religious liberty » ADL Blogs
Posts Tagged ‘religious liberty’
June 7, 2016

Governor Urges Iowans to Attend Bible Marathons

Iowa Governor, Terry E. Branstand, recently issued a religiously divisive and likely unconstitutional proclamation urging all Iowans to attend state-wide Bible reading marathons organized by Christian-based groups.

Iowa gov proclamationDeclaring “the Bible … as the one true revelation from God, showing the way of Salvation, Truth, and Life …,” the proclamation states that the Governor:

… encourage[s] all Iowans to join in this historical 99 County Bible Reading Marathon to take place June 30th through July 3rd, 2016 in front of all 99 courthouses and furthermore, encourages individuals and families in Iowa to read through the Bible on a daily basis each year until the Lord comes.

Reading the Bible gives many Americans guidance, strength and comfort.  And it is completely appropriate for clergy and other religious leaders to call on congregants to read the Bible.  The Governor, however, should not be promoting such activities.

This proclamation divides Iowans along religious lines within and outside the Christian faith.  As a starting point, there are numerous versions of the Christian Bible.  So which version is the right one for Iowans read?  Undoubtedly, the proclamation also sends a message of exclusion and marginalization to Iowans who are not Christian or are of no faith.

The Governor’s action is a good illustration for why the First Amendment prohibits government from preferring one faith or religion more generally.   Official religious partiality erodes non-adherents’ trust in government treating them fairly and in the most extreme cases can coerce adoption of a particular faith based on the belief that it will result in favorable treatment.

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March 4, 2016

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

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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