Friday, November 27, 2015

European Court Upholds French Hospital's Hijab Ban

The European Court of Human Rights yesterday, in a Chamber Judgment by a panel of 7 judges, upheld the decision of a French hospital to refuse to renew the employment contract of a Muslim social worker who insisted on wearing a headscarf (hijab). The full decision in Ebrahimian v. France, (ECHR, Nov. 26, 2015) is available in French (with a partial dissenting opinion in English). According to the Court's English press release on the decision:
[T]he Court found that the requirement of neutrality of public officials could be regarded as justified in principle: the State, as employer of the applicant in a public hospital, could consider it necessary that she refrain from expressing her religious beliefs in discharging her functions in order to guarantee equality of treatment of patients....  [T]he Court reiterated that while public officials enjoyed total freedom of conscience, they were prohibited from manifesting their religious beliefs in discharging their functions. Such a restriction derived from the principle of the secular nature of the State, and that of the neutrality of public services, principles in respect of which the Court had already approved a strict implementation where a founding principle of the State was involved.
The Court considered that the fact that the national courts had afforded greater weight to the principle of secularism-neutrality and the State’s interest than to Ms Ebrahimian’s interest in not having the expression of her religious beliefs restricted did not cause a problem with regard to the [European] Convention [on Human Rights].
A Chamber Judgment may be appealed to the ECHR Grand Chamber. The Scotsman reports on the decision.  [Thanks to Paul de Mello for the lead.]

Two Popes Impact Delicate International Decisions

Pope Francis yesterday spoke in Narobi, Kenya to a group of  United Nations officials (full text of speech) urging action at two upcoming international conferences. Focusing on COP21, the meeting beginning Nov. 30 in Paris on climate change, the Pope said in part:
In a few days an important meeting on climate change will be held in Paris, where the international community as such will once again confront these issues.  It would be sad, and I dare say even catastrophic, were particular interests to prevail over the common good and lead to manipulating information in order to protect their own plans and projects....
I express my hope that COP21 will achieve a global and “transformational” agreement based on the principles of solidarity, justice, equality and participation; an agreement which targets three complex and interdependent goals: lessening the impact of climate change, fighting poverty and ensuring respect for human dignity.
The Pope also spoke about the upcoming 10th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization scheduled to meet in Narobi in a few days:
It is my hope that the deliberations of the forthcoming Nairobi Conference will not be a simple balancing of conflicting interests, but a genuine service to care of our common home and the integral development of persons, especially those in greatest need.  I would especially like to echo the concern of all those groups engaged in projects of development and health care – including those religious congregations which serve the poor and those most excluded – with regard to agreements on intellectual property and access to medicines and essential health care.  Regional free trade treaties dealing with the protection of intellectual property, particularly in the areas of pharmaceutics and biotechnology, should not only maintain intact the powers already granted to States by multilateral agreements, but should also be a means for ensuring a minimum of health care and access to basic treatment for all.
Meanwhile, Israeli and Arab sources differ on the political importance of a gesture by Egypt's Coptic Pope Tawadros II who yesterday left with a delegation of bishops for Jerusalem to take part in the funeral of Archbishop Anba Abraham, the Archbishop of Jerusalem.  This is the first visit of a Coptic pope to Jerusalem since 1832.  In 1979, the previous Coptic Pope barred Copts from traveling to Jerusalem, insisting they will only enter together with Muslims. The Jerusalem Post speculates that Tawadros' trip will make it increasingly difficult to maintain the ban on other Copts making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt said that Tawadros probably got approval from Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who is maintaining close intelligence ties with Israel in the fight against ISIL in Sinai.

