Thursday, October 30, 2014

Catholic Hospital's Disability Plan Does Not Qualify As A "Church Plan" Exempt From ERISA

In Hanshaw v. Life Insurance Company of North America, (WD KY, Oct. 24, 2014), a Kentucky federal district court held that a long term disability insurance plan offered to its employees by a Catholic hospital is covered by ERISA and does not qualify as an exempt "church plan." The court held that even if it is sufficient to qualify for an exemption that a plan is established and maintained by an organization affiliated with a church rather than by the church itself, ERISA also requires that the organization have as its principal purpose the administration or funding of a benefits plan.  Here the hospital's primary purpose is the provision of health care, not the administration of a benefits plan. Since the plan is covered by ERISA, the court upheld defendant's removal of the case to federal court.

New York's Top Court OKs Marriage With Half-Niece

In Nguyen v. Holder, (NY Ct. App., Oct. 28, 2014), the New York Court of Appeals-- the state's highest court--  answering a question certified to it by the Second Circuit, held that a marriage between a man and his half-niece (i.e. between a woman and her mother's half-brother) is not void as incestuous under the state's Domestic Relations Law. The issue arose in an immigration proceeding involving a woman who claimed permanent residency status by reason of her marriage to an American citizen.  New York Post reports on the decision. [Thanks to Alliance Alert for the lead.]

Signatures Sought For Mississippi Amendment Affirming State's Christian and Southern Heritage

After its filing was approved earlier this month by the Mississippi Secretary of State, the Magnolia State Heritage Campaign is seeking to obtain the 107,000 signatures needed to place Initiative 46, the Mississippi Heritage amendment (full text), on the 2016 ballot. Among the provisions in the lengthy proposed state constitutional amendment is the following:
The State of Mississippi hereby acknowledges the fact of her identity as a principally Christian and quintessentially Southern state, in terms of the majority of her population, character, culture, history, and heritage, from 1817 to the present; accordingly, the Holy Bible is acknowledged as a foremost source of her founding principles, inspiration, and virtues; and, accordingly, prayer is acknowledged as a respected, meaningful, and valuable custom of her citizens. The acknowledgments hereby secured shall not be construed to transgress either the national or the state Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
Hotty Toddy yesterday reported on the Initiative.

Buddhist Group Presses Burma Parliament To Restrict Interfaith Marriage

According to a report yesterday from The Irrawaddy, in Burma the influential Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (known as  Ma Ba Tha) is organizing demonstrations calling for passage of the Interfaith Marriage Bill that the Buddhist nationalist organization first proposed last year.  Prompted by concerns over Buddhist women marrying Muslim men, the bill would require Buddhist women to obtain permission from their parents and government authorities before marrying a man of another faith.  It would also require the man to convert to Buddhism. The bill is strongly opposed by women's rights and other civil society organizations.

Houston Withdraws Controversial Subpoenas Issued To Pastors

Houston (TX) Mayor Annnise Parker announced yesterday the complete withdrawal of subpoenas the city had issued to 5 pastors seeking information about their support of a petition drive to obtain a referendum on the city's recently enacted Equal Rights Ordinance. (See prior posting.) According to Click2 Houston, while announcing withdrawal of the subpoenas, the mayor said that the city will continue to defend the ordinance against repeal efforts.  The mayor's decision comes one day after pastors from across the country came to Houston to protest, and people across the country mailed more than 1000 Bibles to the mayor as a protest.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Preliminary Injunction Issued Against Latest Religious Non-Profit ACA Contraceptive Compromise

Yesterday a Florida federal district court handed down the first judicial decision on the Obama Administration's August 2014 Interim Final Rules that attempted to create a more acceptable compromise for religious non-profits subject to the Affordable Care Act contraceptive coverage mandate.  In Ave Maria University v. Burwell, (MD FL, Oct. 28, 2014), the court granted a preliminary injunction against enforcing the new rules against a religiously affiliated university.  The court relied heavily on the 11th Circuit's decision in late June granting an injunction pending appeal to Eternal Word Television Network, a religious broadcasting network that was challenging the prior version of the regulations accommodating religious non-profits. (See prior posting.) Explaining this reliance, the district court yesterday said:
In Eternal Word, under the 2013 Final Rules, an eligible organization was required to submit the Form 700 to its insurance issuer in order to self-certify....  Here, pursuant to the Interim Final Rules, Ave Maria may, instead, send a notice containing certain information about its insurance issuer and plan directly to HHS in order to self-certify. It is the Court’s conclusion that this distinction is not so significant as to warrant departure from the Eleventh Circuit’s precedent in Eternal Word
The court then stayed further proceedings in the case until the 11th Circuit decides the pending appeal in Eternal Word. Naples Daily News reports on the decision.

