Sunday, January 31, 2016

Religious liberty or discrimination?

The tension between religious freedom and the law is palpable, and in the past years this tension has only become more apparent. The line between religious freedom and discriminatory actions is often not well defined, due to this unsettled issue we often see cases that beg the question, is the exclusion of certain groups on the basis of religious beliefs ethical?
Since the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage would be legal in all 50 States, legislators across the country have been proposing bills that would make it so business owners, and some public employees have the ability to refuse services to people, based on their sexual preference, by saying that it goes against their religious beliefs. Bills like Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and now in Georgia, Senate Bill 129 has gained much attention for doing just this. This bill would allow for business owners to refuse services to homosexual people, on the basis that it goes against their religious beliefs.  
Josh Mckoon (R-Columbus)
This is the second time Senate Bill 129 will be put to vote. The first time was in mid 2015, the Bill went through the Georgia State Senate, and passed without a hitch, the bill was stopped in the House Judiciary Committee, however, for not having an anti-discriminatory clause. The creator of the Bill, Senator Josh Mckoon (R-Columbus) states that that if an anti-discriminatory clause were to be added the essence of the bill would be gutted. Without this anti-discriminatory clause, support for this bill went from a large bipartisan support to having only 27% of the state senate’s support, made up almost exclusively of republicans. Gay rights groups are not the only groups contesting the passage of this bill. Senate Bill 129 is one of many bill the members of the Georgia state legislature are trying to add to ‘help combat the war against religious liberty’. Nevertheless Mckoon denies all assertions that the bill has an anti-gay agenda.
Major corporations, such as Google, Coca-Cola, and Delta Airlines are in fierce opposition of this Bill, citing the harm it did to the Indiana state economy after they passed a very similar Bill in 2015. According to a study, if Georgia was to pass this bill without an anti-discriminatory clause they are looking at national outrage, leading to an annual 4% loss in investment throughout the state, affecting the states economy exorbitantly.
            In terms of discrimination, this Bill could be detrimental to the status of gay and lesbian people living in Georgia. In 21 states, there are laws in place to protect people from discrimination based on sexual preference, however Georgia is not one of them. Without laws like this, Senate Bill 129 will lead to gays and lesbians being treated by the states government as second-class citizens. The language of this bill is far to flexible not to have an anti-discriminatory clause, without it I believe this bill to be unconstitutional because it unfairly disadvantages a certain group.
            Erick Erickson a radio host, and a very vocal supporter of Senate Bill 129 claimed; “absolute majority of American support religious exceptions relating to providing goods and services to gay marriage.” What Mr. Erickson, as well as other supporters of this bill forget, is that the law is there to protect minorities, not the majority. Supporters of this Bill also argue that it has no anti-gay agenda, however no activist groups have spoken positively about the Bill.
The bothersome aspect of this Bill is its stance on what you can and cannot discriminate against. Like race and gender, sexual preference is something you cannot decide. I think James Esseks, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & HIV Project director says it best; “Religious freedom is critical to America’s core identity, but we know religious freedom doesn’t give anyone the right to harm other people. That’s discrimination, not religious freedom.”

Thankfully the chance this bill passes through Senate is little to none without legislators adding an anti-discriminatory clause, which the authors of this Bill seem firmly against. This Bill does bring a lot of unresolved issues to the forefront, should religious beliefs allow you to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference? This debate is on going, and Senator Mckoon’s bill is not alone on trying to create more protections for religious groups to combat the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, religious liberty is a cornerstone of American politics, however we must ensure that by supporting one group we are not putting another at a disadvantage.

Trinity Lutheran Church Fighting for a Safer Playground

The Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia in Missouri runs a preschool and daycare program that hopes to replace pea gravel on their playground with recycled material, a safer alternative. In 2012 when the Church applied for a grant in order to fund this exchange, the Missouri Department of Natural resources refused their request, asserting that the use of state funds on playground equipment at Trinity was a violation of the First Amendment because it would be an establishment of religion. 

The Trinity Church sued, claiming the decision violates the First Amendment. Senior Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom eloquently stated that, “No state can define religious neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else,” because a secular school would’ve been approved for the grant. There needs to be neutrality when enforcing policies that would treat religious and secular schools equally and provide the same incentives, but it’s evident that religious schools are discriminated in this case.

The 8th Circuit Court agreed with Missouri Department of Natural Resources stating that providing funding for the Church would be “an establishment of religion.” The court illustrated the complexity of the case stating, “It is apparent that Trinity Church seeks an unprecedented ruling–that a state constitution violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause if it bars the grant of public funds to a church. … In our view, only the Supreme Court can make that leap.” The Supreme Court has decided to take on this case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Pauley, and a decision will be made by the end of June.

