Monday, March 21, 2016

Can Religion Determine a Super Bowl Host?

Football and religion have served as competing interests on Sunday for several generations of Americans. However, religion may be playing a greater role on perhaps the most recognized football game of all, the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl hosts are usually determined at least three to five years prior to the game being played. The finalists are analyzed based on a variety of factors including appropriate climate, sufficient seating and parking spaces for patrons, and fields for teams to practice prior to the game. A city that is fortunate enough to be named a host sees a boost in its local economy, especially for restaurants, hotels, and tourist attractions.

The Atlanta Falcons are one of the teams that are attempting to host either 2019 or 2020 edition of the Super Bowl. The Georgia state legislature recently introduced a Religious Freedom Bill that would prevent businesses from discriminating potential applicants based on race, nationality, religion, and sex. This act would allow for Georgia to match the requirements of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, this new bill does not guarantee these freedoms to sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, veteran status, or disability. Beth Beskin, a Republican within the state's House of Representatives, believes that the local government, rather than the federal government, has the ability to determine what additional employment protections can be added beyond the bill's protections. A second bill was passed by the same committee, the Pastor Protection Act would not require pastors within Georgia's jurisdiction to not be required to legally recognize same sex couples.

The National Football League's (NFL) spokesman Brian McCarthy stated that "they emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and other standards." McCarthy added that the state's consistency with federal laws and league policy could hinder the ability for the Falcons' bid to be successful. Georgia is currently one of the five states that does not include a public accommodation law. In addition, Georgia had an amendment in its state constitution which prevented same sex marriages from occurring before the Supreme Court ruled same sex marriages were legal on June 25. 2015.

I believe that Georgia's bid to host to a potential Super Bowl should be evaluated based on the inclusiveness of its citizens in modern political issues. Many people use athletes as role models for their kids to idolize. By promoting a wide background of individuals that entertain people on Sundays, the NFL connects with people from various walks of life and political views. With the Supreme Court recently ruling that same sex marriage is legal, it is important for all institutions in America to follow the law of the land. By not guaranteeing the First Amendment protections to all of its citizens, the federal government has a compelling state interest to monitor the standards passed by Georgia's state legislature. In addition, Georgia is risking a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment which requires federal statutes be respected by the individual states. If the NFL were to allow Atlanta to host either of these games, it would send a message to the LGBT community and other minorities that they are not part of the audience the league wants to cater to.

In addition, the standards that were applied in the Sherbert vs. Verner decision can be extrapolated. The Super Bowl bid is a potential form of compensation for the host city by the NFL. In the Sherbert decision it was determined that the eligibility restrictions hindered her ability to accept available suitable work to match her preference to observe Saturday as a day of worship as a Seventh Day Adventist. The benefits were also essential for her economic survival. Unlike the circumstances that occurred in the case, the league can use the criteria of state policy prior to when it awards a city the honor of hosting the Super Bowl. The city would not be allowed to choose its duty between observing its religion and potentially hosting a large national audience. The panel that eventually chooses who would host the 2019 and 2020 Super Bowls would also have potential alternates waiting to take this form of compensation.

Finally, the league has already previously denied a Super Bowl bid to a city for not following a national observance. The city of Phoenix, Arizona, which had won the right to host the 1993 Super Bowl, refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day in 1990. As a result, the 1993 Super Bowl's location was then awarded to Los Angeles, California, which recognized the holiday. The city of Phoenix would eventually recognize the national holiday in 1992 and would receive the honor to host the Super Bowl in 1996 and in 2008. Atlanta would be facing a similar punishment if they did not amend the Religious Freedom Bill to include sexual orientation protections.

If you were on the panel, would this issue sway your decision for the city of Atlanta to host the Super Bowl?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Discrimination Or Religious Freedom?

In 1966, Kentucky passed laws that made it illegal for businesses which provided “public accommodation,” hotels, restaurants, and laundromats for example, to discriminate against their customers based on race or religion. Eight communities in the state have passed local laws that go one step further by providing protection for LGBT customers as well. However, a recent bill, Bill 180, has been brought to media attention as what its opponents call the “license to discriminate.” This bill would undo these laws by allowing business owners to refuse service to anyone based on a “sincerely held religious belief.” This would allow business owners to lawfully refuse service to LGBT people, as well as anyone else they feel violates their beliefs. The bill has recently passed the Senate, but House Speaker Greg Stumbo claims that the bill will not pass the House of Representatives and said that he “took an oath to uphold the Constitution, not violate it,” showing his disapproval for the bill.

