Tag Archives: faith-based

Supreme Court sends birth control case back to lower courts

When it comes to the issue of religious rights versus no-cost contraception, the only thing the Supreme Court could agree on was not to decide the case.

In an unsigned opinion issued Monday, the court sent a series of cases back to a raft of federal appeals courts, with instructions for those courts and the parties in the lawsuits to try harder to work things out. “The Court expresses no view on the merits of the cases,” the opinion said.

At issue is the extent to which religiously affiliated employers (such as universities or hospitals) need to participate in the requirement under the Affordable Care Act for most employer health plans to provide no-cost contraception for women.

The government made several changes to the rules over the past four years in an attempt to accommodate the religious employers’ objections while still ensuring that female employees would get contraceptive coverage. But dozens of religious nonprofit employers sued anyway, claiming that even the act of notifying the government of their objections (which would, in turn, trigger a requirement for the government to arrange coverage) made them “complicit” in providing a service they see as sinful.

The court’s opinion, and an accompanying order on several similar cases that were awaiting a decision on whether the high court would take them up, erased all the lower appeals court rulings, all but one of which had sided with the government. That appeared at first glance to put at risk coverage for contraceptives for tens of thousands of employees of the organizations that filed suit.

However, the court made clear in its opinion that because the employers who have sued have already in effect notified the government of their objections, the government can rely “on this notice, to the extent it considers it necessary, to facilitate the provision of full contraceptive coverage going forward.”

At the same time, however, the opinion said the government “may not impose taxes or penalties on petitioners for failure to provide the relevant notice.”

The goal, the justices wrote, is that both sides “should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitions’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans ‘receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.’ ”

Both sides in the dispute claimed at least a partial victory.

“From our point of view this is a win for religious liberty,” said Mark Rienzi, a senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the Little Sisters of the Poor, one of the groups that sued the government. “The government can find ways to give out contraception without hassling nuns.”

But at the same time, said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the Americans Civil Liberties Union, “the opinion states clearly the need for women to receive full and equal coverage.”

Contraceptive advocates also pointed to a concurring opinion from Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg that stressed that the decision should not be read as approving coverage strategies that make it harder for women to get the benefits.

For example, they wrote, “Requiring standalone contraceptive-only coverage would leave in limbo all of the women now guaranteed seamless preventive-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And requiring that women affirmatively opt into such coverage would ‘impose precisely the kind of barrier to the delivery of preventive services that Congress sought to eliminate.’ ”

It remains unclear exactly what the lower courts might do. In an effort to break what was clearly a 4-4 deadlock, the court in March asked each side for supplemental material outlining any potential compromises. The decision Monday referred to those new briefs as suggesting that providing contraceptive coverage without requiring notice from religious employers “is feasible.”

But Sotomayor and Ginsburg, in their concurring opinion, noted that “the Courts of Appeals remain free to reach the same conclusion or a different one on each of the questions presented by these cases.”

From  Kaiser Health News, a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Supreme Court denies stay request, same-sex couples to marry in Kentucky county

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied, without dissent, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis her request for a stay of an order from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that required her to issue marriage licenses immediately to couples in the case Miller v. Davis.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic marriage equality ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, Davis repeatedly refused to issue marriage licenses to any couple based on religious beliefs about marriage for same-sex couples. 

On Aug. 12, U.S. District Judge David Bunning ruled that plaintiffs in this case must be able to obtain marriage licenses in Rowan County.

Davis proceeded to appeal that decision to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and when her request for a stay pending appeal was denied, she requested a stay pending appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court so that she may continue to refuse issuing marriage licenses.

Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “Today  the U.S. Supreme Court resoundingly affirmed that government officials must carry out the duties of public office. By refusing to simply issue a form, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has prevented our clients, four loving couples, from obtaining marriage licenses in the county where they live and pay taxes. Davis has no basis for any further delay in denying couples the freedom to marry.”

“Ms. Davis’ choices are clear: she must either choose to follow the law or resign her public position,” said JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign. “A public official’s personal religious opinion does not give her the privilege to trample over the rights of others.  Freedom of religion is important, and Ms. Davis has the fundamental right to believe what she likes. But as a public servant, she does not have the right to pick and choose which laws she will follow or which services she will provide. We are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has denied the stay.” HRC is the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group.

Davis, who is represented by the ultra-rightwing Liberty Counsel, issued a statement on Sept. 1. Her statement, without edits, follows:

I have worked in the Rowan County Clerk’s office for 27 years as a Deputy Clerk and was honored to be elected as the Clerk in November 2014, and took office in January 2015. I love my job and the people of Rowan County. I have never lived any place other than Rowan County. Some people have said I should resign, but I have done my job well. This year we are on track to generate a surplus for the county of 1.5 million dollars.