 The question at hand is if a church has the right to receive funding from the government for a non-church related function (i.e. preschool)? The Trinity Lutheran Church asked for money for a secular purpose of improving playground safety, so is it an unconstitutional establishment of religion if the government provided a grant to the Trinity Church?

The main argument against the court ruling, advocating for the Trinity Church to receive the government grant for a safer playground, is that the money that Trinity Church receives is to improve playground safety, not to preach Lutheranism. Trinity Church applied for this grant to keep the children safe. The argument against this, however, is that funding the Church to build a safer playground is indirectly creating an establishment of religion because the money that the Lutheran Church would have used to pay for the playground could instead be used to advance the Lutheran Church.  Another critical point in favor of the church is that if the government gave money to a church for a secular cause, it would be able to monitor the church's funds that the government contributed to, allowing them to avoid an entanglement between religion and state.

On the other hand, the court reasonably justified their decision to not provide Trinity Church the grant. Giving money to the church, even for a preschool, is acknowledging the Lutheran Church because it is likely that Lutheran values are taught at the preschool. In this case, the government has given money to help the Trinity Church advocate for Lutheranism.

The more consequential reason that the court’s ruling is warranted is that giving money to the Trinity Church for a secular cause would allow any religious group to create secular division to receive grants from the government, Most religions would probably then create secular divisions within their church to apply for government grants to gain this economic advantage. As a result, there probably would not be enough taxpayer money for all the religious institutions and the issues that taxpayer money is used for currently, which Daniel Mach, director of Program on Freedom of Religion Belief for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), recognizes when he claims that, “State taxpayer shouldn’t be forced to subsidize religious activities and institutions.”

This raises the most critical aspect of the case, which is that the Trinity Lutheran Church is a private institution. Only public institutions should receive money from the government because private institutions get their own funding, while the only funding public schools get is from the government. Churches receive donations and get tax exemptions. It is unfair to public institutions that the Trinity Church would be able to get a grant even though it already receives tax exemptions and is primarily funded through donations, which is the main reason why the court made the right decision refusing the to give the grant to the Trinity Lutheran Church. 

Can religious beliefs exempt individuals from the law?

In recent years, religion has become more debatable within the United States, due to the growing numbers of different religious groups, which are constantly entering the country. However, in a country, which was established upon Christian principles, there is still a great amount of animosity between Christian populations and particular political social groups. With these growing tensions, come several disagreements between these avid followers of the Christian religion and specific social groups; for example, the conflict between the state of Washington and Ralph’s Thriftway, a small family owned grocery store.
In 2007, the State of Washington mandated that all pharmacies within the state be willing to sell Plan-B and other “abortion inducing drugs”. While this may seem slightly unnecessary to someone who does not affiliate himself or herself with a conservative religion, it is a big deal to those living in and near Olympia, Washington, home to Ralph’s Thriftway.
Ralph’s Thriftway, as stated previously, is a small, family owned grocery store, and so happens to be a Christian affiliated company, due to the Storman family’s affiliation with the church. The store sells an assortment of items, ranging from your standard fruits and vegetables, to toiletries. However, what really sets this grocery store apart from other small, non-chain stores, is the fact that it has a pharmacy. Yes, a pharmacy; perfect for a small town, or so you would think.
Due to the Storman’s dedication to the Christian religion, the store is refusing to sell Plan-B and other abortifacients. While some would not consider the consumption of Plan-B and other similar products to be an abortion, the Storman family does.
Plan-B and other abortifacients are used to prevent a possible pregnancy. Whether the egg has already been fertilized, or the consumption of the pill is strictly precautionary, the purpose of the pill is the same: to prevent a possible pregnancy. In lieu of this, the Storman family sees this as an act of abortion by a potential mother, due to the fact that, while the fertilized egg has not attached to the wall of the uterus, there is still a potential life form being created. While alternative groups may find this to be quite extreme, the Storman family is sticking to their claim and refusing to sell the products. However, they do notify customers as to where they may obtain the drugs at other, nearby, pharmacies.
So if the Storman’s are aiding their customers in obtaining the drugs they need, why is their refusal to sell the drugs such a big deal?
The owners of Ralph’s Thriftway believe they should be exempt from the otherwise secular law due to their religious beliefs. In addition, they believe they should be exempt from Washington State’s law, due to the fact that they are a small  business, surrounded by larger businesses, which carry the drugs. In all, should the Storman family’s religious beliefs exempt them from this law?
Some would argue yes, if the pharmacists are referring their clients to alternate locations which sell the drugs they are seeking, then they should not have to sell aborificients due to their religious beliefs. However, others, such as myself, may argue in opposition.
In all, Ralph’s Thriftway should not be exempt from selling Plan B and other abortifacients strictly based upon their religious beliefs. 
When an individual, or family, opens any type of business, whether that may be a
grocery store or a restaurant, they are there to adhere to the needs of those they are serving. It is not within their role to deny a customer of a service or product based solely upon their personal beliefs. Take this for example: a Christian restaurant denies a gay couple service, because, based upon their religious beliefs, they do not support same sex marriages. So, as a result, they send them to an alternative restaurant down the street, where they know they will be served the food they were seeking. This is not justified. How is the case of Ralph’s Thriftway any different?
Often times, for a female, going to a pharmacy and asking for an abortifacient takes a special type of courage and strength that no one may understand until they themselves have to do it. By undermining this courage, Ralph's Thriftway is making it more difficult for women who's circumstances include, but also span far beyond,  a simple accident. These women may not have had your standard “mistake” the night prior; they may be victims of horrible crimes, seeking the aid of a pill, which will help to ensure that they will not have to be further pained by their experience. 
This case has gained much traction in the debate between religious liberties and abiding by the law, through the Supreme Court.
So I ask you this: who is the Storman family to think that their religious beliefs not only exempt them from the law, but also justify taking away the opportunity to help a female in possibly protecting her future?

