Thursday, October 27, 2016

New York's Tax Exemptions For Religious Property Are Growing

The Lower Hudson Journal News this week is running a series on New York's tax exemption policy. An overview of the series reports in part:
Statewide: Thirty-one percent of New York's land value is tax exempt. Of its $2.8 trillion in land value, about $866 billion of it never gets billed.
Religious groups: The value of religious groups' land bypassed for taxation has nearly doubled from $14 billion to $26 billion between 1999 and 2015. Rochester (568 properties worth $141 million) and Ramapo (523 properties worth $265 million) are among the top five communities with the highest number of tax-exempt religious nonprofit properties in the state.
Yesterday's installment titled New York religious property tax breaks soar heavenward reports in greater detail on the increased amount of property receiving tax exemptions because of use by non-profit religious institutions.

Discovery Demand For Pastor's Sermons Generates Controversy

As previously reported, last April Eric Walsh, a doctor and public health expert, filed a religious discrimination suit against the Georgia Department of Public Health alleging that his termination shortly after he was hired was based on the content of sermons he had given as a Seventh Day Adventist lay minister. Now the Georgia Department of Public Health's discovery requests (full text) in the case have generated a new religious freedom controversy. Among the 22 categories of documents that plaintiff was requested to produce was:
Please produce a copy of your sermon notes and/or transcripts.
According to a First Liberty press release yesterday, Walsh will not turn over his sermons unless he is forced to do so, saying that no government has the right to require a pastor to turn over his sermons. Other advocacy groups have reacted in even stronger terms.  For example, Concerned Women for America captioned its press release "Georgia 'Gestapo' Combing Through Pastor's Sermons."

New Survey Findings On Religion and American Culture and Politics

The Public Religion Research Institute this week released its findings from the 2016 American Values Survey in a 48-page report titled The Divide Over America's Future: 1950 or 2050?. While the report is wide-ranging, portions dealt with religion and American culture and politics.Here are some excerpts from the report's Executive Summary:
Americans are divided about whether American culture and way of life have changed for worse (51%) or better (48%) since the 1950s.....
No group has a dimmer view of American cultural change than white evangelical Protestants: nearly three-quarters (74%) say American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s....
In 2016, Americans’ social networks are strongly segregated by party loyalties.... There is also evidence that American churches are highly segregated by party. More than eight in ten (83%) Trump supporters who attend religious services at least weekly estimate that most of their fellow church members are supporting Trump. Similarly, more than three-quarters (78%) of Clinton supporters who attend religious services at least weekly estimate that most of their fellow church members are supporting Clinton.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Candidate's Religious Views Become Issue In Montana Supreme Court Race

The conservative Christian religious beliefs of one of the candidates for Justice of the Montana Supreme Court-- attorney and law professor Kristen Juras-- has become a campaign issue. In endorsing her opponent Dirk Sandefur, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle last week said in part:
In an email sent to a colleague at the UM she stated, “After lots of prayer I decided to run…I think there are going to be a lot of cases affecting religious freedom that arise over the next several years, and I’d like to be part of the decision-making body that will be addressing those issues.”
Juras was quoted earlier this year by the Montana Christian Journal: “It is important to elect justices who respect all of our fundamental rights, including the free exercise of religion, and who have not pre-determined that one right should outweigh another.”
Just like [Republican nominee for Montana governor] Greg Gianforte, Juras uses “religious freedom” as a dog whistle in attempts to deny civil rights to the LGBTQ community. Juras’ bias and lack of experience make her unfit for the Supreme Court. Dirk Sandefur is hard-working, fair, and the only qualified candidate.
The Missoulian also raises questions about the impact of Juras' religious views.

Complaint Filed Against Catholic Hospitals Over Refusal To Perform Sterilizations

The ACLU announced yesterday that it has filed an Administrative Complaint (full text) with the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights against Ascension Health challenging its reliance on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. Specifically the complaint contends that the refusal by a Michigan hospital to perform sterilization (tubal ligation) during childbirth amounts to pregnancy-related discrimination. The Affordable Care Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any health care program or activity receiving federal funds. An ACLU press release announced the filing of the complaint.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Suit Challenges Utah's "Anti-Gay School Laws"

