Pastor Tony Spell, the head of Louisiana’s Life Tabernacle Church, has once again lost a legal challenge, this time at the highest possible level.
In case you need a refresher, Spell was first arrested in April — remember April?! — for aggravated assault against a protester. But he became notorious for holding in-person church gatherings and putting countless people in harm’s way. Despite being under house arrest, he defied the law to preach at his nearby church multiple times a week, even asking supporters to send him portions of their stimulus checks.
Spell’s more recent legal troubles involved a lawsuit against Gov. John Bel Edwards for issuing an order that limited the size of gatherings, including church services. Spell claimed that violated his First Amendment rights.
But two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson tossed those claims aside, essentially saying that churches weren’t being treated unfairly. If anything, they were given more leeway than public institutions.
Governor Edwards’s Proclamations have always treated comparable secular institutions similarly to comparable religious institutions. In the earliest days of the pandemic, the only businesses or individuals who were treated more leniently than religious organizations were essential workers and businesses, such as healthcare workers and grocery stores. With every restriction on places of worship, identical or more stringent restrictions have been placed on similarly situated secular businesses. Indeed, religious organizations have often been privileged over similar secular businesses.
That ruling stood in stark contrast to the one the Supreme Court issued in favor of churches this week, saying that New York’s restrictions treated churches unfairly, but the conservative bloc compared churches to places like grocery stores — as if they’re both equally “essential” — when they should’ve done with this judge did, comparing churches to bars or concert venues, places where people also gather, speak, and stick around for longer periods of time.
In any case, the ruling sent a clear message to Spell: Stop acting like a precious little snowflake. We’re all dealing with the pandemic. You need to make the same sacrifices as everyone else.
Spell’s claims were also dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning he couldn’t raise the same issue again in court — or pursue legal costs.
(For what it’s worth, the most recent executive order in Louisiana wasn’t even that restrictive: Rather than prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people or anything like that, the order allowed churches to be filled to 75% of their capacity. It was far too much. But nothing is ever good enough for COVID-denying Christian pastors who don’t live in reality.)
But Spell wasn’t done whining. Within a week of that ruling, his lawyers — including alleged pedophile Roy Moore — filed an emergency appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. As explained by Law & Crime, the ruling asked the Court to say Spell had a First Amendment right to gather — and that the government had absolutely no power in any situation to stop him.
In one passage, the application suggests Spell was merely “[f]ollowing his religious conviction that he must obey God rather than man” when he chose to keep his church fully open. The application later argues that the First Amendment separation of church and state “was to protect the church from the state.”
Later on, it argued for the supreme authority of the church:
When the State’s order prohibits a church from assembling, singing together, hearing the word of God preached, laying hands on the sick, baptizing, taking communion, and the like, then the courts owe the State no deference at all.
Taking up that case — and ruling in favor of Spell — would’ve been an unmitigated disaster. It would have suggested churches exist in their own world, unable to be controlled for any reason no matter how much tangible damage they cause.
The good news is that Justice Samuel Alito, who handles these kinds of emergency cases from this region, rejected the plea altogether. The case won’t come before the Court at all. The earlier decisions stand.
Tony Spell is a loser yet again.
That’s especially ironic given that Spell just gave a sermon days ago saying God would be on his side, calling his filing with the Supreme Court the “most theologically sound documents and arguments that has ever been in Washington, D.C… in the highest court of the land.”
His theology is as pathetic as his legal record.
Really scary what passes for rule of law in the US right now. Gangs of thugs, some with legal degrees trying willing to violate others rights and cause harm to promote their cause. How are these any different from the drug cartel gangs? Hugs
A protest medic filed a complaint about Rittenhouse’s legal team: “I believe they are harassing witnesses including myself.”
Katie Walker was reading in bed just before midnight on October 8 when she saw a strange text message on her phone. It was a student who lived in the apartment building that Walker (not her real name) had recently moved out of. He was alarmed, because two men he’d never met had knocked on his door around 9 p.m., asking for Walker. They said they were investigators but refused to identify themselves, and they proceeded to knock on just about every other door in the apartment building asking for her whereabouts. “My roomate [sic] asked to see ID and they laughed said no and walked out of the building,” the student texted her. He said the guys looked “sketchy.”
Walker sat up in bed, nervous. She wondered whether the men were white supremacists, coming after her now because of what she’d seen in August in Kenosha, Wisconsin, less than an hour’s drive from her home. She’d gone there as a medic, to help people who were tear-gassed or otherwise injured during anti-police demonstrations. During the protests, she’d spotted Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old with an assault-style rifle. Soon after, he shot and killed two people, one of whom Walker tried to assist with medical care. He also wounded one of her fellow medics, whom she knew personally. (He says he fired in self-defense.)
After that awful night in Kenosha, Walker filed a police statement about what she’d seen near the shooting, hoping that would be the end of it: The experience left her exhausted, with post-traumatic stress disorder, and she wanted to lie low for a while and recover at home. But with the news now that two strange men were trying to track her down, she dialed the local police and left another statement. An officer jotted down that the two men had “looked scummy,” and sent someone over to the building to walk around and lock the door. Walker stayed up the rest of the night with her boyfriend, worrying, and reached out to the FBI.
The next day, her phone kept buzzing. And she wasn’t alone: The men called multiple members of Walker’s family, including her parents. It turns out these guys weren’t random white supremacists: They still refused to give their names, but, according to Walker, they mentioned they worked for the legal firm representing Rittenhouse, who now faces homicide charges. They said they wanted to take her deposition, something she’s not required to do under Wisconsin law except under very specific circumstances. One of the men also asked Walker whether she planned to give a statement to the cops about what she’d seen in Kenosha, and she said she already had. She begged them to leave her alone and hung up, but one of them called again later. Terrified, Walker reached out to John Pierce, a lead attorney for Rittenhouse. She told him about the men and asked him to make them stop.
