News and Notes

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By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

Republicans took a thumping in the November elections, but they behave as if voters gave them a mandate to advance conservative Christian goals. House Resolutions 940 and 973 would both create faith-exemptions to the requirement for contraceptive coverage in employee insurance plans. HR 940 would amend the Affordable Care Act, so-called “Obamacare,” while HR 973 exempts from any fine, excise tax or suit for failure to provide any coverage to which the employer objects based on religious belief or moral conviction. Both bills were referred to three committees for review. Also, HR 23 presents a direct assault on reproductive rights. It declares that human life begins with fertilization, conferring to the zygote the obligatory protection of government.

HR 898 is the portentously named “Religious Organizations Using Taxpayer Money Without Limits Act.” While authorizing 2014 – 2017 funding for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, it provides that religious programs that receive funding will not be required to provide any services to which they object. This is in response to the Department of Health and Human Services cutting off funding for a Catholic Charities program to rescue sex-trafficking victims, because the charity refused the requests of victims to be referred to abortion services and contraception. Between 2006 and 2011, HHS paid Catholic Charities $15 Million from its Office for Refugee Resettlement, until it ruled that the clients of participating programs are entitled to reproductive health services.

Finally, Senate Resolution SR 11 would declare the support of Congress for prayers to open school board meetings.

The Supreme Court will decide in this term two cases that are certain to be landmarks in the struggle for same-sex marriage. In the first, the court will decide whether the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the equal protection guarantees in the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, as applied to same-sex couples legally married under the laws of their own state. The legal issue is whether the federal government can deny tax, health, and pension benefits to same-sex couples in states where they can legally marry.
The other case is an appeal of the decision by the federal appeals court in San Francisco to overturn Proposition 8, with which, by a 52% – 48% margin, voters restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples. The Obama administration has filed an amicus brief supporting the decision of the Appeals Court.

In a surprising setback to the separation of church and state, a Colorado appeals court has rejected a challenge brought by the ACLU to a “Choice Scholarship Program” contrived like a Rube Goldberg machine to circumvent the state constitution’s prohibition against taxpayer funding of church schools. The county created a fictional charter school, without a building or teachers, to which it assigns program participants who are actually attending church schools. This “school” receives state funding as a public school. The county in turn mails checks to parents, who endorse the check over to their religious private schools.

There were two very good reports from the United Nations this month, indicating that the influence there of the Organization of the Islamic Conference may be declining. First, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) ruled that language in the Rabat Plan of Action referring to “incitement to religious hatred” does not allow states to punish people for criticizing or dissenting from religion. Then the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief issued his annual report which made clear that changing one’s religion — or leaving religion altogether — is a human right which must be protected. This undercuts the justification used by nations that have criminalized apostasy.

The Secular Coalition for America plans to draft a Model Secular Guide for Legislatures, outlining model policy and approaches to governing from a secular perspective, which it will distribute to elected officials. It is recruiting a task force for this project. If you might be interested, they have scheduled a 30 minute call every Friday at 2 pm. To participate, call-in at 559-726-1300, code: 199568.

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