In the News (Jan/Feb 2022)

Supreme Court keeps Texas abortion law in effect

The Supreme Court on Dec. 10 left in place a Texas law that bans most abortions after six weeks, but provided a path for abortion providers to challenge the law.

The court’s decision allows the providers to return to a district judge who once blocked the law, saying it violated the constitutional right to abortion.

That restarts the legal process that has seen the law remain in effect since Sept. 1, when the Supreme Court refused to step in to block it.

Eight justices said the abortion providers may bring the challenge. 

Nearly 3 in 10 adults religiously unaffiliated

The number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the United States is at an all-time high, with 29 percent saying they are not a member of any religion. That is 6 percentage points higher than five years ago and 10 points higher than a decade ago, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

While Christians still make up a majority of the U.S. populace, their share of the population is 12 points lower from 10 years ago. Also, the share of U.S. adults who say they pray on a daily basis has been trending downward, as has the share who say religion is “very important” in their lives.

Christians still outnumber religious Nones by a ratio of a about 2-to-1, but, in 2007, when the question was first asked, Christians outnumbered Nones by almost 5-to-1.

State Department takes action on Avijit Roy death

On Dec. 20, the U.S. State Department finally issued a reward of up to $5 million for information regarding the deadly machete attack on Avijit Roy and his wife Bonya Ahmed, who was severely injured.

The State Department sent out a notice, stating: 

“Rewards for Justice offers a reward of up to $5 million for information on terrorist attack against Americans in Bangladesh. On Feb. 26, 2015, al-Qaida-linked terrorists killed Avijit Roy and wounded his wife Rafida Bonya Ahmed as the couple left a book fair in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

“Six individuals were convicted in a Bangladeshi court and sentenced for their role in the attack.  Two of those defendants — Syed Ziaul Haque (aka Major Zia) and Akram Hossain — were tried in absentia and remain at large.”

Man tortured, killed in Pakistan for blasphemy

A Pakistani mob tortured, killed and then set on fire a Sri Lankan man who was accused of blasphemy, according to a report in The Guardian.

Priyantha Diyawadana, a Sri Lankan national, was set upon by a violent crowd on Dec. 3 over some posters he had allegedly taken down.

The incident began when rumors surfaced that Diyawadana, who had been manager of an industrial engineering factory for seven years, had taken down a poster bearing words from the Quran. By the morning, a crowd began to gather at the factory gates and by early afternoon they had charged into the factory and seized Diyawadana.

Pakistan has draconian laws against blasphemy, which carry the death sentence. The laws are often used against religious minorities and those accused are sometimes lynched before they are proven guilty in a court. 

New German chancellor omits ‘so help me God’

Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, took God out of his oath on Dec. 8.

Scholz omitted the final four words — “so help me God” — from the traditional oath. The oaths Scholz took as mayor of Hamburg in 2011 and as finance minister in 2018 were also nonreligious.

The chancellor was raised as a Protestant but later formally left the church. When asked by a tabloid what he believed in, Scholz said: “That we humans are responsible for one another. That we need to be just with one another. Call it solidarity of loving one’s neighbor.”

Report: Utah used LDS Church to ‘help’ the poor

An investigation by the nonprofit journalism collaborative ProPublica reveals that Utah’s rules for giving cash assistance to the poor are so tight that almost no one qualifies, and instead points them to the  Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for assistance. 

ProPublica unearthed a signed memorandum of understanding between Utah’s Workforce Services and the LDS Church that calls for the church to quantify the aid it provides to the poor so that the state can count it toward fulfilling its obligation to spend money on assistance. That deal has allowed the state to count at least $75 million in LDS Church welfare — cash and volunteered labor — toward its own assistance efforts over the last decade.

And once those people seeking assistance are sent over to the church, many of them are expected to accept proselytizing visits in their homes, to attend church services, even to be baptized in the faith, in order to qualify for food, cash or other assistance.

As the Salt Lake Tribune said in an editorial: “That is an obvious violation of the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion in America.

Reality TV star guilty of child pornography

A federal jury in Fayetteville, Ark., on Dec. 9 found conservative Christian activist Josh Duggar guilty of one count each of receiving and possessing child pornography. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years and $250,000 in fines.

Duggar, 33, was accused of downloading images showing sexual abuse of children, some younger than 12. Prosecutors alleged he installed a password-protected partition on a computer at his used car lot in Springdale, Ark., in May 2019 to avoid software that detects explicit images of children.

From 2008-15, Duggar was a star of the TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting” about a large family guided by conservative Christian values. It was taken off the air after a 2006 police report surfaced detailing how he had molested five teen girls. His parents told Fox News in 2015 that four of the five were his sisters.

No criminal charges were filed then due to the statute of limitations. Duggar resigned as director of the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council.

S.D. governor pushes for morning prayer in schools

South Dakota’s Gov. Kristi Noem has introduced a bill that would allow students in public schools to pray every morning at school if they so choose.

In a statement, Noem shared her belief that “every student deserves the opportunity to begin their day with a calm, silent moment.”

“I hope students will take this opportunity to say a quick prayer or reflect on their upcoming day,” she wrote. “However they choose to take advantage of this time, it will be beneficial to students and teachers alike.”

Potential uses for this moment of silence include “voluntary prayer, reflection, meditation or other quiet, respectful activity.”

Majority in U.S. critical of religious exemptions

The New York Times reports that only about one in 10 Americans says that receiving the Covid-19 vaccine would violate their religious beliefs, while about 60 percent say that too many people are using religion as an excuse to avoid vaccine mandates, according to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core.

A majority of Americans are critical of religious exemptions and say that the vaccines do not violate their own religious beliefs or the teachings of their religion, and that there are no valid religious reasons to refuse the Covid-19 vaccine.

The survey indicates a sharp divide between vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans, according to the New York Times report. That gap widens along partisan lines. More than 80 percent of vaccinated Democrats say they are angry at those who refuse to get vaccinated, and similar numbers of unvaccinated Republicans are “angry at those who think they have the right to tell me to get vaccinated against Covid-19.” 

Atheists: Society fine without marriage, kids

Among self-described atheists, 91 percent say society fares just as well when people have priorities other than marriage and children. That percentage was by far the highest among all “religious” affiliations.  

White evangelicals are the only religious subgroup in which a majority (56 percent) say that prioritizing marriage and having children is better for society. 

On average, evangelical Christians bear about the same number of children as other Americans, and while they tend to marry at a younger age than other U.S. adults, members of evangelical denominations are not necessarily more likely to be married than members of other Christian subgroups — and they may have higher divorce rates.

Among all Americans with a religious affiliation — whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or something else — 56 percent believe it is OK for society if people have priorities besides marriage and children, compared with 82 percent of those with no religion.

U.S. military has granted no religious exemptions

As of late December, the U.S. military services had yet to grant any religious exemptions to the Pentagon’s Covid-19 vaccinate mandate, out of at least 12,000 requests from service members, the services said.

In all, 1,746 soldiers, 2,751 sailors, 4,756 airmen and 3,144 Marines have asked for religious exemption, according to the latest data released by the services. The service branches haven’t reviewed all the requests, and may yet grant some.

In the News (December 2021)

Chart

A third in U.S. believe religion is net negative

In 2019, the Public Religion Research Institute in its American Values Survey asked respondents to react to two statements that summarized the extremes of the religious debate. 1. — “Religion causes more problems in society than it solves.” 2. — “It is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.”

A third of all Americans believe that religion is a net negative in American society, and only one in 10 completely agrees that “religion causes more problems in society than it solves.” Only 20 percent of Republicans think religion is a negative force in American society, while 45 percent of Democrats hold the same position. 

On the question of whether it is necessary for people to believe in God to be moral and have good values, there’s also widespread support for the sentiment that people can be good without God. About 60 percent believed that those who didn’t believe in God could still be moral citizens. Those numbers aren’t much different for Democrats or independents, but 56 percent of Republicans think it’s not possible to be moral without a belief in God.

