It’s that time of year when people are compiling lists. So let’s look at the Top Ten Church-State Stories of 2013.
1. Greece, N.Y., prayer case argued before U.S. Supreme Court: An Americans United-sponsored lawsuit challenging legislative prayer in the city of Greece, N.Y., reached the Supreme Court.
The suit, Town of Greece v. Galloway, challenges the use of almost-exclusively Christian prayers before meetings of the Greece Town Board. AU’s plaintiffs, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, who are Jewish and atheist respectively, said the practice makes them feel like second-class citizens.
A decision in the case could have far-reaching consequences for the separation of church and state. The case was argued in December, and a ruling is expected by the end of June.
2. The Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriage: In June, the Supreme Court ruled on two cases concerning same-sex marriage. The decisions in U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry had the effect of advancing the legality of same-sex marriage and led some observers to conclude that it’s only a matter of time before the practice is legal nationwide. Indeed, in the wake of those rulings, several lower courts have issued decisions favorable to same-sex marriage in other contexts, most recently in Utah.
Religious Right groups and the Roman Catholic bishops reacted with anger and dismay to the rulings and vowed to oppose them.
3. Contraceptive lawsuits advance in the courts: Opponents of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate filed a slew of lawsuits, asserting that the provision violates their religious liberty rights. Federal courts handed down conflicting rulings on the matter, and the Supreme Court has announced that it will hear two cases brought by the owners of secular corporations who oppose the mandate. In the meantime, courts are beginning to issue rulings in cases brought by religiously affiliated organizations such as religiously affiliated colleges.
The spate of legal cases astounded some advocates of church-state separation and women’s rights, who assumed that access to contraceptives was a long-settled issue in the United States.
4. Religious Right-backed candidates lose in Virginia: A slate of candidates backed by the Religious Right was defeated in Virginia’s statewide elections in November. Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican closely aligned with the Religious Right, lost the governor’s race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
The GOP’s lieutenant governor candidate, E.W. Jackson, was also defeated. Jackson, a former staff member for TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, lost to Democrat Ralph Northam by 10 points. Jackson, who often appears at Religious Right meetings, made several controversial statements during the campaign. He asserted that non-Christians “are engaged in some sort of false religion,” and he was criticized for earlier comments calling gay people “sick” and accusing President Barack Obama of “Muslim sympathies.”
In the attorney general’s race, Democrat Mark R. Herring defeated conservative Mark D. Obenshain in a tight race that was not settled until absentee ballots were counted.
5. Anti-evolution efforts fail in Texas and other states. Attempts by creationists to water down the teaching of evolution in public school science classes failed in Texas, and anti-evolution bills collapsed in several other states.
In Texas, several members of the State Board of Education criticized proposed new science books because they did not promote creationism. The effort failed when textbook publishers refused to create special books for Texas that downplayed evolution. The board subsequently voted to adopt textbooks that discuss evolution in depth.
Creationism fared poorly in several others states as well. The National Center for Science Education reported that anti-evolution bills floundered in seven other states – Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma and Virginia.
6. Church politicking issue reemerges: The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) in August issued a report calling on the Internal Revenue Service to lift the ban on pulpit-based partisan politicking.
An ECFA commission prepared a report for U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) asserting that the current law, which prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profits from intervening in political races between individuals, is “vague”; the groups went on to assert that the law “chills permissible speech” and “causes confusion” among non-profits.
It’s unclear what impact the report will have, but late in the year the IRS hinted that some movement on the issue may occur. The tax agency issued a document listing its goals for the fiscal year 2013-14. Among them was a line item indicating that the IRS hopes to finalize new internal procedures for conducting audits of houses of worship, a necessary first step before a church can be investigated for politicking.
7. U.S. Senate votes to reject vouchers: An effort by voucher supporters to create a nationwide plan failed in the Senate in March. During a lengthy session over budget issues on March 22, U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) put forth an amendment that would have allowed 11 million low-income students to receive $1,300 each to put toward tuition at religious and other private schools.
Americans United and its allies mobilized quickly to oppose the measure, and it was handily defeated by a vote of 60-39. However, voucher plans continued to advance in some states, notably North Carolina.
8. Hurricane relief sparks church-state battle: In the wake of the devastating Hurricane Sandy, which struck several East Coast states in late October of 2012, some religious leaders began demanding taxpayer funds to rebuild damaged houses of worship.
The issue flared up in the House of Representatives and Senate in 2013, with Americans United and its allies arguing that repairing and rebuilding houses of worship is a job best done with private funds, not government money. AU noted that diverting taxpayer aid for purely religious purposes would raise constitutional issues; the group also pointed out that historically, tax aid has been extended only to entities that serve a public purpose, such as libraries, schools and community centers.
No church-relief bills have passed in Congress, but AU continues to monitor the situation.
9. North Carolina bill proposes official state religion: In one of the most bizarre church-state stories of the year, a North Carolina legislator introduced legislation that would have allowed local governments in the state to declare official religions.
The resolution, which was cosponsored by nine state lawmakers, asserted that “each state is sovereign and may independently determine how the state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.” It also declared that “the North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Charlotte), had the measure pulled after it received a torrent of national and international ridicule.
10. Mt. Soledad cross must be removed, court rules: In the latest twist of a long-running church-state case, a federal court ruled that a towering cross on public land in San Diego must come down. The Mt. Soledad cross has been the subject of litigation for more than 20 years. Although its supporters claim that the cross is a war memorial, opponents note that the cross was never described as a memorial to veterans until recent times. They also assert that a sectarian symbol like a cross cannot memorialize all war dead.
Cross defenders are appealing the decision in Jewish War Veterans of the USA v. Hagel.
Happy New Year!