Sunday, September 29, 2013

United States Penitentiaries, where religious freedom is in question and fish isn’t meat.

Meet Howard Cosby. Cosby is a 35-year-old man currently being housed in a facility in Uncasville, Connecticut that is refusing to provide him with vegetarian meals that would allow him to abide by his Buddhist lifestyle of nonviolence. Sounds like a simple denial of religious freedom, right? Did I mention that the aforementioned “facility” is a prison? And he is there due to no small crimes.
Howard Cosby is currently serving a 19 ½ year sentence that began in 2004 at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution due to charges of sexual assault and “other crimes”. While at the prison, despite wishing to eat a vegetarian diet due to religious reasons, he was given fish 3 times a week. Cosby complained to the administration, to which they replied that the department does not consider fish to be meat, therefore his diet is indeed vegetarian! Cosby then proceeded to pen a letter to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) detailing his experience. PETA then wrote a letter to the warden, Scott Erfe, asking that fish be removed from his diet, citing the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This act, which was passed in 2000, requires that prisons “avoid imposing substantial burdens on inmates’ religious exercises”. In addition, the prison’s directives require that an inmate’s diet meet certain nutritional requirements and not contain “food items forbidden by religious dogma.”
            The question as to whether fish is meat or not is something I cannot nor will attempt to answer. While answering this question will allow us to determine whether the prison’s actions clearly violate their own directives, it is ultimately a red herring, as there are other issues to consider when trying deciding if the prison should accommodate his religious practice. One such issue is something that has been mentioned in prior Supreme Court cases that we have covered, and that is the issue of sincerity. In past Supreme Court cases, United States v. Seeger and United States vs Ballard for example, the Supreme Court was not interested in assessing the merit of the belief. Rather, they only wished to assess whether the belief was sincerely held. Assessing sincerity is important, for if someone claiming to be denied religious freedom is deemed insincere, then their entire argument falls apart. Cosby’s sincerity can definitely be brought into question in this case. Cosby claims that he wishes to maintain a vegetarian diet as part of the “Buddhist lifestyle of non-violence”, yet he is in jail for sexual assault, a violent crime, and has enlisted help from PETA, an organization with a history of violence. Therefore, it seems as though the “Buddhist lifestyle of non-violence” may be of little interest to him, and that his religious validation may be a false pretense, and he is more interested in animal rights than in non-violence. However, while I do think that it is sometimes necessary to assess the sincerity of one’s religious belief, as difficult as it may be, I feel it is a “slippery slope” and that it could quickly devolve into incessant poking of holes into peoples past conduct. A question I thus have is to what degree is it ok to question someone else’s religious sincerity?

            Another issue that needs to be considered is one of safety. If the prison were to provide him a vegetarian diet, it could potentially single Cosby out, as the other inmates could view this as preferential treatment, something they may not appreciate. A visible pacifist may not be safe in a prison environment, which could therefore lead to fights that put both the staff at the prison and the inmates, including Cosby himself, in danger. Therefore, providing him with vegetarian food could pose a serious safety hazard to everyone who is at the prison.

            Whether or not this is a violation of the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons act is a matter of perspective, as it depends on what constitutes “substantial burdens on inmates’ religious exercises”.  Due to these issues, I do not think that Cosby is entitled to a vegetarian diet. While denying a vegetarian meal to someone practicing a non-violent Buddhist lifestyle may be a violation of the First Amendment in itself, if Cosby does not truly have the religious beliefs in the first place, then it is a moot point. In addition, even if Cosby was thought to be sincere in his beliefs, providing him with a vegetarian meal could potentially put many people, including him, in danger. While it would be nice to provide him with vegetarian meals so he can freely practice his supposed religion, I feel that there are too many risks involved with letting that happen.

            What do you all think? Is Cosby sincere? Does it matter if he is sincere? Is my assessment of prisoner politics correct? Is fish meat? Please share your thoughts.

