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

In the News (March 2021)

Vol. 38 No. 02 March 2021
Three flags fly outside the Boston City Hall. One is always the American flag, the second is always the Massachusetts state flag and the third flag varies, based on private groups who submit their flag to be flown. A court ruled that the city may bar the Christian flag from being the third flag. (Photo courtesy of city of Boston)

Court: Boston can reject Christian flag

The city of Boston can refuse a citizen’s request to fly a Christian flag over City Hall, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Jan. 22, according to Courthouse News.

This doesn’t violate the plaintiff’s right to free speech nor does it discriminate against religion, the court said.

Boston is “entitled to select the views that it wants to express,” U.S. Circuit Judge Bruce Selya wrote for a three-judge panel. And the refusal to fly the flag “simply cannot be construed to suggest the disparagement of the plaintiffs’ religion.”

The court said the flagpoles represent the government’s speech, not the public’s speech, because a casual observer seeing the flags would assume that the city intended whatever message they convey. 

FFRF had originally joined the amicus brief supporting the city.

Ex-state Rep. Saccone resigns after comments

Former Pennsylvania state Rep. Rick Saccone, who was the target of an FFRF lawsuit in 2012, resigned from his teaching position at St. Vincent College after comments he made on social media.

Saccone tweeted a selfie from the Capitol on Jan. 6, saying: “We are storming the Capitol . . .  We will save this nation. Are u with me?”

A pro-Trump violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol left five dead. Saccone, 62, resigned as an adjunct instructor the following day, Jan. 7.

In March 2012, FFRF sued against a declaration by the Pennsylvania House that 2012 is “The Year of the Bible,” which was authored by Saccone. U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner on Oct. 1, 2012, dismissed the case, ruling House officials had legislative immunity, but chastised House officials for “premeditated pandering.”

Abortion ban takes effect in Poland

A near-total ban on abortion in Poland went into effect on Jan. 27, despite protests from hundreds of thousands of residents.

The law halts the termination of pregnancies for fetal abnormalities, basically the only kind of abortion performed in Poland.

The decision had been made in October by the Constitutional Tribunal, but its implementation was delayed after it prompted a month of protests. On Jan. 27,  the government abruptly announced that the ruling was being published in the government’s journal, meaning it came into effect.

“We are dealing with incompetence, corruption, a total decay of the state, so these men are doing what they know best — taking away rights and freedoms from the citizens,” Marta Lempart, a protest organizer, told a television station.

8-year-old expelled for having crush on girl

Chloe Shelton, an 8-year-old second-grader, was expelled from Rejoice Christian Schools in Owasso, Okla., because she told another girl she had a crush on her.

“[Chloe] said the vice principal sat her down and said the bible says you can only marry a man and have children with a man,” said Delanie Shelton, Chloe’s mother. “My daughter was crying, saying, ‘Does God still love me?’”

Rejoice Christian Schools told Shelton they don’t condone boyfriend/girlfriend relationships on campus.

“The vice principal asked me ‘How do I feel about girls liking girls?’ And I said, ‘If we’re being honest, I think it’s OK for girls to like girls’ and she looked shocked and appalled,” Delanie Shelton said.

Ark. House OKs bill to let churches stay open

A bill passed the Arkansas House 75–10 on Jan. 28 that would prohibit the state from closing churches or prohibiting religious gatherings during emergencies, including a pandemic.

The bill would allow houses of worship to ignore reasonable public health restrictions, increasing the likelihood that in-person church services will become Covid-19 superspreader events.

The bill now moves to the Republican-heavy state Senate, which is also likely to approve it.

Iowa bill would ‘out’ LGBTQ+ students

A bill introduced in the Iowa Senate has critics saying that it’s a blatant attempt to “out” LGBTQ+ students.

Senate File 80 states that if a school chooses to ask a student or give them a survey which asks them to identify their gender, that information would be required to be provided to the parent or guardian of the student.

One Iowa, whose mission is to improve the lives of the LGBTQ+ community in Iowa, has criticized the bill because not all students who consider themselves LGBTQ+ are comfortable “outing” themselves to their parents.

Survey: Covid-19 in U.S. has strengthened faith

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in the summer of 2020 reveals that more Americans than people in other economically developed countries say the outbreak has bolstered their religious faith and the faith of their compatriots.

Nearly three in 10 Americans (28 percent) report stronger personal faith because of the pandemic, and the same share think the religious faith of Americans overall has strengthened, according to the survey of 14 economically developed countries.

Far smaller shares in other parts of the world say religious faith has been affected by the coronavirus. For example, just 10 percent of British adults report that their own faith is stronger as a result of the pandemic. In Japan, 5 percent of people say religion now plays a stronger role in both their own lives and the lives of their fellow citizens.

Majorities or pluralities in all the countries surveyed do not feel that religious faith has been strengthened by the pandemic, including 68 percent of U.S. adults who say their own faith has not changed much.

Judge: Church’s beach parking is religious act

A federal judge in Florida ruled on Jan. 29 that the community of St. Pete Beach couldn’t stop a church from allowing beachgoers to use its parking lot, calling the practice a legitimate ministry.

The United Church of Christ parking lot, which has 70 spaces, is about a block from a metered lot run by the city. In June 2016, the city fined the church twice for violating a law governing commercial parking lots. The church filed its complaint in the U.S. District Court of Florida.

As Religion News Service writes, “The arguments in the case hinged, as they often do in religious freedom rulings, on whether the church’s insistence on keeping the parking lot available to the public was ‘a sincerely held belief’ of the church’s faith.”

Researcher: Definition of ‘evangelical’ changing

Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science and a researcher from Eastern Illinois University, says that the term “evangelical” is morphing into something more political.   

In his Jan. 26 op-ed on the Religion News Service site, “Think U.S. evangelicals are dying out? Well, define evangelicalism,” Burge writes: “The assumption is that the term [evangelical] describes those who place high value on the teachings of the bible and strive to evangelize other people into their faith.

“However, that understanding of the term seems to be fading, replaced with a more amorphous concept that melds together religious doctrine and an affinity for conservative politics that experts are only beginning to understand now.”

Burge continues: “For instance, in her book From Politics to Pews, scholar Michele Margolis argues that people are choosing their religious affiliation based on their political partisanship with greater frequency now than in prior decades.”

Saudi women’s activist released from prison

Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from custody on Feb 10, according to several news outlets.

She was best known for challenging the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, al-Hathloul, tried to drive her car across the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia and was detained for more than 70 days.

She was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to almost six years in prison last December under a broad counterterrorism law. She’s been in prison since then and her release after 1,001 days is due to time served and a partially suspended sentence

But al-Hathloul’s family has said she is not really free because she has been banned from leaving the country for five years and will not be allowed to speak with journalists.

Satanic Temple sues Boston over prayer policy

The Satanic Temple on Jan. 23 sued the city of Boston after the City Council declined to allow Satanists to deliver an invocation at the start of its meetings.

The Satanic Temple said the council’s policy for its opening prayer is discriminatory and unconstitutional because it does not permit prayer from every religious organization that wishes to deliver one.

Satanists have asked to give the opening invocation on at least three occasions, and each time they were informed the council doesn’t accept requests, the organization said.

The Satanic Temple, in its federal lawsuit, argued that the council policy violates the city’s public accommodations statute, which states that any place serving a public function is entitled to protection from discrimination. It also violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which it argues guarantees all religions an equal opportunity to participate in free-speech forums.