Supporters claim that the bill is perfectly fine with regards to its constitutionality. Senator Albert Robinson, an avid supporter of the bill, claims that the bill is not discriminatory at all, but instead seeks to protect business owners from the LGBT community who “are trying to force their beliefs down the throats [of people who have religious convictions against them].” Opponents reject this interpretation of the bill, saying that it only creates a slippery slope of discrimination where anyone could fall victim.

I definitely agree with the bill’s opponents. This bill seems extremely discriminatory. I don’t agree with Senator Robinson who claims the bill protects those with religious convictions against the LGBT community. LGBT people aren’t shoving their beliefs down business owners’ throats by seeking services anymore than non-LGBT people or people with any religious or political beliefs. I also don’t agree that the bill protects the business owners. I don’t believe that you have the right to not be offended, and if someone enters your business that offends you solely based on who they are as a person or what they believe, then I don’t think you should have the right to refuse them service. I agree with opponents that this bill opens a very slippery lope not only for who can be discriminated against, but also who can discriminate. Business owners could claim that serving any group of people goes against their religious beliefs. This could lead to discrimination based on any number of things, from shirt color to sex. How would business owners check for certain groups? Would they be permitted to force customers to confess their sexual orientation, religion, or marital status, or would service only be refused if the topic was talked about in the business? This bill also creates a slippery slope for who can discriminate. With this bill in place, it seems that nothing would stop people from discriminating for personal reasons and claiming it to be religious. If a business owner was racist they could easily deny service to certain racial groups and claim it to be religious. I think that overall this bill is truly just a “license to discriminate,” and could lead to a number of unjust, unconstitutional discrimination and that since religion does not grant people to bypass other laws, laws against discrimination should be treated no differently.

What do you think? Do you think people should be allowed to refuse service based on religious belief? Do you see this bill as opening the doors to greater discrimination?

Gov Intervention: Stopping Churches From Practicing Employment Discrimination

February 16th, 2016 a Missouri court rejected the primary claim of a fired ministry worker, Colleen Simon.  Upon being fired, Simon filed a lawsuit against the diocese on the grounds that the administration ended her employment due to her same-sex marriage.  Simon, a former Kansas City church worker, was employed by the St. Francis Xavier Church as a coordinator f
or the food pantry. 

In the lawsuit, Simon declared that her supervisors at the church knew she was in a same-sex marriage and that it wasn’t an issue.  However, two weeks after the Kansas City Star wrote an article in April 2014 about her marriage to Rev. Donna Simon of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church in Kansas City Simon was fired.

In court, the Jackson County Judge wouldn’t consider Simon’s accusations of the priest’s supposed knowledge of her sexual orientation and ultimately her status as an employee because it “would impermissibly entangle the court in matters and deacons purely canonical.” Indeed, the legal representatives of the church believed this to be the most important part of the lawsuit.  To allow for government intervention in church affairs would be to negate “the very line the First Amendment says the government cannot cross.”  Moreover, the church fought extensively as to not let Simon’s case go to court in the first place for this very reason. 

Personally, I don’t think the issue is wether the church had a right to fire Ms. Simon.  It could be argued that she worked for the ministry, regardless of the role she played, any job under the ministry is a representation of the church’s values.  However, this argument is clearly an issue within the church and only the church.    

To that end, the most important and fundamental part of the entire lawsuit is that under the Free Exercise Clause the church has a right to strongly oppose government involvement in their decisions whether it be on employment or other religious matters.  As stated, this is a direct and “excessive” entanglement of government in religious affairs. It is up to the church to freely exercise its beliefs and if they feel Simon, as an employee, goes against such beliefs then the administration has the power to make their own decisions on employment. The court did recognize this and affirmed the First Amendment by allowing the diocese to appropriately, under catholic teaching, decide employment status based on their own principles. 

Thus, this case is fundamental in drawing the lawn as to where job discrimination against an individual based on their sexuality can be drawn and when it is permissible to have the government intervene in such a matter.  As stated, I believe that in this particular case government intervention would be completely inappropriate when drawing upon the first amendment of the Constitution. 

Education or Evangelization?

When thinking about religion and the government, a topic of conversation is often education and the role that religion should or does play into a public school education. A large number of cases that reach the Supreme Court involve in some way the teaching of religion on public school grounds. Some notable cases include Wisconsin v. Yoder, Edwards v. Aguillard, Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, Agostini v. Felton, and Mitchell v. Helms, just to name a few. The Supreme Court has decided in a number of ways, but an important deciding factor in each case is that of whether or not the government is excessively entangling with the school system.