“He didn’t deny that he sent the men; he didn’t acknowledge it either,” Walker told me recently. “All he said was, ‘I understand.’” And she prayed that he did. But the next day she received yet another phone call, from Pierce’s number, she said. When she answered it, the line was silent for a minute. She hung up, shaken, wondering whether he’d accidentally pocket-dialed her or was trying to scare her, to keep her from testifying.
Walker pulled out her computer and started doing some research. What she found did nothing to assuage her concerns. Pierce, it turns out, is no fringe attorney: His Los Angeles–based law firm, Pierce Bainbridge, had previously represented high-profile clients and several Trump supporters, including Rudy Giuliani and former Trump campaign figures George Papadopoulos and Carter Page. Because he’s based in California and not licensed to practice in Wisconsin, Pierce needed an order from a judge to represent Rittenhouse. Prosecutors have asked for a hearing to oppose that order. (They are also asking the judge to require Pierce to follow Wisconsin rules about pretrial publicity or face sanctions; they accuse him of making statements, in interviews and on Twitter, that violate rules of professional conduct, such as by commenting on the character of Rittenhouse and victims in the case, sharing information that would be inadmissible at trial, and suggesting that the prosecution is politically motivated. His comments, they say, could prejudice jurors and encourage them to acquit Rittenhouse for reasons unrelated to the law.)
What’s more, Walker found that Pierce is no stranger to menacing tactics. Walker stumbled upon a Medium post by a former Pierce Bainbridge attorney who is now suing Pierce for alleged wrongful termination. In it, she learned that Pierce is also accused of harassing his ex-wife. Mother Jones reviewed court records from a child custody case, and found that, in the course of a single day in 2019, Pierce sent his ex-wife more than 60 texts laced with violent language after she told him she couldn’t drive their son to soccer because of a work conflict: “I will bury u if I have to,” he allegedly wrote in one of the texts, copies of which were submitted to the court. “I will find u at Armaggedon [sic] and fuck u up.”
“I am good,” he wrote in another message that day. “U are evil. God is on my side.” In the texts, he repeatedly called her a “slut,” “cunt,” and “bitch,” and threatened to “hunt” her down. In one message, he mentioned a television character known for torturing terrorists: “Watch Jack Bauer on 24 if ur curious what I’m capable of.”
The next day, according to court records, Pierce apologized to his ex-wife and said he hadn’t meant what he texted her, but she remained afraid. She received a temporary restraining order against him, telling the court that he’d expressed a desire to kill her before, something he later denied.
Walker kept learning more. She connected eight days ago with Jennifer Sulkess, a Los Angeles resident who alleged that she was also intimidated by another attorney at the Pierce Bainbridge firm in a separate case. The firm had been retained to represent a Russian billionaire named Sergey Grishin, whom Sulkess had accused of harassing her and her friend, Grishin’s ex-wife, allegations he denies. The two women had taken out temporary restraining orders against Grishin, as he simultaneously pursued lawsuits against them. (These legal cases are ongoing.)
In September 2018, Sulkess said, the Pierce Bainbridge attorney instructed someone to repeatedly photograph her and Grishin’s ex-wife without their consent in public. The next month, she said, a man went to the apartment building where she had recently lived and showed the office manager there her photo, saying Sulkess was wanted for allegedly fraudulently borrowing money—accusations from Grishin’s lawsuit that she denies.
Months later, at about 8 a.m. on a Sunday, a few weeks before a restraining order trial, Sulkess pulled into the parking garage of her new apartment and found that someone else had parked in her assigned spot. “As I go to back up, I see this guy in my rearview mirror, which is quite startling,” she told me. He stood near a pillar, taking photos of her, and then approached and served her with legal papers, even though she had her own attorney who could have accepted the documents during business hours. “It was so overdramatic,” she said. “The rest of the week, you’ve got this thought in your head—like, are people going to jump out of the pillars? It’s designed for psychological warfare.” She and Grishin’s ex-wife started checking the hallways of her apartment to see if there were wiretaps.
In May, Sulkess filed a complaint with the State Bar of California about the Pierce Bainbridge attorney, Amman Khan, who has since moved to another firm but still represents Grishin. She did not mention the parking garage incident but accused him of other misconduct, including sending people to photograph her. But in June, the state bar closed Sulkess’ complaint without formally investigating the allegations. “We have determined that your complaint does not present sufficient facts to support an investigation,” wrote Scott D. Karpf, a senior trial counsel for the state bar. Pierce, his firm, and Khan did not reply to questions from Mother Jones.
Before talking with Sulkess, Walker had already filed her own complaint with the State Bar of California about Pierce and his firm. “My connection to Pierce and Bainbridge is that I am one of the witnesses in the Kyle Rittenhouse case. I believe they are harassing witnesses including myself,” she wrote. But she was disappointed to hear that Sulkess’ complaint had been closed. Now she had little hope that the agency would help her, and as far as she knew, the police and FBI hadn’t done anything to track down the men who’d gone to her old apartment building. So she agreed to speak with me. She wanted to come forward in the media, she said, because some of her friends were also witnesses the night of the Kenosha protest, and they’ve been scared off from testifying after hearing about her experience. They “saw significantly more than I did,” she told me. “And they’re afraid to go to the police and file witness statements, because they’re concerned that the same thing will happen to them.”
She added, “They’re like: ‘We might go to the police. But only if John Pierce faces some sort of consequences.’” She said none of them wanted to speak with media.
Mother Jones reviewed Walker’s complaint to the State Bar of California and her police report, and spoke with the student who texted her from her old apartment building. We also verified her real name, age, location, and corroborating reports about what she witnessed at the Kenosha protest. But we are not publishing these identifying details because of her concerns for her safety and the high-profile nature of the Rittenhouse case. The teen has become a celebrity on the right, accumulating $2 million in donations to post bond ahead of his trial. Earlier this month, people in Washington at a pro-Trump demonstration that included members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has advocated violence, chanted together, “Break out Kyle!” And on November 21, a lawmaker in Florida, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, went so far as to tweet, “KYLE RITTENHOUSE FOR CONGRESS.”
