First Five Newsletter: January 23, 2020

First Five
Proposed rules and guidance to religion and public schools, arguments that could dramatically alter the line separating church and state and more.

First Five Column

Benjamin Marcus discusses the U.S. Department of Education announcement on a number of proposed rules and guidance related to religion and public schools last week on National Religious Freedom Day. Predictably, headlines focused on what the guidance means for students’ right to pray. Read the column. A plain text version is available here.


The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a case that could dramatically alter the line separating church and state. At issue is a Montana state constitutional amendment that bars direct and indirect taxpayer aid to religious institutions, which led the state to shut down a program that provided tax breaks to donors who funded scholarships that families could use at private schools, including religious ones. If the court finds this amendment to be unconstitutional, states could essentially be required to include religious schools in publicly-funded school choice programs.

Last week, the Trump administration announced it is updating federal guidance for prayer in public schools and other initiatives aimed at protecting religious freedom, which administration officials said are aimed at reducing discrimination against people and groups of faith. The changes include proposing new rules for nine different agencies on social services programs and instructing federal agencies to ensure states do not condition grants of federal funds “in a manner that would disadvantage grant applicants based on their religious character,” according to the White House. 

Writing for City Journal, Judith Miller writes about the potential First Amendment implications of climatologist Michael E. Mann’s lawsuit against the National Review for calling his work fraudulent, observing that, “The magazine has also found defenders among organizations often at odds — including The Washington Post, Time Inc., the Cato Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the ACLU — which warn that suits like Mann’s ‘endanger free debate by threatening to bankrupt publications.””


The Religious Freedom Center hosted a week-long intensive called African Americans and Religious Freedom from Jan. 6 – 10, 2020. The intensive was attended by graduate seminary students from nine theological institutions, who gathered to critically address the contentious politics of race and religious freedom in American public life, with particular attention given to how and in what ways power, violence, identity and pluralism form and frame the discourse of religious freedom across time and space.

Featured presenters included Dr. Teresa Smallwood, Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative at Vanderbilt Divinity School; Dr. Larycia Hawkins, 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 the 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; Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, former Faith Work director for the National LGBTQ Task Force; Danile Rogiers, Black Nonbelievers-D.C.; and a host other national and global experts.


Religious Studies and Mass Incarceration: Tips for Sharing Scholarship with the Public

The Religious Freedom Center will host a webinar on Monday, Feb. 24 at 12 p.m. Eastern 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 at 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.

Re-Claiming Our Liberation: African Americans and Religious Freedom

On Tuesday, Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. Eastern, the Religious Freedom Center’s director of programs and partnerships, Dr. Sabrina E. Dent, along with BJC’s director of education, Charles Watson Jr., will present a workshop titled, “Re-Claiming Our Liberation: African Americans and Religious Freedom” at the 2020 Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference for Clergy and Lay Leaders in Crystal City, Va. The conference theme is “Decade of Destiny: Engaging the Powers.”

What does it mean to be an African American in America? Participants will review and examine key assumptions in the historical founding documents that shaped America’s legal framework for religious freedom. Participants will discuss court cases that have impacted the religious liberty rights of African Americans and religious minorities. Workshop exercises will empower attendees to explore the themes of identity, diversity, pluralism and religious pluralism which influence ideologies about religious identity. Workshop activities will enable participants to reflect on their own processes of religious identity formation before discussing how a holistic engagement of the religious self and others can enrich attempts at inter-religious engagement.

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