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March 4, 2016 0

A Win For Religious Minorities In the Military

Cap­tain Sim­rat­pal is an hon­ors West Point grad­u­ate, Army Ranger, com­bat vet­eran, Bronze Star recip­i­ent and obser­vant Sikh, who wants to abide by the arti­cles his faith – wear­ing a tur­ban, unshorn hair and a beard – while serv­ing his coun­try.  Instead of grant­ing his recent request for a per­ma­nent reli­gious accom­mo­da­tion, the Army sin­gled him out for spe­cial­ized gas mask and hel­met testing.

Yes­ter­day, a fed­eral dis­trict court in a well-reasoned deci­sion not only rejected these tests, but rec­og­nized the impor­tance of fos­ter­ing reli­gious diver­sity in our military.

sikh warrior When the Cap­tain entered West Point a decade ago, Army rules did not per­mit him to fol­low the arti­cles of his faith.  So he made the dif­fi­cult choice of choos­ing ser­vice to his coun­try over his faith.

In recent years, how­ever, the Army has revised it reli­gious accom­mo­da­tion rules and Sikh sol­ders have been per­mit­ted to abide by their religiously-mandated groom­ing stan­dards. After Cap­tain Sim­rat­pal met some of these sol­ders at a Pentagon-sponsored Sikh cel­e­bra­tion last year, he decided that his mil­i­tary ser­vice should not pre­vent him from fol­low­ing his faith.

Last Decem­ber, he was granted a tem­po­rary accom­mo­da­tion to wear a tur­ban, unshorn hair and a beard pend­ing a deci­sion on his request for a per­ma­nent accom­mo­da­tion.  The Cap­tain was under the belief that the Army would grant the per­ma­nent accom­mo­da­tion, but instead he received orders on Feb­ru­ary 24th to report for rig­or­ous, spe­cial­ized test­ing for the fit­ting of his gas mask and hel­met.  Sol­diers seek­ing to wear a beard for med­ical rea­sons, “Hard to fit” sol­diers with hel­met and mask fit­ting issues, and even other Sikh sol­diers are not required to undergo such testing.

This week, the Cap­tain filed a fed­eral law­suit with the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the Dis­trict of Colum­bia claim­ing that the spe­cial­ized test vio­lated his rights under the Reli­gious Free­dom Restora­tion Act (RFRA) and ask­ing to the Court to tem­porar­ily stop them while he awaits a final answer on his request for a per­ma­nent reli­gious accommodation.

The court ruled in his favor stat­ing: Sin­gling out the plain­tiff for spe­cial­ized test­ing due to only his Sikh arti­cles of faith is, in this con­text, unfair and dis­crim­i­na­tory.  It is this sin­gling out for spe­cial scrutiny – indeed, with the ini­tial pre­cau­tion of requir­ing an escort and observers for the plain­tiff as he was sub­jected to the tests – that has a clear ten­dency to pres­sure the plain­tiff, or other sol­diers who may wish to seek a reli­gious accom­mo­da­tion, to con­form behav­ior and forego reli­gious precepts. Rattan sings

ADL over the last decade has expressed con­cerns and advo­cated on issues of reli­gious accom­mo­da­tion and coer­cion in the mil­i­tary.  We wel­come the court’s rul­ing and state­ment that “the pub­lic has a sig­nif­i­cant inter­est in hav­ing a diverse mil­i­tary, reflec­tive of the com­po­si­tion of our coun­try and accept­ing of reli­gious minori­ties.”  The Army should with­draw its order for spe­cial­ized test­ing of Cap­tain Sim­rat­pal and expe­di­tiously grant his request for a per­ma­nent reli­gious accommodation.

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March 2, 2016 4

Abortion and Religious Freedom: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Diversity in Reproductive Freedom

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its water­shed deci­sion forty-three years ago in Roe v. Wade, it staked out a zone of pri­vacy around each woman’s right to deter­mine whether to con­tinue a preg­nancy. While assailed repeat­edly in the decades since, and at times reviewed and sub­jected to revi­sion, this essen­tial sphere of per­sonal auton­omy has stood the test of time. The Court’s recog­ni­tion of the right to access an abor­tion reflects its appre­ci­a­tion of the inti­macy of this deci­sion. The choice to con­tinue or ter­mi­nate a preg­nancy encom­passes deeply pri­vate con­sid­er­a­tions of phys­i­cal and men­tal health, per­sonal cir­cum­stance, fam­ily plan­ning, and finan­cial and edu­ca­tional con­di­tions and goals.

Photo Credit Debra Sweet Flickr

Photo Credit Debra Sweet Flickr

And for many the deci­sion also includes con­tem­pla­tion of their core reli­gious con­vic­tions and per­sonal reli­gious val­ues. This point is fre­quently lost in the clamor and con­tention of America’s debate over repro­duc­tive free­dom. Too often the dis­pute is framed in binary terms, between per­sons of reli­gious faith who view abor­tion as mur­der and those who regard abor­tion as a woman’s right to con­trol their own bod­ies and decide the course of their own lives. The faith and reli­gious prin­ci­ples of those who choose to exer­cise their repro­duc­tive rights are rarely dis­cussed. When they are, it is too often through the eyes of anti-abortion extrem­ists who char­ac­ter­ize those who dis­agree with them as irreligious.

This depic­tion is as far-removed from real­ity as the claim these same abor­tion oppo­nents make to be the guardians of “women’s health” while depriv­ing mil­lions of women access to safe and secure facil­i­ties offer­ing the repro­duc­tive med­ical care they seek. The real­ity is that women who choose to ter­mi­nate their preg­nan­cies, and those who sup­port their right to do so, are often as reli­gious, faith­ful, and ded­i­cated to their spir­i­tual and moral prin­ci­ples as those who stand on the other side of the ide­o­log­i­cal divide.

