Bike lanes * Saint Barbie * So long: October’s Religious Freedom Recap

Churches attack bike lanes for "burdening" their religious freedom as Saint Barbie leads a plastic revolution in Argentina. Savor every word of this last ever recap as I say “so long” to On Freedom.

Cape Town sunset (Photo by Brian Pellot)

Welcome to the final EVER (…and longest ever) Religious Freedom Recap. No, I haven’t joined a doomsday cult. I’m just retiring my blog to pursue other writing projects from South Africa. You can read about my future plans in this farewell post.

Onto the final EVER regional recaps–


Mormons dominated my newsfeed last month, so let’s begin in their Utah stronghold.

Religious leaders descended on Mormon Mecca (Salt Lake City) last month, first for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, then for the World Congress of Families, which basically exists to oppose gay marriage, porn and abortion.

Although the church has been softening (slightly) on LGBT issues, elders affirmed that its doctrine is still “completely linked” to “traditional families.” But that doesn’t mean they approve of marriage refuseniks like Kim Davis. To summarize, “No homo, but do your job.”

Church-owned Brigham Young University enrolls non-Mormon students, no problem, but if you start off Mormon and decide to leave the church before graduation, you could be expelled. A prominent religion scholar boycotted a BYU conference to protest the policy.

Showcasing its diversity, the church appointed three old white men from Utah to its Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, filling the void left by three old white men who died earlier this year. That announcement came a few days before a conference on race issues within the faith. Awkward.

Some dissatisfied liberal Mormons are finding refuge in the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), which ordains women. Don’t confuse RLDS with FLDS, the polygamous Mormon offshoot Warren Jeffs is still running from prison.

Regular LDS Elder M. Russell Ballard has some advice for “you beautiful girls” looking to get hitched: “Don’t wander around looking like men. Put on a little lipstick now and then and look a little charming. It’s that simple.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses formalized similar advice, barring men who “lean toward effeminate characteristics and grooming habits” and women who display a “masculine haircut or type of dress,” from preaching door-to-door.

Conundrum: An Amish man wants to buy a gun in Pennsylvania, but he needs a photo I.D. to do so, and his religion prevents him from getting his photo taken. Maybe the solution is no more guns?

God blessed the military in Hawaii and ambulances in Texas, despite objections.

When President Donald Trump takes office in 2017, “we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store.”

We probably won’t be saying “Ramadam Kareem.” 75 percent of Republicans say they’re “less likely” to vote for a Muslim candidate. One GOP lawmaker in Tennessee wants to cut religion from world history lessons over fears that children might (*gasp*) learn about Islam.

If the First Amendment protects Westboro Baptists, it also protects Christian evangelists who bring pigs’ heads to Arab and Muslim festivals. it doesn’t protect groups that beat members to death. At least there are these sane people who still play nice.

If at first you don’t succeed in predicting the end of the world, just pick another date.

John Oliver

John Oliver

New Hampshire’s Supreme Court will decide if a church that believes in swords is eligible for tax-exemptions, which it should be if John Oliver’s megachurch taught us anything.  

An atheist conspiracy has revealed that if you electrocute people’s brains you can reduce their belief in gods (and probably kill them, but don’t go that far). Science tested, IRB-approved!

An even bigger threat to religious freedom than brain zapping is the dreaded bike lane. A historically black church in D.C. alleges that bike lanes will reduce parking space and “substantially burden” their free exercise of religion. Ditto, said folks in Michigan.

The U.S. State Department finally issued its 2014 International Religious Freedom Report but left out the juiciest bit. We’re promised an updated list of countries of particular concernbasically its political Burn Bookin the coming weeks.

Religious Freedom Ambassador David Saperstein had this to say:

Canadians elected a hot new prime minister. Maybe he’ll finally scrap the country’s blasphemy law, which still exists, despite time and common sense.

A court ruled that Muslim women can cover their faces when saying the Canadian citizenship oath, because a veil is not a muzzle. Another court ruled that Jehovah’s Witness grandparents can’t force their faith on a child if the mother disapproves, which seems sensible.

