Co-held by CCC and Christian Leadership Exchange (CLE), the China-US Church Ministries Symposium kicks off in Orlando, Florida, U.S.A, on February 13, 2017. - China Christian Daily, CCD
Filtering by Category: Religious Freedom
He had done it before, after Tucson, Aurora, Fort Hood and Sandy Hook: taken on the mantle of the pastor-in-chief before a crowd of mourners for lives taken too soon by a man with a gun.
Fourteen prominent faith leaders — including some of President Obama’s closest advisers — want the White House to create a religious exemption from his planned executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against gays and lesbians in hiring.
A letter to the White House, sent Tuesday and made public Wednesday, includes the signatures of Michael Wear, faith director for Obama’s 2012 campaign; Stephen Schneck, a leader of Catholic outreach in 2012; and Florida megapastor Joel Hunter, whom Obama has described as a close spiritual counselor.
The letter reminds Obama of his own earlier faith-based opposition to same-sex marriage, as well as the government’s massive partnerships with faith-based social service groups that work on issues including housing, disaster relief and hunger.
“While the nation has undergone incredible social and legal change over the last decade, we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality. We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion,” said the letter.
“An executive order that does not include a religious exemption will significantly and substantively hamper the work of some religious organizations that are best equipped to serve in common purpose with the federal government.,” it said. “When the capacity of religious organizations is limited, the common good suffers.”
Obama announced last month that he would sign an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. He did this after failed efforts to get through Congress the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal under federal law to discriminate in the workplace — not just for contractors.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay equality advocacy group, nearly 90 percent of the Fortune 500 already ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. And while many see full gay legal equality as a foregone conclusion, this week’s decision at the Supreme Court — saying corporations may claim religious rights in denying workers contraception coverage — shows that legal tensions between religious liberty and rights around sexuality and reproduction are far from resolved.
The 14 signers of the letter include leaders of some of the country’s largest faith-based charities, notably Catholic Charities USA and World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.
The signers said they supported the executive order — “we have great appreciation for your commitment to human dignity and justice, and we share those values with you” — but said an exemption is essential.
“Americans have always disagreed on important issues, but our ability to live with our diversity is part of what makes this country great, and it continues to be essential even in this 21st-century,” the letter said. “Without a robust religious exemption . . . this expansion of hiring rights will come at an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity and religious freedom.”
None of the groups mentioned in the letter have explicitly said they would pull out of their partnerships with the White House if they do not get an exemption.
The White House declined to comment, but Schneck said faith groups remain in conversation with the administration and are “hopeful.”
Schneck, who runs the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University, said he did not see any contradiction between supporting gay equality and the exemption.
“I think these things fit together pretty well,” he said. “Of all federal contracts, these [faith-based ones] are such a miniscule portion. The recognition of the divisive nature of these kinds of efforts [such as the executive order], it just makes perfect sense for the White House to give the faith-based groups time to work this out. It’s not that long ago when Obama himself was where these faith-based groups are now.”
Views are deeply divided. World Vision, a massive Christian relief nonprofit that received $179 million in 2013 from the government, announced a few months ago that it would allow employees to be in same-sex marriages and then immediately reversed itself after an outcry by donors.
Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
Even as polls show Americans broadly oppose electioneering from the pulpit, a new report by a group of faith leaders working closely with Capitol Hill argues for ending the decades-old ban on explicit clergy endorsements. The report being given Wednesday to Sen. Charles E. Grassley — the Iowa Republican whose office for years has been probing potential abuses by tax-exempt groups — comes as the ban has become a culture-war flashpoint.
More than 1,100 mostly conservative Christian pastors for the past few springs have been explicitly preaching politics — they call the annual event “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” — in an effort to lure the Internal Revenue Service into a court showdown. Meanwhile, groups that favor a strong church-state separation are going to court to demand that the IRS more aggressively enforce the ban that dates to 1954.
The report by officials of major denominations (including the Southern Baptist Convention and Assemblies of God) and large nonprofit organizations (including the Crusade for Christ and Esperanza, one of the country’s biggest Latino evangelical groups) argues that the ban chills free speech and violates the culture of people who see the weaving of faith and political expression as essential to their religious practice.
Forty-two percent of black Protestants and 37 percent of white evangelical Protestants say houses of worship should endorse candidates, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Americans overall, that figure has been in the 20s for a decade.
The report focuses on faith groups but would apply to secular 501c3 nonprofit organizations as well.
Some members of the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations said lifting the ban was more about principles than pragmatism.
“I think there are some pockets of very conservative folks or very liberal folks who will use this in a partisan way. But when you become more specific [about candidates] you cut off a big portion of your congregation, and not a lot of religious leaders want to do that,” said Joel Hunter, leader of the Florida megachurch Northland and a sometime adviser to President Obama. “The issue is: Do they have the freedom to do it? For me it’s a First Amendment issue, a religious-freedom issue.” Hunter says he preaches on environmental and poverty issues and policies but not specific candidates.
Experts and even leaders of the commission agreed with Hunter that most clergy wouldn’t want to endorse from the pulpit — not because of the IRS but out of fear of alienating members at a time when young Americans in particular are fed up with the merger of partisan politics and religion. But, they say, the IRS’s spotty enforcement — the IRS doesn’t go after the Pulpit Freedom Sunday clergy, for example — and the complex tax language leaves many houses of worship afraid of even legal speech about particular measures or policies.
It’s unclear what will happen to the report, which was compiled by 14 Christian leaders, many of whom have worked in the past with Grassley on financial accountability issues.
