Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

In the News (Jan/Feb 2020)

Vol. 37 No. 01 Jan/Feb 2020

Supreme Court to hear state-church case

The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that will test the right of religious schools to fire teachers despite job discrimination claims.

Two religious school teachers from California (one of whom has since died) were fired by their Catholic schools. Those schools relied on a Supreme Court precedent giving religious organizations “ministerial exceptions” from laws that apply to other employers.

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the teachers, prompting the schools to ask the Supreme Court to weigh in. The cases will be combined and heard in the spring.

In 2012, the court unanimously ruled that federal discrimination laws do not apply when religious organizations choose their ministers and leaders. The question is whether teachers can be considered “ministers” and therefore exempted from discrimination laws.

One of the teachers, Kristen Biel, was fired from her school after she revealed that she had breast cancer and needed medical leave to undergo chemotherapy. She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and has since died.

The other teacher, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who is not Catholic, taught for 16 years, but was let go based on her performance. She claimed age discrimination.

In other state-church news, the court is scheduled in January to hear a case from Montana on whether states can be forced to help subsidize tuition at religious schools.

Report: Church of Canada may disappear by 2040

A report commissioned by the Anglican Church of Canada shows there may be no members left in the mainline Canadian denomination in 20 years, according to an article by the Religion News Service.

“Projections from our data indicate that there will be no members, attenders or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040,” said the Rev. Neil Elliot, an Anglican priest in Trail, British Columbia, who authored the report.

Membership in the Anglican Church fell from a high of 1.3 million in 1961 in membership to 357,123 in 2017, said Elliot.

Catholic school cuts PP from resource page

A Catholic college in Madison, Wis., removed Planned Parenthood from its list of wellness resources, following a petition that demanded the abortion provider be stripped from the school’s website.

The petition at Edgewood College was started by TFP Student Action, an organization that seeks to “proudly affirm the positive values of tradition, family and private property.” On Nov. 19, TFP Student Action announced that the school had removed the Planned Parenthood links from its page.

Pope lifts ‘secrecy’ rule in sex abuse cases

The pope has declared that the rule of “pontifical secrecy” no longer applies to the sexual abuse of minors, in a bid to improve transparency in such cases.

The Catholic Church had previously kept sexual abuse cases secret because it said it wanted to protect the privacy of victims and reputations of the accused.

But new papal documents on Dec. 17 lifted restrictions on those who report abuse or say they have been victims. Church leaders called for the rule’s abolition at a Vatican summit in February.

The pope also changed the Vatican’s definition of child pornography, increasing the age of the subject from 14 or under to 18 or under.

Woman asked to leave flight for ‘Satan’ shirt

American Airlines apologized after a passenger was asked to leave her flight because she was wearing a “Hail Satan” shirt, which the crew members found “offensive.”

Swati Runi Goyal was set to travel from Florida to Las Vegas when she was called up to the front of the plane.  The Key West resident told BuzzFeed News she originally thought she was being upgraded to first class.

“Our crew has found your shirt to be offensive,” Goyal said one of the crew members told her.

Goyal said she originally dismissed this request, but the crew continued to press her, delaying the flight and calling for a customer service agent to come on board and demand she remove the shirt. The 49-year-old said she was given an ultimatum: Change shirts or leave the flight entirely.   

Teens in South encounter more religion in schools

A survey by Pew Research Center shows teens in the South are more likely than in other regions of the country to encounter religion in public schools.

Teens in the South express their religion, such as praying at lunch or before sporting events, more often than other regions. Among Southern teens, 56 percent say they “often” or “sometimes” see other students praying before a sporting event at their public school, compared with 34 percent of teens in the Midwest, 28 percent in the West and 26 percent in the Northeast, according to a Pew survey of 1,811 teens ages 13 to 17.

Nationwide, 41 percent of teens said it’s appropriate for a teacher to lead a class in prayer; 55 percent of Southern teens said it was appropriate. About 82 percent of teens nationwide correctly stated that the Supreme Court had ruled against the practice of teacher-led prayer in public schools.

Fundamentalism, brain damage link found

A new study shows that religious fundamentalism is partly the result of an impairment in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Damage to certain areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive flexibility and openness, which is a personality trait that involves curiosity, creativity and open-mindedness.

