Author archives: Travis Weber

Death Comes to Northeast Syria: The Human Cost of Trump’s Withdrawal of Forces

by Travis Weber , Arielle Del Turco

October 9, 2019

Smoke is billowing from a small town in northeast Syria hit by Turkish airstrikes today, and hundreds of civilians are fleeing, unsure of where they’re headed.

The worst fears of those living under the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria are becoming a reality after President Trump made the decision on Sunday to remove U.S. troops from the area. This decision followed a phone call with Turkish President Erdogan and paved the way for an unfolding Turkish military operation into Northeast Syria, which is controlled by the Kurds, who have been faithful U.S. allies.

Why is FRC, focused on our mission to advance faith, family, and freedom, weighing in on this situation far from home?

Because at risk is not just the massacre of our Kurdish allies, the potential resurgence of ISIS, the reputation of the United States, and another major conflict in the Middle East. Also at risk is the destruction of the one place in the Middle East (outside of Israel) where Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis live in peace and religious freedom thrives. Under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, religious minorities in Northeast Syria found protection and equal political rights—an anomaly in the Middle East.

Out of the midst of the Syrian civil war, hope sprang in the form of a federal government system that represents and protects segments of society which are often neglected and abused in the Middle East, including women and the Christian minority.

In addition to other religious minorities, Syriac Christians have found safety under the Kurdish-led administration. This is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and they are trying to maintain a presence in the Middle East, the birthplace of the Christian faith. Syriac Christians still speak a dialect of Aramaic today, and Syriac Christian culture is experiencing a renaissance. As Turkish forces move into Northeast Syria, we shouldn’t expect that they will take care of this community. Even in the past few years, Turkey has allied itself with jihadist groups responsible for killing Christians elsewhere in Syria. With the present Turkish incursion, Christians in Northeast Syria face the potential of attack or displacement. It would be tragic to these Christians subjected to abuse or death as a result of Turkish actions, and it would also be tragic to see the loss of a historic Christian presence in this region.

The Kurdish forces that Turkey is attacking have been reliable allies to the Untied States. When the U.S. couldn’t find anyone else willing to fight ISIS, the SDF rose to the occasion, and lost approximately 11,000 fighters in the process. The Kurds feel betrayed by the U.S., and that feeling is understandable. They have been consistent allies, and we abandoned them overnight without warning. This won’t bode well for the next time the U.S. tries to recruit allies in the Middle East.

The successful religious freedom and pluralism found in Northeast Syria is something that we hope to see more of across the Middle East. To watch that newly-flourishing area ransacked by a Turkish authoritarian leader is disheartening. If the United States wants to see the prime example of religious freedom in the Middle East continue, it should continue to support our Kurdish allies.

It is difficult to watch these events unfold today. There have already been reports of civilian casualties, including Christians who were killed by the Turkish strikes.

As this situation develops, we need to be praying for the protection of the people of Northeast Syria, and that any attempted oppression or slaughter would be thwarted. We must also pray that God would give President Trump the wisdom to make the right decisions, and that he would ensure security for Syria’s Northeast.

What the LA Times Gets Wrong About Religious Freedom

by Travis Weber , David Closson

August 21, 2019

Last week, the Department of Labor issued a proposed rule clarifying the rights of religious employers to contract with the government without being forced to violate their religious beliefs. After decades of court decisions and disparate interpretations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is no wonder that some religious organizations are fearful of working with the federal government because they don’t have clarity on what they can and can’t do. It makes sense that the Department of Labor would want to clarify their rights now.

Yet yesterday’s Los Angeles Times’ Editorial Board threw cold water on this idea, claiming the proposed rule would “dramatically expand the [religious liberty] exemption,” which they believe makes “little legal sense” and threatens to erode what was “once broad and bipartisan support for the idea that the government should accommodate sincere religious convictions.”