In addition to my desire to serve the people of Rowan County, I owe my life to Jesus Christ who loves me and gave His life for me. Following the death of my godly mother-in-law over four years ago, I went to church to fulfill her dying wish. There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God.

I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word. It is a matter of religious liberty, which is protected under the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and in the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our history is filled with accommodations for people’s religious freedom and conscience. I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our Founders envisioned – that conscience and religious freedom would be protected. That is all I am asking. I never sought to be in this position, and I would much rather not have been placed in this position. I have received death threats from people who do not know me. I harbor nothing against them. I was elected by the people to serve as the County Clerk. I intend to continue to serve the people of Rowan County, but I cannot violate my conscience.

Share your responses on our Facebook page.

Bias bites | Pit bull bans blasted as biased, without merit

Eavesdrop on the social circles at the local dog park.

The snippet of conversation about discrimination and bullying might sound like a discussion of the latest proposal to allow businesses to refuse service to gays. But the human companions to the canines may be denouncing breed-specific laws and defending pit bulls.

“When I walk my pit bulls, I get looks and people cross the street to get away from us,” said Lisa Williams, founder of Moonracer No Kill Animal Rescue, a nonprofit that rescues pit bulls and other large dogs from animal control shelters. “My dogs will not hurt anyone, they love people. But, because of how they look — some with cropped ears and tails, cut before I ever got them — people won’t give them a chance. People will look at our pictures on display at events and say, ‘Oh, you’re a pit bull rescue’ and walk away.

Dangerous breeds?

“So many end up in the shelter because people think they cannot be family dogs. It is the perception. … My favorite adopter was a 70-year-old island woman who adopted a pit puppy in order to promote them as the wonderful dogs they are,” said Williams, whose rescue is based in Florida.

Earlier this spring, the first known political action committee formed to fight breed-specific legislation. The Ohio PAC, founded by pit bull champions Alisha and Luke Westerman, operates under the banner Ohioans Against Breed Discrimination. The PAC maintains that breed-specific legislation is discriminatory, ineffective, unenforceable and unconstitutional.

Similar arguments were shared this spring in the Wisconsin community of Platteville, where the common council considered a proposal to prohibit Staffordshire bull terriers, American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and mixes with those breeds.

The council in April voted 4–2 against continuing a discussion on the matter after hearing from opponents of a ban, which lacked an endorsement from the police chief and was the focus of an online petition drive.

Platteville resident Kieryn Aigner launched the Care2 petition campaign in March, after Ald. Mike Denn proposed making it “unlawful to own, harbor or keep” a pit bull terrier or a mixed breed of pit bull.

Aigner, who adopted a pit bull in 2013, quickly collected thousands of signatures and lined up dozens of people to address the common council if necessary.

“Considering the reputation pit bulls get on being a ‘bully’ breed, I made sure to do my research” before adopting, Aigner said. “I knew I was going to get a lot of criticism and I knew I had to be smart when it came to this puppy. If he ended up being poorly trained, it would have been because I failed as an owner. Just as kids are raised, so are puppies. As parents, we have to teach them right from wrong, good from bad.”

Other opponents of breed-specific bans have adopted the online petition as an effective lobbying tool. A year ago, activists defeated a proposed ordinance to ban pit bulls in Medford, Oregon, after amassing more than 8,600 signatures on a Care2 petition.

“It is wrong to discriminate against a breed,” said Aigner. “If you are going to go after someone, it should be the owner for not training their dog correctly, not the breed.”

DogsBite.org is a website “dedicated to reducing serious dog attacks.” The site maintains that the number of dog bites in the United States is under-reported and that certain types of dogs — pit bulls and Rottweilers — are deadly. The group says from 2005 to 2014, pit bulls and Rottweilers caused 74 percent of the human fatalities from dog attacks. 

“Unlike other dog breeds, pit bulls frequently fail to communicate intention prior to an attack (surprise attacks), possess a lethal bite style (hold and shake) and a ruinous manner of attack (gameness),” reads a “dangerous dogs” passage on the website.

Yet, the American Veterinary Medical Association says no breed or type of dog is more dangerous than another. 

The AVMA says, “Any dog can bite, regardless of its breed, and more often people are bitten by dogs they know. It’s not the dog’s breed that determines risk — it’s the dog’s behavior, general size, number of dogs involved and the vulnerability of the person bitten that determines whether or not a dog or dogs will cause a serious bite injury. Dogs can be aggressive for all sorts of reasons. A dog that’s bitten once can bite again and a dog that’s never bitten could still bite. Don’t rely on breed stereotypes to keep yourself safe from dog bites. A dog’s individual history and behavior are much more important than its breed.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Bar Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also oppose breed-specific legislation. 

