Judge blocks Mississippi law allowing denial of services to LGBT people

Rainbow flag flying next to rainbow in the sky

(Reuters) – A day before it was due to come into effect, a federal judge has blocked a Mississippi law permitting those with religious objections to deny wedding services to same-sex couples and impose dress and bathroom restrictions on transgender people.

Mississippi is among a handful of southern U.S. states on the front lines of legal battles over equality, privacy and religious freedom after the U.S. Supreme Court last year legalized same-sex marriage.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves found on Thursday the wide-ranging law adopted this spring unconstitutionally discriminated against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and others who do not share the view that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Reeves issued an injunction blocking the law that was to take effect on Friday.

He agreed with opponents of the law who argued that it violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on making laws that establish religion.

Mississippi’s “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” shields those believing that marriage involves a man and a woman, and sexual relations should occur within such marriages. It protects the belief that gender is defined by sex at birth.

The law allows people to refuse to provide wide-ranging services by citing the religious grounds, from baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple to counseling and fertility services. It would also permit dress code and bathroom restrictions to be imposed on transgender people.

The law “does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens,” Reeves wrote in his decision.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, in April signed the measure into law. The state has defended it as a reasonable accommodation intended to protect businesses and individuals seeking to exercise their religious views.

His staff was unavailable for comment early on Friday.

Critics say the Mississippi law is so broad that it could apply to nearly anyone in a sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage, including single mothers. Several lawsuits have challenged various aspects of the law.

Earlier this week, Reeves addressed a provision allowing clerks to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples based on religious beliefs, saying they had to fulfill their duties under the Supreme Court ruling.

His ruling on Thursday came after religious leaders, including an Episcopal vicar and a Jewish rabbi, last week testified in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi that the law did not reflect their religious views. He also heard about its harmful potential from members of the gay community.

“I am grateful that the court has blocked this divisive law. As a member of the LGBT community and as minister of the Gospel, I am thankful that justice prevailed,” said Rev. Susan Hrostowski, an Episcopal priest who is a plaintiff in the case.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Turkey shifts to presidential system without constitutional change

Turkey's Transportation Minister Yildirim greets members of his party during the AKP extraordinary

y Orhan Coskun and Nick Tattersall

ANKARA (Reuters) – As Turkey’s incoming prime minister prepares to name his new cabinet, there is little doubt that its primary role will be to rubber-stamp what has already become reality: a shift to a full presidential system with Tayyip Erdogan firmly in charge.

Erdogan on Sunday confirmed Binali Yildirim, a close ally for two decades and a co-founder of the ruling AK Party, as his new prime minister, ensuring government loyalty as he pursues constitutional change to replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with an executive presidency.

Yildirim’s appointment will stamp out any vestiges of resistance in the AKP to Erdogan’s plans, three senior party officials said, forecasting that the new cabinet, expected to be announced on Tuesday, would contain only loyalists.

“We have entered a period of a ‘de facto’ presidential system, where Erdogan’s policies will be implemented very clearly,” one of the officials said, predicting five or six ministerial changes from the existing team.

“They will lead to complete harmony between Erdogan and the cabinet … Erdogan’s decisions will be implemented without being touched,” the official said, speaking anonymously because the final decision on the appointments has not yet been made.

Erdogan and his supporters see an executive presidency – a Turkish take on the system in the United States or France – as a guarantee against the sort of fractious coalition politics that hampered Turkey’s development in the 1990s, when it was an economic backwater with little clout on the world stage.

His opponents, and skeptical Western allies, fear growing authoritarianism. Prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting Erdogan since he became president in 2014. Opposition newspapers have been shut and journalists and academics critical of government policies sacked.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz criticized Erdogan’s accumulation of power in comments published on Monday, describing it as a “breathtaking departure from European values” in a nation negotiating for membership of the EU.

“We see Turkey under Erdogan on its way to being a one-man-state,” he told German newspaper Koelner Stadtanzeiger.

He said the European Parliament would not begin debating visa-free travel for Turks to Europe, a quid pro quo for Ankara’s help in curbing illegal migration, until Turkey fulfilled all the criteria including amending its sweeping anti-terrorism laws, which Erdogan has resolutely refused to do.

“It is incumbent on all of us to make clear that we cannot idly accept the monopolization of power in the hands of a single man,” Schulz said.

In a sign of the possible turbulent relations to come with Brussels, Erdogan’s economic advisor Yigit Bulut warned Ankara could suspend all of its agreements with the European Union if it failed to “keep its promises”.

MASTER MANEUVERER

Erdogan has made clear he wants to seek legitimacy for the presidential system, which will require constitutional change, via a referendum. To do that, he will need the support of at least 330 members of the 550-strong parliament, and unwavering backing from the AKP grass roots on the campaign trail.