Yet are these gripes accurate? Hardly. In reality, as the proposed rule makes clear, the Department of Labor is simply aligning its interpretation of religious exemptions with years of federal court decisions and the definitions in Title VII itself. For years, Title VII has protected religious people from a wide array of faith groups equally. So what is the LA Times so scared of? The reason seems revealed in the title: “Trump’s new ‘religious freedom’ rule looks like a license to discriminate.”

Unfortunately, the assumption of the LA Times appears to be that Christian conservatives are using religious freedom as a “pretext for discrimination.” Yet LGBT issues are not specifically addressed anywhere in the proposed rule. It is the idea that LGBT-related claims might be affected by religious freedom claims that has the LA Times up in arms. If the editors read the rule more carefully, they would see that it actually addresses sincerity as an important component of a religious freedom claim, and “conceal[ing] discrimination” has been dealt with by courts assessing these Title VII claims. The LA Times and others espousing this line of thinking don’t get to pick and choose when religious freedom applies. It either does or it doesn’t, and if the Title VII definitions were acceptable for decades, they should still be acceptable today.

Religious freedom is a virtue that benefits the common good; it does not favor Republicans over Democrats or Roman Catholics over Muslims. Thankfully, the Trump administration recognizes these basic truths and is protecting religious employers of all faith backgrounds. If the LA Times researched how the Title VII religious exemption has functioned in the past, it would see that it benefits various religious minorities in a host of different circumstances. Indeed, one of the cases referenced in the proposed rule—LeBoon v. Lancaster Jewish Cmty. Ctr. Ass’n—features a Jewish organization. Just a few years ago, the Supreme Court—in an opinion authored by Justice Scalia—applied Title VII to protect a Muslim employee’s rights against her employer.

Thus, to argue that faith-based organizations should not be able to run their business according to their religious beliefs represents a truncated view of religious freedom. There is no legitimate reason that a faith-based organization should lose out on a federal contract for simply adhering to their religious beliefs, and the proposed rule is right to remedy that.

The LA Times editorial is a reminder that people from all religious backgrounds must continue to help shed light on the reality that religious freedom is a good that serves all people.

Only the American Flag Should Be Flown at American Embassies Worldwide

by Travis Weber

June 10, 2019

The Obama administration’s State Department spent eight years pushing the LGBT agenda onto vulnerable countries that often depend on our assistance, damaging our relations with these countries in the process. When President Trump entered office, he restored U.S. diplomacy’s proper respect for national sovereignty and ceased the Obama-era cultural imperialism that pushed unwanted ideologies on indigenous populations around the world. Thus, the latest directive ordering U.S. embassies not to fly flags celebrating an LGBT lifestyle worldwide is only a natural continuation of this policy, carried out by President Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who is doing his job despite insubordinate diplomats and career State Department staffers openly defying orders.

It seems like a simple thing for all to agree on a neutral approach—flying only the American flag at embassies around the world. This policy is unifying and is American. Yet it is apparently too much for a few radical LGBT activists masquerading as diplomats and insubordinate staffers still operating in President Trump’s State Department.

In a 2011 presidential memo, President Obama instructed federal agencies to advance LGBT policies internationally. The effects of this instruction were wide-reaching—and not helpful to our foreign relationships.

In Kenya, President Obama highlighted LGBT policies in a 2015 speech. The Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, pushed back against this imposition of cultural values. He responded, “The fact of the matter is Kenya and the U.S. share so many values: common love for democracy, entrepreneurship, value for families—these are some things that we share… But there are some things that we must admit we don’t share. Our culture, our societies don’t accept.” President Obama nevertheless continued to push his ideology on other countries. President Trump is actually showing respect for other cultures by refusing to do so.

When President Obama pressed the matter again in Africa, Senegal’s President Macky Sall rebuked him, saying those issues were not supported in his country.

