Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Top 10 Church-State and Religious Liberty Developments For 2012

Here are my nominations for the 2012 Top Ten Church-State and Religious Liberty Developments:
1.  The long-simmering tensions between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Obama Administration took on a greater focus when in May some 40 Catholic institutions, in 12 lawsuits, filed challenges to the Obama administration's mandate that health insurance policies include contraceptive coverage. Other suits followed. The Administration had granted a one-year moratorium to non-profit institutions, while it worked unsuccessfully to produce a compromise that might be acceptable to religiously affiliated non-profit institutions. Meanwhile, for-profit companies owned by Catholics and conservative Christians also filed an avalanche of suits seeking conscience exemptions from the mandate.
2.  The battle between religious conservatives and advocates of marriage equality continued to rage on numerous fronts.  Each side saw some victories and some defeats, but proponents of marriage equality had a good year.  Legislatures in Washington and Maryland approved same-sex marriage. In November, voters in 4 states also indicated approval of same-sex marriage, but earlier in the year North Carolina voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage.. The 9th Circuit in a narrow opinion struck down California's Proposition 8, and the Supreme Court has agreed to review that decision. The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the 1st Circuit, the 2nd Circuit and a California federal district court. The Supreme Court has agreed to review the 2nd Circuit case. Same-sex marriage bans in Nevada and Hawaii were upheld by federal district courts.
 3.  Mitt Romney lost the Presidential election, but his Mormon religious faith was not an important issue in the campaign. Indeed, Romney's activities as a lay Mormon pastor were used to his advantage at the Republican Convention.
4. The Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC adopted the "ministerial exception" doctrine for employment discrimination cases, finding it to be constitutionally-based.
5.  Egypt has struggled to draft and adopt a new constitution.  The role the new constitution will provide for Sharia law in the country has been one of the central issues in debates on the document.
6.  A 17-year long struggle by the New York City Board of Education to bar churches from renting out school buildings on weekends for church services, even though the buildings are available to other community groups, was revived by a federal district judge. Most observers had thought that a 2011 decision by the 2nd Circuit had ended the dispute in favor of the Board of Education, but the court held that the 2nd Circuit had not passed on the Bronx Household of Faith's free exercise and establishment clause claims. The district court's vindication of the free exercise claim is now on appeal.
7.  An online video promoting the obscure movie "Innocence of Muslims" triggers demonstrations against American embassies in the Muslim world. The video leads to an unusual set of legal proceedings-- litigation involving probation violations by the producer, attempt by an actress in the movie to have it removed from YouTube, and in abstentia convictions in Egypt.
8.  New questions are raised around the world regarding ritual circumcision of young boys by Muslims and Jews. Germany's Bundestag confirmed the legality of religious circumcision after a Cologne district court held that parents lack the right to decide that their young sons should be circumcised for non-medical reasons. Ritual circumcision is also questioned in Australia and Norway. Meanwhile, in the United States some Orthodox Jewish groups sue challenging the New York City health department's new regulation requiring informed consent from parents when a Jewish religious circumcision involves use of the oral suction technique (metzitzah b'peh).
9.  The court martial trial of accused Fort Hood mass shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan is delayed as the question of his right to wear a beard for religious reasons at his trial is litigated.  In December, an appeals court held there was insufficient evidence to show that the beard materially interfered with the court martial proceedings. It also ordered court martial judge Gregory Gross removed from the case for the appearance of bias.
10.  In the wake of Congress' reorganization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in late 2011, developments demonstrated internal divisions and conflicts in the Commission. The pressure of expiring terms of 5 Commissioners led to early release of USCIRF's annual report and to a public statement by 5 of the Commissioners charging that the report wrongly reflected the votes of Commissioners on the status of Turkey.  Meanwhile a former USCIRF staff member sued alleging anti-Muslim bias against her.  In an unrelated case, a different employee was sentenced to prison for embezzling USCIRF funds. And Muslim groups criticized one of the new Commissioners, claiming he is anti-Muslim.
Some of my picks were rather obvious candidates for inclusion, while others may surprise some readers. A number of the top developments continue trends reflected in last year's list.  You may also find it interesting to compare two other "Top 10" lists: Religion Newswriters 2012 Top 10 Religion Stories and Blog from the Capital's Top Religious Liberty Stories of 2012. I invite you to post your comments or disagreements with my choices this year.