Religious Freedom Arguments Give Rise To Executive Order Battle

As in so many policy areas, partisan gridlock:

Key government policies on religious freedom and discrimination, once set through legislation, are increasingly dictated by presidential orders, meaning they shift capriciously from one administration to the next.

In 2014, advocates for LGBTQ rights cheered when President Obama unilaterally issued an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating in their hiring practices on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Four years later, the Trump administration weakened that order with another unilateral movedirecting that contractors facing a discrimination claim under Obama’s order should be entitled to a “religious exemption.”

The Labor Department then proposed a rule that would give the directive the force of law and permit faith-based contractors to give hiring preference to individuals with particular religious beliefs, such as an opposition to same sex unions or transgender identities.

That time, it was conservatives who were pleased.

Such back-and-forth executive orders are now set to continue under President-elect Joe Biden, who has promised to reverse President Trump’s hiring directives.

Behind the dueling orders is a deep disagreement over the meaning of the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. Conservatives say the right to “free exercise” of religion means people and organizations should be able to act on their religious objections to abortion, same sex marriage, or accommodation policies for transgender individuals.

Others say the First Amendment’s prohibition against the “establishment” of a religion means that religion-based arguments should not be used to justify discrimination or the denial of civil rights or basic human services.

Such conflicts in the past have been resolved through legislative remedies. Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. Both measures had bipartisan support, but that consensus has since broken down.

Health care and nondiscrimination became so partisan,” says Holly Hollman, general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. “We’ve kind of lost our shared definition and commitment to religious liberty in ways that make it harder to legislate.”

The prospect of a divided government in 2021, with Joe Biden in the White House and possibly a Republican-led Senate, means that consensus around religious freedom issues may continue to be elusive.

“Given the gridlock, we’re going to see more unilateral action from the executive branch, whether it be regulatory action or executive orders,” says Ryan Anderson, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who writes often on religious freedom issues.

Following his 2014 order barring discriminatory hiring practices by federal contractors, Obama issued guidance in 2016 that required schools to protect transgender students from harassment and to accommodate their identities with respect to pronouns and bathrooms.

That guidance, however, was rescinded shortly after Trump was inaugurated, when his administration told school districts that the relevant policies were more properly established by state and local authorities.

Three months later, Trump issued a sweeping order “promoting free speech and religious liberty.” The order called for weaker enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, which bars tax-exempt religious groups from endorsing political candidates. It also instructed government agencies to consider new regulations to address “conscience-based objections” to the provision of certain health care services, and it directed the Attorney General to issue guidance to all federal agencies on what religious liberty protections require.

Among the agencies responding quickly to the order was the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where a conservative activist, Roger Severino, was put in charge of a “conscience and religious freedom division” under that department’s Office of Civil Rights, which Severino directs.

“Every agency has a civil rights office in the federal government,” Severino noted last month in a video presentation. “Not every agency, until now, had a religious freedom office. And now we do.”

Over the course of his term in office, Trump has taken a variety of unilateral steps to promote a conservative view of religious freedom, many of which a Biden administration might be inclined to reverse.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) have both issued detailed lists of the executive actions they expect to see Biden take in the area of religious freedom, perhaps beginning with a broad order similar to the one Trump issued.

“We would like to see the Biden administration sign an executive order to restore and protect religious freedom for all Americans,” says Rachel Lazer, the AU president, “and make clear that religious freedom should operate as a shield to protect us and not as a sword to license discrimination.”

Some of Trump’s executive actions will be easier than others to reverse. The directive to weaken enforcement of the Johnson Amendment could be countered simply by mandating strengthened enforcement. Other issues could be settled through the courts.

An HHS-issued “conscience rule” that would allow health care workers to refuse to provide medical services that conflict with their moral and religious beliefs has faced several court challenges and is now on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The AU’s Lazer says a Biden administration could simply decline to defend the rule.

“We would expect that the Biden administration would not carry forward with any type of appeal,” Lazer says. “[That] would cut that off at the knees.”

Some of Trump’s directives would be vigorously defended by outside groups, however, particularly where they concern sexuality and marriage.

“There are a variety of religious traditions that hold viewpoints on this question,” says Ryan Anderson, of the Heritage Foundation. “Orthodox Jews, Roman Catholics, evangelicals, Latter Day Saints, Muslims, and various people who accept the Genesis creation story are going to have strong convictions about male and female.”

