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October 3, 2014 0

Sectarian Legislative Prayer – Walking In The Religious Minority’s Shoes

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent leg­isla­tive prayer deci­sion (Greece v. Gal­loway) gen­er­ally sanc­tions sec­tar­ian prayers before meet­ings of local leg­isla­tive bod­ies except for the most egre­gious cir­cum­stances.  In oppos­ing the Court’s deci­sion, Jus­tice Elana Kagan astutely con­cluded that “[w]hen the cit­i­zens of this coun­try approach their gov­ern­ment, they do so only as Amer­i­cans, not as mem­bers of one faith or another.  And that means that even in a partly leg­isla­tive body, they should not con­front government-sponsored wor­ship that divides them along reli­gious lines.”  At a recent county com­mis­sion meet­ing, a local com­mis­sioner may have expe­ri­enced the les­son of Jus­tice Kagan’s admonition.seal-of-escambia-county

The Escam­bia County, FL Com­mis­sion allows sec­tar­ian invo­ca­tions at its pub­lic meet­ings by a com­mu­nity mem­ber of any faith or reli­gion.  At the Sep­tem­ber 25th Com­mis­sion meet­ing, David Suhor, who is Pagan, recited a pagan prayer song “call­ing of the direc­tions north, east, south and west.”  Regard­ing his prayer, Mr. Suhor later stated “[i]n a way I would like for other peo­ple to expe­ri­ence what it’s like when I go to a meet­ing and am asked to pray against my conscience.”

Mr. Suhor’s prayer appar­ently offended at least one per­son in the room. Accord­ing to a news report, County Com­mis­sioner Wil­son Robert­son, “left the room because of his Chris­t­ian beliefs,” and he stated “[p]eople may not real­ize it, but when we invite some­one a min­is­ter to pray they are pray­ing for the county com­mis­sion­ers for us to make wise deci­sions and I’m just not going to have a pagan or satanic min­is­ter pray for me.”

ADL opposes sec­tar­ian leg­isla­tive prayer prac­tices because of the reli­gious exclu­sion and divi­sion result­ing from them – par­tic­u­larly for reli­gious minori­ties.  If the com­mis­sioner does not want a com­mu­nity mem­ber to pray for him in a faith that offends his con­science, per­haps he and other com­mis­sion mem­bers should adopt a moment of silence pol­icy or at least a non-sectarian invo­ca­tion policy.

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August 28, 2014 0

Town of Greece’s New Invocation Policy Excludes Religious Minorities

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent per­mis­sive leg­isla­tive prayer deci­sion (Greece v. Gal­loway) allows for sec­tar­ian invo­ca­tions at meet­ings of local leg­isla­tive bod­ies. Open­ing prayer prac­tices, how­ever, are not with­out limit. The deci­sion requires that a local leg­isla­tive body must imple­ment a non-discrimination pol­icy with respect to prayer givers.  The Town of Greece, New York —  a party to the Supreme Court case – recently adopted a new Town Board invo­ca­tion pol­icy.  This pol­icy cer­tainly vio­lates the spirit of the Greece decision’s non-discrimination man­date, but it is an open ques­tion whether it  actu­ally vio­lates it.supreme-court-civil-rights

The new pol­icy allows pri­vate cit­i­zens to sol­em­nize the pro­ceed­ings of the Town Board by offer­ing a “prayer, reflec­tive moment of silence, or a short sol­em­niz­ing mes­sage.”  How­ever, the per­son pro­vid­ing the sol­em­niz­ing mes­sage must be an appointed rep­re­sen­ta­tive of  “an assem­bly that reg­u­larly meet[s] for the pri­mary pur­pose of shar­ing a reli­gious per­spec­tive.”  The assem­bly must either be located within Greece, or it can be located out­side of town if a res­i­dent reg­u­larly attends the assem­bly and requests its inclu­sion on an offi­cial “Assem­blies List.”