The Christian Educators Association International believes that faith is an integral part of teaching children about morals and about right from wrong, and so it aims to instruct Christian teachers on how to live their faith and evangelize in schools. It is training teachers to “transform public schools through God’s love and truth.” It is a non-profit organization and is an alternative to traditional teachers unions, and gives insurance and benefits to its members. Currently, there are about 6,000 members. The group says that what they do is not proselytization, but rather that the school is a place in which the Christian message can and should be spread.

The teachers are trained by attending weekend-long seminars named “Daniel Weekends”. The teachers learn that it is okay to pray with other colleagues during breaks or lunchtime, to lead before or after religious clubs for students, to pray with students outside of work hours, to answer any student’s questions about their beliefs, to keep a Bible on their desk and teach from it (if it fits with the curriculum), and to act in ways that are in accordance with Christian values. They also learn about the First Amendment.

Those in favor of the Christian Educators Association’s goals believe that religion should not be excluded from public schools, and that the First Amendment does not prevent it. Although the government cannot establish religion, it also cannot inhibit the free exercise of students and teachers to express their faith in school. They also say that it teaches students about the Constitution and their rights. Those opposed say that this is unconstitutional and is an establishment of religion. They also say that teachers should not be the ones encouraging or discouraging and religion or religious practices, and rather that should be left to parents and families rather than government officials.

I believe that this is unconstitutional and a violation of the Establishment Clause. Families, not teachers, should encourage religion. While I do think that it is okay to teach about religion in general in the classroom, I do not think a teacher should ever be preaching to his students or favoring one religion over another. By teaching students about their personal values, they are unfairly expressing the views of only one religion. If children see their teachers praying during the school day or see them leading prayer after school hours, they may be coerced into attending a meeting or prayer session, especially if they see the Bible out on the desk every day. I also think that not allowing teachers to spread a Christian message is not a violation of the Free Exercise Clause, because teachers and students are free to pray whenever they choose by themselves, with families, at church, or in any other place they choose. I do think it is okay for teachers to pray together, or for students to get together and pray. But I do not think that students and teachers should be praying together, because this may make other students feel that they must join in. It is also an entanglement of the government and the school, because the teachers are government officials.

What do you think? Should teachers be allowed to spread a Christian message during the school day? Can teachers lead prayer meetings for students? Is it okay for them to share their views on religion with students if they ask?

Masking an "ugly spectacle" of religious freedom?

Mohammed Ali Chaudry, the former mayor of Basking Ridge, an affluent suburban town in New Jersey, sued Bernards Township, the township committee and its planning board for denying proposed plans to build a mosque in the town. Chaudry, the president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, along with the other members of the group, complain that the denial of their plans is due to manufactured excuses by the township committee. The plans were unanimously denied this past December after four years of public hearings. The town committee and the Islam Society met 39 times to negotiate specifics of the mosque. The four acres of land that the Islam Society purchased was approved for the zoning of "houses of worship". The design of the mosque was adjusted so that it aesthetically fit in with the rest of the surrounding community. It did not include a dome, which is a typical architectural feature of mosques, and its minarets were planned to be lower than steeples on churches in the same town. The reasoning behind the plan's denial was concluded to be due to a "lack of details" regarding parking, traffic safety, and buffer zones. 

However, there are opposing groups within the town that have openly expressed their worries about the mosque potentially housing terrorists. They also expressed their beliefs that Islamic law must be opposed. One Basking Ridge resident, Lori Caratzola stated, "Are we not allowed to voice concerns about a religion, or is it not O.K. just about Islam?" Caratzola was an opponent of the mosque. Due to Caratzola's urging the town also increased the required acreage for "houses of worship" to six acres. This imposes further issues for the proposed mosque that did not previously exist. Also, throughout the four years of negotiation, other churches and synagogues faced no resistance of their developmental applications. The lawsuit filed by the Islamic Society states that "these proceedings took place against a backdrop of ugly spectacle". The suit also states that the decision imposes limitations on their free exercise of religion. This leads to the question of whether or not the basis of the plan's denial is truly justified by mere parking and traffic issues. Is the Bernards Township committee violating the Free Exercise Clause or is their reasoning justified? 