Under President-elect Biden, Anderson says, “the government might be asking us to violate those convictions. If we’re going to be pluralistic, how do we navigate those disagreements?”

Even if a Biden administration manages to undo some of the government directives that reflected conservative interpretations of religious freedom principles, other groups could go to court with similar claims, using the same arguments.

“The undoing would give rise to legal challenges,” warns Louise Melling, the deputy legal director at ACLU.

Such challenges are likely to get a more favorable hearing, given the installation of more conservative judges in federal courts across the country and a newly powerful conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The court is clearly in the midst of reconceiving some of our religion statutes and the constitution, I think,” Melling says.

With that prospect, battles over religious freedom are likely to continue, no matter the presidential administration.

Source: Religious Freedom Arguments Give Rise To Executive Order Battle

Religious Freedom Watchdog Pitches Adding India to Blacklist

Not unexpected:

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging that the State Department add India to its list of nations with uniquely poor records on protecting freedom to worship — while proposing to remove Sudan and Uzbekistan from that list.

The bipartisan commission, created in 1998 by Congress to make policy recommendations about global religious freedom, proposed designating India as a “country of particular concern” in the annual report it released Tuesday. That lower ranking for a long-running U.S. ally amounts to a stark show of disapproval of India’s divisive new citizenship law, which has sparked broad worries about disenfranchisement of Muslims.

President Donald Trump declined to criticize the citizenship measure during his February visit to India, where his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was punctuated by skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims.

The commission, by contrast, is empowered as an independent arbiter to look only at nations’ religious freedom records, apart from their relationship with the United States, vice chair Nadine Maenza said.

Beyond the citizenship law, Maenza said in an interview, India has a broader “move toward clamping down on religious minorities that’s really troublesome.”

A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Anurag Srivastava, responded to the report with a statement blasting the commission’s “biased and tendentious comments against” that nation. Noting that some members dissented from the commission’s decision to recommend India for the lowest ranking of religious freedom protections, Srivastava appeared to use the commission’s internal terminology as a dig.

“We regard (the commission) as an organization of particular concern and will treat it accordingly,” he said.

In the cases of Sudan and Uzbekistan, the Trump administration got out ahead of the commission in raising its ranking of religious freedom protections. The State Department decided in December to no longer rank Sudan as a nation “of particular concern” after having taken Uzbekistan off the list earlier.

Following last year’s military ouster of authoritarian leader, Omar al-Bashir, new Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok met with the commission and committed to improve religious freedom, Maenza said.

Among the other significant recommendations in Tuesday’s report was a call for the U.S. government to “exert significant pressure on Turkey to provide a timeline for its withdrawal from Syria.” Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria last fall sparked broad concern about resulting threats to religious minorities in the region.

The commission proposed four other nations join India in the ranks of most egregious religious freedom offenders; Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam. The State Department’s current list of “countries of particular concern” regarding religious freedom includes China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran.

Inclusion among the nations with the poorest religious freedom records can lead to new sanctions, although the executive branch is also empowered to rely on already-imposed sanctions or issue a waiver.

Sudan and Uzbekistan are currently on a State Department watch list for nations where religious freedom infringement is not as widespread, constant and significant as those in the lowest-ranked tier.

The commission’s latest annual report recommends the addition of 11 more nations that the State Department has not yet put on that watch list: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Turkey.

Glavin: Religious freedom is under assault. Will Canada be its champion?

Hard to say whether the Office of Religious Freedom had any substantive impact beyond raising the profile of religious freedom issues compared to having religious freedom as part of overall human rights, where it now resides.

The Evaluation of the Office of Religious Freedom conducted by Global Affairs Canada in 2016 was mixed in its review of the Office’s work and impact, providing a rationale for the Liberal government’s closing the office.

The planned evaluation of Partnerships and Development Innovation: Human Rights, Governance, Democracy and Inclusion to be approved February 2021 will give a sense of whether the human rights program effectively included religious freedom in its programming/activities or not:

Monday was a fairly uneventful day for Peter Bhatti, the 60-year-old president of International Christian Voice, a non-denominational organization based in Brampton, Ont. But it was a sad day, as March 2 has been, every year, for nine years. It was on March 2, 2011 that Peter’s younger brother Shahbaz was assassinated in Islamabad.

As Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti had drawn the ire of Islamist extremists for his outspoken advocacy on behalf of Pakistan’s persecuted Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, and the Hazara and Ahmadi Muslim minorities. Bhatti died from 22 gunshot wounds in an attack claimed by the Tareek-e-Taliban only six weeks after he’d visited Ottawa, where his activism served as an inspiration for the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom.

The high-level diplomatic project was shuttered by former Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion in March 2016. It was a move that Peter Bhatti says was shortsighted and ill-advised, especially now that religious liberty is under such brutal assault around the world.

You know, we are so lucky here in Canada. We have all kinds of freedom here,” Peter told me on Monday. “But if Canada is going to be a champion of human rights, we should be paying more attention to places where people have no religious liberty at all.”

China is engaged in a brutal campaign involving intensive surveillance and internment without trial in an all-out effort to eradicate the Muslim identity of the Uighur people of Xinjiang. Myanmar continues to evade responsibility for its enforced expulsion of nearly a million Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh.

In Pakistan, the blasphemy law that Shahbaz Bhatti fought against not only remains on the books despite international condemnation. It is increasingly deployed to intimidate and persecute religious minorities and liberal intellectuals. Hundreds of people have been prosecuted under the law in recent years.

Shahbaz Bhatti had been particularly outspoken in the notorious case of Asia Bibi, the Christian farmworker who was convicted on a wholly contrived blasphemy charge and languished on death row for eight years before a high court overturned her conviction in November 2018. Several weeks before Bhatti’s murder, on Jan. 4, 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was also assassinated for protesting the obvious miscarriage of justice in Asia Bibi’s case. Taseer was murdered by his own bodyguard.

The judicial reversal of Bibi’s conviction prompted riots across Pakistan. Bibi was placed in protective custody, and it wasn’t until last May that she arrived in Canada—two of her daughters had already relocated here. For the past 10 months, Bibi and her family have been living in Canada on temporary visas, at an undisclosed location and under assumed names for security reasons.

Last week, French President Emanuel Macron invited Bibi to apply for permanent asylum in France, where Bibi is currently promoting her memoir, co-authored by the French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet. Last Tuesday, she was presented a certificate of honorary citizenship from the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. “France is a symbol for me,” Bibi told reporters, adding that Canada’s harsh winters were also a factor in her consideration of France as her permanent home. Besides: [France] was the first country in the world to really support me, and the country from which my name became known.”

While Shahbaz Bhatti’s name has been nearly forgotten in official Canadian circles, his memory lives on among Pakistani minorities and progressive Muslims. Last Sunday, memorial masses in his name were held in Catholic churches across Pakistan. Several commemorations were underway in his honour this week, in the Bhatti family’s home village of Kushpur, and also in the capital, Islamabad. A celebration of Bhatti’s life was planned at the site of Bhatti’s murder in Islamabad, bringing together Muslim and Christian leaders, politicians, diplomats and representatives of the All-Pakistan Minorities Alliance, led by another of the five Bhatti brothers, Paul.

Peter Bhatti’s International Christian Voice (ICV) organization and its supporters will be gathering for a commemorative fundraising dinner in Woodbridge, Ont. on Friday. “But we are no longer mourning,” Peter said. “We are trying to carry on the work of my brother, to continue his legacy.”

A priority for ICV is the resettlement in Canada of Pakistani Christians who have fled to Thailand and are now at risk of arrest and deportation. While it’s easy for Pakistanis to travel to Thailand, the government in Bangkok doesn’t recognize them as genuine refugees. So they end up stuck in limbo in Thailand, and often end up imprisoned in what the ICV calls “intolerable and inhumane conditions” in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre. Working with several churches, the ICV has managed to resettle several dozen Pakistani exiles from Thailand under the federal private-sponsorship program.

The ICV wants Global Affairs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to urge Thailand to stop arresting and incarcerating refugees for repatriation back to Pakistan. Ottawa should also pressure the Thai government to provide Pakistani refugees with temporary asylum, at least, the ICV says. The organization has also asked Ottawa to formally recognize Pakistani Christians as bona fide refugee claimants fleeing persecution, and also to expedite claims filed by families.