Poll: Strong support for upholding Roe v. Wade

Americans, by a 2-to-1 margin, believe the Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The public also strongly opposes the Texas law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

The poll shows 27 percent of Americans say the court should overturn Roe, while 60 percent say it should be upheld, attitudes that are consistent in polls dating to 2005, the Washington Post reports. 

Asked about a Texas law that authorizes private citizens anywhere in the country to sue anyone who performs or aids someone in obtaining an abortion in Texas after about six weeks of pregnancy, the poll finds 65 percent say the court should reject the law, while 29 percent say it should be upheld. The Supreme Court is considering the role federal courts can play in evaluating the Texas law, which was intended to avoid federal court review. 

A separate question finds 36 percent support state laws that make it more difficult for abortion clinics to operate, while 58 percent oppose such restrictions, including 45 percent who oppose them “strongly.”

“The poll results show why some on the court might be reluctant to take such a bold step,” writes Scott Clement of the Washington Post. “Roe has become synonymous with a woman’s right to choose abortion, even as some restrictions on the process can be politically popular.”

Evangelicals want to live in Christian country

A majority (57 percent) of white evangelical Christians said they’d prefer that the United States be a nation primarily made up of people who follow Christianity, according to a new study from Public Religion Research Institute. Only 13 percent of white evangelicals said they prefer the country to be made up of people belonging to a wide variety of religions. 

“On this question, there is really more going on than politics,” said Robert P. Jones, PRRI’s CEO. 

Also, 75 percent of white evangelicals say the values of Islam are at odds with American values and ways of life — significantly more than any other U.S. religious group.

The survey also finds white evangelicals to be outliers on a host of other issues.

Almost a quarter of white evangelicals (23 percent) believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory — more than any other religious group. White evangelicals are also the religious group most likely to say American patriots might have to resort to violence to save the country.

New low for number of religious Canadians 

A new report from Statistics Canada has found that Canadians are becoming less religious.

New StatCan data show that in 2019, only 68 percent of Canadians reported having a religious affiliation. It’s the first time that fewer than 70 percent of Canadians reported being religiously affiliated since StatCan began tracking the data in 1985. Between 2000 and 2017, the percentage of religiously affiliated Canadians hovered around 77 to 82 percent, before declining to 75 percent in 2018.

Only 23 percent of Canadians in 2019 reported attending group religious activities, such as church service, at least once a month. Between 2000 and 2009, that figure was around 30 percent.

Individual religious activities, such as prayer or meditation, are also on the decline. Only 30 percent of Canadians reported engaging in such activities at least once a week, compared to 46 percent in 2006, when the data was first collected.

‘Procession’ documentary reveals clergy sex abuse 

In the new Netflix documentary “Procession,” six men who survived clergy sexual abuse as children make short films to try to process their trauma. The film debuted in theaters and on Netflix in November and shows the group from Kansas City working as a collective in scenes based on their memories and dreams.

In Ed Gavagan’s vignette, a priest sits with his trousers off in an all-white bedroom, beckons to Gavagan and asks, “What do you do when you think of girls? If you can’t tell me, then you can show me. Show me what you do when you have impure thoughts.”

Later in the scene, Gavagan vents his frustration by smashing up the set with a sledgehammer after learning criminal charges against his alleged abuser have been dropped. Although four of the men received settlements from civil suits, none of the accused priests was charged with a crime.

“Procession” is director Robert Greene’s seventh feature documentary and is influenced by drama therapy. The abuse survivors saw the potential to confront long-buried parts of themselves. They took on roles in each other’s stories and used the same young actor, Terrick Trobough, to play themselves in every segment.

“I admit I was a bit skeptical about the drama therapy part, but the way it’s presented is quite powerful,” said Tilt magazine critic Stephen Silver. 

“There’s no fixing” what happened decades ago, said Greene. “There’s no giving back to these guys what was taken from them. All we could hope to do is move forward.”

Religious exemptions for contractors rolled back

The Department of Labor has rolled back a rule made during the Trump administration that clarified religious exemptions for federal contractors organized around faith-based activities that would allow them to discriminate against certain groups in hiring decisions.

The department had already signaled its intent to rescind the rule after facing lawsuits opposing the rule, which went into effect on Jan. 8.

Since its proposal, civil rights groups had opposed the rule, saying that it stoked confusion about nondiscrimination laws and encouraged those wanting to discriminate to seek federal contracts. They also warned that it could usher in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in particular.

The Biden administration said the rule had been a departure from “long-standing policy and practice” of how the department had interpreted an existing religious exemption for contractors.

French bishops agree to compensate abuse victims

France’s Catholic Church announced on Nov. 8 that it would compensate sex abuse victims by selling property assets or taking out a loan, if needed.

French bishops said in a written statement they will set up an “independent, national body” tasked with addressing compensation issues. 

Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, President of the Bishops’ Conference, stressed that the Church has recognized its “institutional responsibility” and decided to go “on a path of recognition and reparation that paves the way for victims to get the possibility of a mediation and a compensation.”

The Bishops Conference held its annual meeting a month after a report revealed large-scale child sex abuse within the French Catholic Church. The study released by an independent commission estimated that some 330,000 children were sexually abused over 70 years by priests or other church-related figures.

Judge: Texas ban on mask mandates violates ADA

A federal judge ruled Nov. 10 that the ban by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas on mask mandates in his state’s schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel’s decision bars state Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing the governor’s executive order. The decision comes after parents of young children with disabilities and a disability rights group sued Texas officials this summer, alleging that Abbott’s executive order put students with disabilities at risk.

“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” wrote Yeakel, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, in Wednesday’s decision. “Children with certain underlying conditions who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital’s intensive-care unit.”

Yes, state/church separation is a thing

“There’s no such thing as separation of church and state.” This was a lie told by a candidate during a GOP senatorial debate in Ohio in October during a long-winded answer to the question, “What’s the greatest crisis facing kids?”

Because the Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we can’t discuss the politics of this answer or the pontificator. But we can point out the copious flaws. 

Here are some parts of that candidate’s statement, in order, and why they are wrong.

They’re trying to take God out of all aspects of society and they’re trying to water down on the Judeo-Christian bedrock of America.

First, nobody is seeking to remove anyone’s deity from all aspects of anything. Secular groups such as FFRF are fighting to ensure that government power is not abused to promote any version of god, a “holy book” or religion. Our Constitution demands no less. People will still be free to pray even if there’s no National Day of Prayer.

Second, there is no “Judeo-Christian” tradition, let alone a “Judeo-Christian bedrock” on which America was founded. FFRF’s own Andrew L. Seidel wrote an entire book debunking this fallacy.

A lot of these Soros-funded organizations, they advance the argument that the separation of church and state exists, and, for that reason, you can’t teach kids about religion.

As with the “take God out of all aspects of society” phony argument, this is a straw man. As FFRF frequently points out, public schools may teach about religion, so long as they don’t preach religious “truth.” Schools may educate, but not indoctrinate. Teach, but not preach. These  are simple lines, but are often overstepped by overzealous school staff. That’s why FFRF exists, to protect the rights of conscience, including protecting students from that overreach. And we’ve yet to receive a check from George Soros, though we’d welcome any donations.

My personal feeling is, there’s no such thing as separation of church and state.

Yes, there certainly is, and that’s a fact, not a feeling. The Founders said so when they adopted history’s first secular Constitution. The Supreme Court has said so — many times. So have numerous lower courts. The phrase itself dates to a letter that President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 in which he “contemplated with solemn reverence” the First Amendment of the Constitution, “thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” He knew this letter would go down in legal history, even clearing it with his attorney general.

The framers of the Constitution envisioned a country where in the classroom, kids would learn about God. That in the classroom, kids would learn about good vs. evil, and that Judeo-Christian ethic separates itself from Islam and atheism and all these other belief sets on so many levels, but one of the main levels is our acknowledgement of good vs. evil and teaching our kids to fight for good over evil.