The ABA “urges all state, territorial and local legislative bodies and governmental agencies to adopt comprehensive breed-neutral dangerous dog/reckless owner laws that ensure due process protections for owners, encourage responsible pet ownership and focus on the behavior of both dog owners and dogs, and to repeal any breed-discriminatory or breed-specific provisions.”

In its review of the issue, the CDC notes that data collection related to bites by breed is fraught with the potential for error in identifying the type of dog, especially among mixed-breed dogs. A 2009 study supports this point, noting a significant discrepancy between visual determination of breed and DNA determination of breed.

The ASPCA’s position statement says the organization “is not aware of credible evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer either for people or other companion animals. There is, however, evidence that such laws unfairly target responsible pet guardians and their well-socialized dogs, are inhumane and impede community safety and humane sheltering efforts.”

In its lengthy statement, the ASPCA says breed-specific laws ignore factors known to affect a dog’s tendency toward aggression: early experience, socialization, training, sex and reproductive status.

Breed-specific laws also “can cause hardship to responsible guardians of properly supervised, friendly, well-socialized dogs. … Although guardians of these dogs may have done nothing to endanger the public, they nevertheless may be required to choose between compliance with onerous regulations or forfeiture of their beloved companions,” according to the ASPCA.

States rethinking bans

In Ohio, after passage in 1987 of a law that identified pit bulls as “vicious,” some dog owners faced difficulties finding housing or securing liability insurance. Lawmakers removed the language three years ago, but a number of Ohio communities still label pit bulls as “vicious.”

Forfeiture of animals also results in crowded shelters or increases in killings by animal control. In Ohio in 2004, animal control agencies killed at least 7,400 pit bulls. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, 80 percent of the 500 to 600 dogs seized and killed under a ban on pit bull terriers are “nice, family dogs.”

Williams said, “It is heartbreaking when dogs are labeled dangerous and they really are not. … Many dogs that have been labeled ‘dangerous’ or ‘aggressive’ have been rescued or adopted and turn out to be just the best dogs ever, once they feel safe and secure. We want them to have a chance to shine, if they can.”

And animal welfare advocates stress an unintended consequence of breed-specific legislation. As one type of dog is banned, those who exploit and abuse animals train others to be aggressive, to fight.

Breed-specific laws exist in 55 Wisconsin communities, according to DogsBite.org. Thirty ordinances ban pit bulls, while other measures place restrictions on ownership of pit bulls and Rottweilers, such as prohibiting pit bulls declared “dangerous” or “vicious.”

“No good comes from discrimination, whether it’s discrimination against dogs or people,” said animal welfare advocate Shelaghla Donohue of Madison. “Instead of more communities passing bias legislation, I think Wisconsin should prohibit breed-discriminatory legislation. Probably that won’t happen anytime soon.”

States with measures against enacting breed-specific legislation include California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

“The way I see it, outlawing a pit bull or a Rottweiler or a Chihuahua, for that matter, is like saying, ‘We don’t like that kind of person,’” said Green Bay animal rights advocate Laura Lippert. “And we just don’t do that.”

Said Williams, “Give pit bulls a chance, you won’t be disappointed. Help out at shelters so the dogs can be more socialized and have a chance to find homes. Ask to pet a pit bull, you will most likely end up covered in kisses.”

Anti-gay governor set to sign anti-gay bill in Indiana

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was expected to sign into law on March 26 a religious objections bill that sanctions discrimination against LGBT people.

The signing would make Indiana the first state to enact such a change this year among about a dozen where such proposals have been introduced. The measure would prohibit state and local laws that “substantially burden” the ability of people — including businesses and associations — to follow their religious beliefs.

Pence, a Republican, backed the bill as it moved through the Legislature and spoke at a Statehouse rally last month that drew hundreds of supporters of the proposal. The governor planned to sign the bill in a private ceremony, Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks said.

The governor said in a statement this week he believed the measure “is about respecting and reassuring Hoosiers that their religious freedoms are intact.”

In a letter to Pence sent on March 25, leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) warned the legislation was causing them to reconsider plans to hold their 6,000-person General Assembly in Indianapolis in 2017. The CEO of a gathering of gamers considered to be the city’s largest annual convention also expressed concern about the bill, which the state Senate passed Tuesday.

The expected bill signing comes just more than a week before NCAA men’s Final Four games at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, but the college sports organization hasn’t taken a position on the issue.

“We are examining the details of this bill, however, the NCAA national office is committed to an inclusive environment where all individuals enjoy equal access to events,” the Indianapolis-based group said in a statement.

Conservative groups say the Indiana measure merely seeks to prevent the government from compelling people to provide such things as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable on religious grounds.

“I think you will find that, if you do your homework in it, this law is not going to allow you to discriminate against anyone else or anyone’s rights in this country,” GOP Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long said.