I believe that the decision of this case does in fact violate the Free Exercise Clause and that the plans for the mosque should have been approved. In 2012, when the first plans of the mosque were proposed, the land that the Islamic Society purchased clearly permitted the proposed mosque. They had the appropriate amount of acreage and zoning was permitted for "houses of worship", which does not exclude mosques or any other house of worship that may not encompass the religious beliefs of many town citizens. Whenever the town would criticize specifics of the plans, the Islamic Society had no issue adjusting them to meet their needs. However, 39 public hearings seems excessive for the issues being discussed. One potential problem with the mosque was that the headlights of cars in the mosque's parking lot would disturb people living in homes separated by a line of trees. This issue does not seem to be one that would restrict the construction of this mosque all together. Also, the fact that the regulation regarding proper acreage was adjusted once the mosque's plans were proposed seems restricting on the basis of religion. Although no personal beliefs about Muslims or their faith were expressed in the public hearings, anti-Islamic sentiments were closely related to decisions made by the town committee. Caratzola's speech is an example of this relationship. The Free Exercise Clause allows for the equal treatment of all religions, however this case does not follow those beliefs. If the town committee allowed for the Islamic Society's free exercise of religion, they would have come to final conclusions on the parking and traffic issues until the mosque fit all needed regulations to be built. Other secular buildings were approved within these four years of negotiation which also leads me to believe that the committee had other motives behind their decision that they masked with minor traffic, buffer zone and parking issues. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

To Work or To Pray

Cargill Meat Solutions has helped many Somali refugees by providing jobs. A plus of the job was that the Muslim workers were allowed to have prayer times. However, in mid-December their religious prayer breaks were going to be cut back. Many workers left in protest and later, 150 of them were fired for leaving work. Mike Martin, a company spokesman, said, "'There has been no change to our religious accommodation policy...The granting of prayer requests has always been based upon adequate staffing.'" Muslims working here have filed discrimination complaints and say that should be accommodated under 1964 Civil Rights Act under Title VII. It is argued that this is violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Cargill has been nothing but accommodating to these Somali refugees. Not many companies would allow one to two 10-minute prayer breaks per shift. They employed many, many Muslims and the moment it does not go their way they are going to file religious discriminatory claims against the company that has been helping them for the past ten years? Allowing these prayer breaks was extremely generous. Most places would not allow these multiple prayer breaks. Sometimes under-staffing requires workers to work the whole time they are there, not step into their specially-made prayer cubicles. Additionally, Cargill tried to get every one of their employees back. They could not promise the original prayer times that had been set prior.

As pointed out many times in class, people have the right to believe but not always the right to act. They can believe that they need to pray multiple times a day, but sometimes circumstances do not permit that kind of dedication. These Muslims are going to have a hard time finding a job that allows them to have any prayer time at all. When they left work that day, it was their decision. They left a huge company to struggle to meet the day's quota. When they came to America and wanted the "American Dream", they should not have expected everything to go their way and for everything to fall into place. America has taken these refugees, Cargill has taken these refugees (they are also being paid almost double minimum wage).

There is little basis to the religious discrimination claims because Cargill has hired many Muslim employees since 2005. They built special prayer-cubicles for these Muslims to prayer in during their shifts. They asked for all of the employees to come back, and only ten have returned. This is all their decision to leave work and not come back.

This is similar to other free exercise cases we have studied in that the workers are making their own decisions regarding work (Braunfeld v. Brown: Braunfeld wanted to be able to work on Sundays but chose not to because of his religion; and Sherbert v. Verner: was denied unemployment because she chose not to work on Saturdays due to her religion). These people have been offered their job back and they still are choosing not to accept it. That is their doing. Not everyone can be accommodated, and it would probably be better if there were no exceptions (that religion was not prioritized over nonreligion).

Do you think Cargill Meat Solutions is violating the Muslim workers free exercise of religion?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Abortion, A problem of religion or privacy?

In 1973, The Supreme Court ruled that a women's right to abortion is protected by the privacy of the Fourteenth Amendment. This article presents the question whether or not the woman's right to abortion outweighs the state's interest in protecting the life (potential life) of a fetus. A philosophy professor in the University of Illinois, Peter Wenz explains in his book how the issue of the unborn's humanity is left out from the decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973. In this book Wenz goes on to explain that determining a fetal's personhood is based on religious beliefs and so if the government were to uphold a decision explaining when a life began it would be violating the Establishment Clause by favoring a certain religious viewpoint.
The standpoint of abortion for Catholics among with many evangelical  Christians are in active opposition to abortion. They believe abortion is almost wrong in all cases except in very extreme circumstances. In the Jewish tradition abortion is permissible in cases where the health of the mother is at risk. While in other religions like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints going through with and even providing abortion services can lead to excommunication. Through a recent amicus brief filed by a group of theologians and ethicists, Whole Women's Health challenged Texas law which imposed restrictions on facilities and doctors. An argument brought by this group of people about abortion is "Because there exists no unified religious or moral position on abortion even within major religions, a state's attempt to restrict the accessibility of abortion necessarily impinges on the religious and moral decisions of some individuals."
This argument here can be traced back to the Supreme Court case Harris v. McRae, where in a split decision the Court ruled that the government funding of abortion services does not violate the Establishment Clause because the law "may coincide with the religious tenets of the Roman Catholic Church."
I feel abortion is both a problem of religion and privacy. Although Linda Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court as a journalist, states "It's an argument that judges just don't want to hear." I agree with the statement that women do have the right to privacy under the Fourteenth amendment however I also feel as if establishing how abortion works would be a violation of the Establishment Clause. All in all however, I feel abortion is something that should be left up to the individual. The state should not get involved because the possible entanglements with religion and the entanglements with a women's privacy.

