Southern Religion

Pastors slammed for telling the First Amendment truth

There is a price in smear to taking a stand against revisionist history, as a group of moderate to liberal clergy – members of the Texas Faith Network – did recently.

Jonathan Saenz, , a lawyer/lobbyist for Liberty Institute (the Texas affiliate of the far-right Focus on the Family), quickly accused the group had used their press conference “to personally attack the Christian faith of some State Board of Education members.” Although he didn’t explain how that occurred, he did correctly report that they support separation of church and state. They said, for example:

“Our Founding Fathers understood that the best way to protect religious liberty in America is to keep government out of matters of faith,” said the Rev. Roger Paynter, pastor of Austin’s First Baptist Church. “But this state board appears hostile to teaching students about the importance of keeping religion and state separate, a principle long supported in my own Baptist tradition and in other faiths.”

False history is typically cited to support the Texas board’s hostility, Saenz’s and that of his allies. To wit, Dave Welch of the arch conservative Pastor Council issued a press release which, among other things, said:

“The Northwest Ordinance, passed in 1787 by the same Congress which presented the Bill of Rights for ratification, declared that ‘Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’”

He’s just wrong.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was passed by the Congress seated under the Articles of Confederation.

More than two years later, first federal Congress under the Constitution sent the Bill of Rights to the states for ratification. And of course included the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights — the one which forbids government from either promoting or disfavoring religion.

May 14, 2010 Posted by | Law, Religion | | 4 Comments

Free speech trumps hate speech law in Canada

Anti-gay speech is protected in Canada, ruled Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta, CTV News reported today:

EDMONTON — A Court of Queen’s Bench judge has ruled an anti-gay letter written by a former Alberta pastor in 2002 was not a hate crime and is allowed under freedom of speech.

Justice E.C. Wilson overturned a 2008 ruling by the Alberta Human Rights Commission that the letter by Stephen Boissoin that was published in the Red Deer Advocate broke provincial law.

At the time, the commission said it may even have played a role in the beating of a gay teenager two weeks after it was published.

The commission had ordered Boissoin to refrain from making disparaging remarks about homosexuals and to pay the complainant, former Red Deer high school teacher Darren Lund, $5,000 in damages.

Neither order can now be enforced, as Wilson declared them “unlawful or unconstitutional.”

The issue is referred to in the Manhattan Declaration where it says:

In Canada and some European nations, Christian clergy have been prosecuted for preaching Biblical norms against the practice of homosexuality. New hate­ crime laws in America raise the specter of the same practice here.

Hate speech laws have unintended consequences, and should be avoided.

December 6, 2009 Posted by | Law, Religion | , , , | 1 Comment

Who’s Foxy Loxy in this story?

The sky isn’t falling but you might want to keep a close eye on the wall of separation between church and state.

When news broke about a proposed Christian prison in Oklahoma, the leading proponent told the Tulsa World, “If Chicken Little doesn’t come to town, we’ll be open in 16 months.”

Bill Robinson, the founder of Corrections Concepts Inc., was referencing the childhood fable where a chicken that gets hit on the head with an acorn causes something of a panic by claiming that the sky is falling.

In this case, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which issued a warning about the prison, knows the difference between a nut and the atmosphere.

November 20, 2009 Posted by | Churches, History | , , , , , | Comments Off on Who’s Foxy Loxy in this story?

Montana church’s speech rights violated, says appeals court

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that Montana election law was unconstitutionally applied to an East Helena church which supported a 2004 ballot initiative to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Howard M. Friedman explains that Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church “advertised and hosted a one-time screening of a video in support of the amendment and made petitions available in its foyer for signing.”

Reversing a lower court decision, 9th Circuit ruled that “disclosure and reporting requirements are unconstitutional as applied to the Church’s de minimis activities,” violating the church’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

Circuit Judge John T. Noonan, in a concurring opinion, argued that the matter should have been decided on freedom of religion grounds:

“What has happened here is that a small congregation has been put to trouble and expense in order to exercise its right to speak on an issue seen by it to be of vital religious significance. One lesson of history is that small incursions on freedom are to be resisted lest they grow greater,” Noonan wrote.

This is an Alliance Defense Fund case and, because it tends to erode a previously defined boundary between church and political activity, a signal that the already contentious issue of religion in politics is destined to become more so.

February 26, 2009 Posted by | Politics, Religion | , , | Comments Off on Montana church’s speech rights violated, says appeals court

How should the law respond when religious faith leads to the reckless homicide of a child?

