supreme Court upholds official prayer at local government meetings; BJC disappointed in ruling

Supreme Court upholds official prayer at local government meetings; BJC disappointed in ruling

By BJC Staff Reports WASHINGTON — A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that official prayers opening local government meetings may be constitutional, finding them consistent with the historic tradition of chaplain-led prayers before Congress and state legislatures. The 5-4 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway reverses the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and upholds the prayer practice of the Town of Greece, N.Y., despite marked differences between the town’s practice and the one upheld by the Court in Marsh v. Chambers (1983) and practiced in Congress. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, opposing the town’s practice of opening municipal meetings with prayer, saying the practice violates the conscience of those who have to be in attendance to participate in the meeting. The Court, however, found the “ceremonial” prayers at the beginning of a legislative session offered by invited clergy compatible with the Establishment Clause based upon historical precedent. While the 2nd Circuit held the town’s practice unconstitutional because a substantial majority of the prayers contained “uniquely Christian language,” the Supreme Court noted the lack of intentional discrimination against non-Christians and rejected the challengers’ argument that the Marsh decision contains an implicit ban on sectarian references in official prayers, stating that the prayers are not likely to create a constitutional violation “[a]bsent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose.” Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated, “These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion. … Our tradition...
USCIRF pushes for expanding State Dept.’s list of religious freedom violators

USCIRF pushes for expanding State Dept.’s list of religious freedom violators

By Brian Pellot, Religion News Service Secretary of State John Kerry should cite 16 countries for severe violations of religious freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended April 30 in its 15th annual report. The State Department’s “Countries of Particular Concern” list has remained static since 2006, when eight countries — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan — were designated as CPCs. USCIRF, an independent watchdog panel created by Congress to review international religious freedom conditions, criticized the government’s unchanged list of CPCs and sanctions against them, claiming such measures have “provided little incentive for CPC-designated governments to reduce or halt egregious violations of religious freedom.” “The past 10 years have seen a worsening of the already-poor religious freedom environment in Pakistan, a continued dearth of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, backsliding in Vietnam, rising violations in Egypt before and after the Arab Spring, and Syria’s descent into a sectarian civil war with all sides perpetrating egregious religious freedom violations. Yet no new countries have been added to the State Department’s CPC list,” the report states. USCIRF recommended that the CPC list be expanded to include these countries along with Iraq, Nigeria and Tajikistan. USCIRF’s 2013 report made similar recommendations, with the noteworthy addition this year of Syria. “Syria was added for the abuses against religious freedom being committed not just by the Assad regime but by all sides in the terrible civil war those people are suffering through,” USCIRF chair Robert P. George said. “The Syrian crisis has devolved largely into a sectarian conflict,” the report states, citing as evidence the regime’s...
On liberty and justice for all

On liberty and justice for all

By Executive Director J. Brent Walker Religious liberty goes hand-in-hand with the cause of social justice. From colonial days to the present, Baptists, at their best, have fought for both principles. Harvard College and early Baptists had an inauspicious beginning: They didn’t get along at all. Founded in 1636, Harvard was the first institution of higher learning in America. It’s hard to believe that some of its founders were not involved in the General Court of Massachusetts’ edict to banish proto-Baptist Roger Williams in 1635; but if not, surely they agreed with the decision to send him packing. Moreover, after Harvard’s first president — Henry Dunster — developed Baptist sentiments and openly opposed infant baptism, the General Court forced him to resign in 1654. I got a much more hospitable welcome when I participated in the inaugural symposium of the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Initiative on Religious Freedom and Its Implications at Harvard. My two days on campus were absolutely delightful. Along with Sheikh Yasir Qadhi and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, we discussed a wide range of religious liberty issues, including how to facilitate the fulsome tapestry of American religious pluralism. The panel discussion was moderated by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a gracious, winsome and insightful host. Click here for a recap of the event. For my part, I offered the three Rs of civic engagement — rights, responsibility and respect — as a helpful way to think about promoting mutual toleration and a civil public square. We should cherish the rights with which we are blessed by the hand of God. We also must take seriously the...
Army approves ‘humanist’ as religious preference

Army approves ‘humanist’ as religious preference

By Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service More than two years after first making his request, Army Maj. Ray Bradley can now be known as exactly what he is: a humanist in the U.S. military. “I’m able to self-identity the belief system that governs my life, and I’ve never been able to do that before,” said Bradley, who is stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and works on supporting readiness of the Army Reserve’s medical staff. Lt. Col. Sunset R. Belinsky, an Army spokeswoman, said April 22 that the “preference code for humanist” became effective April 12 for all members of the Army. In practical terms, the change means that humanists could face fewer hurdles in trying to organize within the ranks; military brass would have better information to aid in planning a deceased soldier’s funeral; and it could lay the groundwork for eventually adding humanist chaplains. The change comes against a backdrop of persistent claims from atheists and other nonbelievers that the military is dominated by a Christian culture that is often hostile to unbelief. Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, has been pushing for greater recognition of humanists in the armed services; in February, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the Pentagon on Bradley’s behalf. “This is a big victory,” Torpy said, who noted the decision was by the Army and not the other military services. “This is one part, and the easiest part, of a very long list of other reforms that have to happen before we have equality, not just belief or no belief but theistic...
Muslims, others welcome end to NYPD spying unit

Muslims, others welcome end to NYPD spying unit

By Omar Sacirbey, Religion News Service with BJC Staff Reports Muslim and civil rights groups welcomed the news that the New York City Police Department’s Demographics Unit will disband but said they still fear they may be targets of warrantless surveillance. Muslim Advocates filed a lawsuit in 2012 to stop the program, and the group was later joined by the Center for Constitutional Rights. “We need to hear from the mayor and NYPD officials that the policy itself has been ended and that the department will no longer apply mass surveillance or other forms of biased and predatory policing to any faith-based community,” said Ryan Mahoney, president of another Muslim civil rights group, the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The controversial unit was established in 2003 and uncovered by The Associated Press in 2011. Lawyers contend that since the unit’s inception, the NYPD has spied on at least 20 mosques, 14 restaurants, 11 retail stores, two Muslim elementary schools and two Muslim Student Association chapters on college campuses in New Jersey. Forms of monitoring include video surveillance, photographing and community mapping. Lawyers said internal NYPD documents included a list of 28 “ancestries of interest” and policies showing that officers based their spying on the ethnic and religious background of their targets. Former NYPD Police Chief Ray Kelly defended the spying as a critical tool in the battle against terrorism, but critics charged the NYPD violated the constitutional rights of Muslims by profiling them based on their religion and said the program never produced a single lead. In October 2013, the Baptist Joint Committee joined more than...