Meanwhile, back in Pakistan, the country’s three million Christians—whose heritage goes back to a late 16th century Jesuit mission during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great—are increasingly singled out for spurious blasphemy prosecutions. Over the past 10 years, Christians have been subjected to several suicide bombings, pogroms, anti-Christian riots and the official demolition of Christian neighbourhoods. But it is the blasphemy law that allows extremists to engage the full force of the state most effectively against Christians and other minorities.

There are at least 25 Christians in prison on blasphemy convictions in Pakistan at the moment. Six are on death row. One of them, Shagufta Kausar, has been awaiting an appeal hearing, along with her husband Shafqat Emmanuel, ever since they were both sentenced to death in 2014.

Kausar was Asia Bibi’s cellmate.

Source: Religious freedom is under assault. Will Canada be its champion?

How The Fight For Religious Freedom Has Fallen Victim To The Culture Wars

Yet another effect of increased polarization, even if issues related to the balance of religious freedom and other rights is often not straighforward:

The promotion of religious freedom in America, a cause that not long ago had near unanimous support on Capitol Hill, has fallen victim to the culture wars.

A high point came in 1993, when Congress overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, meant to overturn a Supreme Court decision that limited Americans’ right to exercise their religion freely.

Those days are gone. The consensus surrounding religious freedom issues has been weakened by deep disputes over whether Americans should be free to exercise a religious objection to same sex marriage or artificial contraception and whether the U.S. Constitution mandates strict church-state separation.

“It is more difficult to get a broad coalition on religious freedom efforts now,” says Holly Hollman, general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. “People have a bad taste in their mouth about what they think the other side thinks of religious freedom.”

“It’s a divisive issue,” says Todd McFarland, associate general counsel at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, a denomination historically known for its advocacy of religious freedom. “For a long time in the country we kept it down to a dull roar. When that’s no longer possible, it’s a problem.”

The religious freedom question could arise again in the months ahead, as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to take new cases that involve the limits on Americans’ religious rights.

In theory, the commitment to religious freedom is straightforward. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Most of the attention, especially in recent decades, has focused on the “free exercise” clause. An important case involved Adele Sherbet, a Seventh-day Adventist, who was fired for refusing to work on Saturdays and then denied unemployment benefits. In a 1963 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Sherbet’s free exercise right had been violated.

In a 1990 decision, however, the Court significantly narrowed the Sherbet precedent, ruling against a Native American man, Alfred Smith, who was dismissed from his job because he had illegally ingested peyote as part of a religious ritual.

The Court’s Smith ruling met with bipartisan outrage in the U.S. Congress and led to passage of the RFRA legislation. Among the sponsors was a first-term liberal Democrat from New York, Jerrold Nadler.

“Unless the Smith decision is overturned,” Nadler argued on the House floor, “the fundamental right of all Americans to keep the Sabbath, observe religious dietary laws, to worship as their consciences dictate, will remain threatened.” The bill passed the House unanimously and was approved in the Senate by a vote of 97-3.

Religious freedom politicized

In the years since, however, the religious freedom cause has been politicized, with conservatives claiming it for their purposes and liberals shying away from it for reasons of their own.

When liberals started pushing for expanded protections for the LGBT population, conservatives grew alarmed, arguing that practices such as same-sex weddings go against biblical teaching. They’ve argued that religious freedom should mean they can’t be forced to accommodate something they don’t believe in. Liberals portrayed that stance simply as discriminatory and argued it should be illegal.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, made the issue a major theme of his campaign when he ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

“We’re a nation that was founded on religious liberty,” Cruz told an interviewer, “and the liberal intolerance we see trying to persecute those who as a matter of faith follow a biblical definition of marriage is fundamentally wrong.”

When the conservative Heritage Foundation celebrated the 25th anniversary of the RFRA passage earlier this year, the organization’s president, Kay Cole James, blamed “the left” for the erosion of the original consensus.

“I wish we could get that kind of bipartisan support today,” she said. “The political left has actively worked to undercut our freedoms.”

Religious freedom and discrimination

As conservatives focused the religious freedom debate narrowly around issues of sexuality and marriage, progressives doubled down on the promotion of LGBT rights. The Democrat-controlled House this month approved the “Equality Act,” which would prohibit virtually all discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. One provision actually singles out the RFRA law, prohibiting its use as a defense against discrimination allegations.