However, Gulf News quotes a Coptic Church spokesman who said that Tawadros' visit to Jerusalem, which the Church considers occupied territory, does not change the Church's position:
The Pope’s visit came as an exception. It is for offering condolences and nothing more.  Pope Tawadros II will not make any visits in the Holy Land, and he will return to Cairo immediately following the funeral prayers. Copts will only go to Jerusalem with their Muslim brethren.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

British Court Says Religious Education Curriculum Must Include Non-Religious Beliefs

As reported by a British Humanist Association press release, a British High Court judge in London held yesterday that non-religious views, such as humanism, must be included in British schools' Religious Education studies.  In Fox v. Secretary of State for Education, (EWHC, Nov. 25, 2015), a judge held:
The Strasbourg jurisprudence shows that the duty of impartiality and neutrality owed by the state do not require equal air-time to be given to all shades of belief or conviction. An RE [Religious Education] syllabus can quite properly reflect the relative importance of different viewpoints within the relevant society. The same would seem to follow for a region or locality. The duty might therefore be described as one of “due” impartiality..... In addition, of course, a generous latitude must be allowed to the decision-maker as to how that works out in practical terms. But the complete exclusion of any study of nonreligious beliefs ... would not in my judgment be compatible with [the European Convention on Human Rights' provisions on the right to education].

Spain's Catholic Lawyers Sue Over Art Exhibit

In Spain, the Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers has filed a lawsuit seeking to close down a controversial art exhibit which opened in Pamplona City Hall last Friday  According to yesterday's The Local, the display-- a retrospective of the works of controversial 27-year old Spanish artist Abel Azcona-- includes a work titled "Amen" which consists of 242 holy wafers spelling out "paedophilia".  Azcona's critics claim that he stole the hosts used in the display by pretending to take Holy Communion, but then pocketing the wafers.  The lawsuit alleges that Azcona committed the crimes of desecration and crimes against religious sentiment under Spain’s Penal Code. On Tuesday evening the communion wafers disappeared as critics staged a protest, and city hall says that part of the display will not be replaced.

President Issues Proclamation for Thanksgiving 2015

Last week President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation-- Thanksgiving Day 2015. It reads in part:
In the same spirit of togetherness and thanksgiving that inspired the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, we pay tribute to people of every background and belief who contribute in their own unique ways to our country's story.  Each of us brings our own traditions, cultures, and recipes to this quintessential American holiday -- whether around dinner tables, in soup kitchens, or at home cheering on our favorite sports teams -- but we are all united in appreciation of the bounty of our Nation.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Amicus Brief Filed In Appeal of Bankruptcy Stay of Jewish Religious Court Proceedings

As previously reported, in August a New York federal bankruptcy court held in the case of In re Congregation Birchos Yosef that the statutory automatic stay of proceedings against a debtor that is triggered by the filing of a petition in a bankruptcy reorganization applies to invalidate proceedings against a debtor and its principals in a Jewish religious court (beis din). That decision was appealed to the federal district court. Last week an interesting amicus brief (full text) was filed in that appeal by 3 well-known law professors and a former bankruptcy court judge urging reversal of the bankruptcy court's decision.  The 23-page brief argues in part:
given the intensely religious nature of the beis din proceeding, and the conceded inability of the beis din to enforce its rulings in any secular court, any effort by a bankruptcy tribunal to restrain the Bais Chinuch and other individuals from invoking the beis din as a parallel non-coercive forum of religious conscience violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (hereafter RFRA), and the Bankruptcy Code.
[Thanks to Max Raskin for the lead.]

Groups Say Texas Refusal To Accept Syrian Immigrants Infringes Religious Liberty of Resettlement Agencies

In an article yesterday, the New Republic reports that a number of faith-based refugee resettlement groups in Texas believe that the state's Health and Human Services Commission is infringing their religious liberty.  In a Nov. 19 letter, the Commission's Executive Commissioner told resettlement agencies that they should discontinue immediately any plans they have to resettle Syrian refugees in Texas.  This follows a Nov. 16 letter (full text) from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to President Obama telling the President that Texas will not accept any Syrian refugees out of fear that they could be terrorists. Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact/Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy, criticizes the Governor's position, saying:
Religious freedom is now the rhetorical currency of the right, but it’s turning out to be in implementation that what’s politically expedient for the right is not affirmative of religious freedom.