According to the article on RawStory.com by Bobby Azarian, religious beliefs can be thought of as “socially transmitted mental representations that consist of supernatural events and entities assumed to be real. Religious beliefs differ from empirical beliefs, which are based on how the world appears to be and are updated as new evidence accumulates or when new theories with better predictive power emerge. On the other hand, religious beliefs are not usually updated in response to new evidence or scientific explanations, and are therefore strongly associated with conservatism. They are fixed and rigid, which helps promote predictability and coherence to the rules of society among individuals within the group.”

The study was published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

Evangelicals: Atheists would strip their rights

In a new survey, political scientists Ryan Burge and Paul A. Djupe found that 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants think that atheists would strip them of their rights, according to an article in the Washington Post on Dec. 23.

“Their fear comes from an inverted golden rule: Expect from others what you would do unto them,” Djupe writes. “White evangelical Protestants express low levels of tolerance for atheists, which leads them to expect intolerance from atheists in return.”

Similarly, 58 percent of white evangelicals believed “Democrats in Congress” would not allow them to exercise liberties, such as holding rallies, teaching, speaking freely, and running for public office.

But 65 percent of atheists and 53 percent of Democrats who listed Christian fundamentalists as their least-liked group said they would allow evangelicals to engage in those constitutionally granted liberties. That’s a much higher proportion of tolerance than the sample overall.

“In fact, when we looked at all religious groups, atheists and agnostics were the most likely to extend rights to the groups they least liked.” Djupe writes.

Citzenship law fuels               deadly protests in India

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended a contentious citizenship law that has sparked deadly protests. Modi said during a speech on Dec. 22 that he would not scrap the law, which favors every major South Asian faith other than Islam.

Critics say the law is proof that the government plans to turn India into a Hindu-centric state and marginalize the country’s 200 million minority Muslims.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians took to the streets in opposition of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which the Indian Parliament approved in December. The protests drew people of all faiths, concerned that the law undermines India’s foundation as a secular nation. Around two dozen people were killed in the violent police crackdown, and hundreds were arrested.

Pharmacies sued for not filling prescription

A Minnesota woman is suing two pharmacies, saying they illegally refused to fill a prescription for emergency contraception, according to KSTP News.

After a condom broke, Andrea Anderson’s doctor wrote a prescription for emergency contraception. She called the only drug store in town, Thrifty White, to make sure the morning-after pill would be available. Anderson says the pharmacist refused to fill it based on his “beliefs” and “warned” against trying another nearby pharmacy. Anderson contends this was sex discrimination and violates the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Anderson said she went to the CVS in Aitkin and was denied service again. A third pharmacy in Brainerd finally gave her the medication. Anderson later filed the lawsuit and a complaint with the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy.

Judge admonished for selective officiating

Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley of McLennan County, Texas, is a conservative Christian and says she’s done nothing wrong by officiating at weddings for straight couples while turning away same-sex couples. The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct published a public warning against the judge on Dec. 9, saying Hensley’s conduct casts doubt on her “capacity to act impartially to persons appearing before her as a judge due to the person’s sexual orientation.”

Hensley, a Republican elected in 2014, claims she’s done her due diligence because she makes sure LGBTQ couples who come to her know of other local officiants who can perform their weddings.

Town rejects invocation prayers at meetings

McHenry Township (Ill.) board meetings won’t open with prayer after trustees shot down the implementation of an invocation at the Dec. 15 meeting.

Trustee Steve Verr requested the item be brought forward, but was the only “yes” vote on the matter.

Trustees voting against the measure said they didn’t want to open the door to some non-Christian groups such as Satanists, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists.

The U.S Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that legislative bodies may open public meetings in prayer, but those prayers can’t be limited to Christian invocations.

Residents in the audience pointed out the legal ruling during public comment.

“If this does pass, I look forward to having Christians, Jewish people and Muslims,” Wonder Lake resident Mike Tauler said. “I look forward to atheists having their invocation. I look forward to members of the Satanic Temple coming to have their invocation. Once you open it up to one, you open it up to all. Don’t forget that.”