Rep. Nadler, having originally been a RFRA backer, co-sponsored the new “Equality” legislation as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“Religion is no excuse for discrimination in the public sphere, as we have long recognized when it comes to race, color, sex, and national origin,” Nadler argued in a committee markup hearing, “and it should not be an excuse when it comes to sexual orientation or gender identity.”

When the bill came up on the House floor, another co-sponsor, Democrat Bobby Scott of Virginia, explained why it may seem that progressives have turned cool on the Religious Freedom act.

“RFRA was originally enacted to serve as a safeguard for religious freedom,” he said, “but recently it’s been used a sword, to cut down the civil rights of too many individuals.”

Some traditional advocates of religious freedom issues are dismayed by how the debate has evolved among both conservatives and liberals.

“When you [tell people] you work for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, they want to know, ‘What kind of religious liberty?'” says Hollman. She is evenhanded in her assessment of responsibility for the breakdown of bipartisan sentiment around the issue.

“It is unfortunate that some on the right will use religious freedom in order to advance a particular partisan issue,” she says. “I think it is problematic on the left to cede arguments about religious freedom, to just say, ‘Oh, people will use that now to advance an anti-LGBT perspective.’ These are tough issues to work on, and religious freedom should not take the fall.”

Fired for observing the Sabbath

One current religious freedom case, in fact, is similar to those that led to the court fights of the last century. In 2005, a Seventh-day Adventist named Darrell Patterson interviewed for a trainer job at Walgreens in Orlando, Fla.

“I was completely up front with them that I observed the Sabbath and that the Sabbath was important to me,” Patterson told NPR.

He got the job, and six years passed without a problem. But one Friday afternoon he was told to report to work the next morning.

“The Sabbath is a beautiful, beautiful day,” Patterson said, explaining why working Saturdays is for him unthinkable. “If you were to come to my house on the Sabbath, you would find that our house is in order. There is a peaceful, serene atmosphere. My wife and my family spend time in prayer. We sing hymns together.”

Patterson skipped work that Saturday. When he went in the following Monday, he was called into a supervisor’s office and told that he was fired.

He sued.

In a statement to NPR, Walgreens says it is “committed to respecting and accommodating the religious practices of its employees” and “reasonably accommodated” Patterson’s requested scheduling, but that doing more would have imposed “an undue hardship on our business.” The Eleventh Circuit court ruled in favor of Walgreens, but Patterson is appealing.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the case and revisit, yet again, the question of what religious freedom means.

McFarland from the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists is tracking the case closely. He expects Patterson to be broadly supported, but he also recognizes that the politics around religious freedom issues have shifted in recent decades.

“One of the most unfortunate things is that religious liberty has become the issue of one party,” he says. “For Democrats, it’s viewed as a divisive issue, especially in a primary context. [They say] ‘how is this going to help me?’ They used to feel that being on the right side of religious liberty was an important value, and they don’t anymore.”

Like the Baptist Joint Committee, however, the Seventh-day Adventists fault Republicans and Democrats alike for the politicization of religious freedom issues in recent years. The Adventists are bothered by the apparent reluctance of Republicans to embrace the “establishment’ clause in the First Amendment, barring government from endorsing a religion. Conservatives have pushed for prayer and Bible readings in public schools and government funding for some religious institutions. Some have even suggested the United States be identified as a Christian nation.

“We have a strong interest in having a vigorous establishment clause,” McFarland says. “That’s something evangelicals and other conservative churches historically have not been as interested in. We are not trying to see the U.S. government impose any type of ideology. We have concerns about that. We have long believed that government and church need to stay in their separate spheres.”

The Adventists’ support for the establishment clause has allied them on various occasions with the American Civil Liberties Union, an unlikely partnership for other conservative Christian denominations.

The two parts of the freedom of religion provision in the First Amendment are sometimes seen as conflicting: Is the government in favor of religion or against it? But traditional American religious freedom advocates say the two clauses can also be read as complementary: The free exercise of religion is guaranteed only if it applies to all faiths. That can happen only if government does not take sides.

In Orlando, Fla., Darrell Patterson went back to school after being fired from Walgreens. He is now working as a mental health therapist. His campaign for the right to rest on the Sabbath, now possibly headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, no longer has to do with his own work situation.

“It’s about other people that are going to come after me,” Patterson says “that deserve to be able to practice their religious faith and conviction without putting their livelihoods in jeopardy.”