Foreign state leaders weren’t alone in resisting the United States’ cultural imperialism. In 2017, nearly 300 ministers and church leaders across the Caribbean sent a letter urging President Trump to end the U.S. export of the LGBT agenda. They called the attempt to push LGBT policies on their countries “coercion” and they specifically expressed concern over the influence of the State Department’s special envoy for LGBT issues (a role President Obama created in 2015)—who is still pushing LBGT policies on the small and vulnerable country of Nepal (a country, by the way, which is probably more concerned with the thousands killed in its natural disasters than with spreading the LGBT ideology).

In addition to browbeating from our leaders, the U.S. government under the Obama administration also devoted large sums of money to advance LGBT policies from the ground up. In Macedonia, USAID worked to find an LGBT organization to give $300,000 to promote the LBGT agenda in the country, undermining the country’s pro-family government. Nearby, former Vice President Joe Biden pushed LGBT issues in an address to Romanian Civil Society Groups and Students, despite the fact that many in Romania thought the U.S.’s meddling in their country deeply unhelpful.

The United States’ diplomatic platform is intended to strengthen our ties to other countries. The State Department should not use its influential role in world affairs to push a social agenda onto vulnerable countries. Yet that is exactly what President Obama did, and what President Trump and Secretary Pompeo are trying to stop. They should be applauded for doing so.

The push for special LGBT laws implies that human rights law currently does not protect people who identify as LGBT—which is just not true. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights already protect every individual from arbitrary arrest, torture, and extrajudicial killing by the state. The reason that everyone is and should be protected under these laws is because all humans have human dignity, and their sexual attraction or gender preference doesn’t change that. Further, people identifying as LGBT are entitled to the same respect, freedoms, and protections as everyone else, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, without fear of reprisal. This is precisely why we should not fly flags celebrating and pushing any social policy in the context of the internal affairs of foreign countries.

The United States has the chance to reset our relations with the countries that our previous push for LGBT policies have alienated. A proper understanding of international human rights law—consistent with our respect for national sovereignty, and preserving the universality of human rights—will enable us to do exactly that.

American embassies should fly only the American flag. This should not be controversial.

4 Things Steny Hoyer Gets Wrong About the Equality Act

by Travis Weber

May 22, 2019

In floor debate leading up to the Equality Act vote in the House last Friday morning, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) tried to explain why the bill was so great. In doing so, he got a lot wrong. Here are four examples.

1) Hoyer tries to piggyback on the civil rights movement, but the Equality Act is not a continuation of the civil rights movement.

In his remarks, Hoyer referenced the legacy of the civil rights movement and the steps it made to overcome slavery and racism, claiming today “will be as it was in 1964 when we passed that civil rights bill.” Though Christians shamefully participated in and perpetuated slavery, it was also Christians (William Wilberforce and many others) who corrected this theological error and led the charge on slavery’s abolition—because of their faith.

However, those supporting the Equality Act do not have biblical teaching and history on their side; nowhere in theology or history do we find the notion that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” define our humanity. Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ defines us, and informs who we are.

Hoyer cannot pull this sleight-of-hand to piggyback the Equality Act onto civil rights history.

2) Hoyer tries to invoke the Bible to support the Equality Act, but his attempt fails.

Hoyer went on at length about how Christian love should lead to support for the Equality Act:

The Bible says love your neighbor as yourself … not love your straight neighbor, not love your Christian neighbor, not love your white neighbor, not love your native-born neighbor, not love your neighbor of some other distinction, but love your neighbor as yourself. That means, in my view, love your gay neighbor. Love your lesbian neighbor. Love your trans neighbor. It means love your Jewish neighbor, love your African-American, Latino, Asian-American neighbor. Love your immigrant neighbor. Love your neighbor. Not your hyphenated neighbor.”

Of course, we are to love. Hoyer, however, does not understand biblical love. Biblical love does not mean we should let people do things that harm them; we are to tell them the truth. That’s what true love does—it speaks the hard truths—truths that we must speak for the good of the other person. When Hoyer implies we should let people walk down roads of self-conferred sexual identity that are harmful to them without saying anything to them, it actually shows that we do not love them.