To the extent that the framers thought about public education, which is not mentioned in the Constitution, this assertion is wrong. Jefferson famously designed the University of Virginia as a secular institution where the religion of the students was irrelevant (be they “Judeo-Christian” or “Islam” or “Atheist”). “In conformity with the principles of our Constitution, which places all sects of religion on an equal footing . . . [and] in favor of freedom of religion manifested on former occasions, we have proposed no professor of divinity” for the new school, he stated. Religious education should be left to the sects to instill on their own, not the state: “Leave every sect to provide as they think fittest, the means of further instruction in their own peculiar tenets.”

Moreover, religion does not teach kids about good and evil or right and wrong. Religion conflates obedience to God with morality in a truly dangerous manner.

So, virtually the entire statement is factually wrong.

“The United States of America was founded on a godless Constitution that draws power from the people, not a deity,” retorts FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’d love to see people speak the truth about this history with pride.”

State/church separation

Poll shows majority support for state/church separation

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted by the results of a new Pew Research Center poll showing that Americans overwhelmingly support the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. 

The poll is the first of its kind and confirms what FFRF has been saying for decades: Americans want their elected representatives to leave private religious beliefs out of official government actions. A majority of Americans (54 percent) think the United States should enforce state/church separation, and a strong majority (69 percent) believe the federal government should never adopt an official state religion.

Additionally, 63 percent believe the federal government should advocate “moral values shared by people of many faiths” rather than Christian values. Likewise, 69 percent indicate that the U.S. Constitution was written by humans and reflects their vision, “not necessarily God’s vision,” compared to only 18 percent who believe it was “inspired by God [and] reflects God’s vision for America.” Pew points out that “even among white evangelical Protestants and highly religious Christians, fewer than half say the U.S. should abandon its adherence to the separation of church and state or declare the country a Christian nation.”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor applauds the findings.

“The Founders adopted the first godless Constitution in history, barring religious tests from government and establishing no official religion,” she points out. “They understood that true freedom of religion requires a government free from religion. It’s wonderful that most Americans agree with this fundamental concept.”

Despite the generally favorable attitudes, the survey reveals a need for greater education on specific topics. A plurality (39 percent) thinks local governments should be allowed to place religious symbols on public property (35 percent oppose and 26 percent have no opinion). As many as 30 percent of respondents think public school teachers should be allowed to lead students in sectarian prayers (although nearly half, 46 percent, oppose this clear violation of freedom of conscience).

Pew notes that while there is above-average support for an overtly Christian government among Republicans and white evangelical Protestants, nearly four in 10 Black Americans support public teachers leading school prayer, and one in five Hispanics oppose enforcement of state/church separation. A partisan divide was confirmed by the survey, with most Democrats and those leaning Democratic (72 percent) supporting state/church separation, compared with 38 percent of Republicans. Support for the constitutional principle is higher among college graduates and lower in the South, but nevertheless, fewer than one in five Southerners consistently expresses a desire for the integration of church and state, Pew notes.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the new survey is the extent to which Christian nationalism is overrepresented in modern politics. Listening to the rhetoric of senior government officials in recent years, one might conclude that half the nation believes that the United States is a “Christian nation.” The poll shows in fact that Christian nationalist officials are speaking for only a tiny minority of Americans.

Unfortunately, the outsized influence of Christian nationalists in positions of power — including recently appointed federal judges — means that FFRF’s work as a state/church watchdog has never been more needed. This survey will be an important tool to educate public officials, as well as affirm that state/church advocates are not alone. FFRF hopes the survey will reinvigorate secularists to fight against theocratic threats.

In the News (November 2021)

French Catholic clergy abused 200K+ minors

A major report released Oct. 5 said French Catholic clerics had abused more than 200,000 minors over the past 70 years, a systemic trauma that the inquiry’s leader described as deep and “cruel,” according to a New York Times report.

The Vatican said in a statement that Pope Francis had been informed of the report. 

The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, set up more than two years ago with the approval of French church officials, examined decades of accusations in much the manner of other landmark reports — whether from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Australia or the United States.

Commission leader Jean-Marc Sauvé said his team had identified only a small percentage of victims, but academic research and other sources meant that the real number is likely around 216,000, or even around 330,000 if one includes sexual abuse by lay members. The vast majority of the victims were male, according to the report. 

Supreme Court doesn’t block Texas abortion ban

The Supreme Court on Oct. 22 refused the Justice Department’s request to immediately block the draconian six-week abortion ban in effect since Sept. 1 in Texas. Instead, the high court scheduled oral arguments on Nov. 1, both for the DOJ’s appeal and the earlier appeal by Texas abortion clinics.

In the order, the court did not indicate it would examine the constitutionality of the abortion ban. Rather, it stated that it would weigh whether “the state can insulate from federal-court review a law that prohibits the exercise of a constitutional right by delegating to the general public the authority to enforce that prohibition through civil action.” It would also examine whether the federal government has the authority to challenge the law. 

The consequence of deferring action to block the unconstitutional law is that most abortions will remain banned in the state of Texas.   

Being ‘godless’ may be good for your health

A new study found that atheists may be just as healthy as devoted believers, going against popular opinion and previous studies that say the religious are healthier, according to a Pew Research report.

The study is called “Godless in the Great White North” and was published in the Journal of Religion and Health in its January 2021 issue. 

“Past studies have focused heavily on the health of very religious people while treating atheists and other nonbelievers as an afterthought,” the Pew report states.

In some cases, belief in God might actually be bad for your health, particularly when that belief is not solid, the report states. A 2020 study published in the Review of Religious Research found that “doubting theists” — those who believe in God but are less certain about those beliefs — reported poorer health outcomes.

Pakistani woman gets death penalty for blasphemy

A Pakistani court handed down death penalty to a Muslim woman on blasphemy charge on Sept. 27. 

“It is proved beyond reasonable doubt that accused Salma Tanveer wrote and distributed the writings, which are derogatory in respect of Holy Prophet Muhammad and she failed to prove that her case falls in exception provided by section 84 [on the penal code],” said Judge Mansoor Ahmad Qureshi in his verdict.

Section 84 deals with offenses committed by a person of unsound mind.

The woman, owner and principal of a private school, was accused of distributing photocopies of her writings, in which she denied the finality of prophethood and claimed her as a prophet.

The woman’s counsel had argued that the suspect was of not of sound mind at the time, but the court determined that she did not suffer from mental illness.

Biden reverses Trump’s abortion referral ban

The Biden administration on Oct. 4 reversed a ban on abortion referrals by family planning clinics, lifting a Trump-era restriction.

The Department of Health and Human Services said its new regulation will restore the federal family planning program to the way it ran under the Obama administration, when clinics were able to refer women seeking abortions to a provider. 

Planned Parenthood, the biggest service provider, said its health centers look forward to returning. 

Known as Title X, the taxpayer-funded program makes available more than $250 million a year to clinics to provide birth control and basic health care services mainly to low-income women, many of them from minority communities.

Nonreligious are least anti-LGBTQ demographic

Nonreligious Americans are more in favor of LGBTQ rights than any other demographic in the United States, according to a report by the Public Religion Research Institute.

A full 91 percent of nonreligious Americans say they support basic nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. White evangelicals come in last, although a solid majority of 66 percent of that demographic claim to support these protections.

Also, according to the PRRI report, “White evangelical Protestants remain the only major religious group in which a majority favors religiously based service refusals, and their support for these exemptions is increasing. A majority of white evangelical Protestants (62 percent) say that they support allowing small business owners to refuse to serve LGBTQ people, up from 54 percent in 2019 and 51 percent in 2015.”

Nonbelieving Blacks less likely to identify as atheist

Data from the U.S. Secular Survey show that Black people who do not believe in a god are less likely to identify as atheists. 

One study found that only 26.1 percent of Black respondents who said that there was no god identified as atheists, compared to 59.1 percent of white respondents.