Halloween Not For Muslims Says Malaysian Fatwa Council

In Malaysia yesterday, the National Fatwa Council released a ruling on its website categorizing Halloween as a Christian holiday that celebrates the dead.   According to Malay Mail Online, the fatwa said in part:
The Halloween celebration is clearly against the values of Shariah.  It cannot be celebrated by Muslims. To remember those who have passed away, Islam suggests the practices of reciting doa (prayers) and Quran.

Cuba Approves First New Catholic Church Building In 55 Years

Construction of the first Catholic Church to be built in Cuba in 55 years has been approved by the Cuban government, according to yesterday's Latin America News Dispatch.  The new church will be built in Sandino, a town on Cuba's west coast, and will be financed by the Cuban exile community in Tampa, Florida.

New Mexico Court Upholds Furnishing Instructional Materials To Private and Religious Schools

In Moses v. Skandera, (NM App., Oct. 26, 2014), a New Mexico appellate court upheld New Mexico's Instructional Materials Law which provides for the state purchase of books and instructional materials for students in public and private schools, including religious schools.  The court rejected claims that the law violated various provisions of the New Mexico Constitution, including Art. XII, Sec. 3 which prohibits funds appropriated for educational purposes from being used to support any sectarian, denominational or private school. Becket Fund, in a press release, called the decision "a blow to anti-religious Blaine Amendments found in many State constitutions."  AP reports on the decision.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Kazakhstan Court Upholds Elementary School's Ban On Muslim Headscarf For 6-Year Old

In the central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan, where 70% of the population is Muslim, a court has upheld a school's refusal to allow a 6-year old girl to wear a headscarf that her family believes is religiously required.  According to Tengri News yesterday, the Burlin District Court of West Kazakhstan Oblast rejected claims by the girl's father that she was being denied her constitutionally protected right to education on the basis of religion. The father believes that Sharia law requires Muslim women to cover their head, regardless of their age.

Israeli Cult Leader Sentenced To 30 Years In Prison

The Jerusalem Post reports that yesterday an Israeli 3-judge court sentenced 64-year old cult leader Goel Ratzon to 30 years in prison. Before his arrest in 2010, Ratzon had 21 wives and over 40 children who had been part of his cult for 39 years.  He was convicted of sex crimes and financial fraud for his long pattern of requiring his wives to hand over their money to him, tattoo his name and image on their bodies, cut off ties with family and fulfill his demands, including sexual ones. He was acquitted of the charge of "spiritual enslavement."

Pope Francis Affirms Consistency of Bible With Evolutionary Theory

As reported by Vatican Radio, Pope Francis yesterday delivered an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, dedicating a bust of his predecessor Benedict XVI in the Academy building. His address (full text) affirmed the consistency of the Biblical account of creation and modern science's understanding of evolution.  He said in part:
When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However, it was not like that. He created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time that He assured them of his continual presence, giving being to every reality. And thus creation went forward for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today, in fact because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities. The beginning of the world was not the work of chaos, which owes its origin to another, but it derives directly from a Supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big-Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it. The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

Today Is 5th Anniversary of Expanded Hate Crimes Law

Today is the 5th anniversary of the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Pre­ven­tion Act (Pub. L. 111-84).  The important legislation was enacted essentially as a rider to the lengthy 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. (See prior posting.)  In a blog post earlier this month, the ADL reviews the history of the law and the present state of hate crimes enforcement.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Today Is International Religious Freedom Day

In a press release issued today, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reminds us that today is International Religious Freedom Day, marking the 16th anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).

Westboro Baptist Church Seeks To Intervene In Kansas Same-Sex Marriage Case

As reported by the Washington Blade, yesterday the virulently anti-gay Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church filed a motion (full text) to intervene as a defendant in Marie v. Moser, a Kansas federal court lawsuit challenging Kansas' ban on same-sex marriages. In its 26-page motion filled with religious references and quotations, the church argues:
WBC desires to assert that it is constitutional folly to suggest that a sinful-behavior-based union should be a union that is afforded civil rights and granted the imprimatur of respectability by a license from the government; and that in doing so the government violates its duty of religious neutrality; and puts itself in the position of imposing sin on the citizens, to the great detriment and harm of the health and welfare of the citizenry....
The Kansas Attorney General is unable to adequately represent WBC because to do so would cause the Attorney General to assert religious viewpoints and constitutionally protected religious rights, which is arguably contrary to the duty of the government to remain neutral on matters of religion, and would constitute a breach of the separation of church and state doctrine.