Walker is taking her own precautions in the meantime. She hasn’t heard from Pierce lately, nor from the two men who went to her old apartment. But she wonders if she should arm herself anyway. “I’m not pro-gun,” she told me. “But after having a stalker in college and having this happen,” she added, referring to her experience with Rittenhouse’s case, “I was like, I want some way to defend myself.”
SCOTUS Rejects Appeal By Branch Covidian Pastor
Law & Crime reports:
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito flatly rejected a plea by a Louisiana megachurch pastor to keep his church fully open against orders from the government to limit the size of worship gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The application, styled as Spell v. Edwards, complained that the orders by Gov. John Bel Edwards forbade the Life Tabernacle Church from being “fully assemble[d].” In a more legally astonishing question, the case also sought to ask whether the “First Amendment give[s] the Church exclusive jurisdiction over whether to assemble or not.”
Alito, despite being part of the majority which knocked down COVID-19 orders by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, apparently preferred that the high court not settle these grandiose questions in Louisiana.
The case was brought in part by Roy Moore’s Foundation For Moral Law, which seeks to literally replace all levels of government with a system based on “biblical law.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic Spell was arrested after gunning a church bus in reverse at a protester. He then refused to wear a mask at a court hearing in which charges were dropped.
At least one of Spell’s parishioners has died of COVID and his lawyer was hospitalized with the virus in April.
Throughout the course of this pandemic, I have let science and data inform the many difficult decisions I have made regarding gathering sizes and other mitigation measures to slow the spread of COVID. I have taken no such decisions lightly. #lagov
The reasonable, legal mitigation measures have been necessary to protect the people of Louisiana from unchecked spread of the coronavirus, which would limit hospitals’ ability to deliver care. #lagov
I am thankful that the United States Supreme Court denied this effort to overturn these mitigation efforts. For months I have spoken and prayed with leaders of many faiths as we have navigated this pandemic together. #lagov
I know how difficult this time has been for them and I am deeply appreciative of their commitment to practice their faiths even under trying circumstances and with the health of their congregations in mind. #lagov
As Pope Francis wrote of COVID this week: ‘Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.’ https://nyti.ms/33pgFVm #lagov
My own faith teaches me that our actions have an impact on others, that we truly are in this together, in 1 Corinthians 12: “There are many parts, yet one body” and “If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” #lagov
I have faith that the people of Louisiana will continue to care for one another by slowing the spread of this terrible illness. #lagov
Alito Slaps Down Megachurch Pastor’s Lawsuit That Claimed Obeying God Meant Ignoring COVID-19 Orders
Alito Slaps Down Megachurch Pastor’s Lawsuit That Claimed Obeying God Meant Ignoring COVID-19 Orders
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito flatly rejected a plea by a Louisiana megachurch pastor to keep his church fully open against orders from the government to limit the size of worship gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That pastor, Tony Spell, whose full legal name is Mark Anthony Spell, earlier this year opened his doors to some 1,800 congregants in violation of orders by the governor that limited the size of gatherings and required social distancing measures.
The application, styled as Spell v. Edwards, complained that the orders by Gov. John Bel Edwards forbade the Life Tabernacle Church from being “fully assemble[d].” In a more legally astonishing question, the case also sought to ask whether the “First Amendment give[s] the Church exclusive jurisdiction over whether to assemble or not.” In other words, the church sought to have the Supreme Court declare its assembly function as beyond state action or reproach. In one passage, the application suggests Spell was merely “[f]ollowing his religious conviction that he must obey God rather than man” when he chose to keep his church fully open. The application later argues that the First Amendment separation of church and state “was to protect the church from the state.”
From the petitioners’ application:
In Louisiana, one pastor and his church have been fighting since March 2020 for the right that God gives them and the Constitution of the United States secures to them: the right to assemble for church in person. Because of their supposed disobedience to Governor Edwards’ orders, the State of Louisiana has brought nine criminal charges against Pastor Tony Spell in three phases during the span of this litigation. Not only has Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards refused to respect the First Amendment rights of Pastor Spell and his church, but he has just refused an order of his own legislature to end the state of emergency that purportedly gives him the power to issue emergency orders.
This case presents a threshold question that other applicants did not present to this Court in prior religious liberty challenges: Whether the First Amendment places the decision of whether to assemble solely within the jurisdiction of the Church and not the State. Based on a historical analysis of the First Amendment and the Court’s leading precedents, Applicants herein believe the answer is yes. If it does, then Respondents have no authority to restrict the right of Pastor Spell and his church to meet.
Later on, it argued for the supreme authority of the church:
When the State’s order prohibits a church from assembling, singing together, hearing the word of God preached, laying hands on the sick, baptizing, taking communion, and the like, then the courts owe the State no deference at all.
Alito, despite being part of the majority which knocked down COVID-19 orders by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, apparently preferred that the high court not settle these grandiose questions in Louisiana. The pastor and his church lost previous rounds of litigation in the district and circuit courts, and Alito’s rejection of the matter means the end of the line legally for the petitioners’ visions of church primacy over government.
The case was pressed in part by Judge Roy Moore‘s Foundation for Moral Law. Moore is listed as one of the five attorneys on the case on behalf of the pastor and the church. Moore is the former Alabama chief justice and former Senate candidate whose fervent religious views and alleged acts of sexual misconduct are already well known.
Pastor Tony Spell’s trajectory through the courts has itself not been without controversy. He was refused entry to one of his own court proceedings because he refused to wear a mask. He also was charged after backing a bus toward a protester.
Among the petitioners’ complaints was that the governor’s orders restricted large-scale gatherings — albeit incrementally — from 250, then to 50, and then to just 10 people “if the people in the gathering would be in a single space at the same time and in close proximity to one another.” (The latter was suggested by the CDC and adopted by the governor.)