But the Republican mayor of Indianapolis said he believed the proposal would send the “wrong signal” for the city, and its tourism and convention agency raised concerns that it could lead some convention planners to regard Indiana as an unwelcoming place.

The Indianapolis chamber of commerce and Columbus-based engine maker Cummins Inc. are among business groups which have opposed the bill on the grounds that it could make it more difficult to attract top companies and employees.

Adrian Swartout, the CEO of the 50,000-person Gen Con gamers’ convention, said the legislation could affect the group’s decision to hold the major event in Indianapolis past 2020. He said it would have “a direct negative impact on the state’s economy.”

Similar bills have been advancing this year in the Arkansas and Georgia legislatures. Last year, Mississippi enacted a religious objection law just weeks after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a similar effort there amid criticism from major corporations.

Michigan city sued after rejecting ‘reason station’ at city hall

A coalition of civil liberties groups has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a ban on an atheist booth in the atrium of city hall in Warren, Michigan. The city has allowed a prayer station in the atrium.

City officials set up the atrium as a public space that can be reserved by groups and individuals, including civic organizations and Warren residents, but the mayor is not allowing an atheist to use space in the atrium because he claims that his belief system “is not a religion,” according to a news release from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Freedom from Religion Foundation are the groups that brought the federal complaint.

Since 2009, the city has allowed a church group to run a prayer station in which volunteers distribute religious pamphlets, offer to pray with passersby and discuss their religious beliefs with people who approach the station.

The lawsuit filed on July 23 does not seek to have the prayer station removed, but instead asks the court to order the city to treat believers and non-believers equally. 

“Once the government opens public space for use by private groups, it cannot pick and choose who can use the space based on the content of their message or whether public officials agree with that message,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director. “For instance, Warren officials would not be permitted to grant access to activists supportive of the mayor and reject the applications of activists who are critical of the mayor. The same logic extends to this matter: the city cannot allow speech supportive of religion and reject speech supportive of atheism.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Douglas Marshall, a Warren resident whose request to install a “reason station” was rejected by the city. Marshall wants to set up a station that is similar in size, structure, and function to the prayer station — a folding table and chairs with literature on display and available to the public — except that his station will offer information and opportunities for discussion from a non-religious perspective.

In April 2014, Marshall submitted an application to city officials to reserve space in the atrium for two days a week. According to the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Marshall and other volunteers who operate the reason station would offer to have philosophical discussions with passersby who express an interest in a secular belief system.

Less than two weeks after it was submitted, Marshall’s application, although nearly identical to the application submitted by the prayer station volunteers, was rejected by Warren Mayor James Fouts. In the rejection letter, Mayor Fouts wrote: “To my way of thinking, your group is strictly an anti-religion group intending to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion. The City of Warren cannot allow this.”

Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United, said, “The city has an obligation to serve all members of the community equally, regardless of their faith or their lack of faith,” said”Our laws make it clear that our government can’t adopt a rule book that favors one group over another.”

Ministers urge Mississippi to reject License to Discriminate bill

A group of ministers in Mississippi is calling on state lawmakers to reject a bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to gays and other people by citing religous beliefs.

The legislation, similar to a bill vetoed last week by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, is one of several introduced in response to the past year’s marriage equality victories.

The ministers in Mississippi — baptists and methodists — wrote:

“We write this letter in opposition to Senate Bill 2681.  Our opposition rises out of our moral obligation to do what is best for our communities. 

“As people of faith, we are ardent supporters of religious freedom for all Americans.  We know that it is the religious freedom to worship as we choose that makes our country and our state great.  Religious organizations have a long established First Amendment ability to operate according to their own beliefs and we as faith leaders hold that right as sacred and will do all in our power to preserve it. 

“However, we also know that there is a difference between sacred space and commercial space.  When providing a service to the public, businesses cannot pick and choose whom to serve and whom to deny. This is basic discrimination and it has nothing to do with religious freedom.

“This legislation will have immense and negative consequences on all communities, including religious communities. First, it sends the message that one’s particular religious interpretation can become the law of the land.  Second, as religious leaders we know that families are harmed when legislation unfairly opens up members of our communities to discrimination.  As a state, we know we can do better than that.

“As Methodists and Baptists, we may not always agree on all things, but we can agree that this bill goes too far and is unnecessary.  Because we are people who are called to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” we ask Mississippi legislators to reject Senate Bill 2681.”

The signers include:  the Revs. Rob Hill, Broadmeadow United Methodist Church, Jackson; Stan Wilson, Northside Baptist Church, Clinton; Bruce Case, Parkway Hills United Methodist Church, Madison; Bert Montgomery, University Baptist Church, Starkville; Rusty Edwards, University Baptist Church, Hattiesburg.