It’s a good time to be a church-state analyst and science advocate. Which means it’s a tough time for people who believe that our country works best when there is a rigorous separation between religion and government. Here, in no particular order, are some updates from the worlds of law, science and religion.
1. Massachusetts isn’t what anyone would call a hotbed of religious fervor, but even here, controversies can arise. The town of Norwood, MA just held a non-binding referendum on whether the annual school vacation in late December should be renamed the “Christmas Recess” as opposed to the “Winter Recess”. 76 percent of those who voted said yes (but only 17 percent of registered voters cast a ballot). The school committee chose to ignore the vote. Chances are this won’t end up in court, but it’s indicative of wider, ongoing efforts by more conservative Christians to ignore or thwart community policies that recognize cultural and religious diversity.
2. The Supreme Court heard arguments in Hobby Lobby on March 25. The justices’ lines of questioning seemed to fall predictably along politically ideological lines, but they have surprised before. And while Justice Kennedy often votes with the conservatives, he is famously protective of equality for the LGBT community. He might be loath to rule that a corporation has the same religious freedom rights as an individual if he views such a ruling as potentially opening the door to discrimination against LGBT individuals. This will probably be one of the last decisions the Court issues this term due to its complexity and the certain firestorm that will erupt whatever the Court decides.
3. What will Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin do now that the Supreme Court has denied their petition for a writ of certiorari? They run a wedding photography firm, and refused to contract with a lesbian couple who sought the firm’s services for their wedding. The photographers claimed that wedding photography is a form of expression protected under the First Amendment, and they did not want to be compelled to use their artistic expertise to further what they viewed as a lifestyle forbidden by their religious beliefs. The New Mexico Human Rights Commission found them in violation of the state’s public accommodation statute, and the New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed those findings. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case leaves the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling intact.
4. Harvard Law School hosted a conference on Religious Accommodation in the Age of Civil Rights from April 3-5. Constitutional law experts from around the country and across the spectrum convened in a series of panels to discuss a range of topics including the nature of religious accommodation, its efficacy, and legal developments over the last few decades. One presenter referred to it as “the Hobby Lobby Conference”, which was quite apt even though the conference was planned well before the big religious freedom case du jour became the primary topic of conversation in church-state circles. It was fascinating and the array of panelists was outstanding. I, like many of the attendees I spoke to, was frustrated at the seeming lack of real-world experience with issues of discrimination stemming from accommodation of religious beliefs. It was an academic conference, so theory was front and center. Actual human costs were either ignored by certain speakers, waived aside as inconvenient or not such a big deal, dismissed or even derided as being intolerant of conservative religious views and needs. Unsurprisingly, nothing was solved, but the discussions were powerful and the positions well-defended. I won’t name all of the panelists, but it was a privilege to be able to hear Frederick Gedicks, Marty Lederman, Caroline Mala Corbin, Mary Anne Case, Douglas NeJaime, Reva Siegel, Douglas Laycock, Kenji Yoshino and so many others. It was an incredibly distinguished group. I’m glad I went.
5. In 2004 Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, and his research partners discovered a fossil that changed the way we look at evolution. His book about their discoveries is called “Your Inner Fish” and it’s a must-read for anyone who’s interested in paleontology, geology and evolutionary biology. The book was written for the general public, but at least one of my friends who is an engineer and has substantial education in the sciences told me she enjoyed the book enormously. On April 9, PBS began airing a three-part series based upon the book. Because the hunt for and understanding of what the research expeditions found and continue to explore reads a bit like an adventure and a scientific detective story, it should lend itself easily to a broadcast narrative format. The first episode was fantastic. I’ll keep watching.
6. South Carolina’s legislature has been wrangling over naming a state fossil. 43 states have them. Proposed legislation naming the woolly mammoth as the official state fossil made it through the South Carolina House of Representatives on a 94-3 vote. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as well in the state senate. Republican State Senator Kevin L. Bryant introduced an amendment that would have designated Genesis 1:24-25 which describes the sixth day of creation as the state’s official passage from an ancient historical text. I’m not sure, but I don’t think too many states have one of those. His motion was ruled out of order, but, undeterred, he sought to have language reading “as created on the sixth day with the other beasts of the field” inserted after every reference to a mammoth. That one actually passed the Senate (unanimously). On April 9, the House voted to reject the amended bill by a respectable margin (77-30). It will go back to committee.
7. A U.S. district court in Louisiana issued an order requiring that the Sabine Parish, Louisiana school district refrain from unconstitutionally promoting or denigrating religion. The ACLU had filed suit on behalf of a sixth grade student who is a Buddhist of Thai descent. Teachers and administrators repeatedly called his religion stupid and urged him to convert to Christianity. Creationism was taught in science class and a picture of Jesus hung over the main entryway to the school. He was also told by administrators that he should transfer to a school with “more Asians”. The family has been subjected to threats and racial slurs. The School Committee agreed to settle the lawsuit, and the court issued its order as a consent decree. In addition to remedying the significant number of constitutional violations, school staff and administrators will undergo training regarding obligations and responsibilities under the First Amendment. This case reminds us that religious freedom should never mean religious coercion.
That’s all for now, but there will always be more.