Generally speaking, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment prevents the government from punishing religious beliefs or religious conduct solely because it is religious. Naturally, Spell and his church cited Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court case which articulated a test for determining whether government actions unduly infringe upon the right to free exercise. Under that case, if a law is both religiously neutral and generally applicable to the population at large — e.g., it does not target a specific religious community — the law will not be subjected to strict judicial scrutiny and will almost certainly be allowed to stand. (The Lukumi Babal court struck down a city ordinance aimed at a particular religious sect which was sacrificing animals for religious reasons.)
In this case, the petitioners — Spell and his church — articulated the correct legal standard under Lukumi Babal but then argued that the Louisiana governor’s executive orders simply “are not law.” (In reality, executive orders are a type of law and carry the “force of law.”) The petitioners then said that if they were laws, the executive orders did “discriminate against religious practices on their face” because “exceptions exist for other entities that do not apply to churches.” Here, the petitioners’ argument attempted to latch on to circuit court decisions this year against COVID-19 in Kentucky orders promulgated by Gov. Andy Beshear. However, in this case, the arguments were unpersuasive.
Also unpersuasive were the petitoners’ arguments surrounding Emp’t Div., Dep’t of Human Res. of Or. v. Smith, the 1990 case penned by conservative darling Antonin Scalia from which Lukumi Babal eventually sprang. Smith held that a state government could legally withhold unemployment benefits from a man fired for using the drug peyote for religious ceremonial reasons. Scalia’s view was that religious activities could subject a person to negative action by the government if the government was seeking to apply a law which applied to everybody and which did not directly target a religion.
“The government’s ability to enforce generally applicable prohibitions of socially harmful conduct, like its ability to carry out other aspects of public policy, cannot depend on measuring the effects of a governmental action on a religious objector’s spiritual development,” Scalia wrote (internal quotations omitted). He also bewailed the possibility that “constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind” might start to pop up if the courts agreed to a stream of requests for religious carve-outs. Scalia provided a de facto grocery list of regulations for which religion provided no excuse. Some of those items included “compulsory military service,” “the payment of taxes,” “health and safety regulation[s],” “vaccination laws,” “drug laws,” “traffic laws,” “minimum wage laws,” and “child labor laws.”
The Louisiana pastor and his church argued that a random passage in Smith should be interpreted to mean that “assembling for religious worship [was] completely off limits” for government regulation or interference and that the government was “completely powerless” to get it the way of religious assembly.
Again, those arguments fell on Alito’s deaf ears.
As vice president in 2012, Joe Biden endeared himself to many LGBTQ Americans by endorsing same-sex marriage even before his boss, President Barack Obama.
Now, as president-elect, Biden is making sweeping promises to LGBTQ activists, proposing to carry out virtually every major proposal on their wish lists. Among them: Lifting the Trump administration’s near-total ban on military service for transgender people, barring federal contractors from anti-LGBTQ job discrimination, and creating high-level LGBTQ-rights positions at the State Department, the National Security Council and other federal agencies.
In many cases the measures would reverse executive actions by President Donald Trump, whose administration took numerous steps to weaken protections for transgender people and create more leeway for discrimination against LGBTQ people, ostensibly based on religious grounds.
In a policy document, the Biden campaign said Trump and Vice President Mike Pence “have given hate against LGBTQ+ individuals safe harbor and rolled back critical protections.”
Beyond executive actions he can take unilaterally, Biden says his top legislative priority for LGBTQ issues is the Equality Act, passed by the House of Representatives last year but stalled in the Senate. It would extend to all 50 states the comprehensive anti-bias protections already afforded to LGBTQ people in 21 mostly Democratic-governed states, covering such sectors as housing, public accommodations and public services.
Biden says he wants the act to become law within 100 days of taking office, but its future remains uncertain. Assuming the bill passes again in the House, it would need support from several Republicans in the Senate, even if the Democrats gain control by winning two runoff races in Georgia. For now, Susan Collins of Maine is the only GOP co-sponsor in the Senate.
Critics, including prominent religious conservatives, say the bill raises religious freedom concerns and could require some faith-based organizations to operate against their beliefs.
The Equality Act “is a dangerous game changer” in its potential federal threat to religious liberty, said the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican, tried to strike a compromise last year that would have expanded LGBTQ rights nationwide while allowing exemptions for religious groups to act on beliefs that could exclude LGBTQ people. His proposal won support from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Seventh-day Adventist Church but was panned by liberal and civil rights groups.
“Anti-equality forces are trying to use the framework of religious liberty to strip away individual rights,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ-rights organization.
Among the actions that Biden pledges to take unilaterally, scrapping Trump’s transgender military ban would be among the most notable.
Jennifer Levi, a Massachusetts-based transgender-rights lawyer, said it’s clear Biden has the authority to do so after taking office.
Nicolas Talbott, a transgender man whom Levi has represented in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban, called that “a huge relief.”
“I look forward to being allowed to re-enroll in ROTC so I can continue to train, keep up my fitness to serve, and become the best Army officer I can possibly be,” Talbott said via email.
Some of Biden’s other promises:
— Appoint an array of LGBTQ people to federal government positions. There’s wide expectation that Biden will nominate an LGBTQ person to a Cabinet post, with former presidential contender Pete Buttigieg among the possibilities.
— Reverse Trump administration policies carving out religious exemptions allowing discrimination against LGBTQ people by social service agencies, health care providers, adoption and foster care agencies and other entities.
— Reinstate Obama administration guidance directing public schools to allow transgender students to access bathrooms, locker rooms and sports teams in accordance with their gender identity. The Trump administration revoked this guidance.
— Allocate federal resources to help curtail violence against transgender people, particularly transgender women of color. Rights groups say at least 38 transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the U.S. this year.