Outgoing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was seen as too lackluster a supporter of the presidential system. By replacing him, Erdogan aims to unify the AKP behind him just as the nationalist opposition is embroiled in a damaging leadership row and the pro-Kurdish opposition is tainted, in the eyes of some voters, by a surge in violence in the largely Kurdish southeast.

“Now the road to changing the constitution to include a presidential system is completely open,” a second senior AKP official told Reuters.

Popular support for the presidential system is unclear, with a recent IPSOS poll putting it at just 36 percent. The ORC research firm was meanwhile cited in the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper as putting it at 58 percent.

“The one-man rule has de facto begun, even though not constitutionally,” Ozer Sencar, director of the Metropoll research firm, told Reuters.

Yildirim, who has said his main aim as prime minister will be forging a new constitution, said on Monday the new cabinet list would be prepared quickly and be presented to Erdogan, who must approve it, as soon as he is available.

Investors are most concerned about the shape of the new economic team, in particular whether Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, an anchor of confidence in overall charge of economic policy, will retain his post.

A third AKP official, close to Erdogan, said it was crucial to keep an experienced team in place during turbulent economic times but that ultimately it would be the president’s decision.

His advisor Bulut, a former TV commentator who once accused opponents of trying to kill Erdogan through telekinesis, said that economic policy in Turkey would continue to be based on manufacturing, whoever was in charge.

“If the system is solid, if it’s working well, it doesn’t matter who is running it,” he told state broadcaster TRT.

(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Paul Taylor in Brussels; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Anna Willard)

Senator Calls Out Homeland Security For Altering Freedom of Religion Definition

A Senator is challenging the Department of Homeland Security over the DHS quietly changing the definition of “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship.”

Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, a former youth pastor who helps head the Congressional Prayer Caucus, sent a letter to the head of Homeland Security demanding to know why prospective citizens are asked about “freedom of worship” rather than freedom of religion on civics test study materials.

“We are doing a great disservice to those seeking citizenship in this great country if we distort our history and fail to teach new citizens about the founding and constitutional principles of this nation,” Lankford wrote in the letter. “How can your Department request that Congress create a new United States Citizenship Foundation when your own naturalization materials do not even accurately reflect the constitutional rights of American citizens?”

“Our Constitution is clear— Americans have the freedom of religion. The naturalization tests and its corresponding materials must be equally clear,” Lankford continued. “As such, I ask that you immediately change all documents that are part of the naturalization test, including the study materials, to correctly show that Americans have the right to free exercise of religion.”

DHS made the change in their naturalization materials in 2008.  A spokesman for DHS told the Daily Signal the change was made to be “more inclusive.”

Lankford says the change distorts the real meaning in the Constitution of religious freedom.

“The freedom of religion is much more than just the freedom of worship. Worship confines you to a location,” the senator explained. “Freedom of religion is the right to exercise your religious beliefs — it is the ability for Americans to live out their faith or to choose to have no faith.”

Arkansas Abortion Law Struck Down

A federal appeals court has ruled an Arkansas state law banning abortion when a heartbeat is detected violates the Constitution.

The ruling upholds the decision of a lower court.

The Human Heartbeat Protection Act was passed in March 2013 and legislators had to override the veto of Democratic Governor Mike Beebe to make it law.  The Act required all women to obtain an ultrasound before an abortion and if a heartbeat was detected, it was no longer legal to obtain the abortion.

The law had first been struck down in April 2014 by judge Susan Webber Wright who claimed that Roe v. Wade required viability of the baby and not just a heartbeat.

“The Court finds as a matter of law that the 12-week abortion ban included in Act 301 prohibits pre-viability abortions and thus impermissibly infringes a woman’s 14th Amendment right to elect to terminate a pregnancy before viability,” she wrote. “The state presents no evidence that a fetus can live outside the mother’s womb at twelve weeks.”

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the viability claim of the lower court.

Arkansas state officials are considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tennessee Lawmaker Proposes Bill To Make Bible State Book

A Tennessee lawmaker is proposing that the Bible become the official state book.

Rep. Jerry Sexton introduced HB 615 that would amend the Tennessee code to make the acknowledgement.

The statement that would be added is simple:  “The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book.”

Tennessee has created a number of state symbols in recent years, naming the tomato the state fruit in 2003 and the Eastern boxing turtle the state reptile in 1995.  The state also has several “state songs” including “Tennessee Waltz” and “Rocky Top.”

Another Representative, Jame VanHuss, has submitted a resolution to add text to the state Constitution that would acknowledge the rights of citizens come from God.

“We recognize that our liberties do not come from governments, but from Almighty God, our Creator and Savior” House Joint Resolution 71 reads.

As usual when the Bible is going to be acknowledged by a public official, anti-Christianists have been launching complaints.

Rob Boston of the anti-Christian group Americans United for Separation of Church and State also wrote a blog post about the matter saying “I doubt the Bible played a major role in how any of them became a part of the United States.”

