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Image: Hawaii News Now

Late last year, two atheists in Hawaii sued several churches who were renting public school facilities for Sunday services.  The atheists filed suit under the State’s False Claims Act, which gives an insider the chance to blow the whistle on  fraud, expose it, recover the money for the State, and then keep a percentage of the money for themselves. The atheists alleged that the churches underreported the amount of time they were using the school facilities and thus underpaid for that use, to the tune of more than $15 million in damages to the State over the last 6 years.

Alliance Defending Freedom represents two of the churches. We asked the judge to throw out the lawsuit, and thankfully, the Judge agreed and dismissed the case.  While she did give the atheists the chance to refile their lawsuit if they believed they could sufficiently show fraud, the dismissal order means that the lawsuit they filed against the churches is over – a great victory for the Hawaii churches.

However, the lawsuit should never have been brought in the first place.  A typical False Claims Act lawsuit is brought by someone working for a company who stumbles across documents that show the company is purposefully defrauding the government.  The federal False Claims Act was first passed during the Civil War when the federal government became aware of widespread fraud among government contractors providing supplies for the Union troops.  Apparently, paying $500.00 for a hammer was going on even back then.

But the False Claims Act was never intended for situations like this.  The Hawaii churches committed no fraud.  The schools they rented from set the rental rates and unlocked the school to give them access to it.  To say that the schools had no idea how long the churches were using the school facilities is laughable.

The atheists in this case admitted that they brought their lawsuit after hearing about Alliance Defending Freedom’s Bronx Household of Faith case where ADF is fighting against an unconstitutional New York City School Board policy prohibiting churches from using school facilities.  The Hawaii atheists liked the New York School Board policy and thought up this lawsuit to accomplish the same thing in Hawaii; denying churches the right to use public schools. But the dismissal is a setback in their radical efforts to remove churches from Hawaii’s public schools.

The churches have been good for the schools; they use the facilities at times when they usually sit empty, and the rent the churches pay goes into a fund to improve school facilities, providing hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hawaii schools.

 In short, the Hawaii churches have done here what churches have always done – benefit their communities in numerous ways.  They should be applauded for their efforts, not forced to defend an ideologically motivated, baseless lawsuit.

The atheists may refile their lawsuit.  But if they do, we will defend the churches from these baseless attacks.

Alliance Defending Freedom stands ready to defend churches and to ensure that the Church remains free to proclaim the Gospel message and to minister freely.  If your church needs legal assistance, please contact us today so one of our attorneys can review your situation.

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

Riot Police in Egypt, one of the nations listed as violating human rights

Riot police in Egypt, one of the nations listed as violating human rights.

By Emily Conley

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) celebrated its 65th anniversary on December 10th. To mark the occasion, the Vice Chairwoman and a Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote a review of how those countries who signed, and those who abstained, score on upholding Human Rights sixty-five years later.

From Europe to the Middle East, the human right of freedom of religion for 75% of the world’s population is trampled on, even from those who agreed to the Declaration.

Why should we care how religious minorities are treated in other countries? The writers respond:

“Human rights abuses and their consequences spill beyond national borders, darkening prospects for harmony and stability across the globe. Freedom of religion or belief, as well as other human rights, are essential to peace and security. They are everyone’s business.”

They give a chilling warning:

“Indeed, study after study confirms that countries that do not protect freedom of conscience produce strife and instability, including terrorism.

The United States and the entire world community have an enormous stake in upholding the UDHR’s human rights principles — including religious freedom. On this Human Rights Day, it is time to reaffirm the declaration by holding its signatories accountable.”

We would do well to learn from the rest of the world.

The United States has a long tradition of upholding the human rights of its citizens, but we are seeing our freedoms rapidly erode. The government has flatly refused business owners like the Hahns and Greens of  Conestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby, Elaine and Jon Huguenin of Elane Photography, cake baker Jack Phillips, Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers, Jim and Mary O’Reilly of WildFlower Inn, and many, many others their freedom to run their business according to their conscience. Students have been expelled, professors dismissed, professionals fired, and doctors sued over their religious convictions.

While these cases may pale in comparison to the violence described in the article than people around the world face, it should still be cause for our grave concern.

Read the entire article, “Human Rights Day: Still Pursuing Religious Freedom.”  And stay informed about current threats to the freedom of conscience.

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Christmas Bible

Celebrating Christmas in America is, in many ways, predictable.  The decorations go up in the retail stores, the commercials on television take a decidedly “holiday” turn, the Salvation Army bell-ringers are out in force collecting with their ubiquitous red kettles, and radio stations begin to play the Christmas favorites.  These “signs of the season” are predictable and, in many ways, welcome as we look forward to celebrating Christmas.  After all, we take comfort in the holiday traditions that reappear every year.

Yet one of the “signs of the season” that has become just as predictable, but certainly less welcome, are the battles over Christmas celebration in the public square.  Even in recent days, media reports have surfaced of a charter school banning Christmas carols at a school concert and of another school dropping Operation Christmas Child after threats of a lawsuit by atheists.  These battles have become as predictable as the lights and decorations that accompany the signs of the season.

