Friday, July 9, 2021

The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

 According to this article in the Harvard Civil Liberties Law Review here:

The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, also known as the church autonomy doctrine, is a longstanding common law doctrine that guides courts when a case would require the court to decide a religious question. In its most distilled form, the doctrine counsels that if a case would require a civil court to decide a matter of religious doctrine, the court should either refuse to adjudicate[1] or defer to the relevant religious hierarchy. Watson v. Jones, an 1871 Supreme Court case is often cited as the basis for the doctrine in the United States, and grounds the doctrine in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

This doctrine was just applied in a legal case in Michigan where the pastor officiating at a funeral made public that the deceased person had committed suicide.  The nature of the death was not public at the time, and the parents claimed that the pastor's sermon caused emotional distress and an invasion of privacy.  A Michigan state appellate court dismissed the case by claiming that this is a religious matter and not something for the court.

The boundary between "religious" and "not religious" is continually negotiated, and the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is a key idea in that negotiation that determines the rules that govern different aspects of religious life.

Friday, April 23, 2021

USCIRF 2021 Annual Report

The USCIRF just released its 2021 Annual Report.  The page with all annual reports is here.  You can download the pdf of the 2021 Annual Report here.

The following countries were recommended to be designated as Countries of Particular Concern:  Burma, China, Eritrea, India, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam.  This list is exactly the same as last year's list.

Monday, March 22, 2021

American Churches Not Quite Back to Pre-COVID Activity but Getting There

 A Pew Research Center report released today shows that American churches are slowly getting back to normal, but they still have a way to go.  Americans' confidence in going to church safely has trended upward, and the percent attending this past month is higher than last summer.  But participation is still much lower than pre-pandemic levels.

The title of the report is "Life in U.S. Religious Congregations Slowly Edges Back to Normal." The report website is here, and the complete pdf report is here.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Another New Methodist Denomination

For years, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has been having internal debates about the ordination of LGTBQ clergy and same-sex marriage.  It's most recent internal vote on these issues supported the traditional policies, but the church was supposed to have a vote on these matters again last spring.  The new vote, which was expected to approve a negotiated split within the denomination, was postponed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The vote is still postponed (now planned for August-September 2022), but not all church members are waiting for the vote to move forward with their desired plans.  Just a few months ago, a group of Methodists formed their own group, apparently in support reform in the church (see my earlier post here).  And just yesterday another group formed, this one in favor of the church's traditional stance.  Called the Global Methodist Church, this group plans to become a new denomination sometime in 2022.  They already have a working website here.

It is expected that this new denomination will be acknowledged in the upcoming vote, and, as part of the formal split within the church at the time, it will receive $25 million over the following four years.  However, if the vote does not support the split, this new denomination has announced that it will still move forward with their own split. Schism in the United Methodist Church seems a foregone conclusion now.

These are big changes for the United Methodist Church, but they are also big changes for the religious marketplace.  The United Methodist Church has been one of the largest denomination in the U.S. for decades, but it has also been steadily losing membership for decades.  The parties on both sides of the internal dispute hope the split will revitalize their own efforts.  In time we should be able to determine whether this hope was fulfilled.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Supreme Court Ruling on California's COVID Worship Restrictions

On February 5, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of California cannot enforce its ban on indoor religious worship but that it can maintain a 25% capacity limit.  This came after a circuit court upheld the ban.  The judges were not in complete agreement on all matters.  Some wanted to remove the capacity limit and ban on singing, while others did not.

You can see the write-up at Religion Clause here and the write up at Get Religion here.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Measuring Church Attendance: Phone Calls vs. Online Surveys

Many national surveys are done via telephone, with the responded answering questions verbally through the phone when asked a specific question.  However, over time people have become less likely to answer requests to answer phone-administered surveys.  An alternative is to try online surveys in which the respondent does not interact with another person live but rather just clicks button using an online form.  However, while some people prefer the phone surveys, others prefer the online survey format, and when these people differ in characteristics that also are correlated with religious behavior, then the choice of survey format can lead you to mis-estimate the religiosity of the population.

A report just published by the Pew Research Center discusses some work they have done comparing the responses of different survey formats and then reweighting responses to obtain what should be more accurate overall measures of American religiosity.  See the front page here and the full report here.

They report some key findings:

  • Phone surveys accurately measure religious affiliation, while online surveys underreport affiliation.
  • Phone surveys overstate church attendance rates to a large degree, while online surveys are more accurate, maybe with just a slight understanding of attendance..
  • Phone surveys overstate and online surveys slightly understate the share of the population who think religion is important in their lives.
These findings are not too surprising given that older respondents are generally more religious than younger ones and that the older respondents prefer phone surveys more than the younger ones and the younger ones prefer online surveys more than the older ones.  Reweighting responses is an important aspect of survey methodology that enables researchers to improve the accuracy of their findings.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Top Ten Church-state Developments of 2020

 The Religion Clause blog offers its top church-state developments of 2020.  Not surprising is that the the COVID-19 church attendance limits take the top spot in the list.

California COVID Church Attendance Restrictions Upheld Again

In late November, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of New York could not enforce limits on church attendance because of COVID-19 (see here).  Many observers wondered what would be the effect of this ruling for states that did have attendance limits in place.  We found out last week that it will not affect the church attendance limits in California.  See here and here.

The court ruled that California's limits were "neutral" because they allowed for churches to meet without attendance limits as long as those meetings are outdoors.  In other words, California's policy is not as restrictive as New York's, and Californian's can still fully worship outside.  Thus, Californians are not severely impacted by their state's policy.

Again, we must stay tuned to see if there are further developments.