Suggestive Wording in Arkansas Abortion Laws

This January, the Arkansas State Board of Health voted against suggestive anti-abortion language in state laws passed in 2015 that referred to abortion as "death of an unborn child" multiple times. The Board voted to change the language to a more neutral and less loaded phrase "termination of pregnancy".  The board's vote was 12-6 in favor of the new language, with five members choosing to abstain based on the controversial nature of the vote. The State Board of Health was warned by several Arkansas department officials that the Legislature would likely reject this new wording, and may even retaliate against the board.

Although the Supreme Court decided in the famous 1973 case Roe v. Wade that abortion was legal under the Due Process Clause, abortion has continued to come under fire by conservatives, most recently with the arguments in Congress over defunding Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides abortions among a slew of other reproductive health care options, such as access to birth control, pap smears, STI testing and treatment, and prenatal health care. But, ultimately the issue comes down to whether or not the suggestive phrasing is constitutional based on the Establishment Clause of the First amendment, which prohibits any sort of establishment of religion. One definition of establishment is "an arranged order or system, especially a legal code".

The phrasing of the law is blatantly ideological in nature. The main religions we know today came well before the scientific knowledge and medical advancements which we have made in recent centuries. This knowledge has led to the ability to perform medically safe abortions. However, many different religious leaders have come forward staunchly opposing abortion based on different ideological arguments from religious texts, especially the Bible. This has created communities and organizations of people who oppose abortion based on religious values. One nuance of this issue is that because of the age of the Bible, it never explicitly says anything about abortion, as it did not exist in a safe medical context when the Bible was written. Yet religious leaders still use religious arguments to defame abortion. Historically, people who are anti-abortion have aligned themselves with Western religion. Therefore, the pro-life movement has developed deeply religious interpretations.

The phrase "death" in the law is extremely leading, and many scientists argue it is actually scientifically untrue (such as Bill Nye). Furthermore, fetuses are not the same thing as "unborn children". Children have the ability to survive outside of a womb, and are fully developed self-sustaining individuals. Fetuses, by definition, are not the same as unborn children. Fetuses go through many stages of development and cannot survive outside of the physical attachment to a human being. This phrasing in a law, which is mainly backed up by religious leaders', attempts to establish religion by writing it into a law, the ultimate establishment of government. Laws essentially create establishments by their very nature, and therefore are not permitted to contain religious overtones such as this phrase.

On the other hand, the phrase "termination of pregnancy" is both true and neutral. There is no bias towards one group or another. "Termination" is simply a conclusion or "to put an end to", and "pregnancy" is an offspring of an animal developing in that animal's body. Whether an individual considers themselves religious or not religious, pro-life or pro-choice, there is little to disagree with in this neutral phrasing. Neither the word termination or pregnancy holds any connotations, positive or negative.