3) Hoyer revealed a faulty understanding of U.S. history, natural law, and human rights.

Near the beginning of his remarks, Hoyer made an uncontroversial reference to the Declaration of Independence:

Many members have quoted that extraordinary doctrine of civil rights and human rights articulated by our founders 243 years ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident… . all men and all women and all people are created equal by God and endowed not by the Constitution, not by this body, but endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

The statements from the Declaration are absolutely true, but they certainly don’t lead to the Equality Act. They are derived from a biologically-rooted understanding of sexuality as informed by Scripture and the history of Christian thought—an understanding at odds with the ideology of the sexual revolution which is enshrined in this bill.

Human rights are based on the idea that all human beings are created in the imago dei—the image of God. This assumes an understanding of the human person as derived from God’s revelation and natural law—an objective understanding which does not contemplate or include the modern notions of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” which are anchored into the Equality Act. This natural law understanding is what the Founders were working from when the Declaration was penned—not Hoyer’s understanding.

4) Hoyer recognizes the distinction between men and women, and recognizes he wants to protect both men and women—yet he supports the Equality Act which would obliterate this distinction.

Surely we ought to be able to agree … that all men and all women are created equal and are deserving of equal treatment.”

True enough. So why is Hoyer supporting a law which would force women to compete on unequal footing with men in sports? By locking the notion of “gender identity” into law, the Equality Act would force women to compete against biological men in competitions, and override women’s privacy concerns about being in intimate spaces like locker rooms with biological males. Indeed, Hoyer’s reference above to the Declaration recognizing that “all men and all women” being “created equal by God” shows that Hoyer implicitly recognizes the distinctions between the sexes, the very thing that the Equality Act would abolish.

Defending Family Values Across the Globe

by Travis Weber

April 10, 2019

This past weekend I was in Bogota, Colombia, to attend the 2019 Transatlantic Summit of the Political Network for Values—a conference where socially conservative legislators and activists gather from around the world to discuss the pressing concerns of life, family, and religious liberty. Many of the members of this network—which has asked me to serve on its committee of experts—come from primarily Catholic areas in Latin America and Europe, but share the concern of evangelicals in the United States that the historic Christian positions on these issues are being threatened. Meeting inside of the magnificent Congress of the Republic of Colombia, it became clear that there is much we can—and should—work on together.

In addition to remarks by pro-life and pro-family political leaders, the conference featured impassioned speeches like that of Obianuju Ekeocha, a Nigerian pro-life activist living in the UK. Obianuju rose to prominence after penning an open letter against Melinda Gates for pushing population control on Africa, and in addition to her day job as a scientist, she heads the pro-life organization Culture of Life Africa.

One of the most promising aspects of this gathering was the number of young people, not only in attendance, but who are seeking to serve their countries through political leadership. The young Colombian leader Angela Hernandez, who I met several years ago in Belgium at the same conference, again gave a fiery defense of the family this year.

Near the end of the conference, I spoke about FRC’s efforts to pass the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and end birth day abortion here in the U.S., in light of the increasing radicalism of the Democrat Party on this issue. When we have our own elected leaders openly defending infanticide, we know the time has come for action—and prayer.

We in the United States must remember that there are many fellow believers around the world who share our commitment to life, family, and religious liberty. This year’s Political Network for Values Conference was an encouraging reminder of that. May we continue to work together with all allies—foreign and domestic—to advance faith, family, and freedom.

UK Asylum Officers Would Benefit from Basic Bible Study

by Travis Weber

March 25, 2019

Disturbing news from Britain, where the Home Office tried to claim that Christianity is not a peaceful religion in an attempt to reject a recent Iranian asylum seeker.

