Monday, December 26, 2016

Top Ten Religious Liberty and Church-State Developments of 2016

Each year in December, I attempt to pick the most important church-state and religious liberty developments of the past year.  This was a busy year, and a number of the important developments amounted to themes that spanned many months.  So here are my Top Ten picks for the rather chaotic year that is currently coming to an end. I welcome e-mail comment from those who disagree with my choices.
1. The unexpected death of Justice Scalia leaves the Supreme Court split on important issues, including the challenges to the Obamacare contraceptive coverage mandate.
2. Religion plays unusual roles in the Presidential election contest.  Donald Trump raises issues of Muslim immigration, repeal of the Johnson amendment, draws support from Evangelicals despite a personal history that might raise questions with religious conservatives, and receives support from the alt-Right which includes anti-Semitic elements.  Hillary Clinton who has deep personal religious roots does not emphasize these in her campaign.
3. Transgender rights-- particularly access to bathrooms-- become a religious as well as political issue as the Obama administration asserts that existing anti-discrimination provisions in federal law cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
4. Supreme Court grants review in ERISA "church plan" exemption cases.  Billions of dollars in potential underfunding of retirement plans by religiously-affiliated health care systems around the country are at issue.
5. Fallout from the legalization of same-sex marriage continues as various wedding service providers assert the right to refuse to serve same-sex couples, Mississippi's Conscience Protection Act is struck down, and Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore appeals his suspension growing of his resistance to accepting the Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling.
6. Latin crosses as part of veterans' memorials, in parks, and on county seals and the like become the latest focus of the battle over religious displays on public property.
7. State "Blaine Amendments" again become the focus of attention as the Supreme Court grants review in the Trinity Lutheran Church case and Oklahoma voters defeat a proposal to eliminate Blaine Amendments from the state constitution.
8. Federal and state RFRA's continue to be asserted, often but not always unsuccessfully, in unusual contexts-- e.g. challenging "In God We Trust" on currency, as a defense to tax evasion charges, as a defense to food stamp fraud, in connection with bankruptcy discharges, and in treatment of transgender employees.
9. Congress expands the U.S. role in protecting international religious freedom by passing the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act.
10.  Justice Department sues cities under Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act for placing zoning impediments in the way of mosque construction.
For an alternative view of the Top Ten Religious Liberty Stories of 2016, see this post by Baptist Joint Committee blogger Don Byrd.