Nearly four in 10 (39.6 percent) Black participants mostly or always concealed their nonreligious beliefs from members of their immediate family, compared with 31.2 percent of other participants. 

However, in comparison to other participants, Black participants were significantly more likely to be members of local secular organizations. More than one quarter (26.9 percent) of Black participants were members of a local organization for atheists, humanists, or nonreligious people in their area, compared to 21.9 percent of all other participants. 

And, Black participants who were members of national secular organizations were one third (33.9 percent) less likely to be at risk for depression (19.5 percent vs. 26.8 percent).

N.Y. health workers can use religious exemptions

New York health care workers will be able to seek religious exemptions from a statewide Covid-19 vaccine mandate as a lawsuit challenging the requirement proceeds, a federal judge ruled Oct. 12, according to the Associated Press.

Judge David Hurd had issued a temporary restraining order in September after 17 anti-abortion doctors, nurses and other health professionals claimed in a lawsuit that their rights would be violated to “medically cooperate in abortion,” including use of vaccines linked to fetal cell lines.

Hurd’s preliminary injunction means New York will continue to be barred from enforcing any requirement that employers deny religious exemptions. And the state cannot revoke exemptions already granted.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said she will fight the decision in court “to keep New Yorkers safe.”

Satanic Temple loses lawsuit over monument

The Satanic Temple lost its court battle with the city of Belle Plaine, Minn., four years after the religious group tried to put a monument in the local Veterans Memorial Park, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The temple said in two separate lawsuits that the city violated its rights to free speech and free expression of religion. But, in 2020, a federal judge dismissed most of those allegations. In September, it was decided that the city didn’t breach a contract when it revoked the temple’s permit to install the monument. The court’s ruling came by summary judgment, not a trial.

The issue began after a monument was installed four years ago at the park depicting a soldier’s silhouette kneeling by a fallen comrade’s cross-shaped grave marker. After getting complaints for its religious overtones, the city first took the memorial down. It then created a “free-speech area” in the park and put the soldier’s silhouette back up. The Satanic Temple then commissioned a monument of a black cube with pentagram inscriptions and an upturned helmet on top to be displayed as a counterpoint.

The Satanic Temple intends to appeal the case, according to the newspaper report.

Court to hear case of flag at Boston City Hall

The Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case over local officials’ refusal to fly a Christian group’s flag on the grounds of Boston City Hall.

The justices indicated they will review an appeals court ruling issued in January that found the city did not violate the Constitution by turning down the flag-flying request from a Christian organization called “Camp Constitution.”

The dispute involves the group’s desire to fly a white flag bearing a red cross over a blue square in the upper left corner from an 83-foot flagpole outside the seat of Boston’s city government. Two of the three flagpoles at City Hall are used to fly the U.S. flag (along with a POW/MIA flag) and the Massachusetts state flag.

However, the city of Boston flag that customarily flies from the third flagpole has been lowered on numerous occasions and replaced with flags of various groups or causes, including gay pride, and those of foreign countries. Some of those flags contain religious symbols.

But city officials rejected the Christian group’s flag on the basis it would appear to convey an endorsement of particular religious views.

In the News (Oct. 2021)

Evolution now accepted by majority of Americans

Public acceptance of evolution in the United States has reached 54 percent, according to a study based on a series of national opinion surveys conducted over the last 35 years.

The study identified aspects of education, such as taking college courses in science and having a college degree, as the strongest factors leading to the acceptance of evolution.

“It’s hard to earn a college degree without acquiring at least a little respect for the success of science,” said study co-author Mark Ackerman, a researcher at Michigan Engineering.

Over the past decade, the percentage of American adults who agreed that humans evolved from earlier species of animals increased from 40 percent to 54 percent.

The current study consistently identified religious fundamentalism as the strongest factor leading to the rejection of evolution.  As of 2019, 34 percent of conservative Republicans accepted evolution compared to 83 percent of liberal Democrats.

Study: Christians see LGBT gains as threatening

New research suggests that many Christians, especially conservative ones, think that Christians are hurt by advances for LGBT people.

Even though the majority of LGBT individuals identify as Christian, many Christians don’t understand this. Instead, they “perceive a zero-sum relationship with LGBT people: believing that social advances for sexual and gender minorities are harmful and threatening to Christians,” write  Clara L. Wilkins and Lerone A. Martin, authors of the study.

For example, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriage as an “effort to secularize” the country “by force and intimidation.”

8-year-old charged with blasphemy in Pakistan

An 8-year-old Hindu boy is being held in protective police custody in eastern Pakistan after becoming the youngest person ever to be charged with blasphemy in the country.

The boy’s family is in hiding and many of the Hindu community in Rahim Yar Khan have fled their homes after a Muslim crowd attacked a Hindu temple after the boy’s release on bail in mid-August. 

The boy is accused of intentionally urinating on a carpet in the library of a madrassa, where religious books were kept. Blasphemy charges can carry the death penalty.

Court: Parole program violated atheist’s rights

A Colorado parole officer and the operator of a Christian transitional program violated an atheist’s First Amendment rights if they forced him to either participate in religious programming or go to jail, the 10th U.S. Court of Appeals decided on Aug 6.

The court reinstated the lawsuit of atheist Mark Janny, who ultimately was subjected to 150 days in custody because he refused to attend morning prayer and bible studies at Fort Collins Rescue Mission, where his parole officer had directed him to live.

“A state actor violates the Free Exercise Clause by coercing or compelling participation in religious activity against one’s expressly stated beliefs,” Judge Carolyn B. McHugh wrote in the court’s opinion.

Gen X the last raised with traditional religion

“Generation X — those born between 1965 and the early 1980s — is the last generation to come of age and even perpetuate an overwhelmingly Christian and largely devout religious landscape in terms of church attendance and beliefs about God,” writes Ryan Burge in his article, “Don’t blame the boomers for decline of religion in America.”

Burge is assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and a researcher of religious trends.

Burge writes that, in the late 1980s, only about 11 percent of Gen Xers said that they had no religious affiliation, but that increased to around 20 percent by the mid-2000s, but has mostly stayed the same since then.

“That’s clearly not the case for millennials, who dropped about 10 percentage points in 20 years in reporting their certainty about a supreme being,” he writes. “It’s still very early to come to any firm conclusions about Generation Z, but there’s ample reason to believe that they are half as likely as Gen X to express a certain belief — leaving millennials as the generation that was the great divide.”

The new head chaplain at Harvard is an atheist 

Greg Epstein, author of Good Without God, was unanimously named the president of Harvard University’s organization of chaplains. 

According to The New York Times, he will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus. 

“There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life,” said Epstein, who was raised in a Jewish household and has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005. “We don’t look to a god for answers. We are each other’s answers.”

N.Y. removes religious exemption from mandate

New York’s Public Health and Health Planning Council approved emergency regulations Aug. 26 requiring that hospital workers be vaccinated for Covid-19, while removing religious exemptions. 

The requirement applies to hospitals, nursing homes, diagnostic and treatment centers, adult care facilities, certified home health agencies, hospices, long-term home health care programs, AIDS home care programs, licensed home care service agencies and limited licensed home care service agencies.

“We’re not constitutionally required to provide a religious exemption,” said Vanessa Murphy, a Department of Health attorney. “You see that with the measles and the mumps requirement for health care workers.”

FBI: Atheists not often targeted in hate crimes

On Aug. 30, the FBI released its report, “Hate Crime Statistics, 2020,” the  latest compilation about bias-motivated incidents throughout the nation. 

Anti-atheism and anti-agnosticism were on the receiving end of only 7 incidents out of 7,759 total reported cases, which is less than 0.01 percent.

Anti-Black crimes occurred the most, with 2,755 incidents. Second-most was anti-white crime, with 773 incidents. As for anti-religion crime, anti-Jewish crimes led the way with 676 incidents. Anti-Muslim was next with 104 incidents.

The 2020 data was submitted by 15,136 law enforcement agencies.

