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March 17, 2016 2

Tennessee Legislation Supports Church-State Separation in Public Schools

Tennessee’s state leg­is­la­ture is not known for mov­ing for­ward leg­is­la­tion strength­en­ing the wall sep­a­rat­ing church and state.  But ear­lier this week that is pre­cisely what it did by pass­ing a bill that man­dates con­sti­tu­tional safe­guards in teach­ing about reli­gion in pub­lic schools.

In recent years, the state leg­is­la­ture has enacted mul­ti­ple bills that pro­mote major­ity reli­gious views and under­mine the sep­a­ra­tion prin­ci­ple: a bill des­ig­nat­ing the Holy Bible as the offi­cial state book; back­door school prayer leg­is­la­tion; a mea­sure requir­ing post-secondary schools to sup­port stu­dent clubs that exclude mem­bers based on reli­gion; and a so-called “Aca­d­e­mic Free­dom Act,” which opens the door to teach­ing intel­li­gent design – a form of cre­ation­ism – in the pub­lic schools.

Flag_of_the_General_Assembly_of_Tennessee.svg

Based on this his­tory, the pas­sage of House Bill 1905, “An act rel­a­tive to … the inclu­sion of reli­gion in instruc­tion and cur­ricu­lum,” at first glance seems incon­sis­tent and sur­pris­ing.  The impe­tus for the bill, how­ever, mit­i­gates that incon­sis­tency.  It was filed in response to claims that a mid­dle school social stud­ies cur­ricu­lum crossed the con­sti­tu­tional line between teach­ing about and indoc­tri­nat­ing Islam.  No sim­i­lar claims were made about the course’s cov­er­age of other faiths includ­ing, Chris­tian­ity, Bud­dhism, Judaism, Con­fu­cian­ism, Dao­ism, and African religions.

Despite the ques­tion­able moti­va­tion behind the bill, on paper it is ben­e­fi­cial.  It cod­i­fies long­stand­ing con­sti­tu­tional stan­dards  by stat­ing that “[t]he inclu­sion of reli­gion in text­books, instruc­tional mate­ri­als, cur­ricu­lum, or aca­d­e­mic stan­dards shall be for edu­ca­tional pur­poses only and shall not be used to pro­mote or estab­lish any reli­gion or reli­gious belief.”  Most sig­nif­i­cantly, it requires “[t]eacher train­ing insti­tu­tions” to pro­vide can­di­dates with instruc­tion and strate­gies on how to teach about reli­gion in a con­sti­tu­tion­ally per­mis­si­ble manner.

Our nation’s pub­lic schools are for all chil­dren regard­less of their faith.  In the­ory, HB 1905’s safe­guards should make Ten­nessee pub­lic schools more wel­com­ing and inclu­sive.  How­ever, in light of the state legislature’s his­tory and the rea­sons behind this bill, ADL has con­cerns that its pro­tec­tions will only be applied in teach­ing about minor­ity faiths.

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March 4, 2016 Off

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 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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