— Support legislative efforts to ban so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors.
— Bolster federal efforts to collect comprehensive data about LGBTQ people in the U.S. by adding questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to national surveys.
— Ensure that LGBTQ rights are a priority for U.S. foreign policy and be prepared to use pressure tactics, including sanctions, against foreign governments violating those rights.
Whatever happens in Washington, some activists worry that Republican-controlled state legislatures may push anti-LGBTQ bills, such as curtailing the ability of transgender youth to access certain medical treatments or participate in school sports. They are also concerned that an influx of conservative federal judges appointed by Trump might lead to rulings allowing religious exemptions.
Earlier this month the Supreme Court — now with a solid conservative majority — heard arguments on whether a Catholic social services agency in Philadelphia should be able to turn away same-sex couples who want to be foster parents, while still receiving local government funding.
Tim Schultz, a religious freedom advocate, outlined two potential paths for the debate over the Equality Act: “ongoing legislative gridlock, regulatory trench warfare and judicial decisions, which will happen independently of what the president does,” or active engagement by Biden for a new strategy that can win bipartisan support in the Senate.
The first path would provide only “temporary satisfaction,” given that regulatory moves can be undone by future presidents, said Schultz, president of the nonprofit 1st Amendment Partnership.
Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, cited Biden’s campaign-trail appeals for unity — and his commitment to faith outreach — as positive signs for more engagement on the issue next year.
“He and his team will be very well-positioned to broker compromise if they want to, to get this done,” said Diament, who has advised both the Trump and Obama administrations.
Byron and Keira Hordyk, an Australian evangelical Christian couple who applied to be foster parents, are suing for “religious discrimination” after they were denied. They say the foster agency’s decision wasn’t based on whether or not they can provide a loving home to a child but instead on their anti-LGBTQ religious beliefs.
The couple told an employee from the Wanslea Family Services that they would not accept an LGBTQ kid and would subject the child to traumatizing “conversion therapy” meant to turn them straight or cisgender. The Hordyks were denied because their home wouldn’t be a safe environment for the child.
The American Psychiatric Association has long opposed conversion therapy and has called on lawmakers to ban what they call a “harmful and discriminatory practice.”
Even conversion therapy that doesn’t use abusive or violent techniques can harm a child’s mental health by teaching them that they are fundamentally broken because of their identity. According to HRC, the practice has been linked to an increased risk of “depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.”
Garden State Equality, an LGBTQ organization, says simply, “Conversion therapy is child abuse.”
So it is not surprising that the Hordyks got rejected. The couple said they got a letter from the foster agency saying that they did not meet the requirement of “providing a safe living environment.”
“We do feel we have been discriminated against and also we felt that if we were quiet about this and didn’t say anything about it, it could potentially harm or limit any people with the same Christian values as ours from fostering,” the couple told The West Australian. “We hold traditional Christian views on how the Bible teaches us on sexuality and marriage.”
“We stated it from the beginning. We are not here to hide behind it. Everyone — particularly with a divisive issue — is afraid of being put into the realm of public opinion in a negative light. And my beliefs are strong enough that this might be my cross to bear.”
In the United States, foster agencies run by religious organizations have sued to demand their “right” to deny LGBTQ people as potential foster parents. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case brought by a Catholic adoption agency seeking the right to discriminate against potential LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents, shortly after the election.
Catholic Social Services sued after the city of Philadelphia ended a contract with the service after finding out the agency wouldn’t serve gay couples. Lower court rulings have sided with the city, pointing out that religious beliefs are not grounds for violating general civil rights laws.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that religious groups are not exempt from general local, state, and federal laws, but the current makeup of the court has caused concern among civil rights advocates.
This was the first major case that new Justice Amy Coney Barrett heard. The far-right anti-LGBTQ Justice’s confirmation tilted the court with a 6-3 conservative bias.
I really hope this is true. I have not investigated it yet, but hope springs eternal. Hugs
Dig into the history and you’ll see plenty of early American colonizers were super gay—and their compatriots had views of it that were complicated, to say the least.
As you sit down for turkey, corn, and arguments with relatives at Thanksgiving this year, take a moment to give thanks to Thomas Morton, who founded what could be considered America’s first queer hippie colony in 1625.
Today, Merrymount is a quiet neighborhood of Quincy, Massachusetts; residents explain that the name is an English translation of its original name, Passonagessit. But, bless their hearts, the truth may be more exciting. According to historians and original records, the pilgrims founded an unusually queer society—one that wasn’t straight-up accepting of all that queerness, per se, but had a more complicated relationship with it than you might think. In fact, as historians note, the name “Merrymount” can also refer to a Latin phrase meaning “erect phallus”—quite a coincidence, given the men erected an 80-foot pole in the center of town.
Though our modern understanding of sexuality would have been completely foreign to them, early European immigrants experienced same-sex attraction just as we do today, and they had queer sex, entered queer relationships, and formed queer households in ways that are surprisingly familiar.
And though early laws called for the death penalty for “sodomy” and “buggery,” the Pilgrims had a more complicated attitude about homosexuality than you might think. Despite the prohibition on same-sex encounters, there were circumstances where they were tolerated—or at least ignored—and penalties gradually weakened over the course of the 1600s, in part out of necessity because such encounters were so common, according to Michael Bronski, a Professor of Practice in Media and Activism in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard. In other words, yes, many of the pilgrims in whose honor we celebrate Thanksgiving were queer.
When they arrived in what they called the Americas, colonizers sought a “city upon a hill”—that is, an example of religious purity. But the inhabitants of that land certainly didn’t meet their Biblical expectations, particularly when it came to gender roles.
“[Indigenous] gender roles—not all the time, but a considerable amount—were completely foreign to the Europeans,” said Bronski. “Every tribe had their own word for it, but there was a considerable amount of gender fluidity.”