Disparate Impact Claims with Religious Accommodation

The American corporate structure tends to adopt secular principles to accommodate the ever present diversity in the job market. A meritocratic hiring process that de-emphasizes personal ideology--religious or otherwise--generally works to the best interest of the employer and employee. However, the adoption of the Civil Rights Act 1964 enforced these principles--in light of historical discrimination--to ensure equal opportunity in the work force. While the main effect of the law was to mitigate racial discrimination among businesses, the guarantee of freedom from religious objections in hiring has been tested in full weight.

Most recently, the Supreme Court has decided, on appeal, a contentious battle between Samantha Elauf and potential employer, Abercrombie. Elauf’s first interaction with Abercrombie was in 2008, where she interviewed for a sales job. At first, she was reluctant to apply, as her Muslim faith required her to wear a headscarf, but her friend assured her that it wouldn’t be an issue. Her friend, who worked at Abercrombie, informed Elauf that store policy mandated that employees didn’t wear black, so as long as the headscarf wasn't black she would be fine.

Ultimately, Elauf interviewed for the job, and was denied. Her interviewer, Heather Cooke, recounted the interview positively, and praised her qualifications. Ms. Cooke approached her district manager after the interview to seek approval for the headscarf, but was told that wearing the headscarf was inconsistent with the Abercrombie’s “look policy.”    

In retail clothing, many employers institute similar policies in order to ensure a homogenous image consistent with their demographic. These look policies have the secular purpose of providing a uniform image among their facilities. However, since Elauf was wearing the headscarf for religious reasons, she claimed that she was unfairly discriminated against based solely on her religion. Abercrombie does not dispute the fact that they discriminated against Elauf based on her headscarf, however, they contest the issue that it was religious discrimination. 

Suing on behalf of Elauf, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought suit based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Pursuant to the statute, no employer may “‘fail or refuse to hire’ an individual because of an individual's religion unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate a religious observance or practice "without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business." 

Abercrombie would be able to legally discriminate if it were able to prove that it could not reasonably accommodate Elauf without infringing upon their business practices. In the past, Abercrombie has granted such religious accommodations to employees--even some Muslim--that requested them. These exemptions were dealt with on a case to case basis, as employees brought them up. The impending legal question that surrounds the case lies with whether or not Elauf had to initiate the dialogue with her potential employer in order to gain these benefits.

During Elauf’s interview with Cooke, neither the headscarf nor any religious questions were brought up. Cook explained the look policy, which included restrictions on headgear, black clothing, makeup, and nail polish, but did not mention the headscarf specifically. This omission was an intentional one, however, as Abercrombie mandates that employers must not ask any questions regarding religion in an interview or hiring process. Essentially, corporate policy restricted Cooke from initiating the dialogue of religion in order for a religious accommodation to be made. 

Abercrombie holds that religious exemptions may be made, but that the employee must initiate the dialogue in order to qualify. If the potential employee does not engage in a dialogue, Abercrombie must assume that no religious exemption should be made, and all aspects of the candidate must be evaluated on a secular basis. Since Elauf did not reveal her religion, Abercrombie argues that they made a secular evaluation of her, and found her headscarf to be in violation of their look policy. 

Although Abercrombie store policy maintained that they should not start a dialogue, the Supreme Court ruled--8 to 1--that the effect of their inaction still constituted a violation of Elauf’s civil rights. The disparate-treatment provision of Title VII says that regardless of the employer's knowledge of the candidate, they cannot fail to hire based on a desire to not want to accommodate a religious practice. Essentially, this creates an affirmative duty to accommodate that must be met by the employer. Abercrombies decision to not initiate a dialogue about religion, when the candidate was clearly wearing a religious garment, to the court, exemplified a desire to not want to accommodate. 

