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Who Will Meet You At The Bus Stop?

The Becket Fund for religious liberty

A Message from the Executive Director
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dear Friends,

On Saturdays, after my noon Zumba class, I usually go to the military grocery store to shop for the week’s meals. My very proper mother would cringe if she knew that I go “as is,” in my gym clothes and sneakers, sporting my best crazy-post-workout hair. Luckily, even though there are many military families where I live, I normally run in and out without bumping into anyone I know.

However, last Saturday I ran into a fellow military mom I know from Boy Scout activities. When I saw her, I greeted her with an embarrassed smile and a shrug: “I just came out of Zumba.” There we stood in aisle 5, by the granola bars and microwave popcorn, and without any warning, she broke down and told me that her oldest son, only 19, had fallen into alcoholism and drugs and had been arrested for underage drinking. The lawyer bill was $4,000 so far. As a military family, this is not something they could really afford, she explained. The financial pressures only exacerbated her grief at watching her oldest son potentially ruin his entire life.

No one thinks when they hold their newborn for the first time that ahead of them may lie bad friendships, alcoholism and drugs. No teen wakes up and decides to become addicted to “smoking weed,” to get arrested or go to prison.

So what happens after such a mistake? What happens when someone serves their sentence and leaves prison? In most places, you are on your own. You step out into your old life and your old digs and friends with no support. Worse, you now have a huge blot on your record, making employers think twice before giving you a job. Chances are—many statistical studies tell us—that you will end up back in prison. And those chances go up if you have a substance abuse problem.

But, in a few cities in Florida, if you ask for help, Becket clients—the kind people of Lamb of God Recovery Center and Prisoners of Christ—will meet you at the bus stop when you are released from prison. With a smile, they will welcome you to a transitional home where you can participate in addiction programs, get 3 square meals a day, and avail yourself of opportunities such as finishing high school, taking your GED, and getting an ID or a driver’s license. Before you head into permanent housing, they will assist you in getting food stamps, as well as learning how to groom and dress yourself so you can get a job. In short, you are given a whole new chance to start again. If you are interested in attending a religious service, you are welcome. If you are not interested, that is perfectly fine. You will be helped unconditionally.

And you will be helped. The average recidivism rate nationwide is about 70%. But if you go through the program provided at places like Lamb of God Recovery Centers, your chances of going back to prison plummet to 24%. What makes that doubly impressive is that you’re not a run-of-the-mill offender with a 70% recidivism rate. You’re a drug-addicted offender, which means that you’re mired in a cycle of drug abuse and criminal behavior. That the program works so well is almost miraculous.

You’d guess everyone would be for this kind of program. It’s effective. It is good for the individual and it is good for the state. It saves money and it saves lives. However, for over 8 years, in addition to helping formerly incarcerated, drug-addicted individuals, these two recovery centers have had to fight in court. They were sued by a DC-based atheist group that claims that the meager $20 per day (or less) they receive from the state of Florida to assist the prisoners is in violation of state law—even though every dime of that money goes to things like providing food, shelter, and transportation. It’s not even enough to cover those costs, meaning that the recovery centers have to rely on donations and other support to put food on the table and a roof over the program participants’ heads.

By the way, let me be very clear: the atheist group is not affected in any way by either one of these two recovery centers. They do not compete for the state funding. They do not have members going through the recovery centers. They’ve never seen the recovery centers. They don’t care that the centers are effective, or that offenders are choosing to go there and free to leave. And they are neither willing to provide these services nor are they interested in coming up with alternatives.

Instead, these atheist activists demand these two recovery centers stop receiving any state funding even though not a penny of the state funding goes to any religious instruction or services. The recovery centers were inspired by religious people who feel called to help prisoners transition back into society. The centers’ source of inspiration alone is offensive enough to the activist atheists to warrant a lawsuit.

This is absurd.

