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RFRA’s END(A)? * Iraq’s Christians * Foreskin sorcery: July’s Religious Freedom Recap

Hobby Lobby ruling prompts calls for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to be scrapped. Mosul’s Christians are ordered to convert to Islam or face death. And Zimbabwe might ban circumcision because foreskins could be used in witchcraft, obviously.


Apologies for starting last month’s recap with that Hobby Lobby cliffhanger.

ICYMI under that rock you call home, the craft store won and SCOTUS ruled that closely held corporations cannot be compelled to provide contraceptive coverage that violates the religious beliefs of their owners. Now all Americans will pay for contraceptive coverage through their taxes, including Hobby Lobby’s owners. Mission accomplished?

Americans were dismayed, chagrined or confused by the decision. Some celebrated the decision as a religious freedom victory. Others knitted bricks in protest. These crafty trolls spelled out “pro choice” on letter displays in Hobby Lobby stores across America.

Ronald McDonald

Mr. Ronald McDonald enjoying his right to freedom of movement and peaceful assembly.

Now that companies enjoy free speech AND religious freedom rights, I thought they deserved a Universal Declaration of Corporate Rights (warning: satire).

Some critics of the decision argued that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, key to the Supremes’ decision, should be revised or scrapped altogether.

Pundits posited that LGBT workers might be impacted by the ruling, a fear further flared when faith leaders asked President Obama to exempt religious groups from his executive order barring LGBT discrimination when hiring federal contractors. That request prompted a tizzy, but the final version was signed without such exemption. Still, religiously-affiliated government contractors think they’ll have a claim under RFRA if they’re denied contracts in the future.

Moving on, I learned that EIGHT states bar atheists and polytheists from holding public office. None of these laws are enforced, presumably because they’re all mind-bogglingly unconstitutional.

Crosses had a good month in America. The Mount Soledad cross on public land in California can stay after SCOTUS declined to hear the case against it. The Ground Zero cross will remain at the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum after judges dismissed American Atheists’ lawsuit against it.

Bacon rings

Bacon rings

Humanists had better luck in Indiana where they finally won the right to solemnize their own weddings. Lawmakers are mulling a similar bill next door in Ohio. If you’re a Humanist in Nevada who appreciates a good pun, ask the United Church of Bacon to help out with those vows.

Mississippi added “In God We Trust” to its state seal. Not sure who the “We” is. Surely not all Mississippians.

In school news, a court ruled that kids in New York who legally skip out on vaccines for religious reasons can be sent home if another kid comes down with a preventable illness they might catch. Rachel Marie Stone argued that religious exemptions to vaccines shouldn’t exist.

A Freedom from Religion Foundation complaint put the kibosh on unconstitutional teacher-led prayer in Indiana. A substitute teacher in Massachusetts, fired for mocking religions in a satirical music video, will be compensated and allowed to teach again.

In a church-state separation crackdown, the IRS has agreed to monitor houses of worship for partisan political campaigning prohibited under their tax-exempt status. The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge is livid over a Louisiana Supreme Court decision that could compel a priest to testify in court about confessions he might have received.

On the foreign policy front, President Obama finally nominated someone—Rabbi David Saperstein— to fill the role of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The position has been vacant for more than nine months. Saperstein would be the first non-Christian to hold the job. Thomas Farr at Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project said the position must be elevated within the State Dept. if Saperstein is to succeed.

On the same day news of Saperstein broke, the State Department released its annual religious freedom report and added Turkmenistan to its list of countries of particular concern. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom argued that Pakistan and six other offenders, including Syria and Iraq, should have also been added to the shame list.



U Wirathu, leader of the 969 Movement in Burma.

Persecution of Rohingya Muslims in and around Myanmar continued to dominate the headlines in July. Some are comparing the refugee camps in Sittwe to “concentration camps” where “crimes against humanity” are unfolding.

Minority Muslims and Christians aren’t the only ones to feel the heat in Burma. Buddhist Maramargyi in Sittwe are persecuted because they look like they might be Rohingya. Sounds like a case of ethnic discrimination to me.

In Mandalay, sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims prompted Burmese authorities to impose a curfew. The government says it wasn’t responsible for Facebook service disruptions during the violence (I’m skeptical), but it’s now working with the company to monitor online hate speech, which is prompting some debate among free speech activists in the country. For more on Myanmar, read the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s situation report.

Rohingya in neighboring Bangladesh are no longer allowed to wed under a new marriage ban. How many more rights can these people lose?

China has no respect for religious freedom, but we already knew that. The country is demolishing churches and toppling crosses left and right. Christians in Wenzhou fear what may come next.

The government banned Uighur Muslims in China’s Northwest Xinjiang region from fasting during Ramadan (how is that even enforceable??), sent dozens of Uighurs to prison on terror charges and denied entry to an American scholar who spoke up on behalf of a Uighur colleague charged with separatism.

Another man was sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan and a violent mob torched homes in an Ahmadi Muslim neighborhood after a member of the minority sect was accused of posting a blasphemous photo on Facebook. Padraig Reidy writes that blasphemy laws protect power rather than people. He’s right.

Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court basically outlawed Ahmadis in the country.

Jain monks in an Indian town are demanding that meat no longer be sold, despite the fact that meat-eating Muslims live there too. Crazy, right? That would be like towns in Utah restricting alcohol sales just because there were a lot of Mormons there. Or majority-Muslim countries doing the same.

The International Basketball Federation banned two Sikh Indian players from wearing turbans, prompting the hashtag #LetSikhsPlay.

Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

This is awkward. Vietnam invited Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, to investigate the country’s religious freedom record then went into surveillance overdrive, making the job impossible.

Middle East:

In 30 countries (or 49 depending on how you slice it), heads of state must belong to a certain religion. Many of these are in the majority-Muslim Middle East.

Some schools in Lebanon are banning crosses but allowing hijabs, prompting the country’s education minister to demand respect for freedom of expression and religious practice.

In a medieval throwback, an Egyptian judge accused the devil of encouraging Al-Jazeera journalists to use their profession against the state. Egypt restricted sermons during Ramadan to “faith and morality” i.e. no politics, and the government is now campaigning to stop the spread of atheism among youth.

In Iraq, the terror hub formerly known as ISIS ordered Mosul’s Christians to convert to Islam or face death. Showing they’ve got their priorities in order, IS also demanded that mannequins’ faces be covered by veils. France is offering asylum to Christians who have fled.

In Saudi, a human rights lawyer was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “insulting general order” and “inflaming public opinion” for defending his brother-in-law and prominent skeptic blogger Raif Badawi. Is it just me or do those charges sound like endorsements?

Bahrain kicked out a U.S. diplomat for meeting with opposition Shia leaders and arrested a satirist blogger for “inciting hatred against the regime.” In Oman, which is supposed to be better than this, two bloggers were detained for reporting human rights violations.

Israel’s Supreme Court overturned a ruling that would have forced a mother to circumcise her son under the terms of her divorce.

A Twitter user in Turkey was jailed after God hijacked his account. Go ahead and laugh if you’re a man, but don’t even think about it if you’re a woman. Seriously, who’s running that country?


The European court of human rights upheld France’s veil ban targeting Muslim women. Some groups are calling the ban a blow for freedom of expression. Public face coverings are now illegal in France, Belgium and parts of Switzerland, Spain and Italy. Halloween on the continent must be so boring.

Burkini photomontage

Burkini photomontage

A French mayor lifted his city’s ban on hijabs at the beach. Their inherent SPF factor wasn’t a factor in the ruling (but maybe should have been).

French ministers are claiming that the country isn’t anti-Semitic. Tell that to the hundreds of French Jews immigrating to Israel DURING the Gaza offensive and the eight French synagogues that have been attacked in recent weeks.

France isn’t alone. Dutch Jews are seeking a ban on rallies that feature hate speech as online anti-Semitism spirals out of control. Jewish museums in Norway closed amid fear of attacks, a German synagogue was firebombed, and Rome has been covered in anti-Jewish graffiti. In Belgium, a café owner put up a sign saying that dogs were welcome but Jews were not. Despicable.

Sesame Street isn’t at all popular in the U.K., so I’m not  sure why someone in Northern Ireland asked for a Bert and Ernie gay marriage cake. Whatever the reason, the baker refused, citing the Bible. Sidenote: Why is there an entire Wikipedia page about Sesame Street in the U.K.? People have too much time on their hands.

The Church of England is backing the abolition of compulsory Christian worship in state-funded schools. Meanwhile the U.K.’s new education secretary Nicky Morgan reportedly said that her role in Parliament is “to remember the Word of God and serve the Lord,” leaving British skeptics more than skeptical of her intentions.Speaking of British skeptics, the British Humanist Association is hosting the World Humanist Congress in Oxford this weekend on the theme “freedom of thought and expression.”

Ireland still has blasphemy laws on the books (along with seven other E.U. states). Actually the country reintroduced blasphemy laws in 2009. The U.N. Human Rights Committee wants the country to consider removing them pronto and revising its highly restrictive abortion laws.

Speaking of the U.N. and because I had to slip this in somewhere, the Center for Inquiry’s director of public policy Michael De Dora has been elected president of the U.N.’s NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief.


Meriam Ibrahim

Protest calling for Meriam Ibrahim’s release

The Christian Sudanese woman sentenced to death for her faith is finally free. After a quick stopover in Rome to meet Pope Francis (no big deal), Meriam Ibrahim and her family is settling into their new life in New Hampshire. Don’t assume that Meriam’s release means Sudan has changed its ways. The Islamic state just banned the construction of new churches. Burundi also passed a bill to curb the local “proliferation of churches.”

In Nigeria, a man who was forcibly committed to a mental ward when he revealed his atheism is now free but facing death threats.

Uganda’s constitutional court declared the country’s harsh anti-homosexuality law “null and void” on a legal technicality, not because it was so egregiously anti-human rights.

Senators in Zimbabwe want to ban male circumcision not because its health benefits are dubious or because infant boys have no say in the matter but because foreskins could be used in witchcraft, obviously.

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