New Year’s observations on matters religion writers will want to be watching (Part I)

TOASTING THE NEW YEAR

The Religion Guy’s thoughts about religion-what beat specialists may want to anticipate for 2017 once the New Year has been properly toasted are as follows: Much of the action will circle around LGBTQ-related controversies. I am sure that is not a surprise.

As throughout 2016, all things Donald Trump will dominate the news. Due to the ongoing conflict between gay rights and religious-liberty assertions there’s keen interest in the unpredictable new president’s Supreme Court choice to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Samuel Alito recently lamented the repression of free speech, particularly on college campuses, but warned that “freedom of religion is in even greater danger.”

Again, this is not a big surprise.

Alito and Scalia uttered that same warning as dissenters when the court majority dodged religious rights in its 2015 ruling legalizing gay marriage. A new justice in Scalia’s mold won’t shift the Court’s balance of power. The bigger ruckus comes later, with a replacement for swing voter Anthony Kennedy (age 80), or liberals Ruth Bader Ginsberg (83) or Stephen Breyer (78). 
Also vital, though often neglected by the media, will be Trump’s nominees for lower federal courts that will decide most of these First Amendment disputes.

Though this is often portrayed in the press as a mere concern of Catholics and white evangelicals, 27 African-American Protestant leaders rallied by the Seymour Institute sent a notable letter to candidate Hillary Clinton. Alongside conventional black concerns on matters like education and justice, the clergy charged that gay activists want to “criminalize our biblical texts as hate speech,” and accused Democrats of “open contempt for religious freedom.”

In the new Congress, Republicans will revive the “Russell Amendment,” which was killed by Senate Democrats. It would guarantee the right of religious organizations fulfilling government contracts to hire employees on religious grounds. Senate President Orrin Hatch says federal officials apply President Barack Obama’s executive order on LGBTQ job discrimination so narrowly that existing guarantees are “useless.” Republicans will also reintroduce the “First Amendment Defense Act” to outlaw denial of federal grants and tax exemptions for individuals and businesses that believe in traditional marriage.

 The federal education department now requires religious colleges to get  specific exemptions in order to limit hiring on the basis of doctrines linked to sexual orientation or the newer questions of gender identity. Last April, the feds began posting a so-called “shame list” of exempt colleges and a coalition of U.S. businesses and LGBTQ groups have planned to get involved in this kind of public shaming, as well. No exemption requests have been denied yet by government officials, but this and state parallels bear watching.

Meanwhile, evangelical schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities will be choosing up sides. Starting July 1, a new policy will grant full council membership only to schools that affirm marriage is between one man and one woman (alongside other moral commitments), relegating other campuses to non-voting “partner” status.  How will the factions align?

In coming months, the divided Reformed Church in America (dating from 1628) will conclude regional voting on a constitutional proposal that defines marriage as “between a man and a woman.” If at least 30 of 44 regional assemblies ratify this, a June 8-13 synod in Holland, Michigan, will vote on final approval.

The potential for a similar split in the far bigger United Methodist Church is described in a solid G. Jeffrey MacDonald overview. In April, the disputed election of the first married gay bishop comes before the Judicial Council. A new “Commission on the Way Forward” will be pondering future options, chiefly: (1) Continue to enforce the church’s traditional belief. (2) Allow local option for diverse practices. (3) Form separate liberal and conservative “jurisdictions” nominally within one denomination.

The next Religion Guy Memo will examine additional themes for 2017.

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