Nothing in our Constitution prohibits private/public partnerships between the government and religious contractors. The White House itself has an office called “Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives” that fosters and supports cooperation between faith-based organizations and the government. And federal law has long prohibited governmental discrimination against religious people just because of their religious identity and inspiration.

Allowing this atheist group to crush two transitional houses because they are, by nature, religiously inspired is bad for our democracy.

Religiously-inspired soup kitchens, homeless shelters, drug addiction programs and many other ministries have a vital role in society. If we look back on our history, many of the great movements for social justice—the abolitionist movement, the workers’ rights movement, the civil rights movement—were all inspired by religious individuals.

As Justice Elena Kagan recently explained in a concurrent Supreme Court opinion: religious groups provide a “critical buffer” against the power of government, and religious autonomy “has often served as a shield against oppressive civil laws.”

All of that is threatened in Florida by the activist atheists’ lawsuit. As came up at oral argument, the same rationale that would ban the recovery centers from partnering with Florida to help drug-addicted former offenders would also threaten the many religious hospitals in Florida that partner with the state to take care of the poor and elderly.

Last week, our own Daniel Blomberg went to oral argument on behalf of our clients in Florida. We filed a brief explaining to the court how the centers provide their services at a loss, the rates of recidivism, and the kind of services our clients provide.

We will continue to defend organizations such as Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God so that underserved Americans can avail themselves of the assistance provided by religiously-inspired ministries rather than have to depend only on government-run programs. Just as importantly, we will continue to defend the religious liberty guaranteed by our Constitution so that civil society continues to grow and thrive.

Kristina Arriaga
Executive Director

City Government Threatens African-American Church With Fines of $500 Per Day For Singing Gospel Music

A Message from the Executive Director
Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Dear Friends,

On my way to our offices in Washington, D.C., I drive by the magnificent memorial to Reverend Martin Luther King and by the reflecting pool that witnessed his famous speech, I Have a Dream.

I often shudder to think about the life of African Americans in a Jim Crow era. And even worse, only one hundred years before I was born, in the 1860s, there were millions of African slaves in the United States suffering untold indignities and inhumane conditions.

Many who were pro-slavery argued that these slaves were not fully human and justified their actions by stripping them of their dignity. In the process of trying to persuade Americans that slaves were indeed human, some committed abolitionists traveled south where they—among many other things—witnessed and transcribed African spirituals.

These spirituals often contained heartbreaking lyrics about slaves’ lives, God, and redemption. Sometimes, it is speculated, they contained secret messages of hope or escape. These spirituals later inspired Gospel Music.

We all know so many of these traditional hymns: We Shall Overcome (made famous in the 1960s), Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Oh Happy Day. Even the famous Amazing Grace (which I would like someone to sing at my funeral, many years from now) was written by a reformed slave owner who was likely inspired by the rhythms and music he heard.

If you are reading this and humming one of these songs right now, you know how these songs express a deep, sorrowful and spiritual message that goes to the core of one’s soul and humanity.

Nowadays, in the name of history and justice and freedom, it is only natural that these songs are often accompanied by instruments and sung loudly. It’s only fitting.

However, government bureaucrats in Oakland, California, have threatened to censor and fine this type of singing because it is too loud.

According to several news reports breaking last week, the pastor of a small historic black church in Oakland received a letter from the city manager’s office saying the “excessive noise” of an “organ & drums and amplified vocals” during the church’s weekly choir rehearsals “violat[es] Oakland’s Noise Ordinance” and “may constitute a public nuisance.”

For the last 65 years, this small African American church has been serving its neighbors. The church has a gospel choir, which holds its weekly practice on Wednesdays from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM.

The city of Oakland is threatening to impose $500-a-day fines after a single neighbor complained that the singing of the church choir was unbearable. Unless the church “abate[s]” its worship, the city warns, it can choose to initiate a “case against [the church’s] property” and the church “will be” subject to heavy fines.