New York Student Gets OK For Christian Club

A New York student who had been told that she could not start a Christian club called “Dare To Believe” has now been given the go ahead to start the group.

Liz Loverde was told in September that she could not start the club.  Principal Carolyn Breivogel said that the club’s existence would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The Liberty Institute contacted the school on behalf of Loverde when her family sought help to protect the girl’s constitutional rights.  The group told the school the denial of the Christian group was a violation of the Equal Access Act of 1984.

The school then reversed its decision and approved the Christian group along with other student groups.

“It took a lot of courage for a 15-year-old girl to come forward to reveal that her principal said Christian clubs are illegal,” said Jeremy Dys, senior counsel of the Liberty Institute. “It is always a scary position for students to take a stand against government school authorities who hold significant power over their everyday lives. We look forward to Wantagh High School respecting Liz’s religious liberty at school.”

The school denied that they had refused to allow the group.

Christian Teen Sues Over Prayer Ban In School

A Christian teenager has sued his school after he was prohibited from praying, singing and discussing religious topics with classmates during the school’s “free period.”

Chase Windebank, a senior at Pine Creek High School, has been leading a group for the last three years that meets during what the school calls the “seminar” period.  On Mondays and Wednesdays students can participate in a variety of activities and students with passing grades may also do so on Fridays.

“During the free time, students are permitted to engage in a virtually unlimited variety of activities, including gathering with other students inside or outside; reading; sending text messages to their friends; playing games on their phone; visiting the bathrooms; getting a snack; visiting teachers; and conducting official meetings of school clubs,” states Alliance Defending Freedom.

The school claims that because the “Seminar” is considered class time, they’re now banning Christian students from meeting.  The school has not backed down despite it being shown that their actions are violations of the Constitution.

“Public schools should encourage the free exchange of ideas. Instead, this school implemented an ill-conceived ban that singles out religious speech for censorship during free time,” remarked ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco.

Anti-Christian Group Sues Over North Carolina War Memorial

The virulent anti-Christian group Americans United for Separation of Church and State is again attempting to have a memorial removed because it has a cross in it.

A war memorial in King, North Carolina featured a Christian flag and a sculpture of a soldier kneeling before a cross.  U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty ruled Tuesday there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial.

The “plaintiff” in the case is Steven Hewett, who is being represented by Americans United, who claims that the “King’s veterans’ memorial only honors Christian veterans.”

The Christian flag had been removed from the memorial in 2010 after the ACLU and Americans United both made threats against the city.  The citizens of the community were outraged that organizations from outside the town were coming in to censor their free speech rights.

The flag was part of a lottery that the town held every year that allowed a veteran to choose what flag flew every week.  Citizens United was angry that the majority of the time people chose to fly the Christian flag.

The American Legion as joined the case to defend the statue saying that the cross is a symbol of graves worldwide that thus it is not a violation of the Constitution.

Dallas Pastor Warns Hobby Lobby Victory Could Be Short Lived

While millions of American Christians are celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision protecting religious freedom, one prominent Baptist pastor is cautiously warning that the celebration of freedom may be short lived.

Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas says that while the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling “stopped the greatest attempted assault on religious liberty in history”, the case is a sign that the government is going to increase attempts to strip away the religious freedom of Christians.

“The Obama administration was basically saying that you can be religious and pro-life in your church, synagogue or at home on the weekend, but when you go to work on Mondays, you have to give up those beliefs and become pro-abortion,” Jeffress said to the Christian Post. “There is no such thing in the Constitution as the separation of faith from the rest of your life.”

Jeffress said that the mainstream media and pro-abortion activists have been repeating the complete lie that those who want to protect the life of unborn children are nothing more than religious fringe extremists.

“It is a part of the belief system of tens of millions of Protestants, Catholics, Jewish people and people of all faiths,” he said. “This country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. In this ruling, I think the court is very sound in saying that we have the right to uphold and exercise those beliefs.”

Federal Judge: NSA Likely Violated Constitution

The bulk collection of phone records of Americans by the National Security Agency has been found to likely violate the Fourth Amendment.

Judge Richard Leon ruled Monday that the NSA’s mass collection of “metadata” falls under the Constitution’s prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure. The ruling in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is viewed as a blow to the Obama administration.

Observers say the case will very likely go all the way to the Supreme Court.

“The government does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack,” Judge Leon wrote in his decision. “Given the limited record before me at this point in the litigation – most notably, the utter lack of evidence that a terrorist attack has ever been prevented because searching the NSA database was faster than other investigative tactics – I have serious doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism.”

The ruling by the judge says the lawsuit brought by a conservative lawyer and the father of a Navy soldier is likely to be successful. The judge did grant a reprieve to the NSA by placing his order to stop the NSA collection efforts on hold until the government can appeal.