First Five Newsletter: December 12, 2019

First Five
Public officials nationalist sentiments of religious holidays, visa applicants to submit social media handles, upcoming events and more.

First Five Column

Benjamin Marcus argues that religious communities should be concerned when public officials, including those in the White House, use religious holidays like Christmas to stoke nationalist sentiments among their Twitter followers. Read the column. A plain text version is available here.


The U.S. State Department is facing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of requiring all visa applicants to submit their social media handles. The suit, filed on behalf of two documentary film organizations, argues that this requirement violates the First Amendment: “Concerned that their political views will be used against them during the visa process, [Plaintiffs’ non-U.S. members and partners] self-censor to avoid being associated with controversial ideas or sensitive topics.” 

The Toledo Blade’s editorial board criticized a new bill, the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019, stating that, “The legislation makes some sensible contributions to religious expression in school, but it largely – and unnecessarily – restates the rights already expressed by courts and laws under the U.S. Constitution while introducing language that can be abused.” The board referred to language that might allow students to be subjected to religious indoctrination from other students, so long as the school isn’t endorsing the message, and asserted that, “The legislation needs to be clear that one student’s right to religious expression does not trump another’s right not to have to listen to it.” 

Facebook has been extensively criticized for its policies surrounding political advertising, with critics particularly taking issue with the “microtargeting” tool, which allows advertisers to target narrow segments of voters with political messages. As The Washington Post reports, “Disinformation experts and researchers say limiting or banning political microtargeting would help slow the spread of falsehoods online by exposing problematic ads – by politicians or political interest groups – to a wider audience, where inaccuracies or outright lies would be more likely to be noticed and exposed.”


On Dec. 3, the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute hosted a conference on Muslim-Jewish relations. Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance (IJMA) members, comprised of 35 leaders of the U.S. Muslim and Jewish communities, gathered with invitees from the Freedom Forum Institute and a German Muslim-Jewish delegation for a public conversation on intercommunal relations between Muslims and Jews and a discussion about coalition building among diverse groups.


Religious Freedom: African American Perspectives Project (Luce-funded)

From Jan. 6 – 10, 2020, the Religious Freedom Center will host its week-long intensive, REL 700: African Americans and Religious Freedom, with 40 students from nine theological institutions. This blended learning course, designed for graduate seminary students, will critically address the contentious politics of race and religious freedom in American public life. Particular attention will be given to the how and in what ways power, violence, identity and pluralism form and frame the discourse of religious freedom across time and space. The course will feature a team of scholars and professional experts actively engaged in addressing these issues in multiple contexts. 

Featured presenters include: Dr.Teresa Smallwood, Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative associate director at Vanderbilt Divinity School; Dr. Larycia Hawkins of the Religion, Race and Democracy Lab at University of Virginia; Melissa Rogers, former special assistant to President Barack Obama and director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; Dr. Eric Williams, curator of religion at Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC); Rahmah Abdulaleem, executive director of KARAMAH: Women Muslim Lawyers for Human Rights; the Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, former Faith Work director for the National LGBTQ Task Force; Danile Rogiers, Black Nonbelievers of D.C.; and a host other national and global experts. 

The week-long intensive will give religious and civic leaders the opportunity to learn about the role of religion in public life while exploring our three areas of competency: legal literacy, religious literacy and civil dialogue. This onsite experience will take place at various locations in Washington, D.C., including Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington National Cathedral, National Museum of African American History and Culture, the BJC, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church and Howard University School of Divinity. 

Religious Freedom: African American Perspectives Project (Luce-funded)

The Religious Freedom Center will host a webinar Monday, Feb. 24 at 12 p.m. Eastern time titled, Religious Studies and Mass Incarceration: Tips for Sharing Scholarship with the Public. We will discuss how scholars of religion can share work on religion and mass incarceration with different publics. We are pleased to host co-presenters Herron Gaston, associate director of admissions at Yale Divinity School; Christophe Ringer, assistant professor of theological ethics and society at Chicago Theological Seminary; Laura McTighe, assistant professor in the department of religion at Florida State University; and Tanya Erzen, associate research professor of religion and gender queer studies at the University of Puget Sound. The webinar will include a presentation and extended Q&A. 

This webinar is hosted by the Public Scholars Project, a joint initiative of the Public Understanding of Religion Committee of the American Academy of Religion and the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. The Public Scholars Project created this webinar series to help scholars hone their skills communicating with a variety of publics. Our webinars feature scholars and practitioners who can provide tools, resources and recommendations for presenting in a variety of settings (e.g., social media, news, public events and community gatherings) about a range of topics. To view the complete webinar schedule for the 2019-20 academic year, please visit our webpage.

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