Obama Criticizes Growing Anti-Muslim Sentiment In United States

At his White House press conference yesterday (full text) with President Hollande of France, President Obama again criticized the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States that has surfaced in the wake of ISIL's attacks in Paris, saying:
... [A]nother part of defeating terrorists like ISIL, is upholding the rights and freedoms that define our two great republics.  That includes freedom of religion.  That includes equality before the law.  There have been times in our history, in moments of fear, when we have failed to uphold our highest ideals, and it has been to our lasting regret.  We must uphold our ideals now.  Each of us, all of us, must show that America is strengthened by people of every faith and every background.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Russian Court Says Scientology Does Not Qualify As A Religious Organization

In Russia, the Moscow City Court yesterday in affirming a lower court decision backed the Ministry of Justice's efforts to close down the Church of Scientology.  According to AFP, the court ruled that since the Church has registered its name as a trademark in the United States, it cannot call itself a religious organization. The Church says it will appeal to Russia's Supreme Court.

Kim Davis' Case Continues to Defy Finality

The controversy surrounding Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk Kim Davis' refusal to issue marriage license to same-sex couples is not over.  As previously reported, after being released from custody on contempt charges, Davis allowed others in her office to issue licenses, but only with revised wording. On Nov. 13, outgoing Governor Steven Beshear filed a response (full text) with the federal district court that had held Davis in contempt stating that:
those altered licenses are not fully consistent with Kentucky statute, but such deviations do not render the marriages ineffective.  Thus, the Third-Party Defendants have and will continue  to  recognize  as  valid  those  marriages  solemnized  pursuant  to  the  altered licenses for purposes of the governmental rights, benefits, and responsibilities conveyed by the Executive Branch agencies over which Governor Beshear exercises supervisory control.
This led the ACLU to file a motion (full text) on Nov. 20 urging to court to require licenses to be issued in their original unaltered form, stating:
As Governor Beshear has now recognized, Davis’ actions have created considerable uncertainty regarding the legality of the altered marriage licenses.  They impose significant and ongoing harm on Rowan County couples who are legally eligible to marry but now face doubt and fear that a marriage solemnized pursuant to an altered marriage license could be held invalid at some unknown time in the future. And Davis’ actions effectively brand the altered licenses with a stamp of animus against gay people. This Court can and should eliminate the uncertainty and harm by enforcing its prior orders....
Meanwhile, accordidng to the Nov. 6 International Business Times, Republican Kentucky Gov.-elect Matt Bevin says that when he is sworn in on Dec. 8, he will issue an executive order removing county clerks' names from state marriage licenses, hoping that this will resolve the problem.

Localities Adjusting Nativity Displays To Avoid Constitutional Problems

As the Christmas season approaches, cities and counties that traditionally placed Nativity Scenes on government property are now responding to constitutional challenges to them. Either in response to demand letters or to actual litigation, one of two types of responses is typical: (1) transfer the nativity scene to private ownership and display of  on private property; or (2) surrounding the nativity scene with numerous secular displays.

In Wadena, Minnesota, the nativity display previously placed in a public park was sold to the Wadena Ministerial Association for $25 and will be placed on a lawn across from the town's hospital.  Forum News Service reported yesterday that a town resident is also inviting others to display nativity scenes, attempting to break the record for the most creches displayed in one area.

In Franklin County, Indiana, the county avoided losing a lawsuit (see prior posting) by adopting an ordinance allowing county resident to erect their own displays on the courthouse lawn alongside the nativity scene. AP reported yesterday that the county has approved 9 displays, including one of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson huddled around a manger holding the Bill of Rights.

Major British Theater Chains Reject Church of England Ad

The three largest movie chains in Britain-- Odeon, Cineworld and Vue-- all have policies against accepting political or religious advertising. Invoking these provisions, the theater chains have refused a 60 second advertisement produced by the Church of England promoting its website.  According to Sunday's Guardian, the ad which the Church wanted to run before the showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (to be released Dec. 18) depicts each line of the Lord's Prayer being said by a different person, beginning with the Archbishop of Cantebury. The Church complained that this refusal chills free speech, and the Church's position has attracted some unexpected backers, including atheist (but free speech advocate) Richard Dawkins. [Thanks to Seth Tillman for the lead.]