The report shows that 61.9 percent of victims were targeted because of the offenders’ race/ethnicity/ancestry bias, 20.5 percent were victimized because of the offenders’ sexual-orientation bias, 13.4 percent were targeted because of the offenders’ religious bias, 2.5 percent were targeted because of the offenders’ gender identity bias, 1 percent were victimized because of the offenders’ disability bias, and 0.7 percent were victimized because of the offenders’ gender bias.

Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalizes abortion

On Sept. 7, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional, setting a precedent that could lead to legalization of the procedure across the conservative Catholic country of about 130 million people.

The unanimous ruling follows years of efforts by a growing women’s movement in Mexico that has repeatedly taken to the streets of major cities to demand greater rights and protections, The New York Times reports.

The decision does not automatically make abortion legal across Mexico, experts said, but it does set a binding precedent for judges across the country. Abortion rights advocates said they planned to use the ruling to challenge laws in the vast majority of Mexican states that mandate jail time or other criminal penalties for women who have the procedure.

For now, analysts said, women arrested for having an abortion can sue state authorities to have the charges dropped. Activists also plan to push state authorities to free women now serving prison terms for having had abortions.

Atheists most vaccinated
‘religious’ group 

New data from the Pew Research Center shows that atheists are most vaccinated “religious” group in the country.

Fully 90 percent of atheists are vaccinated, compared to just 57 percent of white evangelicals and 73 percent of the country’s adults overall.

The numbers show some interesting trends. Agnostics lag slightly behind atheists, while “nothing in particular” Nones are about average. Catholics score above average, and Hispanic Catholics even better than agnostics. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest association of freethinkers, has been urging people to get vaccinated and has been working to end religious exemptions to vaccinations even before the pandemic. 

In the News (September 2021)

Ancient tablet seized from Hobby Lobby

A 3,600-year-old tablet showing part of the epic of Gilgamesh, which had been acquired by Christian retailer Hobby Lobby for display in its museum of biblical artifacts, was seized by the U.S. government.

Experts say the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet” shows a portion of the Gilgamesh epic, one of the world’s oldest works of literature, in the Akkadian language.

Hobby Lobby bought it from a London auction house in 2014 and put it on display in the Museum of the Bible. The museum was conceived by evangelical Christian Steve Green, the billionaire president of Hobby Lobby.

The forfeiture is part of efforts to return thousands of smuggled ancient Iraqi artifacts that were purchased by Hobby Lobby. In 2017, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit thousands of artifacts. 

High court’s emergency reviews favored religion

The Supreme Court agreed to and granted all 10 emergency reviews by religious groups challenging Covid-19 restrictions last year, a Reuters analysis found.

The analysis, reported on July 28 by Religion News Service, found the court’s “shadow docket” — in which emergency applications are decided quickly without oral arguments or lengthy written decisions — provided religious applicants a win in every case.

Shadow dockets do not reveal how the justices voted. 

Duke voucher report shows major problems 

A new report from Duke University’s Children’s Law Clinic shows how North Carolina’s largest school voucher program continues to suffer from major policy problems, including that voucher students are receiving an inferior education compared to their peers in public schools.

The report finds that the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program fails to provide the public or policymakers with information on whether voucher students are making academic progress. It also shows that nearly all voucher students (92 percent) are attending religious schools, more than three-quarters of which use a biblically based curriculum presenting concepts that directly contradict the state’s educational standards.

North Carolina places no requirements on voucher schools in terms of accreditation, curriculum, teacher licensure or accountability.

Atheists both positively, negatively stereotyped

Research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that people stereotype atheists as immoral — unconsciously believing a serial killer is more likely to be an atheist than a religious person — while simultaneously stereotyping atheists as more open-minded, scientific and fun at parties.

The study, “Is There Anything Good About Atheists? Exploring Positive and Negative Stereotypes of the Religious and Nonreligious,” was authored by Jordan W. Moon, Jaimie Krems, and Adam Cohen. 

Biden’s victory aided by the nonreligious

A new analysis of 2020 voters from Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel found that Joe Biden got more support among atheists and agnostics than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

Biden drew strong support from religiously unaffiliated voters — atheists, agnostics, and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular.” Together, these voters made up 25 percent of voters, which is a larger share of the total electorate than white evangelicals (19 percent). But support for Biden among the unaffiliated was not quite as lopsided as Trump’s support among white evangelicals (a 45-point margin for Biden among the unaffiliated vs. a 69-point margin for Trump among white evangelicals). 

Without the religiously unaffiliated, Trump would have had a 9-point popular vote margin over Biden.

Dem, GOP confidence in science diverges

Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science, compared with 70 percent when Gallup last measured it more than four decades ago. 

The decline overall obscures more significant changes among political partisans. Republicans today are much less likely than their predecessors in 1975 to have confidence in science. Meanwhile, Democrats now have more confidence than they did in the past.

Confidence in science is among the highest of the 17 institutions tested in the 2021 survey, behind small business (70 percent) and the military (69 percent).

Compared with that earlier survey, Republican confidence in science has fallen 27 percentage points, and independents have dropped eight points, while Democrats’ confidence has increased by 12 points.

Satanic Temple suit against city moves ahead

U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs allowed several of the complaints from The Satanic Temple to move forward after it was not allowed to give the opening “prayer” for a Boston City Council meeting.

The Satanic Temple initially tried to sue the city in January, arguing that since the council allows various mainstream religions to speak, it’s against the First Amendment to pick and choose who gets to give invocations.

The city said it’s not about discriminating against any religion, it just enabling council members to invite pastors, rabbis, priests or imams from Boston’s communities to address the body. 

The judge said the argument that this runs afoul of the Establishment Clause can continue.

3 Witnesses imprisoned in Russia for their faith

Three Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia on July 29 were convicted and sentenced to prison for practicing their faith. All three men have already spent more than two years in pretrial detention.

They were detained in May 2019 and accused of continuing the operations of a Jehovah’s Witness organization that had been liquidated. All three were charged with organizing extremist activities. 

“The sentences for the three men are considered particularly harsh in a country where rape is punishable by three years in prison and kidnapping by five,” writes Kathryn Post of the Religion News Service.  

Court won’t hear case on church restrictions

On Aug. 2, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit by a Maine church that sought to take a pre-emptive strike against future restrictions associated with the coronavirus, the Associated Press reports.

Calvary Chapel in Orrington asked the court to stop Gov. Janet Mills from enforcing or reinstating any pandemic-related restrictions due to the delta variant of the coronavirus.

The request was denied by Justice Stephen Breyer. The Maine attorney general’s office previously said that the governor’s civil emergency already expired, making the lawsuit unnecessary. But church officials were worried that restrictions could be reinstated, violating their religious liberties protected by the Constitution.

FFRF hails survey showing rise of ‘Nones’

Religion chart 1
Religion chart 2

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is celebrating findings that show a shrinking white Christian majority and a stable percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s “2020 Census of American Religion” documents that white Christians, previously a supermajority, have declined by nearly a third in the last few decades, from 65 percent in 1996 to a low of 43 percent in 2017. Today, white Christians comprise 44 percent of the population.

The number of “Nones,” those with no religious affiliation, has tripled since the 1990s, to comprise 23 percent of the U.S. population in 2020. “The increase in proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans has occurred across all age groups but has been most pronounced among young Americans,” the report states.

Ryan Burge, a researcher from Eastern Illinois University, said that Generation Z, those born after 1996, are “the least religious generation we’ve had in American history.”

“At the same time, the rate of disaffiliation is continuing,” he continues. “However, Gen Z has a long way to go before they all show up in the data. It will be eight more years until the youngest members of this cohort reach adulthood.”

The “Nones” have made substantial inroads in all sectors. One in five Black Americans and one in five Hispanic Americans today is religiously unaffiliated. More than a third of multiracial Americans are religiously unaffiliated, as are 28 percent of Native Americans. Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander Americans are overall the most likely to be religiously unaffiliated, at 34 percent.