Suit was filed in Utah federal district court last week challenging Utah's so-called "Anti-Gay School Laws." As summarized in a press release from the National Center for Lesbian Rights:
The lawsuit challenges several Utah laws and regulations that prevent positive portrayals of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in curricula, classroom discussions, and student clubs. The lawsuit claims that these discriminatory restrictions create a negative environment for LGBT students, perpetuate discrimination and bullying, and contribute to the high rates of anti-LGBT harassment in Utah schools. For instance, one plaintiff experienced severe physical and verbal harassment from other students in his kindergarten class based on his gender non-conformity. When his parents complained to school leaders about the harassment, they were told that the school district could not protect their son because of these discriminatory school laws.
The complaint (full text) in Equality Utah v. Utah State Board of Education,(D UT, filed 10/21/2016), contends that the statutes and regulations being challenged violate the 1st and 14th Amendments, as well as Title IX and the Equal Access Act.

Settlements Revealed In Abuse Cases Against Jewish School

A suit filed last week in state court in New York reveals information about the previously secret settlements by an Orthodox Jewish school in two cases of sexual abuse dating back to the 1970's. The Gothamist and the New York Post report that the settlements totaling $2.1 million were reached in 2014 with two plaintiffs who were abused as young boys by Rabbi Joel "Yehuda" Kolko who was kept on for 25 years as a teacher at Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Brooklyn. The settlements came to light when the victims now filed suit for $1 million of the promised settlements that have not been paid. It has been alleged that Rabbi Kolko had abused numerous other students, though an internal investigation by the school rejected the claims. In 2012 in a plea agreement, Kolko pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of child endangerment.

Northern Ireland Appeals Court Upholds Anti-Gay Discrimination Finding Against Bakery

In a widely watched case, the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland yesterday upheld the finding of a trial judge that a bakery had illegally discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation in the  provision of goods and services to the public when it refused an order for a cake for a private event marking the end of 'Northern Ireland Anti-homophobic Week' and the political momentum towards same-sex marriage legislation.  The cake was to feature a picture of 'Bert and Ernie' (the logo for QueerSpace) with the caption, "Support Gay Marriage."  In Lee v. McArthur, (NI CA, Oct. 24, 2016), the 3-judge panel rejected the religious freedom and compelled speech defenses advanced by Ashers Bakery.  The court rejected the notion that the cake forced the bakery to express approval for same-sex marriage, saying in part:
The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either.
The court rejected broadly defendants' religious discrimination arguments, saying:
Anyone who applies a religious aspect or a political aspect to the provision of services may be caught by equality legislation, not because the legislation treats their religious belief or political opinion less favourably but because that person seeks to distinguish, on a basis that is prohibited, between those who will receive their service and those who will not....  In the present case the appellants might elect not to provide a service that involves any religious or political message. What they may not do is provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious belief in relation to sexual orientation.
The Guardian, reporting on the decision, says that the decision will be appealed to the UK's Supreme Court.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Recent Articles of Interest

From SSRN:
From SmartCILP and elsewhere:

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In Peele v. Klemm, (3d Cir., Oct. 17, 2016), the 3rd Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a Muslim inmate's complaint that a Department of Corrections policy restricts rights to attend Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr feasts. Inmates were required to pay for the feast and had to participate in all of Ramadan.

In Wilkins v. Lemon, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143491 (ND IN, Oct. 17, 2016), an Indiana federal district court allowed a Muslim inmate to move ahead on claims for damages and injunctive relief for being denied halal meat, prayer oils and festive foods for the Eids.

In Biggins v. Coupe, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143696 (D DE, Oct. 14, 2016), a Delaware federal district court held that an inmate's in forma pauperis free exercise claim is barred by the 3-strike rule even though it was brought as a mandamus action.

In Abreu v. Travers, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 145171 (ND NY, Oct. 20, 2016), a New York federal district court held because plaintiff failed to identify his religion, it could not determine if the denial of one kosher meal placed a substantial burden on his religious beliefs.

In Wallace v. Olivarria, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146380 (SD CA, Oct. 21, 2016), a California federal district court dismissed an inmate's complaint that his religious practice was burdened by changing his schedule for his prison job.