From The Telegraph:

The Iranian national, who has not been identified, claimed asylum in 2016 but his application was rejected after government officials said his conversion from Islam was “inconsistent” with his claim that Christianity is a peaceful religion.

In order to reiterate the point, the Home Office wrote a lengthy and “unbelievably offensive” refusal letter referencing six Bible passages and claiming that the book of Revelation is filled with “images of revenge, destruction, death and violence”.

The Home Office rejection, below the quoted verses concludes: “These examples are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful’ religion, as opposed to Islam which contains violence, rage and revenge.”

Absurd, and sad. Hopefully this is just an aberrant staffer and not official policy. If it turns out that multiple officials signed off on such thinking, it will be cause for even more alarm. Thankfully, the Home Office has admitted this action is “inconsistent” with its policy. Light words. Such cherry-picking of verses is likely beyond even embarrassing exegetical malpractice, and perhaps reveals malicious intent. Regardless, it shows the need for immigration officials to be trained in basic theology and Bible knowledge!

The man’s lawyer was not happy:

Nathan Stevens, the immigration caseworker at Fadiga & Co Solicitors dealing with the Iranian man’s case, posted excerpts of the Home Office letter on Twitter earlier this week saying he was “genuinely shocked” to read such an “unbelievably offensive diatribe”. It has since been shared hundreds of times.

Mr Stevens, from London, added: “Whatever your views on faith, how can a government official arbitrarily pick bits out of a holy book and then use them to trash someone’s heartfelt reason for coming to a personal decision to follow another faith.”

He said that his client will be appealing the decision and he will be complaining to the Home Office.

Hopefully, the Home Office will right this ship. If not, it will only feed the idea, not without merit, that Western Europe is no longer able to actually defend the human rights and freedom it has long claimed to protect.

The Art of Disagreement

by Travis Weber

March 6, 2019

In the New York Times, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute has an interesting piece on the polarization and fracturing of America today. Of note:

Political scientists have found that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War. One in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. Millions of people organize their social lives and their news exposure along ideological lines to avoid people with opposing viewpoints. What’s our problem?

2014 article in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on “motive attribution asymmetry”—the assumption that your ideology is based in love, while your opponent’s is based in hate—suggests an answer. The researchers found that the average Republican and the average Democrat today suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of Palestinians and Israelis. Each side thinks it is driven by benevolence, while the other is evil and motivated by hatred—and is therefore an enemy with whom one cannot negotiate or compromise.

Brooks continues:

People often say that our problem in America today is incivility or intolerance. This is incorrect. Motive attribution asymmetry leads to something far worse: contempt, which is a noxious brew of anger and disgust. And not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but also for other people. In the words of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

Quite alarming. Nevertheless, this is confirmed by what we see in our slice of social discourse—whether in reference to people holding to historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, or merely seeking to protect their ability to hold to such teaching.

A recent study in The Atlantic discusses how such intolerance is cemented as beliefs become more siloed within certain groups and communities. The worst offenders? “[T]he most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves.”

Brooks’ solution for all this?

Not eliminating different ideas, but embracing them. “What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better,” he says. When treated with contempt, we should not return it upon our opponent’s head. Instead, we must choose to respond with grace.

Of all people, Christians should most eagerly embrace this idea. Our faith itself is based on God not responding to our contempt with contempt, but by sending his Son to die in our place on a cross.

We should be the first to embrace the idea of showing grace to neighbors and those around us. There is much we cannot control in our society today, but let us seize one of the few areas we can change—our individual choice to respond with grace when treated with contempt.

What Does Tuesday’s Supreme Court Decision Mean for Trump’s Military Transgender Policy?

by Peter Sprigg , Travis Weber

January 23, 2019

On Tuesday, in Trump v. Karnoski and Trump v. Stockman, the Supreme Court announced it was staying the district court injunctions issued against President Trump’s military transgender troop policy until the cases sorted themselves out in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the cases arose out of Washington state and California, respectively).