Samuel Alito, with whom I agree, explained in the concurring opinion that even though the candidate must show that the employer had knowledge, they do not have to notify the employer. Abercrombies policy, and the actions of Cooke, had the clear intent of trying to avoid religious accommodation by avoiding religious dialogue. Cooke knew that the headscarf was a violation of the look policy, and also knew that she could get a religious exemption if she requested one. The fact that Abercrombie doesn’t allow that conversation to be made by the employer means that Cooke had to assume that the headscarf was non-religious. However, the fact that she went to her boss to talk about the headscarf creates the assumption that Cooke knew that it was a religious item. If Cooke knew that the headscarf was religious, even if Elauf didn’t tell her, then her refusal to start a dialogue about accommodation is a violation of the disparate-treatment provision that prevents failure to hire based on a desire not to provide religious accommodation. Though I generally disagree with disparate claims on the basis that facially neutral laws should not be subject to scrutiny if they have a discriminatory effect, the court has, in this case, decided in rightful alliance with that law as it was written.

Religion & License Plates

Note: read the article about this topic here.]
Shannon Morgan in Leesberg, NJ is suing the state for violating her First Amendment rights. She attempted to register a license plate with the word “8THIEST” and was denied on the basis that the “requested plate text is considered objectionable. She then typed “BAPTIST” into the prompt on the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s website to test the system, and the word was approved.
            Morgan requested the reasoning of the Motor Vehicle Commission’s denial of the word and was never given a clear answer. In addition, since the beginning of the lawsuit, the commission has apparently “stonewalled” Morgan. The lawsuit states that the Vehicle Commission also denied president of American Atheists, David Silverman, after requesting the word “ATH1EST.” The word was eventually approved, but only after having received attention and support by local news and media outlets. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C. based religious liberty watchdog group, is supporting Morgan. The group’s legal director called the Motor Vehicle Commission’s denial mean-spirited, derogatory, and unconstitutional. They claim that the Commission should not have the power to approve or deny license plates on the grounds of religion and non-religion because that is “a classic speech violation.” A spokesperson for the Commission stated, “We review every request personally…and we review them for anything that’s offensive or objectionable.” Apparently the Commission has approved atheist-themed license plates before, and stated, “We have no objection and continue to issue license plates with these types of configurations.”
            This is an important case because it entails the element of neutrality and sheds light on the necessity of fair and equal judgment when it comes to religious and non-religious matters. The salient issue in this case is whether or not Morgan’s right to free speech is being violated by rejecting a word of her choice from being stamped onto a license plate that would be put onto a vehicle in her possession. The word “atheist” should not be considered “objectionable” because it is not obscene or offensive, but a name of a population, one that a large amount of people in this country together make up. By denying this word to be made into a license plate creates the possibility of being directly offensive to a large number of people as well as overtly inhibiting and individual from expressing her views and opinions.
            The other issue of consistency is unveiled in this case. The Commission clearly has not treated all license plate word acceptances and denials the same way. We can see this most obviously with David Silverman’s case, first being denied and then approved only because it received attention. The Commission has to show a more significant amount of consistency with approval and denials. In these religious cases, however, consistency comes second to justice, as a word referring to religious (or non-, in this case) beliefs should not be denied on the grounds that it is objectionable. This is a direct violation of the free speech clause of the first amendment. It is important here to also address the additional issue of whether or not it is unconstitutional to consider the word “atheist” offensive. In a way, this classification of “atheist” is a form of hate speech and unacceptance toward an entire population with a particular belief. The allowance of the word “Baptist” also begs the question of whether or not words descriptive of other religions, like “Islam” or “Hindu” would be approved to be on license plates. The consistency issue is applicable here as well, as free speech is violated in that circumstance by allowing one religion but not all to be deemed acceptable to be put onto a license plate.
            There is absolutely no compelling state interest in New Jersey denying the word “atheist.” The entirety of the comments on ABC News’ article discussed how New Jersey will not and should not win this lawsuit. Even people identifying as Christian agree that this is an obvious form of inhibiting free speech.

            Why do you think this issue is important? What is there to say about personal property and the freedom of personal expression? What do you think about the way the Commission has dealt with this issue thus far?

Crossing the Line: Can Brewster County Sheriff Post Latin Crosses on Patrol Cars?

