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America is becoming less religious. That could be bad news for people in need

A new website highlights the many ways faith groups serve less fortunate Americans

Diane Leahy prays with others before receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Miami Beach, Florida. A coronavirus variant originally discovered in Colombia has made its way to South Florida, and health officials expressed concern about what it means for unvaccinated people, according to The Washington Post.
Diane Leahy prays with others before receiving the second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at St. Patrick Catholic Church, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Miami Beach, Fla. In much of the country, getting the vaccine has been tremendously difficult for many older adults. But in Miami Beach, faith leaders and the fire department have joined resources to make vaccines available to older residents.
Marta Lavandier, Associated Press
This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

When you see the words “churches” and “COVID-19,” what comes to mind?

My guess is your brain calls up images of online worship and closed doors. You may also think of Supreme Court rulings on gathering laws or how strange it was to celebrate Christmas and other religious holidays at home.

I’d say it’s less likely you’re reflecting on faith-based food drives or vaccination clinics. Religiously motivated good deeds seem to slip through our collective memory much faster than other types of religion news.

That’s especially true now that around one-quarter of Americans identifies as a religious “none.” Fewer and fewer people find themselves in a house of worship each weekend hearing about how faith groups are helping people in need.

In light of this reality, Faith Counts, a nonprofit organization that works to boost religion’s image, has launched a new website spelling out how people of faith serve the broader world.

The goal is to remind people of the power of faith-based humanitarian programs at a time when organized religion is on the decline, said Kerry Troup, communications director for Faith Counts, in a statement.

“This database helps quantify religion’s contributions in a way that is accessible, interesting and readily available,” she said.

The database, which is called “Faith Facts,” distills complicated economic and sociological research into easy-to-read conclusions.

In a quick perusal of the website, I learned that 17% of hospitals in the U.S. are faith-based and 3.8 million American kids attend religious schools. I also discovered that the Salvation Army, a religiously affiliated charity, has handed out more than 50 million free meals since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

I’m excited about this website because I think it will help Americans have more productive conversations about faith. It’s already given me a clearer sense of the potential ramifications of some of today’s top religious freedom debates.


Fresh off the press

At long last, the Supreme Court issued its decision in a high-profile case pitting a Catholic foster care agency against the city of Philadelphia. Justices unanimously ruled in favor of the agency, explaining that the city violated the First Amendment by refusing to offer religious exemptions to its anti-discrimination law.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has voted to draft a statement on the sacrament of communion. I wrote about what that means for President Joe Biden.

At the same time that Catholic bishops were meeting virtually last week, members of the Southern Baptist Convention circled up in Nashville to debate the future of their denomination. With the help of many smart journalists who attended the meeting, I put together a roundup of key takeaways.

As if last week wasn’t busy enough, the Department of Education announced on Wednesday that it had adopted a new definition of sex discrimination. Moving forward, colleges and universities that receive federal funding can be punished for mistreating gay or transgender students. I explored why that could be a problem for faith-based schools.

Last but not least, I wrote about policy expert Peter Wehner’s appearance at BYU’s annual religious freedom conference. He had some harsh words for American Christians.


Term of the week: unanimous

I’m highlighting the word “unanimous” this week because I struggled with it mightily while covering the Supreme Court’s decision in its foster care case.

That decision was complicated because, although no justices filed a dissent, there were three justices who didn’t sign on to the majority opinion. I wasn’t sure if it was fair to say “unanimous ruling” or “unanimous decision” under those circumstances.

After a brief argument, my editor and I eventually settled on “a unanimous court.” The bottom line is that all nine justices wanted the Catholic agency to win the case.


What I’m reading...

My colleague Mya Jaradat attended the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual policy conference last week and wrote about the people she met and the speeches she heard from politicians like former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Her coverage reminded me that the so-called religious right is more diverse than many people assume.

If you’ve been following my work for a while, it should come as no surprise to you that religious freedom is a contentious concept. However, I’ve never been able to summarize what’s going on quite as well as political scientist Andrew Lewis did for The Atlantic. He explained that there are two separate conversations happening in the U.S. about religious freedom: one legal and one political. And the political one is starting to derail the public’s understanding of the Supreme Court.


Odds and ends

I appeared on a couple radio shows last week to talk about the Supreme Court’s foster care ruling. Here’s a recording of my conversation with Boyd Matheson of KSL.

Thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine, I was able to get my hair cut by a professional this month for the first time in nearly two years. Being pampered at a beauty salon is a simple pleasure that I’d missed.