Law and Secularism – The Week in Review

Religious Freedoms

The Kentucky legislature overwhelmingly voted Tuesday night to override the governor’s veto of HB 279, a controversial “religious freedom” bill. The one paragraph bill states:

Government shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A “burden” shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.

The governor’s statement upon vetoing the bill:

I am vetoing this bill because, as written, the measure is itself vague, and thereby creates impermissible uncertainty for businesses, individuals and government agencies as to the boundaries of existing laws. House Bill 279 attempts to strengthen existing constitutional protections for religious expression. However, the use of overly broad and vague terminology would render compliance with and enforcement of the law difficult, and would undoubtedly lead to considerable litigation. As written, the measure calls into question the scope and efficacy of many laws regarding public health and safety as well as individual civil rights. Citizens are constitutionally entitled to clarity in the law. Our businesses, our local governments, our citizens and our religious organizations should not be burdened with the potential consequences associated with this well intended but ultimately flawed legislation.

This legislation will protect parents who withhold lifesaving medical treatment from children for religious reasons, will allow religious beliefs to justify child or spousal abuse, and will allow discrimination against gay and lesbian people. Gay-rights and human-rights groups led the opposition to the bill, warning that it could be used to challenge local laws in Louisville, Lexington, Covington and Vicco designed to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.


In a remarkable show of applying the law impartially, an Egyptian court has sentenced a Muslim to death for killing Coptic Christians and generally wreaking havoc on their property. The crime was religiously motivated. Copts make up about ten percent of Egypt’s population.


A family in the Boston, Massachusetts area, with the help of the American Humanist Association and other plaintiffs, has sued to remove the words “under God”  from the Pledge of Allegiance public schoolchildren in the state must recite every day. Instead of attacking the pledge on grounds of separation of church and state, the plaintiffs in John Doe vs. Acton-Boxboro Regional School District claim that the words “under God” violate the equal rights amendment in the Massachusetts Constitution. The school says that no student had ever been punished or intimidated for refusing to say the pledge. The petitioners lost in the Superior Court, and have now appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Supreme Judicial Court has issued a call for amicus briefs.


Last Thursday, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed HB 638, which requires public schools to develop policies allowing students to pray over school intercoms, at assemblies, and at sporting events. Dave Silverman is not happy, and we like him for that. “This is an overt act of hostility against minority religious beliefs and atheists, disguised as religious freedom,” said Silverman, President of American Atheists. As American Atheists pointed out in their press releaseon the issue, students and faculty have always had the right to pray privately. Demanding that schools develop these policies is a clear attempt to force prayer into public environments where students are required to be present.

Reproductive Rights

Making good on its threat, North Dakota has indeed surpassed Arkansas as the worst place in America to live if one happens to be a female capable of reproducing. Tuesday morning, bright and early, Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the fetal heartbeat bill into law. Dalrymple acknowledged that the law might not be constitutional, but with the stroke of his pen he banned abortions after about 6 weeks of pregnancy. If a fetal heartbeat can be detected, the fetus must be carried to term or until natural miscarriage, despite genetic abnormalities, except when the mother’s life or health would be seriously impaired. There is no exception for rape or incest. North Dakota is also working on a personhood bill that would effectively outlaw all abortions since the zygote, embryo and fetus would have all the rights of a living, breathing person.

The Supreme Court has consistently held that states cannot ban abortions before the fetus is viable – meaning (despite Arkansas’ definition of viability as the moment sperm hits egg) that until the fetus can survive birth and live outside the womb. Virginia’s governor doesn’t want anyone getting insurance coverage for abortions, no matter how medically necessary they may be because of genetic anomalies or serious birth defects. He proposed the following amendment to HB 1900, which is the same as SB 921:

No qualified health insurance plan that is sold or offered for sale through an exchange established or operating in the Commonwealth shall provide coverage for abortions, regardless of whether such coverage is provided through the plan or is offered as a separate optional rider thereto, provided that such limitation shall not apply to an abortion performed (i) when the life of the mother is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself, or (ii) when the pregnancy is the result of an alleged act of rape or incest.

Virginia’s attorney general agrees, and has said that the fight against abortion is tantamount to the fight against slavery. Women forced to compromise their physical and mental health in order to accommodate an unwanted pregnancy, or whose bodies are shackled to a nonviable fetus who will never survive, presumably see the comparison a bit differently.

Kansas is afraid of being outdone by North Dakota and Arkansas, so is working on the passage of HB 2253, a huge bill that would define personhood as starting with conception, tax abortion services, disseminate anti-abortion literature to women seeking abortions, exclude exemptions for rape or incest, and prohibit most sex education in public schools. If this bill passes, Kansas can expect a burgeoning population under the poverty line, increased demand on social services, an increased need for foster care facilities, etc.

