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.