Really? Does the city government have nothing better to do than to go after a black church for—of all things—singing too loudly?

And since when does city government go out of its way for a single citizen’s complaint, particularly against a 65-year-strong mainstay of the local community, and when no one else in the community has ever complained about the choir?

Note, too, that the city is employing the kinds of tactics we typically see from bureaucrats at the IRS: threaten heavy fines unless private citizens meets some vague censorship standard, which has the intended effect of making the conflict-averse citizens heavily censor themselves just to make sure they’re not crossing the bureaucrats’ hazy line. So what Oakland is doing is both a case of potential discrimination and actual intimidation.

This kind of overzealous, heavy-handed government action is why we need religious liberty laws that protect the special place that religious expression has in our culture—particularly for minorities.

You may ask yourself: Why the complaints and why now? Well, according to the church, it seems like the church’s neighborhood is getting redeveloped, and its new neighbors, while interested in living there, maybe look down on the original dwellers and the culture that’s been in place for decades.

The city government, instead of protecting the church—as it is required to do by federal law—is playing right along, allowing the interlopers to have their way and using the threat of fines against the church.

Regrettably, at Becket we have seen this all too often—tax-hungry cities trying to shove aside churches and using government power and threats of lawsuits to scare them into submission to the Government.

We have many examples (indeed, Congress passed a powerful federal law because of widespread discrimination against houses of worship), but you may remember the Elijah Group, a Christian community in Texas in a newly established retail corridor. Not too long ago, the congregation was not allowed to worship on Sundays—in their own church—even though the city allowed all the other businesses—theaters, auditoriums and private clubs—to conduct business on Sundays. We won that case for them, and the court ruled that the church could not be treated differently than the other businesses that were allowed to operate on Sunday.

I cannot carry a tune to save my life—something that embarrasses my children when I sing in church or in the car. But I hope you will join me in singing—as loud as possible—with the gospel choir in Oakland! I am going into iTunes right now to download some good old Gospel Music.

Meanwhile, we have filed a Public Record Act request to find out exactly what is motivating the city government and are ready to step in to defend the church, the choir, the Gospel Music, and the special place that religious expression occupies in this great country of ours.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Documentary Begins Airing Across The Country

Dear Brother Knights,

We are proud to announce that a new Knights of Columbus produced documentary film on Our Lady of Guadalupe begins airing across the country this Sunday on ABC affiliated stations. Narrated by actor Jim Caviezel, Guadalupe: The Miracle and the Message paints a comprehensive and inspiring picture of the history, facts, legacy and continued relevance of Our Lady of Guadalupe throughout the western hemisphere and beyond. The airings are presented as part of ABC’s Visions and Values Series and have a broadcast window from Oct. 11 to Dec. 10.

Over the course of four days in December 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous convert named Juan Diego. Most experts and historians affirm that more than any other, this event, and the image miraculously imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak), has resulted in the mass conversion of millions of Native Americans to the Catholic faith. The message of Our Lady of Guadalupe helped to build bridges between the two worlds and began the transformation of our continent. Her appearance compelled people and cultures to unite under her mantle of compassion and charity in a way that didn’t exist before. Through her intercession, then and now, Americans have found a deep sense of common faith, hope and identity.

Guadalupe: The Miracle and the Message brings this remarkable history to life through modern reenactments, 3D animations of the mysterious image which allow viewers an unprecedented glimpse into the intricacies of the centuries-old wonder and interviews with leading theologians, historians and experts on the scientific inquiries into the story. The film delves into the inexplicable existence of the image on Juan Diego’s tilma, the mystery found in her eyes and unveils breaking new anthropological insights into the symbols that spoke directly to the hearts of the indigenous people.

For more information about the film, including broadcast times and the DVD release, visit www.guadalupethefilm.com or follow the hashtag #guadalupethefilm.

