Welcome to the new and improved monthly Religious Freedom Recap, which I’ll publish on the first or last Monday of each month (as the calendar spirits move me).

Let’s pick up where I left off with the last recap on March 3. I’ll break this one down by region.


Hobby Lobby had its big day in court over the contraceptive mandate. Among the pressing questions: Do corporations have religious rights? Have those rights been trampled? How long did it take to make this birth control costume? SCOTUS should rule on the first two in late June.

Hobby Lobby

(RNS6-march25) Margot Riphagen of New Orleans, dressed as a pack of birth control pills, demonstrated outside the Supreme Court, which heard cases of two businesses challenging the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday (March 25). For use with RNS-SCOTUS-HOBBYLOBBY, transmitted on March 25, 2014, RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Home schooling is illegal in Germany, so one evangelical Christian family uprooted its six kids to teach them in the U.S. After an immigration/asylum escapade, SCOTUS declined to hear the case, but Homeland Security said the family could stay, which will hopefully put some international spice on those home-school proms.

Westboro Pastor of Hate Fred Phelps died, prompting some online debates about whether counterhaters should make “God Hates Phelps” signs, turn the other cheek or turn him gay in the afterlife(!?).  Westboro Baptist Church mourned for about five minutes before picketing a Lorde concert in Kansas City. Still a class act.

Guinness, Heineken and Sam Adams boycotted NYC’s and Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parades when LGBT group were restricted from marching openly. So Bill Donohue of the Catholic League decided folks should boycott the beer manufacturers. Maybe World Vision didn’t get the message?

The Christian charity flipped its policy to allow the hiring of same-sex-married employees, then flopped right back to barring it amid a storm of criticism. Apparently Blurred Vision had made a “mistake.” The charity’s president, Rich Stearns, told Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “I’ve had better weeks.” Yeah…

Another flip-flopper this month was Stanford. The university denied funding to a traditional marriage conference on campus, then sort of found some money to cover security fees.

No one really knows what’s going on with gay marriage in Michigan, but Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government will recognize those that took place.

Here’s a handy map:

Katrina Lantos SwettThe U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom wants to strengthen religious freedom protections abroad. Domestic issues can be “tricky and sticky,” but USCIRF Vice Chair Katrina Lantos Swett thinks international concerns can be unifying. She’s probably right when it comes to blasphemy laws, which The Economist calls “wrong on so many levels.” Who’s the worst offender on this front? Pakistan.


14 people are on death row (make that 15) and 19 more are serving life sentences on blasphemy convictions in Pakistan. The law’s not their only problem. Vigilantes gunned down a Pakistani man even though a court acquitted him of blasphemy. More than 50 Pakistanis have suffered similar fates in the past few decades, and witnesses in blasphemy-related cases often become the target of death threats.

Ross LaJeunesse

Ross LaJeunesse, Google’s global head of free expression and international relations Photo courtesy Google

What’s the best way to stop blasphemy? Block YouTube, according to some people in Pakistan who apparently hate the Internet and free speech. The video sharing platform has been blocked since the Innocence of Muslims controversy in 2012. Google’s global head of free expression Ross LaJeunesse and I discussed the YouTube ban in Pakistan and what the company is doing to address hate speech, free speech and religious freedom online.

I spent much of March in Burma, where the big news internationally continues to be the persecution of stateless Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. Most local journalists are afraid to cover the crisis. Others only inflame tensions. Human rights icon/politician Aung San Suu Kyi danced right around the issue when pressed at the International Media Conference I attended. Some critics are using the G word: “The building blocks of genocide are there, and the warning signs of mass violence are there,” said United to End Genocide’s president Tom Andrews.

Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi addresses a room of journalists at the International Media Conference in Yangon, Burma on March 9, 2014

Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi addresses a room of journalists at the International Media Conference in Yangon, Burma on March 9, 2014 Photo by Brian Pellot

The Rohingya issue is also complicating the country’s first national census in more than 30 years. “Rohingya” is not listed as an ethnicity on the census, so some are writing it in. Critics suspect the government’s animosity toward Muslims is behind a new interfaith marriage law that would bar Buddhist women from marrying outside their religion and proposed regulations to restrict the number of children Muslims can have.  Islamophobia seems politically trendy in the leadup to elections in 2015.

Burma’s conflicts are spilling over to majority-Muslim Malaysia, where trafficked Rohingya Muslims are being abused and the murder of several Burmese Buddhist exiles has put others on edge.

Malaysia also hit the headlines when it censored a Japanese comic book for “irresponsible use of the word Allah.”

Middle East:

Saudi Arabia allegedly banned a comic too after the country’s grand mufti and his council called it “an evil work that needs to be shunned.” This is just the tip of Saudi’s insanity iceberg. Ahead of President Obama’s visit to the country, I summed up nine of the craziest religious freedom and freedom of expression headlines to emerge from the kingdom this month. My personal favorites are the fatwa on all-you-can-eat buffets and the ban on naming your baby Linda.

Saudi is sadly not the only country where police enforce religious norms.

Egypt is one of them. The country sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood members to death and upheld the five-year prison sentence of a writer who allegedly insulted religion in his work.

Two politicians in Libya face a firing squad for maybe(?) depicting the Prophet Muhammad on their campaign posters. Happier news from Tunisia, where a blogger who shared “insulting” Mo cartoons on Facebook was released early from his seven-year jail sentence.

 Don’t forget that Islam’s ban on prophet portrayal isn’t limited to Muhammad. The new blockbuster “Noah” has been banned in at least Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE for depicting you-know-who.

Guess who’s fighting in Jerusalem? Jews and Muslims, over just how loud the call-to-prayer loudspeakers can be. Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem (and a few thousand in New York) also protested a bill that would require them to serve in the military.


“Christian patrols” have apparently taken to the streets of my neighborhood in London’s East End to counter “Muslim patrols.” I’ve thankfully yet to see either of these bigotry-based groups in the wild, but maybe I just don’t get out enough.

 Also in Britain:

Belgium’s king signed into law a controversial measure allowing chronically ill children to be euthanized.

 Amid all the changes in Crimea, some Catholics fear oppression under Russian rule. So do Muslim Tatars. Because apparently Russia is an equal opportunity oppressor.


Homosexual acts are outlawed in much of Africa, including Nigeria, where four men were whipped after being convicted of gay sex. Boko Haram continues to terrorize the country too, killing more than 30 people in one attack.

On the matrimony front, couples in Christian-Muslim marriages are being targeted with violence in the Central African Republic amid religious strife. Polygamy is now legal in Kenya but polyandry is not, which seems kind of unfair.


If you missed the recent Westminster Faith Debate on government-led global religious freedom agendas, read my brief recap of it here.

If you’re in D.C., be sure to register for our big free event at the Newseum April 9. A panel of journalists and media professionals will discuss the restrictions (#RNSredlines) they face when reporting on religion around the world. Not to be missed.

Also not to be missed is the Religious Freedom Recap, delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up below.


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