But where does that leave the other cases in which this policy has been challenged?

In Doe v. Trump, the D.C. Circuit already lifted an injunction against the policy arising from a challenge in D.C., and this remains unaffected by the Supreme Court’s recent action.

That leaves one other case, Stone v. Trump, arising out of Maryland, and currently in the Fourth Circuit.

The preliminary injunction against the Trump policy in that case (granted 11/21/17) was based on specific language in the Presidential Memorandum to Mattis of August 25, 2017. But that memorandum was explicitly revoked when President Trump accepted the Mattis Report and Recommendations on March 23, 2018. Although both sides have filed revised briefs in response to the 3/23/18 policy, it does not appear that the judge has ruled in response to those (for example, to amend the preliminary injunction). Despite the Stone injunction (which is likely to eventually be dissolved), the Department of Defense appears to be viewing the Court’s decision yesterday as a signal to slowly but confidently move toward the implementation of Trump’s military transgender policy.

While the Supreme Court’s action yesterday stayed several injunctions, it didn’t wipe them out. The Court will still need to rule on the injunction and the merits at some point, which will dispose of any lingering issues. As the Solicitor General’s brief in Karnoski says in footnote 8, “If this Court were to vacate the injunctions in these cases in whole or in part, that decision would be binding precedent requiring the district court to similarly vacate the injunction in Stone.”

Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh: We See Religious Freedom Problems with Coach Kennedy Case

by Travis Weber

January 22, 2019

Today the Supreme Court refused to take up the case of Coach Joe Kennedy, but some of the justices nonetheless sent a signal in favor of religious liberty.

Coach Kennedy, represented by our friends at First Liberty Institute, is a Christian high school football coach from Bremerton, Washington, who was punished after taking a knee and praying on the field after games. His case has been deliberated in federal district court, then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, before making its way to the Supreme Court.

While the Court’s refusal to hear the case is not ideal, it appears that unresolved factual questions (the lower court never concluded whether Coach Kennedy was punished for praying or neglecting his professional duties) prevented the Court from hearing the full case and taking up the First Amendment free speech claim.

Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, penned a separate statement (see pp. 8-13) explaining that while he understands and agrees with the Court’s reason for not taking the case right now (if asked to do so, he would direct the lower court to reach a conclusion on this question, but at this point the Court was only asked to decide the legal question), he doesn’t necessarily agree with the lower court rulings, which appear problematic for religious liberty and the First Amendment:

While I thus concur in the denial of the present petition, the Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.

Alito criticized the “highly tendentious way” the Ninth Circuit applied the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos (dealing with the First Amendment rights of public employees) to Coach Kennedy’s situation, which would have required public school employees like teachers and coaches to refrain from any religious activity a student might see or the school might not like, from the time the teacher or coach shows up in the morning until the time they leave. Alito concluded:

If the Ninth Circuit continues to apply [this] interpretation of Garcetti in future cases involving public school teachers or coaches, review by this Court may be appropriate.

Alito wasn’t finished:

What is perhaps most troubling about the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is language that can be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith—even when the coach is plainly not on duty. I hope that this is not the message that the Ninth Circuit meant to convey, but its opinion can certainly be read that way. After emphasizing that [Coach Kennedy] was hired to “communicate a positive message through the example set by his own conduct,” the court criticized him for “his media appearances and prayer in the [Bremerton High School (BHS)] bleachers (while wearing BHS apparel and surrounded by others).” [citation omitted] This conduct, in the opinion of the Ninth Circuit, “signal[ed] his intent to send a message to students and parents about appropriate behavior and what he values as a coach.” [citation omitted] But when [Coach Kennedy] prayed in the bleachers, he had been suspended. He was attending a game like any other fan. The suggestion that even while off duty, a teacher or coach cannot engage in any outward manifestation of religious faith is remarkable.