Source: How The Fight For Religious Freedom Has Fallen Victim To The Culture Wars

USA Religious Freedom Report Offers Grim Review Of Attacks On Faith Groups

Of note:

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its annual report in the aftermath of attacks on mosques in New Zealand, churches in Sri Lanka and synagogues in the United States.

“It’s coming at a time when religious freedom concerns, for lots of reasons, are getting more attention across the board,” USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie Moore tells NPR.

The 2019 report identifies 16 countries that engaged in or tolerated egregious violations. China sits prominently on that list. “It takes the strongest stance against China in the history of the USCIRF,” Moore says.

In the midst of trade discussions with the United States, Chinese authorities detained as many as 2 million Uighurs, an ethnic and predominantly Muslim minority, the report says. “We believe it’s partially an intent to solidify China’s hegemony in the world,” Moore says. Concerns for the safety of Uighurs aren’t new; they were included in the first USCIRF report.

The Chinese government also raided or closed hundreds of churches, banned unauthorized religious teachings and continued a practice of surveillance of Tibetan Buddhists, the report says.

Russia continued a downward spiral of religious liberty, using the pretense of combating extremism to repress minorities. Authorities investigated 121 Jehovah’s Witnesses and imprisoned 23 members of the Christian domination, according to the commissioners. Some $90 million in church property was taken from the community.

Jarrod Lopes, spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses at the New York world headquarters, tells NPR that troubles persist in Russia. “Since last April, there hasn’t been a month without a home raid — usually several each month,” he says. In February, the organization said agents stripped worshippers naked, doused them with water and shocked them with stun guns.

“As any reasonable person would imagine, it’s definitely not easy for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia to live each day not knowing what tomorrow will bring,” Lopes says. The group was outlawed in 2017.

Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, saw authorities kidnap, torture and imprison Tatar Muslims while Christian minorities suffered harassment, raids and looting in Russian-backed, separatist enclaves.

For the first time last year, the report says, the U.S. State Department placed Russia on a Special Watch List for governments linked to grave violations.

In Myanmar, where nearly 88% of citizens are Buddhist, religious minorities found little justice. The government and military denied there was a campaign to extinguish Rohingya Muslims through systematic rape, torture and mass killings.

False claims that spread on Facebook exacerbated hate, and two Reuters journalists were handed long prison sentences for investigating Rohingya killings. After more than 700,000 people fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh, the U.S. State Department described the crackdown as ethnic cleansing and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum labeled the crisis a genocide.

In northern Myanmar, fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups displaced thousands of civilians, including Christians. Security forces blocked humanitarian aid, held civilians hostage and stopped journalists from entering conflict zones to report on the crisis.

In Pakistan, extremist political parties drove hate speech, and threats of religious minorities and blasphemy laws were used to suppress Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis (a Muslim sect with beliefs differing from the country’s dominant Sunni version of Islam) and Shiite Muslims.

Its designation as a “country of particular concern” came even as the government granted visas for 3,500 Indian Sikhs to visit historic temples and Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly defended a Christian woman who was on death row for allegedly insulting Islam.

Among the other countries with egregious religious freedom violations were Syria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Iran, where a senior official led an anti-Semitic conference and accused Jews of “manipulating the global economy and exaggerating the Holocaust.”

The report also names five entities as violators of religious freedom, including ISIS and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yemen’s Houthi rebels are new to the list.

The report informs U.S. policy and is heard across the globe, Moore tells NPR. “Literally in the last four or five months, three prisoners of conscience that were advocated for [in the past] were released in Iran, in Pakistan and in Turkey.”

USCIRF also announced Monday that it will launch a database of victims in places with the most systematic, flagrant and sustained violations. The commission says it will start collecting data later this year.

Source: Religious Freedom Report Offers Grim Review Of Attacks On Faith Groups

Key Question on U.S. Citizenship Test Changed — Charisma News

While the US Citizenship and Immigration Services likely had to make this ruling, it appears that the complainant wants religious rights to trump other rights, as seen in many of the US state initiatives against LGBT and other rights:

At issue was a segment of the exam’s study guide that suggested the First Amendment protects the citizens’ right to “freedom of worship,” rather than freedom of religion. Lankford, who is co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus and the first senator to join it, first learned of the incorrect wording in June of last year, which prompted a letter to CIS Director Leon Rodriguez.

