The Supreme Court on Jan. 11 ruled unanimously that courts can't intervene in church hiring decisions, protecting the "ministerial exception" that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sought to eliminate in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the court's opinion, characterized the government's argument to erase the ministerial exception as "extreme" and noted that the Constitution's specific protections for religion go beyond those for, say, a labor organization. The high court has never ruled on the ministerial exception before-lower courts created that policy-and the opinion shied away from defining who qualifies as a "minister," saying simply that the teacher in question, a commissioned minister at the Lutheran church school, qualified.
"We are reluctant ... to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister," Roberts wrote in the decision. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate concurring opinion, which Justice Elena Kagan joined, saying the government should allow any teaching religious employee to fall under the ministerial exception, not just those officially commissioned. Justice Clarence Thomas also wrote a concurring opinion saying the government should defer to religious groups in defining who is a minister. "It was a strong rebuke to the extreme position taken by the Obama administration," said Luke Goodrich, a lawyer at the Becket Fund who worked on the case: "It's a great day for religious liberty."
Meanwhile, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Texas law that requires abortion clinics to show a woman seeking an abortion an ultrasound of her baby, and to play sounds of the baby's heartbeat. "The required disclosures of a sonogram, the fetal heartbeat, and their medical descriptions are the epitome of truthful, non-misleading information," Chief Judge Edith Jones wrote in the decision, which overturned a lower court's ruling that the law violated free speech.
A deadly Christmas turned into a violent New Year for Christians living in northern Nigeria, with Islamic terrorists killing dozens of churchgoers and threatening more violence if Christians don't flee the country's predominantly Muslim north.
Members of Boko Haram-an Islamic group whose name means "Western education Is sin"-detonated a bomb at St. Theresa's Catholic Church in Madalla on Christmas Day, killing at least 37 parishioners. Some burned to death in their cars.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency on Dec. 31, but Boko Haram gave Christians a choice: Leave the north within three days or face more attacks. Four days later, gunmen attacked a mid-week prayer service at Deeper Life Church, killing six members, including the pastor's wife. By Jan. 8, suspected Boko Haram gunmen had killed at least 40 Christians across the north during the two weeks after Christmas.
Nigerian authorities estimate that Boko Haram members killed at least 500 people in Nigeria last year. The Christian advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported many Christians saying they can't flee because they don't have places to go. One Christian told the group: "We have farmlands, houses, and everything here. Our great, great, great grandparents were born here ... yet we are being left with the choice of relocating to a safer area until things improve, or staying here to die."
Chinese authorities arrested nearly 50 members of Beijing's largest unregistered church on Jan. 1 after the congregation decided to continue meeting outdoors for Sunday worship services. Members of Shouwang Church began meeting outdoors last April after Chinese authorities blocked access to their indoor meeting space. Police deemed the outdoor meetings illegal and detained hundreds of church members attempting to assemble each week. Church leaders said they began 2012 by attempting to rent indoor facilities again, but reported that Chinese authorities told landlords to refuse their applications. When a few dozen members gathered at the outdoor meeting place on New Year's Day, Chinese authorities immediately detained them. Bob Fu of the Texas-based ChinaAid said the Jan. 1 arrests show that Chinese authorities are "determined to continue their crackdown on independent religious groups in the coming year."
A federal judge on Jan. 11 sentenced former Rep. Mark Siljander, R-Mich., to a year and a day in prison without parole. Siljander pleaded guilty in 2010 to lying to the FBI and acting as an unregistered lobbyist for a group with terrorist ties. The Sudan-based Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA) hired Siljander in 2004 to lobby for the nonprofit organization's removal from the U.S. Senate Finance Committee's list of sponsors of international terrorism. Siljander did not register as a lobbyist, as required by law, and lied to the FBI about the $75,000 in lobbying payments he received from the IARA. He said the money was a payment to help him finish a book on bridging the divide between Islam and Christianity. Siljander served in Congress from 1981 to 1987 and served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1987 to 1988.
A Virginia court ordered seven major Anglican congregations to hand their property to Episcopal church hierarchs. The seven congregations had broken away from the mainline Episcopal church over its departure from Christian orthodoxy. If the ruling stands, 2,000 congregants in historic Falls Church in northern Virginia, for example, will have to turn their church property over to an Episcopal congregation of fewer than 100 members. The congregations haven't indicated whether they will appeal the decision.
Conservatives are calling on Congress to defund two agencies after President Obama on Jan. 4 circumvented the U.S. Senate and unilaterally appointed four controversial nominees. Obama, continuing his strategy to move ahead without Congress, named three people to the National Labor Relations Board and installed Richard Cordray to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Senators had held up voting on Cordray's nomination over concerns about the undefined powers of this new regulatory office. Obama bypassed the Senate's constitutional advise-and-consent role, arguing that Congress was in recess. But Congress, holding brief pro-forma sessions, has not gone into a formal recess of sufficient length since the holidays. Under a long-held precedent that Obama's lawyers defended in 2010, a congressional recess has to be longer than three days before the presidential appointment power can work.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Obama's move "sets a terrible precedent that could allow any future president to completely cut the Senate out of the confirmation process." Going into brief sessions to prevent a president from sidestepping the confirmation process is a tactic that Democrats employed while George W. Bush occupied the White House. "We don't let him have recess appointments," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2008, "because they are mischievous."
Conservatives pointed to the appointments as another example of Obama's disregard of constitutional checks and balances.