Monday, November 23, 2015

Israel's Rabbinical High Court To Consider Retroactive Conversion Revocation Case

Times of Israel and Haaretz report on an appeal filed last week with Israel's Rabbinical High Court seeking reversal of a lower religious court's decision handed down in 2012 that retroactively invalidated a Christian woman's 1983 conversion to Judaism. The lower court's action was taken because the woman was not living the Orthodox Jewish life-style she had promised to lead at the time of her conversion. The appeal is being pursued by the woman's daughter because it calls into question her and her young daughter's religious status. It is expected that the High Court will reverse the invalidation because it usually refuses to retroactively invalidate conversions.

Recent Articles of Interest

From SSRN:
From SmartCILP:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In In re Pima County Mental Health No. MH64461112, 2015 Ariz. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1364 (AZ App., Nov. 10, 2015), an Arizona appeals court rejected appellant's claim that because she was receiving treatment in accordance with the tenets of Scientology the trial court should not have ordered her to continue to receive court-ordered mental health treatment.

In Schlemm v. Wall, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155714 (WD WI, Nov. 18, 2015). a Wisconsin federal district court refused to allow a Native American inmate to amend his complaint to add a claim for damages, and ordered the case to proceed only as to declaratory and injunctive relief under RLUIPA as to plaintiff's complaint regarding venison for use during the Navajo Tribe Ghost Feast and wearing a multi-colored headband while praying in his cell and during group religious ceremonies.

In Brown v. Major, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155632 (D SC, Nov. 18, 2015), a South Carolina federal district court adopted a magistrate's recommendations (2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155804, Oct. 30, 2015) and dismissed a Muslim inmate's complaint that he was denied a Kosher diet, the opportunity to pray in common areas, and a Quran.

Settlement Requires 1st Amendment Training For Hawaiian Police

On Nov. 16, a Hawaii federal district court approved a settlement agreement (full text) in Goodhue v. County of  Maui. In the lawsuit, a pastor and his wife charged that their First Amendment rights were infringed when police hired to provide security prevented them from handing out religious literature on sidewalks outside the Maui Fair.  As summarized in an ACLU press release:
As part of the settlement agreement, the County of Maui has dropped its appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and, for three years, will conduct additional specialized training for current and new Maui Police Department (“MPD”) officers on upholding the 1st Amendment in public spaces. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Texas State Trooper Sues Over Religious Harassment By Co-Workers

According to the Austin Statesman, Texas state trooper Patsy Jones, assigned to work at the state Capitol, has filed a religious discrimination lawsuit alleging that her colleagues harassed her about being religious because she often reads her Bible at work.  She says that when she complained, her supervisor at the Texas Department of Public Safety suggested mediation with fellow-employees. When she declined, she was ordered to work from home for 6 months, and was then assigned to the night shift.

Suit Claims Four NY Yeshivas Deny Male Students Adequate Secular Education

The Lower Hudson Journal News reports that on Friday a class action lawsuit was filed in a New York federal district court by parents of students who attend various Orthodox Jewish schools in the East Ramapo school district and by former students of the schools claiming that the schools deny male students adequate secular coursework.  According to the report:
The claim contends that four Hasidic yeshivas in Monsey, Spring Valley and New Square do not teach English, "basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civil participants."
The lawsuit also alleges that defendants have broken the law by:
  • Failing to hire or train teachers and staff "capable" of teaching secular studies. 
  • Discriminating against boys by providing girls with more robust secular studies.
  • Failing to oversee or control yeshivas' use of tax money for their designated secular education purposes.
  • Failing to properly equip students with English and other skills necessary to obtain employment, creating generations of people who are dependent on government assistance.
The suit asks the court to order and enforce a requirement of 3 hours per day of secular studies with competent teachers, and asks for remedial courses for prior graduates of the schools.

UPDATE: Here is the full text of the complaint in Doe v. State of New York, (SD NY, filed 11/20/2015). [Thanks to Friendly Atheist for the link to the complaint.]