Symbolism & Seals

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently wrote a letter to Mayor Robert Apgar about the seal of the city of Deland, Florida. In the letter, they noted that Deland’s seal contains “symbols that promote ‘Christian theological virtues’” and that a resident had sent them a complaint. Rabbi Merrill Shapiro sent this complaint and proposed that the religious symbols on the seal had negative psychological ramifications for non-Christians.
Deland’s seal does in fact have a cross on it, as well as a heart and anchor, but the city attorney argued in a letter that these symbols do not promote Christianity. The seal, he holds, traces back to the city’s founding and the symbols were chosen due to their symbolism of “faith, hope and charity.” In the 131 years of Deland’s history, the city has never had a complaint about the seal until now. This conflict has yet to see any legal recourse, but an attorney with Americans United is reviewing options.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion…” Court cases over the years have been called to interpret the Establishment clause on numerous occasions and certain key distinctions have aided in creating precedent. The phrase “wall of separation” and the idea that governments should be ‘neutral’ to religions have thus come to be associated with the First Amendment.
So does the Deland seal help establish Christianity and therefore must be removed or changed?
Precedent dictates yes. While the Supreme Court has yet to hear a case related to government seals, several lower courts have faced this issue and come to find that religious symbols like latin crosses or even a Mormon temple on seals violate the Establishment clause. Notable cases include Robinson v. City of Edmond, Harris v. City of Zion, and ACLU v. City of Stow.
Of cases involving seals and religious symbols, one case has in fact held that the seal in question did not violate the Establishment clause. In Murray v. City of Austin, the court used the Lemon Test to justify ruling the Latin cross in the seal constitutional. The secular purpose of the test was largely passed because the city based its seal on the Austin family coat of arms.
If I were to base my personal belief on the constitutionality of Deland’s seal on precedent, then I would have to agree with the lower courts: such a seal violates the Establishment clause as it endorses religion. I could support this further by applying the Lemon test that the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman Supreme Court case created. The Deland seal would fail the effects part of the test because it might advance Christianity with the religious symbol of a cross and because non-adherents to Christianity (like Rabbi Shapiro) could perceive the symbols as “a disapproval of their individual religious choices.”
Unfortunately, these arguments are inadequate for me.
I feel that if the national motto of “In God We Trust” has been upheld as constitutional, particularly because of its historical significance, then the symbols in Deland’s seal are constitutional as well. While Deland’s seal does not predate the inclusion of “In God We Trust” on coins, it certainly predates the 1956 establishment of the phrase as our national motto and thus has rival historical meaning. Historically, the US was founded on Judeo-Christian values so it makes sense that many local governments made the decision to include a symbol of faith like the cross as a part of their seal. The cross does not necessarily impose religion on anyone; it simply reflects the historical reality of Deland 131 years ago behind other symbols of hope and charity. If the attorney was correct that those behind the seal added the cross as a symbol of ‘faith,’ then the cross does not necessarily have to allude to Christianity but perhaps instead to the faith of the people in the city’s potential.

The United States has obviously been able to accommodate religious references and symbols in the past provided that they have historical significance, so I do not see why Deland should ever have to change their seal.

Street Name Hampering Religious Rights?

On Sunday, September 22, 2013, the leaders of a mosque in the city of Paterson, New Jersey filed a federal lawsuit against their councilman, Mohammed Akhtaruzzman, for violating their right to freedom of religion, as granted by the First Amendment. Akhtaruzzman wished to rename the street on which the mosque resides in honor of a recently deceased member of this Islamic group. The mosque leaders viewed this as a violation of Islamic law, which is based on equality of all men.
The street name change was intended to commemorate Alhaj Forman Ali for his contributions to the Islamic Foundation of New Jersey, but Akhtaruzzman did not realize the controversy it would cause. The mosque leaders found fault with the city officials for failing to notify them of the proposed street name change. Members of the mosque argued that the naming of the street after one person “taints the Mosque as a place of worship where all men are deemed equal.” As a result, they believe members will leave this mosque and find a new place of worship. The leaders contend that the religious inequality that would derive from the changing of the street name would cause a serious decrease in support for the mosque, and ultimately would no longer be used for worship.
Ali’s family believes that the opposition to the street name change is out of jealousy, and Forman Ali should be recognized for his contributions to the religion. They argue that the street is not the property of the mosque, and therefore the mosque leaders should not have influence on what it should be called.
On Tuesday, the controversy was settled with a compromise. After witnessing the outrage that resulted from his wish to change the street name, Akhtaruzzaman agreed to change the street name to be in honor of Jalalabad, which is the name of the mosque, and also the name of the region in Bangladesh from which many of the citizens of Paterson have come.

