2013 Top Religion Stories and Religious Liberty Developments

Greg Strand – January 13, 2014 Leave a comment

As a theologian committed to the Scriptures, I desire to understand what God has said. It is true and truth, and it is unchanging. I am also committed to communicating that truth to people who live in a cultural context. This does not mean the message changes, but it does mean I work hard at communicating those never-changing truths to an ever-changing culture.

Another thing that I do as a theologian is that I attempt to make sense of the disparate things that happen or occur in culture or the world. Though we live in a fallen world, God is the God of order, and living under the Lordship of Christ in all of life, and recognizing that God has a plan and purpose, a telos to which He is bringing history forward and to His determined end, I also attempt to get a sense of things and how they fit together, what they say about people, culture and trends from the perspective of the Bible. (This gets to the heart of a biblical worldview.) One can learn much in such an exercise.

It is with this lens I read the various “top ten” lists that come out at the end of each year. The Religion Newswriters Association published their own “2013 Top 10 Religion Stories.”

  1. Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina is a surprise choice to succeed Benedict, becoming the first Latin American and first Jesuit pope, and the first to take the name of Francis. He immediately launches a series of stunning and generally popular forays—meeting with the poor in Brazil, embracing the ill, issuing conciliatory words toward gays and calling for a poorer and more pastoral church.
  2. Pope Benedict XVI, citing age and strength issues, becomes first pope to resign in almost 600 years.
  3. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 5-4 votes, clears the way for gay marriage in California and voids the ban on federal benefits to same-sex couples. Gay marriage continues to make inroads within the states, with Illinois and Hawaii becoming the 15th and 16th states to approve same-sex marriage.
  4. The Obama administration makes concessions to faith-based groups and businesses opposed to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, but not enough to satisfy many of them. The disagreement continues as the U.S. Supreme Court accepts a case brought by Hobby Lobby challenging the mandate, although faith-based and private employers had mixed results in the lower-courts.
  5. Islam plays a central role in the post-Arab Spring Middle East as the Egyptian military ousts the elected, Muslim Brotherhood-led government and violently cracks down on its supporters; meanwhile, Sunni Islamist fighters increase their role in Syria’s opposition.
  6. Icon of reconciliation and nonviolence Nelson Mandela dies at age 95 and is remembered as a modern-day Moses who led his people out of racial captivity.
  7. Religious-inspired attacks claim scores of lives, with extremist Buddhist monks fomenting attacks on Muslims in Myanmar and Muslim extremists targeting Christians at churches in Egypt, an upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and a church in Peshawar, Pakistan. Moderate religious leaders condemn the attacks, and a Somali Muslim emerges as a hero for rescuing a young American girl in the Nairobi mall.
  8. More than 1 in 5 Jews in America now report having no religion, according to a landmark survey from the Pew Research Center. The number of professing Jewish adults is now less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, although Jewish identity remains strong.
  9. The Boy Scouts of America, after much debate, votes to accept openly gay Scouts but not Scoutmasters. Several Catholic leaders endorse the move; some evangelical leaders oppose it.
  10. Muslims join those across the country who condemn a devastating bombing at the Boston Marathon by two young Muslim men who attended college in the area. People of many faiths were among the many who showed an outpouring of support for the bombing victims.

Religion Clause compiled the “Top 10 Church-State and Religious Liberty Developments in 2013.”

  1. The U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor strikes down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in an opinion by Justice Kennedy that triggers judicial and legislative expansion of marriage equality to a total of 18 states and the District of Columbia by the end of 2013.
  2. Judicial challenges by Catholic- and conservative Christian-owned small businesses to the Affordable Care Act contraceptive coverage mandate generate an intense legal debate over whether corporations have religious exercise rights.  The U.S. Supreme Court grants certiorari in two cases raising the issue.
  3. A decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court in Elane Photography requires a commercial photography business to serve same-sex couples on the same basis as opposite-sex couple, despite the photographer’s religious objections to same-sex marriageA preliminary Colorado administrative decision takes the same approach on wedding cakes. In a related development, Britain’s Supreme Court holds that its anti-discrimination laws require Christian hotel owners to rent rooms to same-sex couples.
  4. U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Town of Greece case.  The Court will decide on the constitutionality of opening city council meetings with sectarian prayers.
  5. Numerous challenges by religiously-affiliated colleges and social service agencies to a compromise that was intended to accommodate their objections to the Affordable Care Act contraceptive coverage mandate raise the issue of how to define a “substantial burden” on religious exercise under RFRA. Courts have reached differing conclusions.
  6. European Court of Human Rights decides four cases from Britain on religious accommodation of Christian employee’ religious beliefs. Decisions call for a case-by-case balancing approach.
  7. Egypt continues to struggle with the future role of the Muslim Brotherhood (which the government now brands a “terrorist” group) and with what its constitution should say about the role of religion.
  8. Federal district court strikes down most of Utah’s anti-polygamy law.
  9. A variety of recent cases and legislative initiatives in the U.S. and elsewhere raise the question of what qualifies as a “religion”– Scientology, yoga, Humanism, Naturism.
  10. Federal district court holds Internal Revenue Code parsonage allowance provisions violate Establishment Clause.

A few follow up questions:

  • How do you read these lists?
  • What do you learn from them?
  • How does the Word of God remain foundational as you make sense of these events?
  • How do you speak God’s inspired, inerrant and authoritative Word into this cultural context?

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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