Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Pres. Trump's Executive Order on Advancing Religious Freedom

Yesterday, U.S. President Trump issued an executive order that states that international religious freedom should factor into U.S. foreign policy.  Among other things:
  • The Secretary of State should budget at least $50 million a year for programs that advance religious freedom worldwide.
  • Government agencies should not discriminate against religious entities when awarding federal funding.
  • Plans of action should be developed to support religious freedom in Countries of Particular Concern (remember these from USCIRF).
  • Concerns about international religious freedom should be raised when meeting with leaders of foreign countries.
  • State Department and Foreign Affairs workers are to undergo training in international religious freedom.
  • Economic tools, such as the awarding of foreign assistance or the assigning of sanctions, should be used to help advance international religious freedom.
Because religious freedom is widely understood to be a basic human right (sees Article 18-20 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights), it has long been a factor in U.S. foreign policy.  This itself is not new.  However, this executive order does outline some specific ways it is to be factored into policy.  It will take some time to determine whether it actually changes U.S. foreign policy in any meaningful sense.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

COVID-19, the Court, and the Rules of the Game

The "rules of the game" provide the context in which economic decisions are made.  They tend to be stable over time, but they can and do change, and change is often prompted by an extreme event, such as a pandemic.  This current COVID-19 pandemic has brought temporary changes in the rules of the game for churches in many states.  As has been mentioned in other blog posts, the state of California decided on March 19, 2020, that no churches should meet.  See here.

Two months later, on May 25, 2020, the state of California issued new guidelines that allow religious groups to meet but with use of face coverings, social distancing, regular cleaning, and other practices.  A particularly contentious issue is attendance.  The state says that attendance must be limited to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees.  This limit will be in place for 21 days, after which public health officials will determine if it needs to remain in place.  The full list of requirements can be found here.

The attendance limits were quickly challenged by a church in San Diego, CA, and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that challenge on Friday, May 26, 2020.  The Supreme Court ruled that the state of California's restrictions on church attendance will stand.  See this short write-up at the Religion News Service here.

It is worth nothing that the court's voting was not unanimous.  It was a divided ruling, with the yes votes barely beating the no votes by a 5-4 margin.  The yes voters argued that allowing churches to reopen at limited capacity was consistent with the First Amendment because other large gatherings like movies and sporting events were also restricted.  In other words, churches are not being singled out.  The no voters argued that supermarkets and many other businesses did not face the restriction so that churches were being unfairly discriminated against.

The courts play an important role in the development and persistence of the rules of the game.  Changes in laws, which are a big part of the rules of the game, might originate in one part of society (like a governor or health official's decision), but the courts must adjudicate before the change becomes permanent.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Buddhists' Methods for Confronting COVID-19

Many religious groups are confronting COVID-19 by moving religious services online, but there are other ways of confronting the crisis.  As this article explains, people -- Buddhists in this case -- can also appeal to rituals and magical practices.

Several examples are given.  In Thailand, special talismans have been distributed at Theravada Buddhist temples to help protect people from contracting the virus.  Buddhist groups in Japan have practices expulsion rituals to clean their country of the virus.  The Dalai Lama has even encouraged people to chant mantras to obtain protection.

Of course, many Buddhists also engage in scientifically-grounded practices that help prevent the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks.  Yet, many people combine these "secular" practices with the religious ones.  We should not forget that religion is for many people a source of power to help them confront the challenges of life, including a pandemic.

Religious Exemptions to COVID-19 Rules for Social Distancing

The Pew Research Center compiled information about variation across states in COVID-19 social-distancing rules for religious groups, a matter already touched up in an earlier post here.

Here are some key points;  see their full article (dated 27 April 2020) here.
  • 10 states (including California) have declared that there should be no in-person religious gatherings.
  • 15 states have placed no restrictions.
  • The remaining 25 states (plus Washington D.C.) have various types of limited restrictions, such as limitations on the size of religious gatherings.
Of course, religious groups in states that allow gatherings may still choose to suspend in-person activities.

Examine the map and you will see that the geographic distribution of these restrictions in very uneven.  None of the 10 states that forbid religious gatherings are in the south, and none of the 15 that have no restrictions are on the west coast or in New England.  Can you think of any explanations for this pattern?

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Religion and COVID-19 in the Courts

Choices depend on the "rules of the game," and many of those rules are worked out via the legal system.  That is as true for religious decisions as it is for other decisions, and the we are witnessing an example of this in the courts right now.