City Now Says Ministers' For-Profit Wedding Chapel Need Not Perform Same-Sex Marriages

In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the Hitching Post, a for-profit wedding chapel across the street from the county clerk's office now seems in the clear to refuse to perform same-sex marriages.  Earlier this month, the ministers filed suit against the city which had threatened to enforce its non-discrimination ordinance against the chapel. (See prior posting.) However now, as reported Friday by Boise State Public Radio, the city attorney says that the chapel is exempt, even though it is a for-profit entity.   Last month it reorganized as a limited liability company and provided in its operating agreement: "The Hitching Post is a religious corporation owned solely by ordained ministers of the Christian religion who operate this entity as an extension of their sincerely held religious beliefs and in accordance with their vows taken as Christian ministers."

On Friday, the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations sent a statement (full text) to Couer d'Alene officials agreeing that the chapel is exempt:
When they are performing a religious activity like marrying people, ministers have the right to choose which marriages they will solemnize. That's why we don't think the public accommodation law applies to ministers making choices about performing marriages. So, if the only service offered is a religious wedding ceremony performed by a minister, then the law would not apply. But that reasonable exception doesn't change the general rule that businesses that open their doors to the public to provide services, including services related to weddings, cannot turn people away just because of who they are.

Recent Articles of Interest

From SSRN:
From SSRN (Hobby Lobby case):
From SmartCILP:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Feds Will Recognize Same-Sex Marriages From 6 More States

In an announcement published yesterday, the Department of Justice said that the federal government in administering a range of federal benefits will now recognize same-sex married couples in six new states: Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming.  This follows the Supreme Court's refusal to hear appeals in any pending cases involving same-sex marriage.  The action brings federal recognition of same-sex marriages to 32 states and the District of Columbia. The Attorney General has also determined that the federal government will recognize same-sex marriages performed in June in Indiana and Wisconsin. The legal posture of challenges created questions about the validity of those marriages which were performed quickly after district court decisions.

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In Blalock v. Jacobsen, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 148746 (SD NY, Oct. 29, 2014), a New York federal district court dismissed a Muslim inmate's complaint that he was twice unable to attend religious services while awaiting a disciplinary hearing, and that on two occasions he was required to wear his pants longer than allowed by Muslim law.

In Nible v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 148898 (ED CA, Oct. 17, 2014), a California federal magistrate judge dismissed complaints of an inmate who is an Asatru/Odinic practitioner that he was denied use of outdoor grounds, chapel time equal to others, and was denied drinking horns and other items needed for religious rituals and study.

In Weatherspoon v. Sparkman, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149413 (ND MS, Oct. 20, 2014), a Mississippi federal district court dismissed a Muslim inmate's complaint that inadequate timely facilities were provided in his unit for weekly Jumu'ah services. Prison authorities had offered to transfer plaintiff to a different unit where services are available at the required times, but plaintiff refused.

In Hodges v. Sharon, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150089 (ED CA, Oct. 22, 2014), a California federal magistrate judge recommended dismissing a claim for damages under RLUIPA brought by a Messianic Jewish inmate who complained about various restrictions on his ability to practice his religion. He was allowed to proceed with his attempt to obtain an injunction.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Suit Challenges Refusal To Approve Atheist To Perform Marriages

MPR News reports on a lawsuit filed last month in a Minnesota state court by an organization of atheists challenging Washington County, Minnesota's refusal to grant official certification to perform marriage ceremonies to a member who was granted a credential to perform marriages by Atheists for Human Rights. Three other counties have accepted the credential, but Washington County says it does not meet the statutory standard of being issued by a religious organization. Plaintiffs say this refusal violates the Establishment Clause as well as their free expression and equal protection rights. Atheists for Human Rights says that the alternative is obtaining online ordination in a phony religion. A bill to specifically permit atheist groups to perform weddings has been introduced in the state legislature, but has not yet passed.