Members of the Bangladeshi community at the Paterson City Council on Tuesday.
Members of the Bangladeshi community
at the Paterson City Council on Tuesday.
Had Councilman Akhtaruzzman not agreed to the compromise, who should have won the dispute? The mosque leaders believed the street naming would be in contention with their Islamic beliefs, and ultimately prohibit their free exercise of that religion. But does the changing of a street name really hamper their ability to practice their Islamic religion in that mosque?
In my opinion, I would side with Akhtaruzzman and Forman Ali’s family. I do not see how the change in a street name could really deny the members of the mosque their ability to exercise their religion freely. The name of the street is not a reflection of the mosque that was established there. It was a decision made outside the religious sphere of the mosque. I think the idea of the name change was a way to commemorate this respected person in a way that is independent of the religious foundation. This change would not directly hamper the members of the mosque from their religious practices. No restrictions would be put on the use of the mosque, so practices would most likely go on as they have done so before. The street is not the property of this mosque and encompasses all other buildings and organizations on that particular road. Therefore, it is not directly and only associated with the mosque. It is hard to believe that the name of a street would have such drastic consequences for the general religious support of the mosque. The changing of the street name to one individual does not represent the mosque’s decision to hold one person above other members of the religion. Therefore, members will not be dissuaded to attend or support that mosque based on its street name. The mosque leaders were likely not notified of the plan to change the street name because the councilman viewed it as a small change that would have little to no effect on the organizations situated on that street. Whatever name the street is given will not alter anyone’s opinion of the mosque.

If councilman Akhtaruzzman had wanted to change the name of the actual mosque to honor Forman Ali, I would clearly see the contention with the Islamic beliefs. But seeing as it is the street name, and not a direct association of the mosque, I do not see how the argument for the prohibition of religious free exercise can be justified.

Did You Pass Your Spiritual Test?

The military made it mandatory for their soldiers to take a “Spiritual Fitness” test to measure their levels of faith, beliefs and values.  It was not until 2011 that the Army faced public scrutiny of such testing and most Americans were at disbelief that such a test exists. 

"no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." (Article VI of our Constitution)

Some may argue that this is a very self-explanatory clause; no religious test should be required as a qualification to be part of any office or government position in our country. Blake Page interprets that our founders included this clause in order to prevent "anybody of the United States government from levying legal authority as a tool of tyranny by the religious majority." If any government institution uses religious testing to choose their members, that institution is clearly violating the Constitution based on this clause. 

If one were to fail this test the Army offered to have these individuals attend "remedial training" that required them to undergo spiritual training and visit chaplains. Under serious publicity and efforts from religious freedom organizations (Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Military Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers), the Army decided in February of 2011 to not have these religious tests as a mandatory requirement for their soldiers but remedial training will still be offered but it would be optional. 

The Marines however has not put an end on this mandatory test and it has been found in their doctrines that any "lack or loss of spiritual faith as a guidance/moral compass" becomes a risk indicator that leads to a lack of courage, psychiatric hospitalizations, substance abuse and becoming anti-social. In other words, the Marines have a strong stance that those who lack religious beliefs or do not partake in any religion are considered to be a risk to themselves and the Corps and therefore are placed under high surveillance and inspection.   

I think that it is absolutely ridiculous that there is such a thing as a mandatory "Spiritual and Religious" test. As a military organization you would think that there would be some kind of neutrality where individuals are entitled to their own beliefs. Their argument is that such a lack of belief and spiritually means that an individual is unstable to carry out their duties and responsibilities and in order to avoid any mishaps they are required to undergo remedial training. Remedial training? As in, imposing a religion on these individuals? Then comes the question: which religion is chosen for this remedial training? Wouldn't atheists fill attacked because they hold no kind of spirituality? And what about those individuals who are in different religions and do not agree with the religion offered in this remedial training? Taking these questions into consideration, I believe that such test is a clear violation of the clause, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification." I also think that the Marines are overgeneralizing that everyone who does not have a religion or spirituality are incapable and unstable to function, an argument that I think is rather weak. It is important to address this issue because there needs to be a line drawn between religious freedom and government institutions imposing religion. 

Therefore I think that the Marines should do exactly what the Army did, take away this mandatory test but offer remedial training to those Marines who please to seek spiritual guidance. However in order to sustain neutrality, there should be a variety of religions offered rather than just one. What if instead of calling it "remedial training" it can be called "remedial therapy"? At least in my opinion, this way there will be no religion imposed and one has the freedom to seek religious/spiritual guidance if they wish to do so. 

What are your thoughts about this "Spiritual/Religious" test? Are these mandatory tests constitutional/unconstitutional? Should they be banned? And this brings us to the question: to what extent should we legislate morality? 

The Mark of the Beast

In recent news a man named Beverly R. Butcher Jr. is filing a lawsuit against Consol Energy on behalf of his religious beliefs. Consol Energy/Consolidation Coal Company had employed Butcher until after the company acquired a biometric hand-scanning device in order to keep track of employees time and attendance. Butcher wrote a letter to his employers describing his objection to the use of the hand-scanning device, which he said is “against his religious beliefs.” Butcher explained that the hand-scanning device is linked to the mark of the beast and the antichrist as explained in the book of Revelation, chapter 13, verse 16 and asked for an exemption to the use of this device based on his religious beliefs.