"Blessing" Scam Leads To Hate Crime Charges

Last week, the Kings County (Brooklyn), New York district attorney announced that a 44-year-old woman has been indicted on charges of grand larceny as a hate crime for taking $160,000 in cash and jewelry from two Chinese women in separate incidents involving the same type of scam. The victims were told that they or family members would die because of a curse that could only be removed by gathering large sums of cash and jewels to be blessed. The victims were told to place the cash and jewels in a bag for the blessing.  When the victims later opened the bag, they found the cash and jewels gone. According to NBC News, the hate crime charges were based on the theory that the victims were targeted because of their Chinese ethnicity and because of their religious spiritual beliefs.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Judgment For Return of Pastor's Salary Is Not Dischargeable in Bankruptcy

In In re Andrews, 2016 Bankr. LEXIS 3786 (SD MI Bankr., Oct 20, 2016), a Mississippi federal bankruptcy judge held that amounts the former pastor of a break-away church owed to the parent body of the denomination are not dischargeable in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceeding.  Robert Andrews was the long-time pastor of Cross Point Church, a church under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Mississippi Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church.  While pastors are paid by local congregations, they are appointed and removed by the parent Conference. Andrews and the Board  of Cross Point Church voted to break away from its parent Conference. The district president of the Conference in response removed Andrews as Cross Point's pastor. The Board of Cross Point nevertheless entered a one-year employment contract with Andrews, including a provision that if the Conference removed Andrews, the pastor would be entitled to his full year's salary.

When the Conference then voted to reject Cross Point's attempted withdrawal, Cross Point's treasurer gave Andrews a check for his remaining yearly salary of $69,505. Andrews and his backers on the Board also locked the church building, took the keys and church records with them and formed a new congregation. In a suit by the remaining members of Cross Point, a state court issued a preliminary injunction requiring Andrews and his backers to return the keys and records. In a subsequent jury trial, the state court awarded Cross Point a judgment of $69,505 against Andrews, finding that Andrews had converted funds belonging to the Church. When Cross Point attempted to garnish Andrew's checking account to recover the funds, Andrews filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection.

Cross Point claimed that the debt owed to it is not dischargeable.  The bankruptcy court agreed.  It first held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine precludes it from revisiting the question of Andrews' removal as pastor of Cross Point. It held that under Sec. 523(a)(4) of the Bankruptcy Code, the debt is not dischargeable because it involved "defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity" and "embezzlement."  The court said in part:
Andrews admitted at Trial that as pastor, officer, and Board member, he owed a fiduciary duty to Cross Point Church to safeguard its funds.

Lawsuit Claims Kars4Kids Is Using Shell Synagogue To Hide Financial Dealings

Last week, an Orthodox synagogue, Young Israel of Eltingville, filed suit in a New York state trial court against the charity Kars4Kids alleging that the charity is improperly attempting to take over the synagogue located on Staten Island and use it to avoid filings with the Internal Revenue Service. The Forward, PixIIThe Gothamist and an earlier New York Post article all report on the lawsuit and its background. In 2007, a former president of the synagogue-- attempting to save it from financial collapse-- entered an arrangement with Oorah, Inc., an Orthodox Jewish charity affiliated with Kars4Kids.  Oorah's name was placed on the deed to the synagogue in exchange for $250,000 and upgrades to the building. Young Israel says that the arrangement was for it to continue to used the sanctuary for worship, while Oorah would use the rest of the building for a preschool and adult classes.  An earlier dispute over whether Young Israel owes Oorah for some of the renovations is in state court after a religious court awarded Oorah $1 million.

In 2008, Rabbi Eliyahu Mintz, president of Oorah and Kars4Kids, incorporated Congregation Oorah and listed its place of worship as the Young Israel synagogue, even though Congregation Oorah apparently conducts no religious services.  In last week's lawsuit, Young Israel alleges that all of this was undertaken to create an entity that is exempt from filing Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service. This, it is alleged, would allow Kars4Kids, which has a history of questionable financial dealings, to use Congregation Oorah to hide its activities.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Vatican Close To Agreement With China On Appointment of Bishops

Reuters reports today that the Vatican and the government of China are close to reaching an agreement on ordination of bishops. This would end a 60-year dispute over the authority of the Vatican in which the Chinese Communist Party has appointed bishops who often are not recognized by Rome while an underground Catholic Church continues to be loyal to the Vatican.  The Vatican may be set to recognize 4 of the 8 disputed bishops appointed by China. Of the other 4, two have children or girlfriends, and two head dioceses where there is a competing Vatican-appointed bishop. Pope Francis has made the negotiations with China a priority.  The agreement under discussion would allow local clergy to choose bishops, with the Pope making the final appointment and having a veto over the choices.  A large number of vacancies currently exist in dioceses in China.  The Vatican hopes that an agreement will also lead China to recognize the 30 bishops who currently refuse to be part of the government's Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. [Thanks to Scott Mange for the lead.]