Man Destroys Oklahoma Capitol Ten Commandments, Saying Satan Told Him To Do It

Yesterday the Oklahoma Highway Patrol took into custody a man who Thursday night ran his automobile into the Ten Commandments monument on the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds. The monument was broken into pieces. According to NewsOK, Michael Tate Reed, Jr. told authorities that Satan had directed him to urinate on the monument and destroy it. Reed was taken to a mental health facility for an emergency order of detention and an evaluation.  Last month, a state trial court dismissed an Establishment Clause challenge to the monument (see prior posting), and on Thursday the ACLU had filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court.  Commenting on Thursday's destruction of the monument, the Oklahoma ACLU executive director said: "Whether it is politicians using religion as a political tool or vandals desecrating religious symbols, neither are living up to the full promise of our founding documents." Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said she would help raise private funds to repair the monument. And a spokesman for a New York based Satanic Temple that had applied to add its own monument to the Oklahoma Capitol grounds (see prior posting) said: "If our monument stands at the state Capitol, we want it to complement and contrast the (Ten) Commandments, with both standing unmolested as a testament to American religious freedom and tolerance."

Friday, October 24, 2014

6th Circuit Grants En Banc Rehearing To Christian Evangelists Who Preached At Arab Festival

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has voted to grant an en banc rehearing in Bible Believers v. Wayne County, (reh. granted Oct. 23, 2014). In the case, the 3-judge panel in a 2-1 decision, affirmed the district court's dismissal of civil rights claims by Christian evangelists who engaged in aggressive preaching at the 2012 Arab International Festival in Dearborn, Michigan. Police insisted that they leave when the crowd turned hostile. (See prior posting.) Volokh Conspiracy has more on the case.

Court Rules In Kiryas Joel Voting Inspector Challenge

Photo News and Failed Messiah report on a New York state trial court decision handed down this week in Convers v. County of Orange, (Dutchess Cty. Sup. Ct., Oct. 21, 2014) (Docket). The case grows out of ongoing friction between the largely Satmar Hasidic Jewish village of Kiryas Joel and residents of the surrounding town of Monroe. Apparently after the citizens' group United Monroe complained that voters at polling places in Kiryas Joel were being bullied into voting for candidates supported by the Kiryas Joel Satmar Rebbe (the village's religious leader), the Board of Elections approved six outside voting inspectors.  However, five days before the Sept. 4 primary, the appointment of the voting inspectors was rescinded without formal explanation, and the would-be inspectors sued. The Board has variously cited cultural differences, or failure to obtain approval of the Republican voting commissioner, as the basis for the inspectors' removal.  Justice Maria Rosa this week ruled that the inspectors' removal was arbitrary and capricious, and they should be reappointed. However she did not require that they be assigned to Kiryas Joel. Justice Rosa did rule that inspectors could not be assigned on the basis of religion. Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus reacted saying that if outside inspectors are to be appointed, it should be done county-wide, rather than targeting Kiryas Joel.

Schools' Religious-Themed Snow Plow Decorations Rejected By City

For the last 5 years, the city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota has sponsored a "Paint the Plows" program.  Each participating public or private school is loaned a city snow plow and students use their artistic abilities to decorate the large plow blade.  Yesterday's Sioux Falls Argus Leader, however, reported that this year the designs painted on plow blades by two Lutheran schools brought complaints from a board member of the Siouxland Freethinkers. High school students painted their blade red and inscribed it in large white letters with the words "Jesus Christ."  The elementary and middle school painted its plow blade with the words "Happy birthday Jesus."  (Similar religious expressions were used last year without complaint.) After receiving this year's complaints, the city talked with the schools about creating a different design. At least the high school has decided to just let the city paint over the plow blade.

UPDATE: The Oct. 28 Argus Leader reports that Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether says that the city will not paint over the religious themed snow plow blades unless a court case says that it must, while city attorney David Pfeifle is taking a more nuanced approach, saying: "Our goal is to not paint them over, And we're exploring every option."

Suit Says Schools Promoted Christian Activities

The American Humanist Association and several parents of school children filed suit this week against the Douglas County, Colorado school district and its officials over the schools' alleged endorsement of Christian religious organizations.  The complaint (full text) in  American Humanist Association, Inc. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, (D CO, filed 10/22/2014), contends that by extensively promoting Operation Christmas Child and two mission trips, the school district has violated the Establishment Clause and the Equal Access Act.  Huffington Post reports on the lawsuit.

Settlement Reached In School's Ban of Religious Valentines

Alliance Defending Freedom this week announced a settlement leading to a voluntary dismissal in J.S. v. Nazareth Area School District, (ED PA, Oct. 22, 2014). The suit challenged a Pennsylvania elementary school's refusal to allow a student to hand out Valentine cards containing a religious message. (See prior posting.) In the settlement, the school district has removed language from its policies that prohibited student expression seeking to establish the supremacy of a particular religious view or denomination. The Morning Call reporting on the settlement quotes a school board attorney who says that even under the revised policy the particular Valentine message at issue here may have not been permitted because its discussion of St. Valentine's martyrdom may have been too adult a topic.