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Posts Tagged ‘separation of church and state’
March 17, 2016

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.

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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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October 23, 2014

HHS Issues Overly-Broad Draft Rule Following Hobby Lobby

The U.S. Supreme Court’s deeply-troubling decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby allows certain for-profit, corporations to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraception mandate based on religious objections.  In in an effort to comply with the decision, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) issued a new proposed rule defining organizations and corporations eligible for religious accommodation similar to those already available to religious nonprofits.  ADL firmly believes that the proposed rule is too broad and recently submitted comments urging a more narrow definition of eligible organizations.  hs-issues-overly-broad-draft-hobby-lobby

The ACA requires employer-provided health insurance to include coverage for the full range of Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved contraceptives and health services. Recognizing that contraception implicates religious beliefs, HHS exempted houses of worship and other pervasively-religious employers from the contraception mandate.  It also accommodated religiously-affiliated nonprofits (including schools and hospitals) by creating a mechanism through which employees’ contraceptives are made available by third-party insurers without cost-sharing by the employer or the individuals accessing these services.

Notwithstanding these extraordinary accommodation efforts, owners of secular, for-profit corporations have filled dozens of lawsuits under the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) asserting religious objections to the contraception mandate.  These cases culminated in the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision.  ADL joined an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief to the Court in the case arguing that the connection between an employee’s private decision to utilize contraceptives made available under the ACA is so far removed from an employer (likely entirely unknown), it could not possibly meet the RFRA standard of imposing a “substantial burden” on the religious practices of the corporations’ owners.

However, the Supreme Court’s disturbing decision ruled that RFRA empowers certain private, closely-held corporations to impose their religious beliefs on employees by refusing to include contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance plans.  Following this decision, HHS issued its proposed new rule for closely held, for-profit corporations – and asked for comments on how to define eligibility for this accommodation.

ADL firmly believes that every woman should have access to the full range of FDA-approved contraceptives, without additional costs.  Our comments on the proposed rule argue that a narrow definition of eligible organizations is necessary in order to limit the number of secular, for-profit owners who could impose their religious beliefs on their employees – and to limit overall litigation.  We also urged that closely-held corporations seeking to opt out of the contraception mandate be required to demonstrate that their religious objections are guided by sincerely-held religious beliefs documented in corporate charters, business practices, policies, and operations.

A final rule is expected in the next few months.

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October 3, 2014

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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