December 1, 2011

Governmental Religious Bias

Efforts to squash religion into the strictly private sphere appear to be on the rise around the world.  We report today, however, on some events that show attacks on religious freedom that are taking a somewhat different path - governmental bias in favor of particular "religions" and directed discrimination against others.

Wicca gets a "chapel"

The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado recently finished construction of an outdoor worship center for "pagans, wiccans, druids, and witches."  According to the L.A. Times, the cost to the taxpayer was $80,000.  Out of 4,300 cadets, just three identify themselves as participants in a pagan religion. This Stonehenge-like circle of stones was built to accommodate the needs of a civilian "Air Force reservist" who demanded equal treatment for this "earth-based religion." 

The military does provide chapels for religious services; a building that is to be shared by all religions:  Islam, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and so forth.  These religions are expected to adapt, even if the facility is less than suitable for their religious services. 

Military regulations state that:

"The chapel environment will be religiously neutral when the facility is not being used for scheduled worship. Portable religious symbols, icons, or statues may be used within a chapel during times of religious worship."  (Army Regulation 165-1, 12-3k)

In fact a U.S. Military chapel in Afghanistan was recently told that they must remove a cross from the outside of the chapel facility at Camp Marmal because it violated the "neutrality policy" of the U.S. Military regarding religion. 

So what are we to make of a policy and expenditures of funds that privileges Wiccan worship over other religious faiths?  

Grant Process Biased Against Religion

On December 1, 2011, the U.S. House Committee on Government Oversight held hearings on whether or not senior political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) inappropriately exerted influence over the department's professional staff to end funding to programs run by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). 

The USCCB was told that they would no longer be receiving grants for their highly-effective programs to provide aid to victims of sex trafficking.  According to Steve Wagner, former Director of the Human Trafficking program at HHS:

In 2006, HHS conducted a competition to identify an organization that could assemble a national network of service providers willing and able to assist victims of human trafficking and to provide a modest financial stipend to those organizations, based on the number of victims each was serving. The U.S. bishops' conference won the competition and has been successfully administering that project until this fall.

This year, instead of renewing the contract with the USCCB, HHS decided to conduct a new competition with new rules: "[HHS] will give strong preference to applicants that are willing to offer all of the services and referrals ..." to include "the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care."
The USCCB applied anyway, and despite its disadvantageous refusal to provide "the full range of gynecological services," their grant proposal scored the second-highest number of points in an objective review of all applications. Undeterred, HHS political appointees funded the highest-rated applicant, then skipped over USCCB to fund two more applicants that scored much lower -- so low that the professional program staff deemed their applications to be noncompetitive (read: "unqualified").


This prompted the USCCB to point to this as an overt display of "anyone but Catholic" religious bias.  Not to mention the fact that the actions of political appointees at HHS are more than likely illegal. 

Religious symbols are taboo

In France, students at government-funded public schools can show up at school scantily clad with tattoos covering their bodies and multiple body parts grotesquely pierced, but they cannot wear headscarves, yarmulkes, or large crucifixes. In Turkey, the government will not allow women to be employed, hold public office, or even go to school if they wear a headscarf - a symbol of religious devotion.  The Turkish government claims that promoting secularism is the way for their country to advance.  But secularism is also a means of oppressing women and religion.

Therefore what?

It is easy to identify it as a problem when governments privilege one religion over another.  But we also need to recognize that a government is not displaying neutrality when they privilege secularism.  Stephen Monsma, The Challenge of Pluralism, points out that: "Secular perspectives and belief structures represent a point of view, a worldview, as much as various religious perspectives and beliefs do.  Thus, to support secular groups and programs over religious ones is anything but neutral." 

Efforts to remove religion from the public square, deny grants or disallow religion to work to influence public policy is not the realization of state neutrality, but rather the establishment of a religion of secularism.  

What can I do?

As we mentioned, the hearing on HHS and their treatment of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the grant process occurred today.  To see a news story on the outcome, go here.  We are also researching the best way for the public to express disagreement with what occurred at the Air Force Academy.  We will update you as to how to get involved. 

Please continue to be active in the public square.  Be informed and engaged.   Be familiar with what your country and state laws say regarding religion and religious participation.  United Families International will continue to engage in efforts to protect religious freedoms and to educate citizens as well as policy makers.  We encourage you to join us in this effort and please don't take your religious freedoms for granted.