It’s very encouraging to see Justice Alito on record noting the religious liberty problems with this case—something we’ve come to expect from him—along with Justices Thomas and Gorsuch. But it’s particularly heartening to see Justice Kavanaugh join this statement. While his judicial record would have suggested he’d rule the right way on religious liberty issues once seated on the Court, his refusal to join these three justices in dissenting from denial of cert in the Planned Parenthood defunding cases late last year left many wondering whether he would be a true originalist. While these actions don’t necessarily indicate how the justices will rule on the merits (there’s a good chance Justice Roberts still agrees with his originalist colleagues on these matters), they are heartening nevertheless.

Justice Alito concluded by almost inviting Coach Kennedy to ask the Court to reconsider Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, a Title VII case lowering employee protections against religious discrimination, and Employment Division v. Smith, which cut back on Free Exercise protections and prompted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to be passed over twenty-five years ago.

Let us hope Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh are prophesying where the Court is going on religious liberty.

What to Know About Indonesia’s New “Blasphemy Reporting App”

by Travis Weber

December 12, 2018

It was recently announced that Google agreed to list an app created by the Indonesian government allowing users to report alleged “blasphemy” to authorities. The app is called “Smart Grip” (locally known as “Smart Pakem”), and is available in the Google Play store. What does this mean, and what are we to think of this? First, some background, and then discussion of the app.

What are blasphemy laws?

Blasphemy laws generally prohibit and punish insults to religion. They are often abused when allegations of blasphemy are made against religious minorities—often with no evidence—to settle personal disputes. Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman convicted and sentenced to death for blasphemy after a dispute with a Muslim coworker, was prosecuted after an allegation that she committed the crime (she has since been released, to the tune of much public hostility).

How does Indonesia view blasphemy?

Indonesia criminalizes blasphemy. Article 156 of the penal code states it is illegal to “publicly give[] expression to feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt.” Maximum punishment for this crime is four years. Article 156(a) goes further, prohibiting one from “deliberately … giv[ing] expression to feelings or commit[ing] an act” which is “at enmity with, abus[es], or stain[s] a religion … with the intention to prevent a person to adhere to any religion based on the belief of the almighty God.” Maximum punishment for this crime is five years.

What effect have these laws had?

Among other cases, Jakarta’s former governor, a Christian, was imprisoned for blasphemy last year, and it was only recently announced he would be released. A Buddhist woman was also convicted of blasphemy after complaining about the noise level of a neighborhood mosque’s loudspeakers.

How did the app come into being?

Development of the app was requested by the Indonesian government, and it was created by Jakarta’s High Prosecution Office (it has also been reported that a body charged with “religious oversight” in the Indonesia Attorney General’s office launched the app). This is a dangerous, anti-religious freedom office, according to experts, yet it has been approved by Google for listing in its app store.

What does the app do?

It allows users to report, directly to the government, groups practicing unrecognized faiths or unorthodox interpretations of Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions, including Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism.

What are the implications?

Religious persecution in Indonesia likely to increase if this app is used. No doubt, variations of Christianity displeasing to Muslims and others are likely to be reported. But others will be affected too. One of the groups described as “deviant” on the app are the Ahmadiyah, a peaceful group of Muslims with adherents around the world (including the U.S.), but who are viewed as heretical by many other Muslims. Indonesia has many Muslims—such as those represented by Nahdlatul Ulama—who do not want to see a spread in the use of blasphemy laws. They have even publicly criticized developments like the recent conviction of a Buddhist woman for blasphemy. But hardline, violent Muslims are on the rise in Indonesia, and this app will only aid them. If they are allowed to continue to grow, Indonesia could turn out like Pakistan in the future—with not just one, but many Asia Bibi’s of its own.

What has been the reaction to the app?

It has drawn widespread backlash from diverse quarters, creating an unusual alliance against it—from Robert Spencer to Human Rights Watch and the “friendly atheist” blog. It does not seem that Google has publicly responded to news inquiries or criticism yet.

Archives