Kara Neumann

Kara Neumann

Kara Neumann, age 11, died last March of treatable juvenile diabetes after her Wausau, Wisconsin, parents chose to pray for her recovery rather than take her to a doctor. Her parents face criminal charges. Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb, addressing how the law might react, writes:

. . . There is no justification for child abuse and neglect, no matter how sincere the parent’s religious motivation. To take an example from the Bible, Abraham should not have prepared to kill his son Isaac, no matter what he believed the divine will to be. Though he may have “passed” the test of his faith, in other words, he would plainly fail the test of parenthood and of membership in any civilized modern community.

Beginning there, we have three courses of action the law may follow:

  • First, attack the legitimacy of religious exemptions in laws that prohibit child abuse or neglect. That would expose parents like the Neumanns to the full force of the law.
  • Second, excuse or partially excuse (perhaps reducing the severity of the charge) the parent who fails to seek out medical care for his child because of a faith in prayer or other divine agency. That does not to justify a parent’s action, but it does temper justice with mercy.
  • Third, agree that when people believe in good faith that they are carrying out the mandates of heaven, they should not be punished, thus opening children to all manner of abuse in the real or imagined name of faith.

Writing for FindLaw, Colb says:

If our focus is on the future, it might seem most prudent to prosecute the Neumanns to the full extent of the law and send the message that parents must care for their children. The very existence of the Wisconsin prayer exception to the child abuse or neglect statute arguably invites what most of us would view as intolerable misconduct.

More merciful and more likely, as she suggests, is an outcome which takes into consideration the parents’ obvious religious faith. Whether the other children of that union are left in their parents’ potentially deadly care may yet be the principal question the court answers.

To fully appreciate the complexity of the issues raised in this heart-rending case, please read the entire piece.

February 8, 2009 Posted by | Law, Religion | , , , | 1 Comment

When faith’s dictates result in a child’s death: Redrawing the legal line

From tragedy comes a likely landmark legal conflict. Kara Neumann, 11, died of treatable juvenile diabetes after her Wausau, Wisconsin, parents chose to pray for her recovery rather than take her to a doctor. Now they’re facing criminal charges which may redraw the line of church/state separation.

Dirk Johnson of the International Herald Tribune wrote:

Kara Neumann

Kara Neumann

About a month after Kara’s death last March, the Marathon County state attorney, Jill Falstad, brought charges of reckless endangerment against her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann. Despite the Neumanns’ claim that the charges violated their constitutional right to religious freedom, Judge Vincent Howard of Marathon County Circuit Court ordered Leilani Neumann to stand trial on May 14, and Dale Neumann on June 23. If convicted, each faces up to 25 years in prison.

Kara’s parents beliefs are clear. Click here to read a testimonial by Kara’s mother, Leilani, on

For believers and nonbelievers alike, the debate is inescapable and it whipsaws across the legal and ideological landscape.

Those who defend the Neumanns see the legal action itself as an unacceptable intrusion on religious liberty.

At David Eells writes:

Neumanns defend your rights now, very soon when Christians refuse the microchip in their hand and forehead and are not able to pay for meds or doctors they will have to trust God. However, then they will be deemed negligent and their children taken away, just as the prophets have seen. You who know what Revelation 13:15-17 means, think about this. Read the laws carefully.

Among those who have read the laws carefully and come to a different conclusion is Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc., which describes itself as,”a non-profit national membership organization established in 1983 to protect children from abusive religious and cultural practices, especially religion-based medical neglect. CHILD opposes religious exemptions from duties of care for children.”

Yet CHILD treats the religious issues involved with respect, for example addressing religious attitudes on corporal punishment from a Biblical perspective.

The extreme opposite view from the Neumanns and their defenders in this debate is instead well-represented by Pharyngula, who argues for the legal establishment of a new principle:

Prayer doesn’t work. Enshrine it in the law — prayer is not a helpful action, but rather a neglectful one. Teach it in the schools — when the health class instructs students in how to make a tourniquet or do CPR, also explain that prayer is not an option. Faith in prayer kills people.

The quiet question at the legal core of the intense issues raised is well-explained at Get Religion, where tmatt writes:

The question is where courts draw the line on religious freedom, especially in limiting the rights of parents. As a rule, the limits are defined in terms of fraud, profit and clear threat to life.

But what is a clear threat? That’s the issue. Is practicing Christian Science or being a Jehovah’s Witness a clear threat? Courts tend to say no, especially since those groups tend to have good lawyers. The big question is what to do in precisely this kind of case.

This case does promise to begin rewriting the definitions of the law in ways that make it easier to bring legal force to bear on believers like the Neumanns.

That’s unfortunate, because as you can see the case is awash in distracting emotional intensity, and thus what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was talking about when he said “bad cases make bad law.”

What outcome is the right outcome?


The police report is here [.pdf].

January 26, 2009 Posted by | Crime, Religion | , , , | 3 Comments