Georgia’s Senate has done effectively the same thing, by adding, “No health insurance plan shall offer coverage for abortion services unless needed due to the mother’s medical necessity or to preserve mother’s life” to HB 246. These laws, already in effect in 21 other states, discriminate against poor women, who can’t afford to travel out of state for the procedures and who can’t afford to pay for them out of pocket.

The state of  Washington, consistently more progressive than most of the rest of the country, proposes to do just the opposite in its Reproduction Parity Act: make abortion coverage mandatory in maternity insurance.

Utah has a new law that requires reports of all abortions. Utah won’t collect only demographic information about the mother the be reported, but also the woman’s reason for the abortion. The motive for gathering the information has been questioned.

Texas is targeting clinics that offer abortion services. Senate Bill 537 would require all such facilities to have the minimum standards applicable to outpatient surgical centers. If the bill becomes law, 37 of the state’s 42 abortion providers would have to stop offering abortion services.

Same-Sex Marriage

In the U.S. Supreme Court

Rallies on both days of the oral arguments elicited speeches and press releases from a number of secularist organizations. The Center for Inquiry announced that it had joined with other secularist and humanist organizations to file amicus briefs in both cases.

Anyone wanting more background on the cases from a historical perspective might be interested in a report released last week by the People For the American Way Foundation. The report, Equal Protection or ‘Social Tradition:’ The Supreme Court’s Test in the Marriage Cases, details the legal histories of the current Supreme Court cases as well as past cases addressing the issue of marriage discrimination.  PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin, the report’s author, takes apart conservative arguments against marriage equality, including those based on the goal of legislating social morality.

“The only real question is what role the Court will play in the historical process of vindicating the rights of the people,” the report notes. “Will it constitutionalize discriminatory ‘traditions,’ as it did in Bowers v. Harwick (in which Georgia’s anti-sodomy law was held to be constitutional), or will it defend the rights and liberties of the people, as it did in Lawrence v. Texas (criminalizing conduct by homosexuals that is legal for heterosexuals is unconstitutional)?”

 And Elsewhere

France’s imminent passage of a law allowing same-sex marriage is still under strong attack. Just like here in the U.S., a majority of French citizens support same-sex marriage as well as adoption of children by same-sex partners. Civil unions have been legal there for a number of years.

Creationism and Anti-Science

In a creative bit of activism, a California creationist has offered $10,000 to anyone who can show conclusively that science disproves the literal truth of Genesis. The Literal Genesis Trial Contest will take place before an actual judge, and anyone rising to the challenge must put up $10,000 of his own. The winner takes the full $20,000.


Zach Kopplin has written a good piece in the UK’s Guardian newspaper about why the campaign against creationism in schools matters for science. He is campaigning hard to repeal Louisiana’s mis-named Science Education Act. In a March 20, 2013, editorial, the Baton Rouge Advocate  endorsed Louisiana’s Senate Bill 26, which would repeal the Act. “Ostensibly, the law is to allow divergent opinions to be taught in public school classrooms about evolution and global warming, among other topics,” the editorial explained. “But in reality, it is cover for introducing religious views into science classrooms.”

Senate Bill 26 is the third attempt to repeal the Louisiana’s anti-science bill. Also endorsing the repeal effort in Louisiana are the Louisiana Association of Biology Educators, the Louisiana Coalition for Science, and the New Orleans City Council. The Advocate editorial noted, “A leader of the anti-creationism forces is Rice University student Zack Kopplin, a Baton Rouge native who noted that the questioning of evolution provokes widespread criticism and ridicule of the state,” and mentioned that he recruited seventy-eight Nobel laureates in the sciences to endorse the repeal effort. In 2012, Kopplin received the Friend of Darwin award from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in recognition of his efforts.


Teachers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, have spoken out about the difficulties of teaching science to high school students conditioned at home to adhere to anti-scientific philosophies. ““Everything you do is questioned,” said math teacher Karla Mullins, speaking at the Oak Ridge Forum on Religion and Science. Physics teacher Matthew Perkins agreed. “We’ve got to do a better job of showing these things [religion and science] coexist,” Perkins said. “I’m a person of deep faith but there’s just not a lot of places for an intelligent discussion.”  The teachers talked about feeling intimidated because of potential backlash they face from teaching scientific theories and ideas opposed by science-deniers.

Beth Adler, a biology teacher, cited a 2011 survey of 946 biology teachers, 28 percent of whom said they taught evolution as a well-supported fundamental idea. Thirteen percent openly supported intelligent design, and about 60 percent were in a gray, in-between area.


++++++++++++++ Got a legal question? Email me at I’m a lawyer, but there’s only a 2% chance I’m licensed in your state. Whether I answer your question or not, sending me an email or reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship between us. I’m on Twitter as @aramink, and you can see my regular blog at, where I write book reviews, ruminate on Life, the Universe, and Everything, and occasionally – frequently – rant about Stuff.

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