Amer­ica is a nation of more than 320 mil­lion peo­ple and hun­dreds of reli­gious denom­i­na­tions. The pre­sump­tion that men and women of faith speak with one voice on the ques­tion of abor­tion, or that all prin­ci­pled indi­vid­u­als who believe in God must stand against abor­tion, is arro­gant and wrong. The Pew Research Cen­ter has cat­a­logued the view of 17 major reli­gious groups on abor­tion, and this sur­vey reveals a vast diver­sity of stances between and even within reli­gious groups. From those who oppose abor­tion under all cir­cum­stances, to those who make excep­tions for life, health, rape, or incest, to those who draw a line at the point of fetal via­bil­ity, to those who advo­cate for the right to safe and acces­si­ble abor­tions, the beliefs of reli­gious groups and per­sons of faith are as var­ied and diverse as this nation.

The insis­tence of far-right activists that they speak on behalf of all reli­gious believ­ers unmasks a deeper agenda of intol­er­ance and exclu­sion. Dis­re­gard­ing the reli­gious val­ues of those who dis­agree is a furtive method of silenc­ing reli­gious dis­sent. If the “reli­gious” view brooks no quar­rel on ques­tions of abor­tion, then reli­gious groups and indi­vid­ual per­sons of faith who dis­agree with anti-abortion activists are recast in the role of the faith­less. In so doing, the reli­gious right imposes its the­ol­ogy on the entire coun­try, assault­ing not just the repro­duc­tive free­dom of women, but also the reli­gious free­dom of all who believe dif­fer­ently from them.

On Wednes­day, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argu­ment in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, and in so doing will con­sider the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of oner­ous state restric­tions impos­ing med­ically unnec­es­sary require­ments for repro­duc­tive health cen­ters. These restric­tions are a thinly veiled attempt to shut down these cen­ters and restrict women’s con­sti­tu­tion­ally guar­an­teed access to abor­tions. The impact of these so-called TRAP (tar­geted reg­u­la­tion of abor­tion providers) laws has been griev­ous, shut­ter­ing dozens of clin­ics and forc­ing women to travel hun­dreds of miles and even across state lines to exer­cise their repro­duc­tive free­dom. As high­lighted in the National Women’s Law Cen­ter ami­cus brief that the Anti-Defamation League and forty-six other orga­ni­za­tions joined, the Texas law not only threat­ens women’s eco­nomic well-being, job secu­rity, and edu­ca­tion attain­ment, but also has a par­tic­u­larly harm­ful impact on low-income women, women of color, women in low-wage jobs, and women who already have children.

In addi­tion to the dozens of med­ical orga­ni­za­tions, doc­tors, sci­en­tists, polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, and con­cerned cit­i­zens who have filed ami­cus briefs in sup­port of the peti­tion­ers and in oppo­si­tion to Texas’s uncon­sti­tu­tional TRAP laws, the fight for women’s repro­duc­tive free­dom has also been joined by the­olo­gians, churches, reli­gious groups, reli­gious gov­ern­ing bod­ies, and more than 1,200 indi­vid­ual reli­gious lead­ers. These voices mat­ter. They shout with a thun­der­ous voice against the lie that reli­gious faith is incom­pat­i­ble with repro­duc­tive freedom.

Abor­tion is not just a ques­tion of per­sonal auton­omy, though that would be enough. It is about respect for reli­gious free­dom. A woman choos­ing whether to con­tinue a preg­nancy should be guided by her own con­science and reli­gious val­ues, not those imposed on her


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March 1, 2016 2

Alito Got It Right In Jewish Inmate Case

Yes­ter­day, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a trou­bling lower court deci­sion involv­ing the reli­gious lib­erty rights of an obser­vant Jew­ish inmate from North Car­olina.  In a pow­er­ful dis­sent, Jus­tice Alito pointed out why the lower court was wrong and his fel­low Jus­tices should have taken up the case.supreme-court

Israel Ben-Levi claimed that the North Car­olina Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety (NCDPS) vio­lated his rights under the Free Exer­cise Clause and Reli­gious Land Use and Insti­tu­tion­al­ized Per­sons Act (RLUIPA) by deny­ing his request to study Torah with two other Jew­ish inmates.  In reject­ing his request, NCDPS asserted that the inmate mis­un­der­stood his own faith.  For a group to study Torah, NCDPS claimed, there must be ten Jew­ish men – a minyan – or qual­i­fied Jew­ish leader such as Rabbi.  The lower court agreed with this argu­ment and also found Mr. Ben-Levi was not sub­ject to future harm because he had been trans­ferred to a prison with a Rabbi.

Jus­tice Alito’s dis­sent cor­rectly pointed out that this deci­sion was dis­crim­i­na­tory “[b]ecause NCDPS’s pol­icy rests on its under­stand­ing of Jew­ish doc­trine, the pol­icy does not apply to other reli­gions.”  Fur­ther­more, it vio­lates long­stand­ing First Amend­ment case law against gov­ern­ment inter­pret­ing reli­gious doctrine:

[F]ederal courts have no war­rant to eval­u­ate  “the valid­ity of [Ben-Levi’s] inter­pre­ta­tions.” … By ignor­ing Ben-Levi’s actual beliefs and focus­ing solely on NCDPS’s under­stand­ing of Judaism, respon­dent and the courts below con­sid­ered the wrong question.  

Although the Supreme Court’s rejec­tion of the case does not approve of the lower court deci­sion, we could not agree more with Jus­tice Alito that “the Court’s indif­fer­ence to this dis­crim­i­na­tory infringe­ment of reli­gious lib­erty is disappointing.”

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