What Really Happened When the Pope Francis Unexpectedly Visited the Little Sisters

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

A Message from the Executive Director
Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Dear Friends,

When defenders of the Government’s scheme say that the Little Sisters are just obstinately objecting to a “piece of paper,” they’re either ignorant or lying. As one judge explained, “the form matters and plays a role in this scheme. After all, if the form were meaningless, why would the Government require it?”

It’s as simple as this: the Sisters have a health insurance plan that they built and maintain to provide conscience-compliant health care for their employees. The Government wants to hijack that plan to distribute drugs that the Sisters find inherently immoral.

It does not take a theologian or a lawyer to understand why this order of Catholic nuns believes participating in this scheme would make them complicit in wrongdoing.

What is inexplicable, though, is why the Government did not create some other way to distribute these drugs while it was creating the insurance exchanges. Or why the Government insists on imposing this scheme on the Sisters while exempting millions of Americans who have no moral objection to it.

“Who is exempt?” you may ask. All churches are exempt (and any organization controlled by a church.) Churches don’t have to do anything. They don’t have to cover contraception. They don’t have to make a deal with their insurer. They don’t have to notify the Government. They don’t have to sign any piece of paper. They’re just completely exempt. End of story.

Why are the Sisters not exempt? Because the Government does not consider what the Sisters do religious enough to merit an exemption. So, under the pressure of a lawsuit and public outrage, the Government created a scheme and called it an “accommodation.” There is no truth in labeling here. The Government is not accommodating the Sisters; it is adding one more layer of bureaucracy and paperwork to a regulation that still forces the Sisters to violate their faith.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court hasn’t been misled by the Government’s bureaucratic game. That is why the first time the Sisters went to the Court for temporary protection, the Court granted it. Unfortunately, because the Government continues to push to remove that protection from the Sisters, we have filed a cert petition to the Supreme Court to consider the Sisters’ case in full.

We should hear back from the Supreme Court this fall.

While we wait for the Supreme Court, several things have happened that have given the Sisters a spiritual boost and have confirmed that many other members of the judiciary understand what is truly at stake and agree with the Sisters.

First, for the spiritual boost: while in DC, the Pope unexpectedly visited the Sisters. (Can you imagine that call?! “The Pope is on his way. He wants to talk to you.”) After the Pope’s visit, the Vatican spokesperson stated that the visit was a “sign of support for” the Sisters in their legal fight. It was very fun to watch the Sisters’ reaction. I am putting the CNN video below so you can see their happy faces. Well worth the 2 minutes!

Second, the judicial boost: the Pope’s visit took place shortly after five federal judges in the Tenth Circuit decried the ruling against the Sisters as “dangerous” and “contrary to all precedent concerning the free exercise of religion.”

And just last week, three more federal judges weighed in to round out the choir of 18 judges that are exposing the inherent flaws of the Government’s scheme. (In order to make sure all those who follow this closely have a very clear understanding of what is going on, we created this infographic with a link to each of the opinions.)

These most recent judges explained that other courts have committed “grave error” in accepting the Government’s arguments, which boil down to little more than “simply disagree[ing] with the [ministries’] view of what Christian theology demands.” The judges ended with the poignant reminder that “[l]iberty of conscience” was the “foundation” for the “First Amendment’s religion clauses.”

It is a powerful dissent, but this is my favorite part: “Conscience is the essence of a moral person’s identity. Thomas More went to the scaffold rather than sign a little paper for the King.”

As explained above, the Little Sisters’ objections are about far more than a piece of paper. But, as More’s example shows, even if that’s all this case was about, that’s more than enough. The Government shouldn’t force sincere believers to violate their faith, especially when it doesn’t have to do so. Which is one of the reasons why this case is so important: If the Government can gratuitously crush the Little Sisters’ right to follow their faith, none of us are secure in any of our rights.

The fate of the Little Sisters is the fate of all Americans who want to live according to their faith. Thanks for your support for our work on behalf of the Little Sisters.

Kristina Arriaga
Executive Director