In response, the designers of the hand-scanning technology wrote a letter to “Whom it may Concern” in regards to the lawsuit filed against the company. In the letter the manufacturers assured that the said product does not assign the mark of the beast to its users. The letter also stated that, since the verse that Butcher referenced in the bible only mentions the Mark of the Beast on the right hand, users with these specific religious reservations should not have a problem with using their left hand to be scanned. Butcher, not satisfied with this explanation, since he had requested complete exemption from the hand-scanner, was led to retire. He was allegedly forced to retire, as his attorney might put it, at an earlier age than he had planned due to unfair treatment on the basis of his religious beliefs.

What is interesting about this case is that the lawsuit is not explicitly based on the first amendment. In fact the first amendment is not even mentioned in the description of the case. Consol Energy is being sued with the hopes of ordering an injunction to stop the company from discriminating based on religious belief. In addition, the lawsuit hopes to win Butcher some compensation for his forced early retirement from Consol. I think the heart of this issue touches on the free exercise clause of the first amendment, specifically Butcher’s ability to freely exercise religion. The question is, should Butcher have been exempt from this company policy because of his certain religious beliefs? Despite the fact that the verse in Revelation discusses only the mark of the beast in regards to the right hand and forehead, should Butcher’s interpretation of this being either hand allow him an exemption?

I could offer an opinion in either direction here. This case begs an interpretation based the ideas of accommodation and strict separation as discussed in cases such as McCollum v. BOARD OF EDUCATION. This situation is quite different but, in my opinion, Consol should have accommodated Butcher’s religious beliefs and allowed him to record times and such with a supervisor in place of any type of hand scanning. I believe the court should rule in favor of Butcher and grant him compensation. Even though the bible specifically mentions the right hand and forehead in regards to the mark of the beast, one’s religious convictions are often based on interpretation of a written statement. The court does not have the place to decide whether or not Butcher’s religious convictions and interpretations of the bible in regards to his own life are valid. In SHERBERT v. VERNER the court did not discriminate on religious belief or interpretation but accommodated based on a woman’s religious convictions and interpretation regarding the Sabbath day. The same should hold for Butcher’s case at hand.

However, I recognize that company policy is in place for a reason. The reason is partially to create organization and accountability within the company. The policy applies to all, and was not set in place to discriminate against one religious group or affiliation. In other words, it is a secular policy. Invoking the slippery slope argument, if this man is accommodated, what should follow? Soon the company may have to individually check in each person because of other religious convictions and the whole organized structure falls apart. I think this argument is weak, since this is a very specific request and there do not appear to be other specific religious convictions against hand scanning. In addition, this is a free exercise which does not cause harm to others but applies to the private sphere of one individual. Therefore, Consol should be made to accommodate based on this religious belief.

What do you think? Should Butcher be compensated for unfair treatment? Is it simply ridiculous that he would invoke this passage in the bible? Does the court have the right to decide that?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Universities as Institutions

Recently, a group of four Christian universities located in Oklahoma were represented by an organization whose attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against the Obama administration. The four universities that are filing the lawsuit are Southern Nazarene University, Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Oklahoma Baptist University, and Mid-America Christian University. The organization is Alliance Defending Freedom and is an American conservative Christian non-profit organization whose attorneys are also participating in 13 other lawsuits against the mandate. All four schools appose the mandate that forces them to supply contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs to it’s employees as it goes directly against their beliefs as Christian universities. Other than believing that the universities are being forced to abandon their religious beliefs, the schools believe that they are being treated as “second-class religious organizations, not entitled to the same religious freedom rights as substantially similar entities that qualify for the exemptions.”

The universities believe that the mandate violates the first and fifth amendments along with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act breech is believed to be the fines that would follow if the universities did not offer the mandated coverage because the fines would create a major financial situation that could cause the universities to stop proceeding. The first amendment breech presented is believed to be that the universities are privately owned and are religious institutions and the mandate would force them to not practice their religious beliefs by forcing them to offer something they believe against their religion.

One way of looking at this situation is that the universities do not employ only Christian staff members, which would give reason to have the mandate, forced upon them. The universities cannot discriminate in the hiring process and some of the professors may not be Christians who believe that these medical treatments go against his or her religious beliefs. While they are a private university, one may argue that this diversity of employees can be used as the main reason for the universities to need to offer the mandated services. Another reason one may argue this is that the schools, while religiously affiliated, are not religious institutions in themselves, also serving students that may not fall in line with the religious beliefs so to claim that they are strictly a Christian institutions would not be entirely correct but merely an institutions of high education. The next reason a person could give is that Christian beliefs are a vague notion to reference, as there are many Christian groups that do not view these forms of medicine in a negative fashion. The universities could also be under scrutiny for appealing this if they accept money from the government for being an academic institution. Finally, a person may argue that an affiliation with a religious entity does not necessarily constitute being governed by those religious laws.