Defrauded Church's Conversion Claim Against Bank Is Dismissed

In Mt. Hope Universal Baptist Church, Inc. v. Bowen, (NY Kings Cty. Sup. Ct., Oct. 14, 2016), a New York state trial court dismissed a conversion claim brought by a church that was defrauded out of the proceeds of a life insurance policy.  In 1976, Rosetta Goodridge was the founding member of Mt. Hope Baptist Church.  She died in 2009, leaving a life insurance policy that named the church as beneficiary.  Goodridge's daughters and granddaughters fraudulently opened a bank account at Citibank in the name of Mt. Hope.  They then filed a claim with the insurance company and received the proceeds of the policy.  Among other claims, the church sued Citibank for conversion.  The court dismissed the action, holding that because Mt. Hope never had actual or constructive possession of the check, it had no cause of action for conversion. The court also held that the insurance company does not have a valid claim against Citibank for contribution.

Court Clarifies and Refuses To Narrow Injunction Against Federal Transgender Guidelines

As previously reported, in August a Texas federal district court issued a nationwide preliminary injunction preventing the federal government, particularly the Department of Education, from enforcing Guidelines issued earlier this year interpreting Title IX as barring discrimination by schools on the basis of gender identity. Now in State of Texas v. United States, (ND TX, Oct. 18, 2016), the court issued an opinion responding to a request for clarification and narrowing of the injunction.  The court refused to limit the injunction to the 13 states that are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, saying:
A nationwide injunction is necessary because the alleged violation extends nationwide.
The court also clarified that the injunction does not impact the EEOC's functions or activities other than preventing it from using the challenged Guidelines to argue that the definition of  "sex" as it relates to intimate facilities includes gender identity. The court ordered additional briefing by the parties on whether the Guidelines are enjoined in total or whether the principle of severability applies to them; whether the injunction impacts Title VII investigations when teachers or staff and students use the same bathrooms; and whether the injunction applies to activities of OSHA or the Department of Labor.  Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a press release on the decision.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

New Polling Results On Candidate Morality and Religion

PRRI yesterday released polling results on voters reactions to immoral conduct by political candidates and to the importance of candidates' religious beliefs. It reports:
Across the political spectrum, Americans today are less likely to believe personal transgressions prevent public officials from performing their duties well. Seven in ten (70%) Republicans and more than six in ten Democrats (61%) and independents (63%) say public officials can behave ethically in their professional roles even if they acted immorally in their personal life. Notably, in 2011 only 36% of Republicans agreed, compared to nearly half of Democrats (49%) and independents (46%)....
Fewer Americans today say it is important that the candidate they are supporting for president has strong religious beliefs. Currently, a majority of the public says it is either very (29%) or somewhat (29%) important that a candidate has strong religious beliefs. Four in ten (40%) Americans say this is not too important or not at all important to them in making their voting decision. In 2011, nearly two-thirds (66%) of the public said it was important to them that the candidate they were supporting has strong religious beliefs, including 39% who said it was very important....
Among every religious group fewer say that having strong religious beliefs is a priority in a candidate for president, but white evangelical Protestants have shifted their views more than any other group. Today fewer than half (49%) of white evangelical Protestants say it is very important that a candidate have strong religious beliefs, while nearly two-thirds (64%) expressed this view in 2011. Today, roughly one-third (34%) of Catholics and one in five (20%) white mainline Protestants say strong religious beliefs are very important in a candidate. In 2011, four in ten (40%) Catholics and nearly three in ten (29%) white mainline Protestants said this quality was very important in a candidate for president. Even religiously unaffiliated Americans are less likely to say that strong religious beliefs are very important today than in 2011 (7% vs. 16%, respectively).

Apartment Owner Sued Over Rental Discrimination Against Muslims

The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights yesterday announced the filing of a lawsuit in state court charging the owner of an apartment building with discriminatory refusal to rent to Muslims. The complaint (full text) in Porrino v. Greda, (NJ Super., filed 10/19/2016), details the Division's use of testers after receiving a complaint from a Muslim woman.