Among the Mamitaree tribe, the journals of Lewis and Clark recorded men allowed to wear women’s clothes and marry other men. Among the Crow, men were honored for expressing feminine roles.
“The Europeans [were] totally scandalized,” said Bronski.
Despite their heterosexual aspirations, the Pilgrims found that sodomy just refused to stop happening among their ilk. Though they passed laws to encourage heterosexual marriage and reproduction, Bronski said, “clearly, they were fucking before they were married.”
In a 1978 paper entitled “Things Fearful to Name,” historian Robert F. Oaks described colonists who were what we would today call queer. For example, there was the 1629 arrival of the ship Talbot, carrying “5 beastly Sodomitical boys [who] confessed their wickedness not to be named.” They were sent back to England for trial.
In 1637, John Allexander and Thomas Roberts were accused of “lude behavior and uncleane carriage one w[ith] another, by often spendinge their seede one vpon another.” Alexander was beaten, branded, and exiled; Roberts was whipped and returned to indentured servitude. In 1649, Mary Hammon and Sara Norman were accused of “lewd behavior each with other upon a bed” and “divers Lasivious speeches.” Norman was sentenced “to make a publick acknowlidgment, so fare as conveniently may bee, of her vnchast beahuior.”
There exists little record of queer life in the colonies, since criminal complaints were generally the only occasion on which they were detailed. Thomas Morton’s founding of Merrymount remains among the most vivid: Merrymount denziens are described as having rejected the strict rules of the Puritans, declaring all servants and slaves to be free and encouraging intermingling with indigenous Algonquin people. Morton declared himself “Lord of Misrule” and his people were described by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a “crew of Comus,” a reference to a mythological figure during whose ceremonies men and women exchanged clothing.
Hawthorne’s description of Merrymounters, written two centuries later, could refer to a Pride parade today: “One was a youth in glistening apparel, with a scarf of the rainbow pattern crosswise on his breast. … There was the likeness of a bear erect, brute in all but his hind legs, which were adorned with pink silk stockings.”
On one particularly exciting occasion, the residents of Merrymount erected a maypole and danced in a manner described as evoking Ganymede and Zeus—figures that often symbolized same-sex couplings. This proto-Pride proved a bit too much for the neighbors, who arrested Morton, chopped down the pole, and scattered the residents.
But Puritan objections to homosexuality were not entirely rooted in what we would call gender normativity. “The earliest sodomy laws are not prohibiting homsexual sex per se,” said Bronski. “They’re prohibiting non-reproductive sex. So if you had anal sex with your wife, that would be a crime. The most important thing was to reproduce, because half the children died when they were infants.”
Indeed, the Puritans often avoided applying prescribed punishments for queer sex. Nicholas Sension, for example, was brought before a court in 1672 having propositioned numerous men over the preceding thirty years. “He took me and threw me on the chest and took hold on my privy parts,” testified one man. Sension was merely admonished at least twice during those decades before finally being whipped, fined, and shamed. It was yet another case, historian Linda Bissell wrote, of authorities using the law “to enforce obedience only when other means had failed and violations of norms were flagrant.”
Despite many settlements calling for the death penalty for sodomy, colonizers found that conditions were so harsh and the community so delicate that it was inadvisable to kill except in the most extreme cases. As a result, they often found reasons to forgive same-sex intercourse when it was discovered.
“There were always concerns about starvation of the entire colony,” said historian Carl Anthony. “So in the order of things that were important to them, that harsh Christian judgement about sex outside of marriage fell lower on the list.”
This “may have reflected economic realities in an area where labor was scarce, or it may have stemmed from a reluctance to apply capital punishment to crimes feared to be rather common,” wrote Oaks in 1978.
“My reading of this is that the Puritans were like, ‘people do this stuff, but it really shouldn’t be public,’” said Bronski. “‘We don’t want to go too far punishing them, because that would hurt the community.’ The most important thing is to keep the community stable.”
He added, “you kept the community together by keeping your emotions in.”
“Puritans became inured to sexual offenses,” wrote historian Edmund Morgan in 1942, “because there were so many.”
It’s an attitude that managed to stay with Americans over the intervening centuries, a tension between distaste for homosexuality and resignation that it will never go away. It’s only in the last few decades that the original spirit of Merrymount has returned, whether in the form of separatist radical faerie communities or queer enclaves within cities.
“I think Thomas Morton would have loved it,” Bronski said. “I’m rather fond of the Puritans. I wouldn’t want to live with them, but they totally understand that human beings are fallible. And what really matters is keeping the community together — which I can relate to as part of a gay community.”
Does the Bible say that life begins at first breath? If so, that strengthens the pro-choice argument.
Tim Barnett from the Stand to Reason ministry uses his background as a teacher to grade the logic of arguments that attack his conservative Christian beliefs. His video series is called Red Pen Logic. Today’s topic is, “The Bible Doesn’t Say What He Thinks It Says.”
The problem comes from actor and political commentator John Fugelsang, who attacked the popular Christian claim that life begins at conception with this tweet:
Well don’t tell God [that life begins at conception], bc the Bible says Life begins at First Breath.
Sorry, I didn’t write it.
Fugelsang is probably referring to this verse from the Garden of Eden story: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
The importance of “breath”
Barnett responded that God breathed into Adam, and then Adam came to life. The “breath” wasn’t Adam’s first breath, like a newborn’s first breath would be. This is a unique situation and doesn’t apply elsewhere.
But the Jewish interpretation disagrees, and this is critical since Jesus was a Jew. Breath is central to the Genesis idea of life. In the verse above, “the man became a living being,” is literally translated as, “the man became a breathing creature.” Breath is roughly synonymous with life.
Not only does the Bible say that the “breath of life” is what living things have, it’s what they don’t have when they die. This is what the dying animals during the Flood lost: “Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died” (Gen. 7:22). Another example is from the Canaanite genocide: “But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive” (Deuteronomy 20:16). One commentary says, “Breath is understood to be essential to life; and that when the breathing stops, life ends.”