The term “reli­gious per­spec­tive” cer­tainly encom­passes minor­ity faiths and non-believers.  Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeat­edly ruled that athe­ism and eth­i­cal human­ism are sin­cerely held reli­gious beliefs.  How­ever, while there may be Athe­ists, Bud­dhists, Eth­i­cal Human­ists, Jews, Mus­lims, Sikhs or other reli­gious minori­ties resid­ing in Greece, they may not have a con­gre­ga­tion within or prox­i­mate to town.  So the new pol­icy effec­tively deprives reli­gious minori­ties from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the invo­ca­tion oppor­tu­nity.   This is one rea­son why ADL views leg­isla­tive prayer prac­tices as divi­sive and poor pub­lic pol­icy.  If the Town of Greece truly wants to be inclu­sive and live up to the spirit of the Supreme Court’s non-discrimination require­ment, it should give all res­i­dents a true oppor­tu­nity to sol­em­nize Town Board proceedings.

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July 14, 2014 0

Hobby Lobby Elicits Varied Editorial Responses

On June 30, the Supreme Court in Bur­well v. Hobby Lobby affirmed the right of family-owned com­pa­nies to deny employ­ees, based on the reli­gious beliefs of the employer, health insur­ance cov­er­age for con­tra­cep­tives. As Pro­fes­sor Erwin Chemerin­sky warned at the ADL’s 2014 Supreme Court Review, the deci­sion could have far-reaching impli­ca­tions for work­ers’ civil and reli­gious rights.newspapers-hobby-lobby

Edi­to­r­ial boards for the nations’ top news­pa­pers opposed the land­mark deci­sion by a 2–1 ratio. Of the fifty news­pa­pers with the high­est cir­cu­la­tion, twenty-five dis­agreed with the Supreme Court’s posi­tion in Hobby Lobby. Thir­teen sup­ported the deci­sion. Twelve offered no opin­ion on the topic.

Of those peri­od­i­cals that opposed the deci­sion, some objected to the Supreme Court’s increas­ing will­ing­ness to grant legal pro­tec­tions to cor­po­ra­tions that tra­di­tion­ally have been reserved for human beings. The Cleve­land Plain Dealer insisted that “cor­po­ra­tions are not ‘per­sons’ who think, breathe and exer­cise first-amendment rights or prac­tice reli­gious beliefs,” and warned that “[t]reating them as if they are will inevitably nar­row free­doms for oth­ers.” The Detroit Free Press called the deci­sion an expan­sion of “the majority’s already inflated notion of cor­po­rate personhood.”

Other oppo­nents view the deci­sion as a set­back for repro­duc­tive rights. The San Jose Mer­cury News crit­i­cized the Court for fail­ing to rec­og­nize the impor­tance of access to con­tra­cep­tives for women’s rights: “World­wide, the sin­gle great­est fac­tor in lift­ing soci­eties out of poverty is women gain­ing the abil­ity to con­trol when they become preg­nant.” The Min­neapo­lis Star Tri­bunesaid that “allow­ing an employer to choose which type of con­tra­cep­tion mer­its cov­er­age reverts to an ear­lier, darker age in atti­tudes about women’s role in reproduction.”

Still oth­ers fear that the deci­sion opens the door to fur­ther ero­sion indi­vid­u­als’ rights and gov­ern­ment entan­gle­ment in the exer­cise of reli­gion. The New York Times called the deci­sion “a rad­i­cal depar­ture from the court’s his­tory of resist­ing claims for reli­gious exemp­tions from neu­tral laws of gen­eral applic­a­bil­ity when the exemp­tions would hurt other peo­ple.” USA Today warned of the “deeply dis­turb­ing propo­si­tion” that the deci­sion could force the gov­ern­ment to judge “whether a business’s reli­gious prin­ci­ples merit spe­cial treat­ment that its more sec­u­lar com­peti­tors don’t get.” The Wash­ing­ton Post urged Con­gress to limit the dam­age of the deci­sion by leg­isla­tively over­turn­ing it.

Sup­port­ers, how­ever, hail Hobby Lobby as a bold recog­ni­tion of reli­gious lib­erty. The Wall Street Jour­nal called the deci­sion “an impor­tant vin­di­ca­tion of reli­gious lib­erty in this (still, bless­edly) con­sti­tu­tional repub­lic.” The New York Daily News cel­e­brated that Court’s con­clu­sion that “own­ers of closely held com­pa­nies should not be forced to sac­ri­fice their reli­gious lib­erty sim­ply because they incor­po­rated to do business.”

How­ever one views the Court’s deci­sion, Hobby Lobby clearly touches on many polit­i­cal and legal fault lines. The ADL believes that the deci­sion threat­ens many anti-discrimination laws and will work to limit its impact.

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