Dear Religion Clause Readers:
Happy New Year 2016! It is difficult to believe that I have been blogging on Religion Clause for over ten years, and have posted over 18,000 stories. As I have been reminded, this means that for those who rely on Religion Clause as a resource, there are many who do not remember the time when there was not a central source for keeping current on church-state and religious liberty developments.
Last year was important. Issues surrounding same-sex marriage and responses to it riveted the attention of much of the U.S. population. The challenge by religious non-profits to the Obamacare regulations on contraceptive coverage brought to the fore the question of whether courts must give complete deference to assertions by individuals and groups that their religious exercise has been substantially burdened. The Supreme Court gave unusual attention to civil rights claims by prisoners, including their religious freedom claims. Increasing concern about ISIS-inspired terrorism tempted some-- including some seeking the highest office in the land-- to question whether America's traditional welcome to all religious believers (and non-believers) is as firmly established as we had once believed.
Religion Clause has attempted to provide the raw materials-- as objectively as possible-- so that readers can make informed judgments on the difficult policy decisions facing us. And I have continued to cover parallel issues arising outside the United States in order to give additional perspective.
2016 promises to be an equally challenging year. Many of the high profile issues of last year will remain with us. In addition there will likely be some new ones. How will religion factor into the Presidential race? What are the implications of establishment clause and free exercise clashes being increasingly handled by well-funded advocacy groups that are repeat players before the courts, legislatures and local government officials? Will transgender rights be the next battle in the culture wars that will become a religious as well as a civil rights issue?
And then there is often a "sleeper"-- an issue that becomes unexpectedly dominant. My nomination for that in 2016 is the question of whether the retirement plans of many religiously-affiliated healthcare organizations will, as the 3rd Circuit recently held, be found not to qualify for the "church plan" exemption from ERISA on which they have relied. Many of these plans will be underfunded by tens or hundreds of millions of dollars if they are required to comply with ERISA. What kind of financial risk will that pose to them? Many of these healthcare organizations have complicated relationships with a diocese or other church body of their denomination. Will liability for underfunding, or for non-compliance with other ERISA requirements, jeopardize assets of the affiliated church bodies?
As we enter 2016, I want to again thank all of you who read Religion Clause-- both long-time followers and those who have discovered the blog more recently. Religion Clause's established format of neutrality, broad coverage and links to extensive primary source material has produced a loyal readership. Often Religion Clause carries a story well before mainstream media feature it. The world of social media continues to evolve. Increasing numbers of readers follow Religion Clause on Twitter or Facebook, and perhaps in other ways as well. Meanwhile, the ability to comment on postings, while available, apparently has little attraction to readers-- other than the occasional spammer who evades my anti-spam efforts. I am always eager to receive suggestions of other formats that would be useful.
And thanks to all of you who send me leads or corrections. Your input is important in maintaining completeness and accuracy. I read all of your e-mails and comments and appreciate receiving them, even though time constraints often prevent me from replying individually. Normally when I blog on a story sent to me by a reader, I mention the sender. If you do not want to be mentioned, I will be happy to honor that request if you let me know when sending me information.
I continue to be pleased that my regular readers span the political and religious spectrum and include a large number of law school faculty, journalists, clergy, governmental agency personnel, and others working professionally dealing with church-state relations and religious liberty concerns. I encourage you to recommend Religion Clause to colleagues and friends who might find it of interest.
Finally, I remind you that the Religion Clause sidebar contains links to a wealth of resources. If you find broken links on the sidebar, please let me know.
Best wishes for 2016! Feel free to contact me by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through comments to this or other posts throughout the year.
Howard M. Friedman