The other view would be that the universities should be granted the exception to the healthcare mandate. The reasons one could give for this claim is that the universities are all private institutions and that they are religiously affiliated therefore allowing the exemption. A second reason one could give is that the universities clearly identify with the Christian religion and that the people who seek employment there would need to understand that they are working at a religiously affiliated institution. Thirdly, the schools have established themselves as religious institutions and that to view them as less of a religious institution than other academic institutions that have the religious affiliation would be discrimination against the four universities.

I have mixed feelings on the situation, as I can understand that they are a private institution that is explicitly affiliated with their specific Christian religious views. However, I also believe that they are not the church itself and while they would need to offer the medical treatments to all, there is nothing forcing the individual person to partake in the treatments. The religious freedoms are given to the individual person, not an inanimate institution. The people who work at and operate the universities are not being forced to take the treatments, they are only being offered to them. I also do not see the university as being able to deny someone a medical treatment when it does not go against his or her own religious beliefs. With all taken into consideration I would have to say that I do not approve of giving the institution that ability to deny its employees of a medicine.

Creationism vs. The Constitution

           Creation science, or creationism, has been a hot button issue around certain areas of the United States for decades. Creationists believe in an alternative theory to the development of evolution – specifically that the Bible gives a literal account of the creation of the universe and all living things.  Social conservatives, who believe in this theory of evolution, continually attempt to have this taught in public schools.

            A common controversy in Texas is how much of a role it receives within the textbooks that the state condones for use.  Every few years, Texas reviews the material within textbooks they use in public schools.  Each time this happens the debate about whether to include creationism, among other alternative theories of evolution, comes up.  Many scientists, as well as parents, take issue with the idea of creationism being taught in public schools. Their problem, however, is that many of the people appointed to review the textbooks have no background in science, and more than a few believe in creationism.  The approved books will be placed in classrooms beginning in the 2014-2015 school year and will not be reviewed again for at least eight years, making people nervous about the lasting impact such information may have. 
           The main issue in this debate is whether supporting creationism is supporting a religious belief.  Creationism is based on biblical premises, but it is also offering an alternative theory to evolution – one that proponents say is just as much a guess at our origins as Darwinian evolution is.  The courts have been tangling with creationism in schools for decades.  In 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not allow for states to require teaching and learning to be tied to any religious sects, and that the state has no appropriate interest in protecting any or all religions from views that may offend them.  Then, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled on Edwards v. Aguillard, establishing the current view of the court on creationism and furthering their previous ruling.  Repealing a Louisiana law that required creation science be taught in public schools in addition to evolution, the Court declared that the law was made to advance a particular religious belief and therefore was in violation of the First Amendment.  Because of this, Texas cannot mandate coverage of creationism, but they can push to have evolution questioned, and leave open the possibilities of alternative explanations, suggesting creationism as one of those.

            Should creationism be included in Texas’ instructional materials for kindergarten through twelfth grade as an alternative explanation?  Should creationism and other alternative theories even be allowed?  These other theories are minority views, so does the Constitution protect them? Mainstream America has decided that the scientific community came up with a fully acceptable and logical explanation of evolution.  Social conservatives disagree – they believe that there is not enough evidence to support evolutionary theory and that children should at least be exposed to multiple theories and decide for themselves which they find more appealing. 

            While there are many good arguments brought up by creationists, such as letting the kids decide for themselves, I am not persuaded.  I agree with the Supreme Court’s decision that creationism is a religious principal and therefore cannot be supported in Texas’ public school textbooks.  Allowing for creationism to be taught in public schools means giving preference to a religious principal that is in essence based off of western religions.  By using the “let children choose” argument, other evolutionary theories would also have to be allowed in textbooks.  Who draws the line on what can be considered valid evolutionary theory to be taught?  This opens the “slippery slope” argument.  As long as the courts maintain the view they have now, complete separation of religion, creationist theory, and law on this matter, no other groups have a claim to put their versions of evolution into the textbooks.

            Public schools should continue to teach children Darwinian evolution.  If parents wish for their kids to learn alternative theories, they should either enroll them in an afterschool religious program or teach them at home.

            What are your opinions on alternative theories of evolution being edited into textbooks?  Should kids be taught multiple theories of evolution in public school or would that be supporting a specific religious belief?