Lankford explained his issue with the wording again Friday in his announcement applauding the change:

“At first glance, it appears like a small matter, but it is actually an important distinction for the Constitution and the First Amendment. The ‘freedom of religion’ language reflects our right to live a life of faith at all times, while the ‘freedom of worship’ reflects a right simply confined to a particular space and location.”

In a letter sent to Lankford’s office Friday, Rodriguez explained the reversal, saying that “upon further consideration,” CIS determined the change could be made because it didn’t involve adding or deleting content. Approximately 40 web-based and printed materials will be changed as a result of the decision.

“In accordance with agency policy, if the applicant’s answer to a civics question is ‘an alternative phrasing of a correct answer,’ U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers will continue to accept both ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘freedom of worship’ as correct answers to question 51 when administering the naturalization exam,” Rodriguez wrote.

Question 51 reads, “What are two rights of everyone living in the United States?” The study guide originally offered the following correct answers:

  • freedom of expression,
  • freedom of speech,
  • freedom of assembly,
  • freedom to petition the government,
  • freedom of worship and
  • the right to bear arms.

The study materials will now read ‘freedom of religion’ as the correct response. Based on reprinting schedules, they expect all materials to be updated by the end of 2016.

“I applaud the Department of Homeland Security for listening to me and deciding to change their material to reflect our First Amendment right of freedom of religion,” Lankford said after receiving the notification. “We live in a great nation that allows individuals to live out their faith, or have no faith at all. To protect freedom and diversity, we must carefully articulate this right throughout the federal government.”

Source: Key Question on U.S. Citizenship Test Changed — Charisma News

US Conservatives Call For ‘Religious Freedom,’ But For Whom? : NPR

Good article on the ongoing hypocrisy of the religious right and Republican contenders:

Such prejudice bothers some advocates of religious freedom, including Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“If we really believe in religious liberty, then religious liberty applies to everyone, and that means I’m not threatened by non-Christians having religious liberty,” he says. “I think the only way the Gospel can advance is with free consciences, and I think evangelical Christians particularly ought to be the most vocal about religious liberty for our non-Christian neighbors and friends.”

Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a leading lay Catholic intellectual, is also outspoken on the need to defend religious liberty for people of all non-Christian faiths, including Islam.

“It’s scandalous to me when members of a community say, ‘We don’t want a mosque in our town, because the Muslims are terrorists,'” George says. “The vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists or sympathizers of terrorists. They want the same things for themselves and for their children that Christians want, that Jews want, that Hindus want, that all of our fellow citizens want.”

In the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino shootings, the fear of more attacks has inflamed anti-Muslim sentiment, fueled in part by Donald Trump and others who are highlighting the threat of “Islamic terrorism.” Those candidates who have emphasized the struggle for religious liberty as a mobilizing cause, from Cruz to Jeb Bush, have either ignored Trump’s repeated anti-Muslim comments or condemned them.

For some conservatives, however, recent events may bring a decision point. They may need to choose between opposing Islam and advocating for religious freedom. To wage both fights at the same time is likely to become increasingly awkward.

Source: Conservatives Call For ‘Religious Freedom,’ But For Whom? : NPR

Campus segregation: ‘religious freedom’ cannot be allowed to trump equality – Telegraph

There has been a fair amount of controversy in the UK over segregated lectures by Islamic or other fundamentalists in universities. This opinion piece in the Telegraph argues, correctly, that such segregation is a step backwards and should not be encouraged or tolerated:

In any society, pluralist or otherwise, we are constantly forced to assign priorities to different values. Religious freedom – the right to worship, to free association, to a diet consistent with one’s faith, and so on – is rightly accorded respect. But that freedom cannot be allowed to distort and trump the ideals of the modern academy, at the heart of which is the notion of a scholarly community divided by civilised argument, not race, faith or gender.

Campus segregation: ‘religious freedom’ cannot be allowed to trump equality – Telegraph.

Canada giving $1.2M for religious freedom in Nigeria, Central Asia – Politics – CBC News

Seem like reasonable projects to fund.

Canada giving $1.2M for religious freedom in Nigeria, Central Asia – Politics – CBC News.

Robert P. George and Katrina Lantos Swett: Religious Freedom Is About More Than Religion –

Good piece on religious freedom, and how it has to be based upon the freedom of coercion.

Robert P. George and Katrina Lantos Swett: Religious Freedom Is About More Than Religion –