Some church leaders have criticized stay-at-home orders for prohibiting regular religious activities.  In fact, this conflict has gone to the courts in Kentucky where a pastor requested that the courts allow religious groups to violate the state's ban on mass gatherings.  On Monday, a federal district court denied this request, arguing that the large religious gatherings clearly violate the state ban and that the state ban does not single out religion and so does not violate religious rights.  See this short write-up at the Religion Clause blog (the best go-to place on the internet for church-state developments).

A key matter is that religious activities are not singled out.  This logic follows a statement issued last week by the U.S. Attorney General William Barr, see here.  In essence, it is okay for the government to restrict religious rights in emergencies if religious rights are not being singled out but are only restricted as part of a larger restricting of rights necessary to deal with the emergency.

Of course, these arguments are arguments, and so there may continue to be disagreement.  In fact, back in Kentucky, some people continue to challenge the state's ban on gatherings, see here.  So far the courts have been consistent in their rulings, which suggests that this latest legal challenge is likely to be unsuccessful.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Should Churces be Eligible for Bailout Funds?

The COVID-19 crisis has been especially hard on small businesses.  To help them, the U.S. government's Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) allows a small business to borrow money to pay its employees' wages, and the loans will be forgiven if the business maintains its regular payroll.  The funds essentially provide the small business with funds to pay the wages.

The PPP allows religious institutions to apply for funds, and this Wall Street Journal article here argues that it should.  [Note that you can create a free Wall Street Journal account as a UCI student, though you may need to use the UCI VPN if you are off campus.]

We might consider two aspects to the debate about whether religious institutions should have been included in the PPP.

The first centers on the concern about employment and payroll more generally.  In this regard, churches have staff just like businesses do, and the recession can potentially affect a church in the same way it can a business, e.g., it causes revenues to drop thereby decreasing the funds are available to cover expenses.  Laying off a person who works at a church is in this sense no different than laying off someone who works at a small business, and if the government wants to prevent layoffs then churches, as well as many other types of organizations, deserve to be included among the organizations that can be helped.  Notice that non-profit organizations are also eligible for PPP funds.

The second centers on religion as a type of service different from the services that small businesses offer.  Religion is singled out in the U.S. Constitution as deserving special protections, but the Constitution and judicial rulings have also created a separation between church and state.  Some people have argued that including churches in the PPP violates that separation because government funds would then be used to pay clergy salaries.

What do you think?  Should churches be eligible for PPP funds?

Friday, April 10, 2020

Some COVID-19 and Religion Issues

There have been many stories in the news lately about the impact of COVID-19 on religious activities, and I wanted to share some of them with you because they inform us about what is happening today in the world of religion.  However, I will not consider this blog entry required reading for now, so you do not have to read it if you do not want to.  If I decide to make any of the material in this blog entry required, then I will notify you.

This article here examines the differences across states in the religious exemptions in their COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.  Religious exemptions allow a religious group to operate some or all of its activities.  California's religous exemption status is labeled "unclear" by the article.  The California stay-at-home order (see p. 11 here) specifically lists religious groups broadcasting religious services as an essential service, though it does not provide further details.

This article here discusses the increase in interest in software specifically designed for broadcasting church services online.  We see how the COVID-19 impacts some profit-maximizing software companies.

Finally, because earlier blog entries have already mentioned online church, I thought I'd share this article here, which provides a list of some prominent American churches that will be offering online Easter services.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Which Churches Will Close Due to COVID-19?

Churches, like businesses, must have funds to cover expenditures.  Wealthy churches have large endowments or other revenue sources that provide income in addition to members' donations, but many small churches do not have such resources to draw upon when faced with financial struggles.

This Religion News Service article is about the financial struggles of small churches during the COVID-19 pandemic.  One factor is location.
Director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research Scott Thumma, who helped lead the Faith Communities Today project, said small churches look different depending on the region. About 44% of these small churches are located in rural areas.
Churches in small towns or rural areas may have an advantage, Thumma said.  If a congregation is struggling in a city, there may be people who would want that property, "but in a small rural area the church can exist because there is not great demand for their building," he said.
Another is the membership's age.
Thumma said it's more common for small congregations — churches with weekly attendance of 50 or fewer — to have members over the age of 65. 
Data from the most recent Faith Communities Today research shows that in 2015 more than half of small churches (52%) have a membership that's at least one-third seniors. Whereas, in larger churches (with weekly attendance of 100 or more), just 11% have a membership made up of at least one-third seniors.
While having the ability to go online for services could help smaller churches remain viable during this time, Thumma pointed out that having more seniors in the congregation who are less likely to use social media would make it difficult to set up online giving.
So, which churches will not survive the pandemic?  We will just have to wait to find out, but we do have a few clues about which will struggle the most to survive.  Doing the research to find out which ones actually do close down due to COVID-19 would be a good research project for a student.