Burge says the age factor will only increase the number of Nones in the future.

“Consider this: every day in America, hundreds of people from the Silent Generation (19 percent Nones) and the Boomers (25 percent Nones) die off and are replaced by members of Generation Z (45 percent Nones) having their 18th birthday,” writes Burge. “This, by itself, will make the United States much less religious in 2030 than it was in 2020.”

A majority of white Americans still identify as Christian, breaking down as 50 percent Protestant, 23 percent evangelical, 27 percent mainline Protestant and 19 percent Catholic. Jews are at 2 percent and Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or other religions make up less than 1 percent of the white U.S. population. 

Seventy-two percent of Black Americans, three-quarters of Hispanic Americans, 34 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans and 60 percent of Native Americans identify as Christian.

“This groundbreaking study shows how important it is that we ‘Nones’ must flex our collective muscle, through our ballots and our lobbying presence, to ensure that our government and courts know we are here,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “White Protestant evangelicals represent only 14 percent of the population, yet their views, which are often Christian nationalist, are so disproportionately represented in Congress, statehouses and on court benches.”

Survey stats

• Over the last few decades, the proportion of the U.S. population that is white Christian has declined by nearly one-third. As recently as 1996, nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) identified as white and Christian. By 2006, that had declined to 54 percent, and by 2017 it was down to 43 percent.

• Since 2006, white evangelical Protestants have experienced the most precipitous drop in affiliation, shrinking from 23 percent of Americans in 2006 to 14 percent in 2020. 

• Only 16 percent of Americans reported being religiously unaffiliated in 2007; this proportion rose to 19 percent by 2012, and then gained roughly a percentage point each year from 2012 to 2017. The proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans hit a high point of 26 percent in 2018 but has since slightly declined, to 23 percent in 2020.

• Americans ages 18–29 are the most religiously diverse age group. More than one-third of young Americans (36 percent) are religiously unaffiliated.

• White evangelical Protestants are the oldest religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56, compared to the median age in the country of 47. Religiously unaffiliated people are among the youngest median age at 38, just behind Muslims (33), Buddhists (36) and Hindus (36). 

• Both major political parties are majority Christian, with 83 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats identifying as Christian. Two-thirds of Republicans (68 percent) identify as white and Christian, compared to 39 percent of Democrats

• The share of religiously unaffiliated people among Republicans has increased dramatically. In 2006, just 4 percent of Republicans identified as unaffiliated. That proportion more than doubled to 10 percent in 2013 and continued to grow to 13 percent in 2020.

• The share of unaffiliated Democrats also more than doubled between 2006 (9 percent) and 2013 (22 percent). From 2013 to 2018 (28 percent), the share of unaffiliated Democrats grew slightly each year, before dropping to 23 percent in 2020. 

Religious diversity

The religious diversity index is calculated so that a score of 1 signifies complete diversity — every religious group is of equal size — and a score of 0 indicates a complete lack of diversity and one religious group comprises the entire population of a given county.

The average religious diversity score by county in the U.S. is 0.625.

Religious diversity is highest in urban areas. The five highest religious diversity scores are:

Kings County, N.Y. (0.897)

Queens County, N.Y. (0.896)

Montgomery County, Md. (0.880)

Navajo County, Ariz. (0.876)

Santa Clara County, Calif. (0.876)

Religious diversity is lowest in the southern part of the U.S. and in rural areas. The lowest diversity scores among counties with more than 10,000 residents are:

Noxubee County, Mississippi (0.228)

Panola County, Mississippi (0.281)

Conecuh County, Alabama (0.283)

Amite County, Mississippi (0.284)

Marion County, Mississippi (0.284)

Religiously unaffiliated Americans are spread throughout the country but are most concentrated in the West and the Northeast. The five highest concentrations of religiously unaffiliated Americans in counties with greater than 10,000 residents are (by percentage):

San Juan County, Wash. (49)

Multnomah County, Ore. (48)

Glacier County, Mont. (45)

Humboldt County, Calif. (45)

Tompkins County, N.Y. (45)

Nearly four in ten (39 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans live in urban areas, 44 percent live in suburban areas, and 17 percent live in rural areas.

 

In the News (August 2021)

Prophecy

Trump prophecy still believed by many

“Religious prophecy has been wrong over and over again, but failure does not necessarily have the effect among true believers that you might expect,” write researchers Paul A. Djupe, Jacob R. Neiheisel, and Jason M. Adkins.

Many people have prophesied, or believed those who make the claims, that Donald Trump would be president again.

“Thirty-seven percent agreed or strongly agreed that prophecy is real, while fewer — only 19 percent —agreed that God told prophets his plan that Trump would win (the election in 2020). Larger numbers (40 percent) believe in faith-healing powers, while a slim majority of Americans indicate that God is in control over the course of events on Earth.” 

The researchers write that believing prophecy is strongly correlated with a belief that Trump was anointed by God to become president. 

“And once these hopes acquire divine sanction, it becomes harder to accept any other result,” the researchers write. “In fact, those contrarian results then take on a gloss of evil since they run counter to ‘God’s plan.’

“It is also no surprise at all that belief in prophecy is highly correlated with a Christian nationalism scale, nor is it surprising that prophecy believers are more likely to believe that Christians will be persecuted by a Democratic administration.”

Remains of nearly 1,000 kids found at schools

The remains of 751 people, mainly Indigenous children, were discovered at the site of a former school in the Saskatchewan, a Canadian Indigenous group said on June 24, “jolting a nation grappling with generations of widespread and systematic abuse of Indigenous people,” according to The New York Times.

The discovery came just weeks after the remains of 215 children were found in unmarked graves on the grounds of another former boarding school in British Columbia.

Both Roman Catholic schools were part of a system that took Indigenous children in the country from their families over a period of about 113 years, sometimes by force, and housed them in boarding schools, where they were prohibited from speaking their languages.

GOP, Dems switch sides on religion vs. science

Researchers have found that, in the 1970s, Republicans were more likely to place their confidence in science than religion, while the opposite was true of Democrats. By 2018, these attitudes had completely reversed. 

A report from Timothy O’Brien, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Shiri Noy, an assistant professor at Denison University, showed how these attitudes have changed over time. 

White evangelicals played an important role in this as they migrated to the Republican Party. 

As science became more politicized, O’Brien and Noy said, it was no longer seen as neutral, but as progressive. Both science and religion were recast as alternative, even opposing, sources of knowledge, values and authority.

Pope Francis issues reform of Vatican penal law

In a reform of the Catholic Church’s penal code, Pope Francis on June 1 issued stronger penalties for crimes including sexual abuse, financial malfeasance and female ordination.

More than 70 percent of the canons on the code of canon law were changed by the reform, with only 17 articles remaining untouched.

If a cleric is found guilty of sexually abusing a minor, canon law will require that he be stripped of his office and, if necessary, defrocked. According to current church legislation, put in place by Pope John Paul II in 1983, bishops were allowed more discretion in applying canon law, resulting in a patchwork accountability system.

The new rule also applies to clerics who share child pornography with minors or vulnerable persons. Laypeople and nuns will also be punishable for committing sexual abuse.

The new laws will go into effect Dec. 8.

Study: Atheists are as happy as believers

Atheists are just as happy as devout religious believers, a new global study has shown. 

It upended the conventional idea that Christians and followers of other faiths are happier and more content with their lives than those without religion.

The findings were based on surveys carried out in 24 countries which asked both about religious belief and levels of satisfaction with life.

The researchers found that either a firm belief in God or strong atheist views are more likely to lead to a satisfied mind than a loose attachment to religious faith.

Academics from the Journal of Happiness Studies at the University of Cologne divided levels of belief and nonbelief into four categories and found that all except “weakly religious” showed similar levels of life satisfaction, and all were higher than the “weakly religious” group.

The researchers said religion and happiness also depend heavily on the country involved. In strictly religious countries, atheists are less satisfied with their lives, but ratings improve in more liberal countries with a high proportion of non-believers. They suggested this could be linked to discrimination against atheists in theocracies or highly religious states.