The commission was advised by a much more religiously and politically diverse group of 66 faith leaders, a subset of which wrote an opposition paper arguing that the ban “has served to protect houses of worship in America from government regulation and from divisive partisan politics dividing the church communities.”
The group of 66 included leaders from all major branches of Judaism, major Muslim and Hindu groups as well as Methodists and Mormons, among others. It wasn’t clear how many of the 66 backed the proposal, but the commission chairman, Michael Batts, said support was “strong.”
A spokeswoman for Grassley said Tuesday that the senator “is weighing next steps.”
The report follows a controversial blowup over how the IRS chooses which groups to target for enforcement, and many are seeking change at the IRS. It also comes as Congress is seeking new revenue and potential tax code changes that would affect nonprofit organizations.
Efforts to drop the ban have been proposed before and failed.
The report also argues that the ban on the use of tax-deductible funds for political purposes — such as church coffers going to a campaign — should be maintained.
“We think this [report] would allow for respect without creating a monster — that churches could become in essence [political action committees],” said Batts, a leading expert on accounting for faith-based nonprofit organizations. “If they had money and could disburse it for political activities, that would be problematic, but this is just speech — saying what you believe.”
The report follows years of work by Grassley’s office and evangelical leaders on the issue of financial accountability.
A decade ago, Grassley began investigating whether several high-profile television ministries were violating the law by using tithes for things such as for-profit businesses, planes and jewelry. His office disappointed the most enthusiastic reformers in 2011 when it found no wrongdoing and asked a well-established council of evangelical oversight experts to make recommendations for self-governance.
That group, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, created the new commission. In December it made recommendations on the broad topic of financial accountability that Congress has not acted on. Members then turned to the separate issue of religious speech, which is the topic of the new report.
Some critics say it lacks credibility.
“This whole thing has a fox-guarding-the-henhouse feel to it and always has,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister who heads the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Lynn said his group has brought multiple examples to the IRS of clergy preaching against votes for President Obama, and he said nothing was ever done.
Experts on religion in the United States say that even as Americans are becoming more turned off by partisan politics in religion, they are becoming more and more likely to see their faith as driving them to policy activism.
But there remains disagreement in the faith community about explicit endorsements. The commission is largely made up of conservative evangelicals, but a more liberal group called the Bright Lines Project also is looking into changes at the IRS and also proposed an exemption for political speech at houses of worship under certain circumstances.
by Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel
Last week, someone told the Rev. Joel Hunter that they hoped his family dies in a fire.
Why? Because Hunter had the audacity to speak out against intolerance, specifically intolerance against Muslims.
Hunter quickly paid the price, receiving hundreds of angry emails, including the death wish.
This is the state of discourse in Florida.
And it's fostered in part by the people you elect.
You see, once upon a time, the fringy crusade against all things Islamic was led by a handful of legislators who would boycott peaceful prayers by imams and file goofy bills that common-sense legislators ignored.
Unfortunately, Florida is increasingly known as the state where common sense goes to die.
A bill that was dismissed last year as irrelevant — one that tries to prohibit Islamic and foreign laws from affecting Florida court rulings — is now gaining steam.
Even the bill's sponsor, Sen. Alan Hays, struggled to cite examples of the problem he was claiming to solve. Instead, Hays called his bill "preventative."
The fringe-o-sphere, however, claims Islamic Shariah law is creeping into America. So they are backing a bill that would supposedly ban judges from relying upon any and all foreign laws.
Apparently patriotic Americans don't take kindly to foreign precedent (never mind the Magna Carta).
Foreign-based court rulings are scant, if not nonexistent, in most places. Chief judges I polled said they have never cited any and describe the controversy as manufactured.
Still, even if there were questionable rulings in lower levels of the judiciary, it wouldn't be an issue for the Legislature to address.
You see, in America, we have separation of powers — which brings us to the biggest problem with Hays' bill: It's probably unconstitutional.
Don't take it from me. The senate's own analysts concluded his bill could be "an infringement on the essential role of the judicial branch in violation of the constitutional separation of powers."
Analysts spent a solid two pages describing all the "technical deficiencies" in the bill.
Undeterred, a Senate committee passed it anyway — with the support of local Republicans Andy Gardiner and David Simmons, guys who normally know better.
Many sensible people of all faith and partisan stripes remain opposed to this unneeded bill.
One of them is Hunter, the well-known pastor of Northland, a Church Distributed.
In a short statement to the Senate, read by a Muslim, Hunter described the bill as unneeded and rooted in bias. Hunter noted that he is a conservative evangelical, and pointed out that "objecting to unnecessary law is a conservative principle as well as a libertarian one."
Hunter later told me he viewed his statement as simply "a common-sense response."
But remember: This is Florida.
Hunter was immediately targeted by groups such as the Florida Family Association — a group that teeters back and forth in trying to decide who it wants to demonize most: Muslims or gays.
"There were letters that said, 'I hope your family dies in a fire,' " Hunter recalled. "Just horrible, horrible things."
Often those who scream loudest about the Lord are His worst disciples.
And the most unlikely to appreciate the irony of their rants about "religious extremists."
Hunter said he bears no ill will — even for the folks who offered death wishes.
"I just feel so sorry for those people," he said. "Because they're walking in fear."
I respect Hunter's ability to empathize. But my concerns go beyond empathy.
Because these people's hyperbolic fears are threatening to infringe upon my Constitution.
And because our legislators are fanning the flames.