                            The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is at it again, but this time it’s taking on a case in Brewster County, Texas. The FFRF will be representing Kevin Price and Jesse Castillo against Sheriff Ronny Dodson and Brewster County. Sheriff Dodson is being charged for placing decals of Latin crosses with thin blue stripes across them on his deputies’ patrol vehicles of the Brewster County Sheriff’s Offices in December of 2015. Dodson stated that he wanted God’s protection over his deputies and that the thin blue line stands for law enforcement. Mr. Price and Mr. Castillo believe that this act is a clear violation of the Constitution and that it “runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United StatesConstitution and Article I, Section 6 of the Texas Constitution. The plaintiffs seek appropriate declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as nominal damages”. Dodson has denied that the Latin cross decals indicate any kind of religious preference, however the plaintiffs view the stickers as a clear establishment of religion by Brewster County.

         This case is interesting because there are several tests, which may be invoked in order to determine the Constitutionality of having Latin cross stickers on patrol cars. More liberal justices might be inclined to utilize the “Endorsement Test”- which was created by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984). This test states that a government action becomes invalid if a reasonable observer perceived the action as the government’s endorsement or disapproval of a religion. This test determines if government action conveys “a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” It is typically incorporated into the first two prongs of the Lemon Test (derived from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), which we have used to discuss several cases in our class. This first two prongs ask whether or not the action: has a significant secular purpose or if it does not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. However, according to ThinkProgress magazine, Conservative justices do not favor the endorsement test. They are more likely to look at the Coercion Test, which typically allows governments to support religion in more cases than the Lemon Test. Justice Anthony Kennedy outlines this test in Allegheny County v. ACLU (1989) stating: the government does not violate the establishment clause unless it provides direct aid to religion in a way that would tend to establish a state church, or coerces people to support or participate in religion against their will. Under this test, it is likely that Sheriff Dodson’s crosses are permitted. Although we have not come across the Endorsement Test in class yet, we have had several blog posts that could invoke this test. The endorsement test is often invoked in situations where the government is engaged in expressive activities. Therefore, situations involving such things as graduation prayers, religious signs on government property, religion in the curriculum, etc., will usually be examined in light of this test. Therefore it could have been used in cases including, but not limited to: Kiriko’s post on Bibles being used as texts in secondary schools in Idaho County, Thomas’s post on Reed v. Town of Gilbert (which discussed religious signs on public property) and Sara G.’s post on the Ohio House Bill 425 - allowing student’s freedom to express religion during the school day.

         Although the Supreme Court has not heard this case yet, it is incredibly important because the Supreme Court Justice that replaces Justice Scalia will determine what test could be used to examine this case. Thus, the legal ruling could vary depending on the lens through which the Court decides to view this issue. Utilizing the Endorsement or the Lemon Test would mean that Sheriff Dodson’s actions were unconstitutional and a violation of the Establishment Clause. However, using the Coercion Test would substantiate that Sheriff Dodson’s actions were entirely legal and did not violate the Constitution in any way.

        I typically try rule in favor of religion on many of the Establishment Cases, however I have to say that I think this is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. Putting these crosses on the back of patrol cars is a clear violation of separation of Church and State. Some individuals may feel as though they may not be protected by Brewster County patrol units because they are not Christians and it appears that this particular Sheriff’s office is establishing Christianity as the religion of the department. I think that this case should be an all or nothing case and by that I mean that deputies would be able to elect a religious symbol of their choosing that they could put outside their vehicle to protect them on the job. This would eliminate the establishment of one particular religious sect because different religious affiliations would be represented by these symbols. Many people view law enforcement as an incredibly coercive government entity and the presence of these crosses on the patrol cars may cause individuals who are not Christian to feel unsafe or unprotected by the deputies that serve Brewster County. I think that it might be even more beneficial to allow deputies to keep religious symbols in their patrol cars, however these symbols would not be easily viewed to the public, therefore they would not present an “established” religion to the public. Whatever the solution may be, I agree with the FFRF’s decision to take this to court. Putting Latin crosses on patrol cars is clearly a violation of the Establishment Clause and should be ruled as unconstitutional.

Is the Confessional Truly Confidential?

Over the course of history, the Catholic faith has gone through many changes. From minor changes such as trying to use words that fit the original Latin tradition better, to big changes started by some man who posted, meaning actually nailed them, “The 95 Theses” to the Wittenberg Castle door. If you are unaware, that man was Martin Luther. The main issue that these 95 points highlighted was the practice of indulgences that Luther believed were completely incorrect, and not true to theme of the Bible. In simplicity, indulgences were ways for people who have sinned to basically buy their ticket to Heaven. Although the Church did not expressly state to the public that they were basically selling themselves out to the highest bidder, Luther was able to witness this firsthand as a monk. 