Catholics in Brazil were presumably not thrilled when three women got legally hitched to each other.

Remember the Reformation? Saint Barbie is leading a totally unrelated Plastic Revolution in Argentina. It’s fantastic.


I wrote a depressing piece outlining some of the many reasons Myanmar’s Nov. 8 election won’t be as “free and fair” as pollsters hope. Chief among them is the political disenfranchisement of Rohingya Muslims.

Women at a festival in Shan State, Northern Myanmar, Nov. 7, 2014. RNS photo by Brian Pellot

Women at a festival in Shan State, Northern Myanmar, Nov. 7, 2014. RNS photo by Brian Pellot

Amnesty International reported that Rohingya refugee death tolls are higher than U.N. estimates suggest, and Al Jazeera unearthed “strong evidence” of government-coordinated genocide against the minority group.

Muslims in Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province went rogue, razing a Protestant church before local authorities could step in…to help them destroy more. The province enforces sharia and just implemented a new law to cane gay people after arresting two “suspected lesbians.”

The Maldives Supreme Court spared a woman from being stoned to death after she had a baby out of wedlock.

After a Malaysian Court of Appeals declared an anti-crossdressing law unconstitutional, the Federal Court stepped in to ensure that transgender persecution can continue unabated. The court also upheld a law criminalizing the production or distribution of anything that runs contrary to Islamic law, because oppressive governments fear dissent.

Thailand banned a horror film about Buddhist monks over fears that it could straight up “destroy” the faith. That’s either a very powerful film or a very weak religion. NOT banned is this terrifying festival where vegetarians stab themselves in the face with swords and skewers as fireworks explode all around them. !!!

India’s beef wars heated up as politicians brawled in the Kashmir state assembly over an MP’s decision to host a “beef party” celebrating religious tolerance. Hindu cattle patrols continue to protect cows from being eaten.

Religion means no one has doors in this Indian town, so cows can just wander into your kitchen if the spirit moves them.

People need to stop getting tattoos of other people’s deities. It’s trashy and confusing, but also sometimes offensive.

Asia Bibi, the Christian woman in Pakistan who’s been sitting on death row for more than five years on trumped up blasphemy charges, is “healthy and safe.” Imprisoned for nothing, but healthy and safe.

Pakistan is worried that false blasphemy accusations are landing innocent people in jail. Here’s an idea–why not kill your blasphemy law? The Supreme Court “progressively” ruled that suggesting revisions to the blasphemy law is not in itself blasphemous. Baby millipede steps.

Three more atheist bloggers were attacked and a publisher of secular books killed in Bangladesh. Don’t worry. These are all just isolated incidents (if you believe the home minister, which I do not).

If you want a one-way ticket out of North Korea, why not try Christianity?

Dutch politician and Mayor of Whoville lookalike Geert Wilders is helping Australia launch its very own anti-Islam party. How considerate. I’m sure the new party will be all over this school that let Muslim students opt out of singing the national anthem for religious reasons that seemed pretty legit.

Behold, my favorite story of the month. The founder of a Singapore megachurch was convicted of fraud after he used $36 million of church money to promote his wife’s pop music career. Here’s Sun Ho’s risqué music video for “China Wine” feat. Wyclef Jean. You’re welcome.

Middle East:

Some Jews are secretly praying at Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Only Muslims are allowed to pray there, but you can pray in your head, so I don’t understand how this 800 year-old-ban is enforceable.

Israel banned Muslim men under 50 from praying at Temple Mount, which is enforceable with IDs, but an ageist violation of human rights.

Men praying at the Western Wall

Men praying at the Western Wall

Amid last month’s violence and crackdowns in the region, an Israeli café warmed my heart by offering discounts to Arab and Jewish customers willing to share a table.

Saudi’s reign of terror continues. The government sentenced a Shiite cleric to death for encouraging pro-democracy demonstrations and threatened a 74-year-old British man with 350 lashes for possessing homemade wine.

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi won a prestigious human rights prize, but the government wants to give him another 950 lashes and keep him in jail for nearly a decade before he can collect it.