The Christian case
And now comes the obligatory dueling Bible quotes part of the argument. Barnett says that the Bible recognizes life before “first breath” and says, “The Bible consistently elevates the status of unborn humans to valuable individuals.”
He cites two Bible passages. First, “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). That sounds pretty bland, but Barnett interprets this to mean that we exist “as ourselves” before birth.
I don’t see it. First, “knitted” (Strong’s #05526) is more literally “wove,” as would be done with a protective screen or fence woven from branches, and by implication it can mean to fence in, cover, or protect. Yes, it’s important for a fetus to be in a protective womb when it is developing, but this simply acknowledges the gestation process. During that process, you aren’t you, but (with luck) you will be by the end.
Read that entire psalm. It’s a worshipful acknowledgement of God’s omniscience and power. Some variation on “you were you even at the beginning of the gestation process” is not the message.
Barnett’s second Bible response is Luke 1:41–44 where John the Baptist (as a fetus in his mother Elizabeth) leapt for joy when he first came in contact with Jesus (as a younger fetus in Mary). He tells us, “Jesus and John were themselves long before first breath.”
What does that even mean? Yes, the process of gestation was underway. That’s it. At that stage, they might have looked to the untrained eye indistinguishable from an elephant. “[They] were themselves” distills down to their DNA being in place and functioning, I guess—pretty underwhelming.
Passages on the other side of the question
Let’s return to the Bible for verses showing God’s attitude toward life. Exodus 21:22–3 says that if a man injures a woman and causes a miscarriage, he is only fined. If instead he causes an injury to the woman, he is penalized “an eye for an eye.” In other words, a fetus is less important than an adult.
Here, though, experts differ on the best interpretation. Are we talking about a miscarriage (the fetus dies) or just a premature birth (it lives)? If the latter, just a fine might be reasonable. This passage doesn’t help us much.
Another is the “trial of the bitter water” in Numbers 5. Here, the issue is a husband who suspects his wife of adultery. The priest creates a potion for the wife to drink, with a curse if she’s guilty. To be clear, the problem isn’t “My wife is pregnant, and I want that fetus gone if it’s not mine” but rather “I need to know if my wife has been unfaithful.” (More here.)
God’s judgment on the woman, if guilty, sounds like a prolapsed uterus. And if the woman were pregnant, that curse would likely cause a miscarriage. God clearly doesn’t much care about a little collateral damage in the pursuit of justice. Maybe pro-lifers like Barrett should take the hint.
He even demanded human sacrifice. First, he created the law:
Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal (Exodus 13:2).
And later, he mocked Israel for it:
So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live; I defiled them through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am Jehovah (Ezekiel 20:25–6).
Jewish sources on abortion
The Talmud is the source of religious law for rabbinic Judaism. It draws the rather common sense conclusion that the fetus, especially in its earliest days, has a very different moral value than a human child or adult: “The [Talmud] states that: ‘the embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day.’ Afterwards, it is considered subhuman until it is born” (source).
Another source says,
Unlike in Catholicism, in Judaism the fetus isn’t a legal person until it’s born, so abortion can’t be murder. (This isn’t even as different from Catholicism as it seems. The Catholic Church itself didn’t insist that life began at conception until 1869. Before that, the Church tolerated abortions through the 40th day of pregnancy.)
About the abortion debate, one rabbi said,
Most of the [Old Testament verses] that [conservative Christians are] bringing in for this are ridiculous. They’re using my sacred text to justify taking away my rights in a way that is just so calculated and craven.
When does life begin?
This is Barnett’s final question, and here he turns to science rather than the Bible. He cited a book on embryology that said, “[an embryo] is a human being from the time of fertilization.”
This doesn’t help. It just raises the question, what is a “human being”? If it’s by definition a Homo sapiens life form from single fertilized egg cell until death, then sure. But quoting a definition is no argument.
Let me respond with three points. First, the answer to “When did life begin?” is “Life began on earth about 3.5 billion years ago.” The egg and sperm are already alive, so when they join, the fertilized egg cell doesn’t then become alive. What begins is the gestation process for a new offspring.
Note how off-target the mindless celebration of “life” can be. Slugs and mosquitoes are alive, but pests don’t have much inherent value. There’s a range of value here, and we kill living things all the time. We’re all on the same page about the value of a newborn. The problem is giving that single cell the value of a newborn right now, not nine months from now.
A newborn is really complicated
And finally, that brings us to the strangely appealing desire that sucks in many conservative Christians, the need to dismiss the changes that happen during the course of a human pregnancy. Comparing the two ends of that process, there are a few things that are the same. The single cell and the newborn are both alive, and they both have H. sapiens DNA. That’s about it.
But there are some things that are radically different. The newborn has about one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) cells, each one differentiated and fitted with other cells in a precise arrangement. The single cell is . . . 1 cell. The newborn has arms and legs, eyes and ears, a stomach and digestive system, brain and nervous system, heart and circulatory system, skin, liver, and on and on. The single cell doesn’t have a single cell of any of this.
If you want to define “human being” so that it includes both newborn and single cell, that’s fine. But then you need to come up with some term that describes that gap. We have lots of words for subtle differences among young children—newborn, baby, child, infant, toddler, and so on—so surely we can find a word for the enormous change that happens from fertilization until birth. For example, I’d say that a newborn is a person while the single cell isn’t. If you object to the word “person,” then suggest something better. We need a term like “personhood” to describe the enormous spectrum from single cell (not at all a person) to the newborn (100% person).
Biblical arguments have no place in making laws in a country governed by a secular constitution like the United States. And even when we look in the Bible to see what it says, the pro-life argument is poorly supported.Abortion—the issue that gets followers of Christ
to vote against everything Christ talked about,
by talking about something Christ never talked about.