So how does the Protestant Reformation that occurred in 1517 come into play today? It is through the idea of Reconciliation within the Catholic faith. Reconciliation, defined as restoring friendly relations, in the Catholic church is known as the ability to confess your sins to a priest in the hopes of being absolved for your sins. In the times of Martin Luther, the penance, the name of the tasks the priest required you to do to be forgiven, was commonly to donate a set sum of money to the Church. However, in current times, and as a result of the Reformation, a typical penance can consist of anything from apologizing to your parents for not listening to saying ten of a certain prayer. Although how it is performed has changed, Reconciliation has always been an important facet of the Catholic faith. A perfect example of its importance to the Catholic faith is that up until recently, it used to be, and some still believe, that you are unable to fully participate in the faith service unless you have been absolved of your sins, which would require Reconciliation.

Although all of this information seems extremely pointless in a Freedom of Religion discussion, it comes into play when considering a new decision issued by a judge in Louisiana who struck down a statute that required clergy members, in this case a priest, to report suspected child abuse even if it is in a confidential confession. In a ruling that the defense claims “upheld Religious Freedom”, the judge found the priest to be not guilty. An important note to recognize in this case is that the act also included one crucial statement saying “notwithstanding any claim of privileged information”. On these issues, the case rests, and I hope to clarify.

Bringing this issue back to the whole history of Reconciliation that I previously established in the opening paragraphs, is how this law could clearly impact, and infringe upon the rights to practice religion freely. Although this may seem like a stretch, the following points should help to expand upon why. As we established, Reconciliation has been a practice of the Catholic faith for longer than United States of America has even existed. Although I have traced how Reconciliation has changed throughout the ages, there is one thing that has been uniform throughout, the Seal of the Confessional, sometimes referred to as priest-penitent privilege. This privilege, or right as many Catholics view it, simply means that anything confessed during Reconciliation, which occurs in a confessional, is confidential information. This Seal helps to enforce the idea that Reconciliation is a conversation between the penitent and God, who is present through the priest. Many view this Confidential Seal as one that can not be broken as undermining it would result in loss of trust for priests and therefore force the idea of Reconciliation, a time when you can admit your sins in the hopes of being absolved, to crumble as no penitents will feel comfortable in admitting any sins. Therefore, to establish a law that required priests to face excommunication from their faith, the result of breaking the Seal, or to be in violation of the law, I believe is a failure to recognize the religious freedom we are granted under the First Amendment.

Although I do hold this stand, I do not believe the law, as it is written is an attack on religious freedom; however, to protect religious freedom, we must discuss the issue of confidentiality that the statute refers to. As previously stated, the statute refers to the fact that the information exempt from being reported if it is not “notwithstanding any claim of privileged information”. Therefore, this issue hinged on whether the information stated in the confessional is confidential, in the eyes of the law. As previously established, the Seal of the Confessional is a clear establishment that what is told to the priest in Reconciliation, where he is only operating as a way for the penitent to speak to God according to their faith, is confidential, and therefore privileged information, and violating this seal would result in excommunication from the Church and the undermining of a key Catholic sacrament. Moreover, the clash of politics and the Church of Reconciliation is not new; but rather, there is actually a Catholic Martyr of the Confessional who was put to death by a King when the priest refused to say what was told in confession. Through this, I believe that there is clear evidence that to force a group of faith to change their history is to force citizens to give up their religion and be unable to practice.

Even with my stance on the issue of confidentiality within the confessional, there is one key issue that needs to be addressed with this case. In reading, if you actually read about it, the Seal of the Confessional, you may notice that there is not an explicit mention of what can be said during Reconciliation. Therefore, I do not believe that it would be a violation if the priest used the time in Reconciliation to offer the child contact information for someone who is able to deal with the situation and would be willing and able to help. I believe that if the priest is willing and provides this information, that they are doing their best, within their abilities to provide the child with the right tools to handle the situation accordingly. Furthermore, the Seal of the Confessional does not apply to times when Reconciliation has not formally started, meaning the opening prayer has not yet been stated. This information means that if the priest is the only person that the child has trust in, the child can approach the priest outside of Reconciliation and ask for help. Within all of these statements, I am firmly aware that if the alleged comments that the priest told the minor to “sweep the issue under the rug” were actually said, that the minor was faced with a difficult decision, and the priest did not act as I would have hoped; however, that is an issue that can only be fixed within the Catholic faith in its selection of priests. However, we now know how to change the Catholic faith, simply break out the quill and scroll and begin crafting your own 95 theses.