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In the News (April 2018)

City must pay $700K in Ten Commandments case

The city of Bloomfield, N.M., hopes to use online fundraising money to pay the $700,000 it owes from a lawsuit regarding the Ten Commandments monument that was formerly located outside of City Hall.

Because the courts ruled the monument violated the U.S. Constitution and represented a government endorsement of religion, the city must now pay the legal fees for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the complaint in 2012 on behalf of two Bloomfield residents.

The nonprofit law firm Alliance Defending Freedom provided Bloomfield with “free” legal representation throughout the litigation process.

City Manager Eric Strahl said Bloomfield had until June 30, 2021, to pay the $700,000 that it owes for the ACLU’s legal fees.

Strahl said if the city is unable to raise money through donations, it will have to pay the sum out of its general fund.

Woman imprisoned under abortion ban freed

A Salvadoran woman who spent almost 11 years in prison under El Salvador’s ban on abortion was freed after the country’s Supreme Court commuted her sentence.

The case of the woman, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, underscores the punishment faced by Salvadoran women convicted of homicide after losing a pregnancy. El Salvador forbids abortion under any circumstances, even to save the life of the woman.

Vásquez, 34, was at her job as a school cafeteria cook in 2007 when she began bleeding and suffered a stillbirth in the last month of her pregnancy. She was convicted of aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

But the Supreme Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to show that Vásquez had taken any action to end the pregnancy and that for “powerful reasons of justice” and “equity,” she should be released.

Pakistani rights activist Asma Jahangir dies

Asma Jahangir, 66, a leading Pakistani rights activist, fearless critic of the military’s interference in politics and a staunch defender of the rule of law, died Feb. 11.

Jahangir was a human rights lawyer who had a reputation for speaking truth to power and defending the weak and the marginalized and women and minorities against injustice. She gained international acclaim for being the conscience of a country where liberal, secular voices have continuously been under threat.

She was the founding chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

She often faced threats to her life, both from military dictators and militants. She championed the rights of religious minorities — especially those who were charged under the country’s blasphemy laws.

American United picks first woman to lead

Rachel Laser, a lawyer and longtime advocate on issues related to reproductive freedom, LGBT equality and racism, has been named the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. She is the first woman to lead the 71-year-old group.

Laser takes over the organization at a time when Americans are strongly divided about the role  of religion in public life.

‘In God We Trust’ to be in all Florida schools?

The Florida House on Feb. 21, one week after the school massacre in Parkland, passed a measure that would require all public schools to post the state motto, “In God We Trust,” in a “conspicuous place.”

Rep. Kim Daniels, a self-described exorcist who runs her own ministry, said Florida needed the legislation, given the goings-on in the state.

“[God] is not a Republican or a Democrat. He is not black or white,” Daniels said. “He is the light, and our schools need light in them like never before.”

The bill passed 97-10, followed by a standing ovation. The Senate has yet to take up a companion bill.

Churches hit by disaster eligible for FEMA funds

On Feb. 9, Congress approved a measure making houses of worship eligible for public assistance money for the restoration of damaged buildings and other purposes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the aftermath of disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes. President Trump signed the legislation into law that day.

Federal law now gives permanence to a new FEMA interpretation issued in early January. At that time, the agency announced it would no longer exclude houses of worship from its aid, which provides for debris removal, emergency protection and the rebuilding of facilities for some private nonprofit organizations.

Three Texas churches challenged FEMA’s policy in federal court after Hurricane Harvey caused damage to their buildings in August, and two Florida synagogues brought suit after Hurricane Irma harmed their facilities in September.

Court reverses ruling on city funds for church

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on March 9 reversed a lower court’s ruling that the city of Acton could fund restoration of Acton Congregational Church.

The court ordered a preliminary injunction against using public money to restore the church’s stained-glass windows that feature religious imagery, and sent the case back to the lower court for further scrutiny of whether Acton could use a statewide historic preservation grant program to fund any improvements to houses of worship.

The case, Caplan v. Town of Acton, was brought by Americans United on behalf of 13 Massachusetts taxpayers and was spurred by concerns from AU’s Massachusetts chapter. The case challenged the town’s decision to use the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act, through which communities can provide government grants to private landowners for the restoration of historic buildings, to restore houses of worship.

Acton wanted to give $100,000 worth of grant money to a church for restoration of stained-glass windows with religious imagery and a “Master Plan” to evaluate the restoration needs of the church itself and two other church-owned properties. The church has an active congregation and in its grant request, it conceded that it wanted taxpayer funding so that it could save its own money for religious programming.

Abstinence advocate in charge of  Title X funds

A senior Trump health official who has promoted abstinence will decide which groups receive federal family planning funds. In the past, a group of officials made the decision.

The $286 million Title X program funds family planning services, mostly for low-income women.

Now the final decision of who gets the funding will be in the hands of one person — Valerie Huber, the acting deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at HHS, a longtime advocate of abstinence.

Many women’s health advocates fear that the Trump administration will move money away from groups that provide contraception and toward crisis pregnancy centers that oppose abortion or groups that promote abstinence-only education.

Court: Law covers transgender workers

A federal law banning sex bias in the workplace prohibits discrimination against transgender workers, a U.S. appeals court said on March 7, ruling in favor of a funeral director who was fired after telling her boss she planned to transition to female from male.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes in Detroit unlawfully discriminated against Aimee Stephens, formerly known as Anthony Stephens, based on her sex.

Several federal appeals courts have said that discriminating against transgender workers is a form of unlawful sex bias. But the 6th Circuit was the first to consider and reject a religious defense in such a case.

Study: Atheists more likely to be left-handed

A study has found that left-handed people are more likely to be atheists because it is thought that belief is passed on genetically.

The study suggests that religious people have fewer genetic mutations and are therefore less likely to be left-handed.

The study, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science, reports that in pre-industrial times, religiosity was passed on like other genetic attributes. But because of advances in science, people who would not previously have survived are making it to adulthood and reproducing, leading to a greater incidence of atheism.

Physicist, atheist Stephen Hawking dies

Atheist Stephen Hawking, the brilliant British theoretical physicist who overcame a debilitating disease to publish popular books probing the mysteries of the universe, died on March 14.

Hawking was also a cosmologist, astronomer, mathematician and author of numerous books, including the landmark A Brief History of Time, which  sold more than 10 million copies.

Hawking merged Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum theory to suggest that space and time would begin with the Big Bang and end in black holes. Hawking also discovered that black holes were not completely black but emit radiation and would likely eventually evaporate and disappear.

Hawking suffered from ALS, a neurodegenerative disease, which is usually fatal within a few years. He was diagnosed in 1963, when he was 21. The disease left him wheelchair-bound and paralyzed.