It’s the time of year to review the events of the past 12 months, determine who’s hot and who’s not, what’s in and what’s out, etc.
With that thought in mind, here are what we at the “Wall of Separation” believe to be the Top Ten Church-State Stories of 2014:
Supreme Court upholds city council prayers. In a 5-4 decision issued May 5, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of municipal governments to open their deliberation with prayers, even if those supplications are usually Christian. The decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway was a disappointment to Americans United, which sponsored the lawsuit. The high court did say that local governments should make reasonable attempts to ensure religious diversity. In response, Americans United launched Operation Inclusion, a plan to help members of minority faiths and secularists win the right to offer inclusive invocations before government meetings.
Supreme Court rules for Hobby Lobby in birth control dispute. Again ruling 5-4, the court in June struck down a provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires most secular, for-profit employers to include birth control in their health-care plans. The Burwell v. Hobby Lobby challenge was brought by the owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores. The fundamentalist Christian owners of the chain insist the some forms of birth control cause abortion – even though medical science says otherwise.
Kentucky officials reject tax incentives for controversial ‘Ark Park’. After several years of wrangling, officials with the state of Kentucky announced in December that a proposed theme park based on the story of Noah’s Ark would not qualify for $18 million in tax incentives. Americans United had opposed taxpayer aid to the Ark Encounter, a project of the creationist ministry Answers In Genesis.
Spread of marriage equality in the states infuriates the Religious Right. In October the Supreme Court refused to hear a string of cases challenging same-sex marriage. The court’s inaction has the effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in several states. Religious Right groups, predictably, went ballistic. Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel warned of the fall of Western Civilization while Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association compared the high court’s action to the Dred Scott ruling permitting slavery.
Religious “refusals” gain steam as same-sex marriage spreads. In a related development, Religious Right organizations reacted to the spread of marriage equality by pushing the idea that religious people who oppose same-sex marriage have a legal right to refuse service to gay couples. A number of cases filed by photographers, wedding planners, bakers and others who do not want to serve LGBT people are working their way through the courts. In some states, even government officials, such as county clerks, are insisting that they have a religious freedom right to deny service to same-sex couples.
Oklahoma school district drops “Hobby Lobby” Bible course. Officials in Mustang, Okla., considered adopting a Bible course commissioned by Steve Green, owner of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain. Americans United and other groups were concerned that the course promoted a fundamentalist view of the Bible and urged against its adoption. Although officials in the district seemed interested in pushing forward, they later decided to not offer the curriculum in part over fears of a lawsuit.
Religious Right flexes muscle in mid-term elections. Religious Right groups mobilized for the November elections by distributing biased “voter guides” in houses of worship. The guides were manipulated to support Republican candidates. The drive paid off on election day. The Republicans took the U.S. Senate and expanded their majority in the House of Representatives. Several more social conservatives were added to Congress. As a result, analysts expect to see more “culture war” issues in that body in 2015.
Satanic Temple wins right to erect holiday display in Florida. Officials in Florida were eager to allow religious displays at the State Capitol Rotunda in December, so they declared the area an “open forum” for free speech. Atheists, observers of “Festivus” and “Pastafarians” erected displays – but officials would not extend that right to the Satanic Temple, a humanistic group. They changed their minds after Americans United threatened to sue. The display was erected Dec. 22-29, though it was badly damaged Dec. 23 by a protestor.
Americans United debunks Religious Right claims about religious freedom in the military. Americans United issued a comprehensive report challenging claims by the Family Research Council (FRC) that the religious freedom rights of Christians are under siege in the military. The FRC has issued a list of 61 alleged religious liberty violations. AU examined each one and found that in every case, claims of persecution did not hold up.
Supreme Court accepts religious liberty cases concerning Muslims. The Supreme Court accepted two cases concerning Muslim religious liberty rights. One case concerns a prisoner in Arkansas who wants to grow a short beard for religious reasons, while the second case was brought by a young woman who was denied a job in a store because she wears a headscarf for religious reasons. While these cases concern Muslims, the broad rules laid down by the high court could affect a variety of religious believers.