Pakistani court overturns blasphemy conviction

A Pakistani court on June 3 overturned the death sentence of a Christian couple in a blasphemy case, acquitting them for lack of evidence after they had spent seven years on death row, lawyers said.

A lower court had sentenced Shafqat Emmanuel and his wife, Shagufta Kausar, to death in 2014 for allegedly sending derogatory remarks about the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in a text message to another man, Khalid Maqsood.

The couple’s lawyer told Reuters the Lahore High Court had acquitted the couple in the case in the town of Toba Tek Singh.

Insulting the prophet carries a mandatory death penalty in the predominantly Muslim country. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have long been criticized by global rights groups.

Study links religiosity, conspiratorial beliefs

The findings of the Baylor Religion Survey indicated that biblical literalists, self-identified “very religious” people and weekly church attenders are significantly more likely to believe that the 2020 election was rigged, that the Covid-19 vaccine is untrustworthy and that top Democrats are involved in sex-trafficking rings.

Additionally, Americans who self-identified as becoming “more religious” over the past 10 years are especially likely to believe these falsehoods, said Paul Froese, director of the Baylor Religion Survey and professor of sociology. 

“This broad religion effect corresponds to a Trump effect, something we began to notice in 2017,”  Froese said. “The intersection of religion and politics makes the discrete religion effect on conspiratorial thinking hard to concisely determine, and we must note that there are lots of different types and expressions of religiosity.”

Gorsuch denies churches’ petition over restrictions

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch on June 1 denied a request from two Colorado churches and their pastors challenging Covid-19-related restrictions that they said treated them less favorably than secular organizations, according to a CNN report.

Gorsuch denied the churches’ petition without referring the matter to the full court, suggesting he didn’t think his colleagues would be interested in the arguments put forward by the houses of worship in the case at hand.

Unlike other disputes that have drawn close divisions at the court, the Colorado churches took aim at a law that was not specific to the coronavirus but included other public health disasters such as wildfires and earthquakes, as well. Conservative groups that had supported other challenges to state Covid restrictions did not weigh in in favor of the churches in the Colorado dispute, suggesting that they, too, thought the request was too broad.

Study: LGBTQ attitudes change during college 

A new survey shows that students at Christian schools — whether Protestant, evangelical or Catholic — entered college with less positive attitudes toward gay, lesbian and bisexual people compared with those at nonreligious schools. But all students increased in their positive attitudes toward this group by the time they graduated.

However, Catholic school students made the least gains, according to the results from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey. Upon entering college, their attitudes were more positive than evangelical students and showed an initial surge after the first year. Yet, when they left college, they had the least positive scores.

According to the survey creators, these findings suggest that how much appreciation students have for diverse sexual orientations might be related to institutional culture, messaging and attitudes — and not necessarily to students’ personal convictions and beliefs alone.

43% of Millennials don’t care, believe in God 

Millennials in the United States are far less likely to believe in God and the bible’s teachings than older generations, according to a survey.

Arizona Christian University’s American Worldview Inventory survey showed younger adults are less likely to identify with organized religion and instead are embracing other beliefs, such as horoscopes.

While 57 percent of Millennials surveyed consider themselves Christian, 43 percent “don’t know, care or believe that God exists.”

“The Millennial generation in particular, seems committed to living without God, without the bible, and without Christian churches as foundations in either their personal life or within American society,” said George Barna, director of research for ASU’s Cultural Research Center.

Judge rejects college’s request on housing rule

A federal judge on May 19 rejected the College of the Ozarks’ request to sidestep a 2021 directive backed by President Joe Biden that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Judge Roseann Ketchmark issued the ruling, denying a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction. She said an effort by the conservative Christian college to stop the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from applying the new directive would not protect the college from any liability related to unfair housing allegations.

In mid-April, the college sued Biden, HUD and related federal officials with support from the Alliance Defending Freedom. The college and ADF argued the directive forced religious schools to violate their views by opening male or female residence halls — including dorm rooms and restrooms — to members of the opposite sex.

Ohio law now allows medical discrimination

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio signed the budget bill on June 30 that allows doctors, hospitals, insurers and other health care professionals and companies to deny services if they have an objection based on “moral, ethical or religious beliefs.”

The measure comes months after Arkansas, South Dakota and Montana enacted similar legislation, indicating a growing trend among Republican-controlled state legislatures. 

The provision was tucked inside a 700-page document of amendments to the state’s two-year budget bill, and remained largely unexamined until DeWine had signed it into law. DeWine had the opportunity to line-item veto the language while signing the rest of the budget into law and refused to do so.

The change will allow any medical professional “the freedom to decline to perform, participate in, or pay for any health care service which violates the practitioner’s, institution’s or payer’s conscience as informed by the moral, ethical or religious beliefs.”

41% of Australians don’t trust religious leaders

The Australia Talks National Survey found that 41 percent of Australians don’t trust religious leaders “at all,” a 6 percent rise since the survey was last conducted in 2019.

Almost half (47 percent) of 18–24 year-olds don’t trust religious leaders “at all.” That’s a jump of 15 percentage points in just two years.

At the last census in 2016, 30 percent of Australians said they had no religion, compared with 19 percent in 2006.

Texas churches to stay open during disasters

Prompted by the pandemic shutdowns, a newly passed law in Texas will keep religious organizations active during disasters.

The law, which took effect June 18, blocks all government bodies at or below the state level from stopping the activities of churches, mosques, temples or any house of faith. Governmental entities may not “prohibit a religious organization from engaging in religious and other related activities or continuing to operate in the discharge of the organization’s foundational faith-based mission and purpose,” the text reads.

The law further specifies that a “declared state of disaster” does not grant governments leeway to limit religious activity. 

Atheists sue over ‘IGWT’ license plates in Miss.

American Atheists, the Mississippi Humanist Association and three nonreligious Mississippi residents filed a federal lawsuit on June 22 against the state over its “In God We Trust” license plate. The complaint accuses the Mississippi Commissioner of Revenue of violating the people’s freedom of speech and religion by forcing them to display this religious message on their personal vehicles.

The Mississippi license plate has included “In God We Trust” since 2019. The lawsuit claims that car owners are forced to promote this religious statement or pay an additional fee for a specialty plate without it.

“Every minute they spend on the streets of Mississippi, atheists are forced to act as a billboard for the state’s religious message,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, litigation counsel at American Atheists. 

 Vatican tries to sway Italy over gay rights bill

The Vatican has expressed concerns to the Italian government about a gay rights bill working its way through Parliament, according to a report in The New York Times.

The Vatican says the bill infringes upon guaranteed religious liberties, and “risked exposing core church beliefs, such as limiting the priesthood to men or only recognizing marriage between a man and a woman, to charges of criminal discrimination,” according to the Times.

Church historians said a letter from the Vatican to an Italian ambassador outlining those concerns “amounted to a unique escalation of Vatican attempts to influence the affairs of the Italian state.”

Justice Dept. says it can defend religious exemption

The Justice Department in a court filing June 8 said it can “vigorously” defend a religious exemption from federal civil rights law that allows federally funded religious schools to discriminate against LGBTQ students, a move that surprised some LGBTQ advocates who said the wording went further than just an obligation to defend an existing law, according to a report in the Washington Post.

In the filing, the Biden administration said it “shares the same ultimate objective” as the conservative Christian schools named in the case.

At issue in Hunter v. the U.S. Department of Education are 40 LGBTQ students at conservative religious colleges and universities who are suing the government for its role in providing funding to schools with discriminatory policies. The schools say they have a First Amendment right to promote traditional religious beliefs about sexuality and gender.

“The plaintiffs seek safety and justice for themselves and for the countless sexual and gender minority students whose oppression, fueled by government funding, and unrestrained by government intervention, persists with injurious consequences to mind, body and soul,” reads the March suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Oregon. 

