Welcome to the first Religious Freedom Recap of 2014. I’m writing this one from the AMENDS Koc Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, so I’ll keep it short. I’ve sprinkled in a few updates from the week I took off between Christmas and the new year. Did you miss me?

In the U.S., some nuns were none too happy with the Obamacare contraception mandate, so they and a bevy of Christian groups and companies sued the federal government, claiming that providing contraception coverage would violate their religious liberty. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor came to their defense at the 11th hour, issuing an emergency injunction to prevent the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor from having to dole out free birth control. The Obama administration has asked the court not to extend the exemption. Watch this space for updates.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, tasked with defending the Little Sisters from the Big Bad Government, raised some eyebrows (mine included) when the group shamed Wisconsin for being too religiously inclusive with its courthouse holiday displays.

The American Humanist Association is almost as angry as those nuns. The group complained that a Missouri school district is holding unconstitutional prayer sessions and threatened to sue officials in Arkansas for allowing a Nativity scene to be erected on courthouse grounds.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office told SCOTUS that same-sex marriages are an “affront” to the state and asked the Supremes to step in and stop them from happening in Utah.

Howard Friedman at Religion Clause highlights his picks for the top 10 religious liberty developments of 2013. Topping his U.S.-centric list are DOMA’s demise, challenges to the Obamacare contraception mandate and rulings that require businesses to serve same-sex couples.

UNHRC ceiling

The United Nations Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by Tom Page via Flickr

On the international stage, a new report reminds us that the U.N. Human Rights Council is failing miserably to protect human rights, including religious freedom. Eight of the UNHRC’s 47 member states imprisoned people in 2013 for breaking laws that restrict religious freedom.

A separate report highlights the fact that more than 70 percent of religious nongovernment organizations at the U.N. are Christian and urges more diversity to facilitate peacemaking.

The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation spent more than a decade pushing for U.N. resolutions to strengthen blasphemy and religious defamation prohibitions. Now the outgoing OIC head says Muslim states should broaden rights for religious minorities.

Nazila Ghanea

University of Oxford lecturer Nazila Ghanea Photo courtesy Nazila Ghanea

That’s not happening in Iran. Oxford University’s Nazila Ghanea says the president’s new Citizens’ Rights Charter could worsen rather than improve the situation of minority Bahais, Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews.

Pakistan’s no better. Two locals were sentenced to death under the country’s blasphemy laws for “seeing God” and urging others to join them. A British Ahmadi is appealing to the U.K. after being charged with blasphemy for reciting verses from the Quran. Ahmadis are considered heretics in Pakistan.

Similarly terrible is Saudi Arabia, where blogger Raif Badawi faces an apostasy trial that could lead to the death penalty. Looks like these and other OIC member states have a lot of work to do.

Israel’s soccer association ended its ban on players wearing kippahs after protest from players and politicians. The country’s top court halted a rabbinical decree forcing a woman to circumcise her son or face fines. She’s not the only one having second thoughts about circumcision. Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post reports that a small but growing number of Jews are questioning the ancient ritual.


A man performing the quenelle Photo by Meostil via Wikimedia Commons

Jewish leaders and public officials in France are concerned that a “vaguely menacing” hand gesture, the quenelle, which resembles an upside-down Nazi salute, is anti-Semitic and being used to stoke religious and racial tensions in the country.

Police officials have opened a hate-crime investigation in Sweden for the less ambiguous swastikas that were spray-painted on a mosque in Stockholm.

In Nigeria, some women are protesting the fact that they’re forced to marry traditional gods. What happens if they want a divorce?

We’ll close with a quote to ponder from Guardian columnist Deborah Orr: “One cannot protect religious rights if they are used as a reason to abuse human rights.”

Back to the Raki…I mean conference.

Looking for an easy resolution for 2014? Why not sign up to read the Religious Freedom Recap each week? It’s free and painless, unlike that expensive gym membership you know you’ll never use.


  1. Nuns, following orders from the bishops, especially their collective known as the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, are only getting in step with Hobby Lobby and other commercial enterprises in using any excuse to force their thinking and beliefs onto others–thus violating freedom of religion and freedom from religion. There are already sufficient ways for any legally qualified entity to exempt themselves from Affordable Care Act requirements that might, with any extended sense, violate their religion. This is politics. Dirty politics.

    The simplest, most respectful, and legal way would be to leave it up to individuals to determine their sex practices for themselves, including whether or not to use any contraceptives, even whether or not to legally pursue abortions.

    Employers are using it just to get out of paying costs that are really part of their workers’ remuneration, like Social Security and unemployment taxes. It’s an excuse, a deceit, and last I heard, deceit was considered a fault by most religions.

    By the way, the National Catholic Reporter today suspended all comments to its articles. They already used moderating techniques, and they often did so to excess, just because some people disagreed with the ideas that were published. So there was no need to stop all commenting.

    In short, the NCR, like the Catholic Church at large for too many centuries, opposes free thought and free speech–even under Pope Francis. The NCR, like the church in times past, just wants its readers to “pay, pray, and obey.” Inhibitions against thought and speech are “sinful.” There are easy ways today to genuinely, honestly “moderate” personal ugliness out of commentaries. Ending comments is no different than the inquisitions. It is no different than the episcopal cover-up of the sex scandal caused by Catholic clergy.

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