But virtually none of these battles have to end by capitulating to the shrill demands of those who claim celebrating Christmas is unconstitutional.  The truth is that public acknowledgements of the Christmas holiday are not unconstitutional and never have been.  It is constitutional to say “Merry Christmas.”  It is constitutional to sing or perform religious Christmas carols at public school concerts.  It is constitutional to have a Christmas tree, and there is nothing in the Constitution requiring the absurd step of calling it a holiday tree.  It is also constitutional to have a nativity scene on public property, under certain conditions.

There are practical things you can do to ensure that Christ is not removed from the public square this Christmas:

1. Download this resource on seasonal religious expression to learn more about what the constitution protects, and give it to the government officials who attend your church.

2. You can also download a resource specifically targeted to school administrators and teachers.

3. Find out if your town has a public display area and have your church sponsor the display of a nativity scene there.

4. And say “Merry Christmas!” to everyone you meet.

 

As always, let us know if you hear of attempts to remove Christ from Christmas.  Our attorneys are ready to combat the nonsense of those who object to Christmas and to defend the public acknowledgment that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ.  We’ve been blessed to have success in this area, restoring Christmas carols to school concerts this season in Wisconsin and New Jersey.  And our attorneys recently sent out a letter explaining the law in this area to over 13,000 school districts across the country.

Let’s celebrate the Christmas holiday this year with the welcome, time-honored, and constitutional traditions we are so fond of.  And let’s refuse to allow those who wish to use this season to once again establish their radical agenda.  Merry Christmas to all!

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chuch with parsonage

Image Credit:Minnemom on Flickr

On Friday, November, 22, 2013, federal district court judge Barbara Crabb from the Western District of Wisconsin issued an order declaring the minister’s housing allowance in the IRS Code unconstitutional. The minister’s housing allowance is contained in section 107 of the Income Tax Code and allows ministers to exclude from gross income the value of housing. Hundreds of thousands of ministers across the country take advantage of the minister’s housing allowance and churches make the housing allowance a standard part of the compensation package for their pastors.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit claiming that the minister’s housing allowance violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because, they argued, the housing allowance only benefits ministers of the gospel and does not include atheists who are not ministers.  The Judge agreed and struck down the housing allowance as unconstitutional.

So what is the impact of this decision and what does it mean for the future of the minister’s housing allowance?

First, Judge Crabb stayed her ruling until after the conclusion of any appeals filed by the government.  This means that the ruling has no immediate effect on ministers at this point.  There will be no impact on the 2013 tax year for ministers and churches do not need to fear the consequences of the ruling at this point.

Additionally, the Judge’s ruling will almost certainly be appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Judge Crabb is the same judge who declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.  That ruling was overturned by the 7th Circuit.  The same outcome is likely in the appeal of Judge Crabb’s ruling against the minister’s housing allowance.  The ruling is suspect on a number of legal fronts, including the ability of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to even bring the lawsuit in the first place, and the power of the Judge to enter an injunction against a tax statute.  These legal arguments will be raised on appeal and stand a good chance of resulting in the dismissal of this case.

Because the ruling has no immediate impact, there is no reason for pastors or churches to make any changes to their compensation packages or tax filings for this year.  The best course of action right now is to simply wait on the outcome of the appeal.  Alliance Defending Freedom is monitoring this case and will be active in presenting legal arguments to the 7th Circuit on Appeal.  We will aggressively seek to uphold the constitutionality of the housing allowance and will keep you updated on the status of this case.  There are strong arguments for why the minister’s housing allowance is constitutional and we will ensure that those arguments are adequately briefed on appeal.

Alliance Defending Freedom exists to protect the rights of churches and pastors.  That includes the rights of churches and pastors to be free from unnecessary government taxation.  If you or your church need legal assistance, contact us so our attorneys can review your case.

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

Cities, towns, villages, and hamlets across the country often permit a wide array of signs—especially political signs—to be placed within their borders.  Yet all too often these local governments apply different, and far more restrictive, rules to signs placed by churches.  In legal terms this is called “content-based discrimination,” and it is forbidden by the First Amendment.

Alliance Defending Freedom represents an Arizona church facing exactly this type of discrimination.  In Gilbert, AZ, the town’s sign code broadly permits the display of political, ideological, and other types of signs.  The jumble of political signs depicted below is a common sight on many street corners in Gilbert throughout the year.

While Gilbert broadly permits this dizzying array of signs, it severely restricts signs inviting people to a church’s services.  It does so by requiring church signs to be, among other things, far smaller in size and displayed for a shorter duration than other similar signs.  The graphic below (which is drawn to scale) shows the differences in size:

 

Churches also get the short end of the stick (to say the least) regarding the amount of time their signs can be displayed.  While Gilbert permits political signs to be displayed for five months, it limits church invitation signs to 12 hours before the start of the service.  And to add insult to injury, the combination of the 12-hour limit and the fact that most churches hold services on Sunday mornings results in most church invitation signs sitting in virtual darkness the majority of the time they are displayed.

Unfortunately, earlier this year the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Gilbert’s discriminatory treatment of our client’s signs.  But the battle to protect the church’s religious liberty does not end there.  Alliance Defending Freedom recently asked the United States Supreme Court to hear the church’s case. We expect to find out soon whether or not the High Court will accept this case.

Please join us in praying that the High Court grants review in this important case and upholds the free speech rights of churches.  In addition, if you know of a church that is facing similar obstacles, please contact Alliance Defending Freedom at 1-800-835-523, or online via our Legal Help Form, so we can protect churches from heavy-handed government restrictions in your community as well.

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