Billions in federal money for things such as scholarships and grants flow through the U.S. Department of Education.

Most atheists, agnostics oppose death penalty

A majority of adults in the United States favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. However, views about the death penalty vary by religion — with atheists and agnostics opposing this form of punishment at about the same rate as Americans overall support it.

Roughly two-thirds of atheists (65 percent) and 57 percent of agnostics either “strongly” or “somewhat” oppose the death penalty for people convicted of murder. 

Meanwhile, 60 percent of U.S. adults overall favor the death penalty, including 75 percent of White evangelical Protestants and 73 percent of White non-evangelical Protestants, according to the survey. 

Atheists and agnostics are the only religious groups in this analysis that are more likely to oppose the death penalty than to support it. 

Judge: Christian baker broke discrimination law 

A Denver district court found that the Colorado baker who was the subject of a 2018 Supreme Court case for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding has violated state discrimination laws in another case.

A judge on June 15 found that Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips illegally refused to bake a cake to celebrate a trans woman’s birthday and identity, saying it violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. 

In 2019, he was sued by Autumn Scardina for refusing to bake her a custom birthday cake in 2017 after she said the colors and design of the cake would celebrate her transition from male to female.

Scardina explained on the phone to Phillips the personal meaning of the cake as a transgender woman and she said the tone of the call changed. She was told the bakery “probably could not make that cake because of the message,” according to court documents.

In the News (June/July 2021)

Atheists have lowest coronavirus death rate

Data on Covid-19 death rates in England has revealed that atheists, as a group, were the least affected, experiencing 336.6 deaths per 100,000 among men and 218.2 among women.

Muslims are by far the worst-affected religious group, with death rates twice as high as among Christians, and nearly three times higher than the atheists.

Data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics showed that, up to the end of February, 4,191 Muslims had been killed by the virus.

Muslim men had a death rate of 966.9 per 100,000 people, while that of women was about 519.1 per 100,000.

Muslims were followed by Hindus — 605.2 among men and 346.5 for women; Sikhs — 573.6 and 345.7; Jews — 512.9 and 295.4; and Christians — 401.9 and 249.6.

However, after factoring in other risk indicators such as age, wealth and location, it said: “After adjustments, the Hindu population and Muslim men were disproportionately affected throughout the pandemic.”

Experts have suggested that ethnic minorities are more likely to have low incomes and work in public-facing jobs that increase their exposure to the virus. 

Bishops may push Biden to stop taking Communion

At the national meeting in June of U.S. Catholic bishops, they may decide to tell President Biden, a Catholic, to not take communion if he continues to advocate for abortion rights, according to a report by Religion News Service.

Such a stance by a public figure is “a grave moral evil,” according to Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

Wis. AG announces probe of clergy sex abuse

Attorney General Josh Kaul on April 20 announced an investigation into clergy sexual abuse across Wisconsin. 

The state Department of Justice will lead the probe and focus on abuse allegations against Catholic clergy and other faith leaders — many of which date back decades and involve religious officials who are now dead. Prosecutors will request documents from the dioceses and religious orders as part of the investigation. 

Wisconsin is home to five dioceses and religious orders such as the Norbertines. 

45 dead in stampede at Israeli religious event

At least 45 people were killed and 150 more injured in a crush April 30 at a religious festival of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel, where tens of thousands of faithful had convened in one of the country’s largest events since the pandemic began.

The event, at Mount Meron, is the festival of Lag BaOmer, which features bonfires and dancing around the Galilee tomb of a second century rabbi.

According to witnesses, in an area of the complex where the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community of Toldos Aharon was holding its celebration, participants were pushing through a slippery staircase. Suddenly, a row of people fell to the floor, piling atop  one another. People were asphyxiated or trampled in the tightly packed corridor.

Evangelicals are losing their climate skepticism

White evangelicals have become more willing to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change over the past decade, according to a Climate Nexus poll, as reported by Religion News Service.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that just 28 percent of white evangelicals attributed global warming to human activity. In October 2020, though, 44 percent of them said climate change was due “mostly to human activities.” 

While they remain less concerned about the issue than other major American religious communities, the poll showed them to be closer to mainstream opinion than previously.

Abortion bills on huge upswing in U.S.

In the first four months of 2021, state lawmakers have introduced an incredible 536 abortion restrictions, including 146 bans, with 61 of those bills being signed into law.

The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization that tracks abortion bills in the states, assessed the situation in a report.  

Previously, 2011 was the most brutal year for abortion rights in recent history. In the 12 months after the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans enacted 92 abortion restrictions across 24 states, kicking off a “war on women” that shut down dozens of abortion clinics across the country and dominated the national political conversation through 2014.

Florida expands private school voucher program 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 11 signed into law a $200 million school choice plan that will allow about 61,000 new students to become eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers that will help families pay for private tuition and other education expenses.

The measure is a continuation of a decades-long push to expand school choice in Florida, a move Republicans support and most Democrats have fought as they advocate for more oversight and accountability for private schools that get state-funded vouchers.

The law, which takes effect July 1, will allow families of four with an income of nearly $100,000 to qualify for awards, up from the current $79,500 threshold. And students will no longer need to attend a public school before receiving a state voucher.

Christian school seeks ‘ministerial exception’ 

A 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel on May 11 took up a case to test the limits of an exemption from anti-discrimination laws for religious schools.

Faith Christian Academy in Colorado claims the exemption should apply broadly to “teachers, chaplains and other leaders,” according to a report by Reuters.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty will urge the panel to rule that the “ministerial exception” shields the school from a former faculty member’s claims that he was fired for organizing a chapel service focused on combating racism.

A federal judge in Denver earlier had said a jury should decide whether the exception applied to Gregory Tucker, who was the director of student life at Faith Christian Academy, and denied the school’s motion for summary judgment in his 2019 lawsuit.

German Catholics bless gay unions despite ban

Germany’s Catholic progressives openly defied a recent Vatican ruling that priests cannot bless same-sex unions by offering such blessings at services in about 100 different churches all over the country in mid-May, according to a report by Religion News Service.

The blessings at open worship services are the latest pushback from German Catholics against a document released in March by the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, which said Catholic clergy cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.”

Pope Francis, who has championed a more decentralized church structure, reminded the German hierarchy that it must remain in communion with Rome during its reform process.”

Study: Young Jews are moving to opposite views

A new survey of U.S. Jews shows the group’s youngest adults are increasingly dividing in polar-opposite directions: secularism and orthodoxy, according to a report by Religion News Service.

The study from Pew Research Center is a follow-up to its 2013 study, and many of the trends outlined have remained constant. U.S. Jews represent 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, a slight rise from 2.2 percent in 2013.

Nearly three-quarters of Jews identify as Jews by religion (73 percent), but a growing number do not consider themselves religiously Jewish (27 percent), instead identifying as Jewish ethnically, culturally or by ancestry. 

This group is particularly large among Jews ages 18 to 29, where 40 percent consider themselves Jews of no religion. While Orthodox Jews represent 9 percent of the overall American Jewish population, the survey found, they represent 17 percent among the 18 to 29 age group.

Conviction overturned in ‘holy spirit’ case

A federal appeals court on May 5 overturned the conviction of former Florida Rep. Corrine Brown, ruling that a judge was wrong to remove a juror in her trial who said the “holy spirit” told him Brown was not guilty.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 7-4 decision, said that Brown, who was found guilty in 2017 on 18 felony counts connected to using a phony charity as a personal slush fund, deserved a new trial on the corruption charges.

Chief Judge William Pryor, writing for the majority, said the decision of a district judge to remove the juror after deliberations had already begun in the trial was wrong because there was no evidence that the juror had engaged in misconduct or would have ultimately held out against a conviction.

“Corrine Brown was entitled to the unanimous verdict of a jury of ordinary citizens,” Pryor wrote. “The removal of Juror No. 13 — a juror who listened for God’s guidance as he sat in judgment of Brown and deliberated over the evidence against her — deprived her of one.”