The UAE’s new anti-discrimination law, which I’ve written about three times, needs to go away. Right now.

Lest we forget that Iran persecutes Baha’is.

Turkish pianist Fazil Say, who was charged with insulting Islam on Twitter in 2012, is finally in the clear.

If Al-Qaeda thinks you’re a witch in Yemen, try to escape before they kill you.


The Vatican held a synod on the family, but they don’t really know much about sex because the bishops are supposed to be celibate, so they called in outside help. My invite got lost in the mail.

Despite knowing little about sex, they’re convinced that gay sex is bad, so they fired a gay priest who presumably thinks it’s great. The Polish priest accused the church of making LGBT lives “a hell” and causing “immeasurable suffering.” But who am I to judge?

Some women feared their voices would be sidelined in the synod’s final report. Considering all the dudes in this photo and the fact that this nun who wanted to become a priest got kicked out of the church, I hear their concern.

The Vatican concluded that there are “absolutely no grounds for same-sex marriage.” Tell that to the millions of gay couples around the world who presumably got hitched for a reason.

Maybe the Vatican should team up with this Russian group that’s trying to “save the world from gays.” The Holy See continues to delay, without explanation, the ambassadorial appointment of a French envoy said to be gay.

France now recognizes a third gender, as though gender is something states should be policing in the first place.

Schools in France are refusing to serve pork-free meals to Jews and Muslims (and vegetarians?), but bacon is going to kill everyone, so they’re basically murdering children. Not cool, France.

Remember when France banned Muslim women from wearing the niqab in 2010? Neither do French people.

This might have worked in France. An Orthodox Serbian village threatened to convert to Islam if their church isn’t repaired.

The Economist says that a Eurocratic demand to punish hate speech and Holocaust denial is BS. Hear, hear.

My friends at Xindex on Xenxorxhip say the UK government’s new extremism strategy will criminalize legitimate speech and curtail open debate. Xear, Xear.

Londoners complained about a Kabbalah Center’s “36-hour chanting session” during Sukkot. Are they sure it wasn’t a Madonna concert?

The holy-book bomb may be offensive, but it’s got nothing on this 17th-century Sinners’ Bible.

In the land of health and safety, Britain has exempted Sikhs who wear turbans from most safety helmet rules.

A British Asian family that converted from Islam to Christianity say they’ve been driven from their home twice by Muslim neighbors who consider them blasphemers.

Britain scrapped its blasphemy laws in 2008, but Poland refuses to follow suit.

Want to leave your church in Norway and join the Vikings? There’s an app for that.

Azerbaijan be like, “we forbid religious books – but this isn’t religious discrimination,” and I’m all like, “psssh.”


I’m leaving you, dear readers, to write more about Sub-Saharan Africa and global sexual freedom. Here’s an article I wrote for RNS that covers both (and religion). Here’s a lighter one I wrote about Jewish women baking challah bread in Cape Town, which I’m sharing here because I can.

South Africa is considering regulating religious groups after a church leader fed his congregation snakes and rats. Maybe not a bad idea in this case…

SA’s Dutch Reformed Church will recognize gay marriage.

Zambia temporarily shut down revenue-generating parts of its economy (bars, football, etc.) to encourage more people to pray for economic prosperity. How’s that working out?

Here’s another tearjerker about Tanzanian albino children who have been mutilated for witchcraft.

Albino Tanzania

Two albino children in Tanzania

How do you convince Nigerian Muslims to use birth control when they say it goes against their culture and religion? Call up this tenacious doctor.

An even tougher task may be Kenya’s reintegration of 700 al-Shabab terrorists as social “seeds for peace.”

After awarding its Confucius Peace Prize to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2011, a Hong Kong-based organization punk’d the world again by honoring Zimbabwe’s tyrannical dictator Robert Mugabe. Mugabe, whose senility may be inspiring some common sense, declined the award.

That’s all, folks. Thanks for reading my column and recaps. If you’d like to follow my future work, add me on Twitter or Facebook.

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