Saturday, July 26, 2014

The 3 - July 27, 2014

This week on my week-in-review feature, "The 3," news emerging that a government agency may be checking on churches, looking for violations on regulations governing political speech and activity.  Also, the President issued an executive order that could limit free expression of religion by employees, forcing those who do business with the Federal government to accept homosexuals in the workplace.  The top story is a cause for celebration: the exit of Meriam Ibrahim from Sudan after being released from prison on charges of apostasy (wouldn't recant Christian faith) and adultery (married a Christian man).

3 - Internal Revenue Service reportedly tells atheist group it will investigate churches

The Alliance Defending Freedom discovered this week that the Internal Revenue Service had apparently reached an agreement with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, where the IRS pledged to the atheist group that it would begin to investigate churches and pastors, exercising what they regard as their free speech rights to endorse candidates and relate other political content.

For years now, ADF has been involved in trying to go to court to overturn the Johnson Amendment, which it views as unconstitutional because of its regulation of sermons, which are protected by the First Amendment.On its website, the Alliance Defending Freedom states that the Johnson Amendment authorizes the IRS to regulate sermons and requires churches to give up their constitutionally protected freedom of speech in order to retain their tax-exempt status. To that end, for a number of years, ADF has been encouraging pastors to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, on which they would preach politically-oriented sermons which could violate the Amendment.

This week, ADF asked the IRS to release all documents related to its recent decision to settle the lawsuit with FFRF, which claimed the IRS has adopted new protocols and procedures for the investigation of churches. The atheist organization had accused the agency of failing to investigate churches the way the atheist group would like, according to ADF.

Christiana Holcomb, ADF Litigation Counsel, stated, “Secrecy breeds mistrust, and the IRS should know this in light of its recent scandals involving the investigation of conservative groups...We are asking the IRS to disclose the new protocols and procedures it apparently adopted for determining whether to investigate churches. What it intends to do to churches must be brought into the light of day.”

The Alliance states that currently, the IRS claims it is temporarily withholding investigations of all tax-exempt entities because of congressional scrutiny of its recent scandals, but no one knows when it will decide to restart investigations based on any new or modified rules that it develops.

This year's Pulpit Freedom Sunday is October 5, 2014.

2 - President issues order saying Federal contractors cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity

On Monday, President Obama issued an Executive Order requiring that Federal contractors, companies and organizations that do business with the Federal government, grant, as a piece on the Family Research Council website puts it, "special treatment to the politically-charged categories of 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity' in the workplace."  This was an apparent attempt to partially institute the provisions of the so-called Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which has failed to pass Congress year after year. This year, the Senate passed a version of ENDA that included a religious exemption.  A number of religious leaders had asked the President to include a religious exemption in his order, but that request was rejected.

Peter Sprigg, Family Research Council's Senior Fellow for Policy Studies, issued a statement, which said, in part:
"President Obama has ordered employers to put aside their principles, and practices in the name of political correctness. This level of coercion is nothing less than viewpoint blackmail that bullies into silence every contractor and subcontractor who has moral objections to homosexual behavior. This order gives activists a license to challenge their employers and, expose those employers to threats of costly legal proceedings and the potential of jeopardizing future contracts."
He went on to say that:
"Religious faith is not simply a matter of intellectual affirmation but of active practice. A religious organization which is denied the power to require its employees to conduct their lives in a way consistent with the teachings of their faith is an organization which is being denied the right to exercise its religion, period. People with deeply held convictions regarding the morality of certain types of sexual behavior should not be bound by the dictates of President Obama's agenda."
Tony Perkins, President of FRC, in his daily Washington Update, said that, "The President is placing at risk not only faith-driven employers but religious groups such as relief organizations which sometimes put government dollars to work in uniquely effective ways."  He went on to point out that the American people are not overwhelmingly convinced that this type of policy is the right way to go.  Perkins cited that "a Huffington Post poll that finds only 50% of Americans support an ENDA-type law, which gives preference to homosexuals and transgenders in the workplace."

Sarah Torre, Policy Analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, provided some analysis on this Order by the President in a recent interview on Faith Radio for The Meeting House.  You can listen to or download the audio here.

Ryan Anderson, William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society for the Heritage Foundation, highlighted on the Heritage website 4 reasons why the Order was problematic. In summary, those are: 1) The order undermines our nation’s commitment to reasonable pluralism and reasonable diversity, as it disregards the consciences and liberties of people of goodwill who happen not to share the government’s opinions about issues of sexuality, 2) its conscientious judgments about behavior as if they were insidious acts of discrimination akin to racism or sexism, 3) it does not contain a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ) exemption, allowing employers to make employment decisions so long as those decisions are honestly related to job qualifications, and 4) it is unnecessary, because voluntary market forces are already eliminating true discrimination.  Anderson also highlights that a bill has been introduced into both houses of Congress that will protect religious liberty and the rights of conscience.

1 - Meriam Ibrahim, Sudanese woman once under a death sentence, who would not renounce her Christian faith, leaves Sudan

This week, the diplomatic process ramped up and Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman who faced the death sentence for apostasy and would not recant her Christian faith, was permitted to leave the country.  She had been released from prison several weeks ago, but was rearrested at the airport due to a passport issue.  The family had travelled to the U.S. Embassy in Sudan, and the last word prior to this week was that they were in an unidentified safe place.

This past Wednesday, according to a story on the WORLD News Group website, Sudanese authorities gave Meriam her passport and she was told she could leave.   Shortly afterward, Lapo Pistelli, Italy's deputy minister for foreign affairs, arrived in Sudan to accompany her to Italy.  Earlier, the U.S. House of Representatives had held a hearing on Meriam's plight.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is quoted as saying, “This is a day of celebration.” He welcomed the family at the airport in Rome on Thursday. On Thursday morning, the family met with Pope Francis at his residence at the Vatican.

WORLD had also spoken with an American pastor, Bill Devlin, who had traveled to Sudan last week to urge Sudanese officials to release the mother and her family.  He also met with Ibrahim, her husband, and their two children in a conference room at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, where the family had lived since Ibrahim was re-arrested at the airport in June. In a phone interview on Wednesday (before news of her release broke), Devlin said the family was eager to leave Sudan but seemed healthy and in good spirits.  He also said a pediatrician had advised Ibrahim’s infant daughter appeared healthy, although the baby would need further tests to assess her health.  After her release from prison, Ibrahim said she feared the baby might be disabled due to the circumstances of her birth.

What's next for the family?  The WORLD piece speculates that they may soon travel to the United States. Ibrahim’s husband, Daniel Wani, is an American citizen and a long-time resident of Manchester, NH.

Earlier in July, after Ibrahim's re-arrest at the airport, I spoke with Jamie Dean, News Editor of WORLD Magazine - here is a link to that conversation.

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