A Hasidic synagogue in Brooklyn planned the wedding of a chief rabbi’s grandson with such secrecy it was able to host thousands of maskless celebrants without the city catching on.
Despite a surge in COVID-19 cases, guests crammed shoulder-to-shoulder inside the Yetev Lev temple in Williamsburg for the Nov. 8 nuptials — stomping, dancing and singing at the top of their lungs without a mask in sight, videos obtained by The Post show.
Organizers schemed to hide the wedding of Yoel Teitelbaum, grandson of Satmar Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelman, from “the ravenous press and government officials,” says a detailed account in the Yiddish newspaper Der Blatt, the publication of the Satmar sect.
“Due to the ongoing situation with government restrictions, preparations were made secretly and discreetly, so as not to draw attention from strangers,” the paper reported in its Nov. 13 edition.
“In recent weeks, organizers worked tirelessly to arrange everything in the best way possible. All notices about upcoming celebrations were passed along through word of mouth, with no notices in writing, no posters on the synagogue walls, no invitations sent through the mail, nor even a report in any publication, including this very newspaper.”
The Satmar synagogue, which has a maximum capacity of 7,000, jammed men onto bleachers filled to the rafters, the videos show. Women sat in the balcony behind a barricade.
Last month, the state ordered the cancellation of another Williamsburg wedding planned for a grandson of Satmar Grand Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum, a brother and rival of Aaron, after that publicized event was expected to draw 10,000 people. The congregation called it “an unwarranted attack.”
That crackdown led to a determination to keep plans for the Nov. 8 affair under wraps. The stealthy arrangements continued amid a fear that someone would blow their cover.
“The days leading up to the wedding were filled with tension, not knowing what the next day, or the next moment, will bring; which disgruntled outcast might seize this opportunity to exploit even what hasn’t been written or publicized, to create an unnecessary uproar, and to disrupt the simcha, God forbid,” Der Blatt reported.
The synagogue’s stunning willingness to host a potential super-spreader event underscores what critics call the Hasidic community’s ongoing disregard and outright defiance of efforts to control the deadly coronavirus, which has killed nearly 25,000 people in New York City.
Ironically, the synagogue’s own president, R’Mayer Zelig Rispler, who openly urged Brooklyn’s Orthodox community to abide by coronavirus safety measures, died of COVID-19 last month at age 70.
New COVID-19 cases in New York City rose to 3.11% Saturday, according to City Hall. There were 1,345 new COVID-19 cases and 118 patients admitted to the hospital with the potentially deadly virus, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Saturday.
“This weekend is critical to fighting back #COVID19,” the mayor warned.
“A second wave is bearing down on us,” Hizzoner told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on Friday. “We need restrictions. It’s just clear that restrictions are the only way to turn back this kind of a surge.”
De Blasio and Gov. Cuomo have both talked tough about repeated violations in the ultra-Orthodox communities, but ultimately have avoided curbing the mass gatherings of Hasidic leaders with whom they’ve had longstanding relationships.
“The ability of Hasidic leaders to compel their followers to so brazenly violate the rules and norms extends well beyond the pandemic, and is enabled by government officials turning a blind eye for political reasons,” said Naftuli Moster, executive director of YAFFED, a nonprofit that advocates for improved secular education in yeshivas.
Mitch Schwartz, the mayor’s Director of Rapid Response, could not explain why the city failed to detect the enormous Nov. 8 celebration — and let it go off without a hitch.
Next door to the synagogue at 14 Hooper St. is the firehouse of Engine and Ladder Cos. 211 and 119, but the FDNY said it wasn’t called to inspect the synagogue. The FDNY is one of a host of city agencies that inspect sites for COVID-19 violations, along with the NYPD, the Sheriff and the Health Department.
The event “clearly violated” Covid restrictions on indoor occupancy, FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer said.
Under current rules posted by the city, houses of worship may hold indoor religious services in one room with occupancy limited to 50 percent capacity. Also, attendees from different households must maintain six feet of social distancing, or wear face coverings.
Asked whether the firefighters noticed anything amiss next door, Dywer said, “Firehouses don’t conduct surveillance on their neighbors.”
Schwartz said, “The city performs a tremendous number of inspections daily, and our community outreach team is dedicated to relaying the latest happenings across the city.
“But let’s be clear: indoor gatherings of this size aren’t acceptable, and they’re offensive to all the sacrifices New Yorkers have made to keep their families and neighbors safe from COVID-19.”
Asked whether the Satmar synagogue would face any consequences for violating the restrictions, Schwartz gave no answer.
It wasn’t the sect’s only recent event. Aaron Teitelbaum led a Chumash, a celebration of the Torah, on Oct. 27 at its Borough Park synagogue — when it was in a state-designated, high-risk “red zone.”
Religious leaders have blasted what they consider a double standard, saying city and state officials have condoned the gathering of thousands in the streets to protest police brutality and to celebrate Joe Biden’s election victory.
But some members of the Orthodox community are mortified by the recklessness of their own lifestyles.
“We can have our misgivings about total shutdowns, and other extreme measures, but there’s zero excuse to completely ignore anything that might help reduce the virus a bit,” one told The Post.
“We don’t wear masks anywhere, we don’t soap our hands, we have huge packed gatherings, we shake hands – there’s zero indication that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and that people in this country and in our community are still getting the virus and dying. And it’s not just the lay people doing all this; it’s the rabbis themselves not caring one bit.”
Messages sent to Satmar officials requesting comment were not returned.
The Sunday night wedding capped a three-day affair, which began on Friday night with four hours of festivities, and continued on Saturday with Sabbath services, including a bris of an 8-day-old boy.
The white-gowned bride was not named by Der Blatt, but a relative said her name is Miriam.
The Der Blatt account reveled in the success of the covert operation: “Now that the wedding has passed, thank God, after being held with great splendor and fanfare, the sentiment expressed by all is: how privileged we are, how good our portion, how fortunate our lot, to have merited the experience of such a glorious night.”