What is most disturbing about this language is its ultimate aim: to shame women who choose to legally have abortions and to shame doctors for providing the service. One member of the board stated that, "I understand that probably, in part, it was designed to be a deterrent to abortion and make a woman and her doctor feel guilty about what they're doing". Women already face enough stigma around abortions as it is, and this is clear anti-abortion sentiment written into a law that is meant to protect women when they choose to use their right drawn out in Roe v. Wade. While the discussion of the morality of abortion is far from over, the courts have decided that abortion is an acceptable procedure. Therefore, this phrasing shames women for utilizing a right that is stamped out in federal documents, which goes over the head of Arkansas state legislature based on the Supremacy Clause.

The pro-life argument in favor of this language is that it works to "humanize" abortion. One senator who sponsored the law claims that "Recognizing the child as a child is much different than trying to use clinical terminology that hides the fact that you're dealing with a living human being". This claim is under debate in the scientific community because of the argument stated above - that a fetus is not the same thing as a living human being. While it is impossible to speak for every person who has had an abortion, as about 40% of women have, no one who is pro-choice will attempt to say that abortions aren't an extremely emotional decision for the women involved. Shaming women in word of law disregards the emotional process that many women who choose to get an abortion go through, in addition to blatantly siding with the religious pro-life movement.

While the issue of abortion is complex and multifaceted, it is legal, and the wording of the law voted on by the Arkansas State Board of Health clearly holds religiously biased overtones which establishes religious views as law, in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Do School Sponsored Groups Still Have the Freedom to Practice Religion?

On January 29th, the Texas Supreme Court voted unanimously that Kountze High School and Middle School cheerleaders were in fact allowed to make religious banners to cheer on teammates.  This case goes back all the way to 2012 when the Kountze High School cheerleaders started to make banners with religious content to be displayed at school sponsored events such as football games.  The school district, along with a group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, decided that having this religious representation at public school events was unconstitutional because of the First Amendment.  When the district court ruled in favor of the cheerleaders, the Kountze school district appealed and decided that they could censor the religious banners at will.  However, the court of appeals declared the case moot but because it drew so much attention some people filed an amicus brief and sent it to the Texas Supreme Court.  The Texas Supreme Court decided in favor of the cheerleaders in an 8-0 unanimous vote.  This decision was based on the fact that the banners displayed the cheerleaders’ own personal religious views, not those of the school.  In sum, the case brief said, “Because the messages on the banners are the cheerleaders’ messages, the content of which is not dictated by the school, the speech is not the school’s, and it does not qualify as ‘government speech.’ The speech belongs to the cheerleaders, and it is entitled to First Amendment Protection.”
            This case brings to light the question of whether public school sanctioned groups may display religious beliefs publicly as a group at school events. This question is tricky because the Kountze cheerleaders are a school group, and generally speaking those cheerleaders are thus representatives of the Kountze school district.  Therefore, do any religious paraphernalia they create and display represent the beliefs of the school?

            What does this ruling mean for the Kountze school district?  Players and fans alike will attend football games and witness the religious display of the cheerleaders.  Also, some cheerleaders may have to financially support the creation of these banners, even if they may not support what is said on them entirely.  Lastly, When Kountze plays other teams, the cheerleaders will represent their school, and other schools and towns may associate Kountze with the religious ideals displayed on the banners.  Is it fair for Kountze as a town to be associated with a certain religion even though their cheerleaders are making these banners with their own money?  The fact that the cheerleaders are using their own money makes this case especially hard to decide.  If the school were paying for the banner supplies, the case would be much easier as it would seem like the school is supporting these banners and what is said on them.  Because the school is government funded, it would thus seem like the government, too, is supporting these banners and thus establishing a religion.  However, because the cheerleaders themselves are funding the banners the government is not, at least financially, establishing a religion.

            Once again, the First Amendment is at ends.  While the cheerleaders do have a freedom to practice religion and free speech, the government (and therefore public school system) cannot establish a religion.  I believe regardless of the fact that the cheerleaders are paying for the banners out of pocket, because they are a school sponsored group and have a very important role in representing their school district, they should not be allowed to create these religious banners.  As mentioned earlier, an implication of these banners could be that other towns then could associate the Kountze school district with the religious beliefs displayed on the banners.  While the government may not be purposely or explicitly “establishing” a religion, other towns or football game goers may think that a government is establishing a religion here.  What if not everyone on the cheerleading team supported the banners? Does every cheerleader still have to pay for the supplies? Peer pressure is a major issue in middle school and high school and thus, even if it seemed like every cheerleader supported the religious banners, some could be very upset with them in actuality.  All in all I believe that since the cheerleaders are a school sponsored group and represent the Kountze school district, they should not be allowed to display religious content on their banners because whatever they are displaying while in their uniforms can be construed as beliefs sponsored and supported by the school district.