This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.
If you’re a Disney+ subscriber like me, then you’re aware the “Star Wars” universe is continuing to grow. Currently, the streaming service is releasing a new episode of “The Book of Boba Fett” each week, and it has plans to produce several more “Star Wars”-related TV shows and movies over the next few years.
All these developments are possible, at least in part, because of the franchise’s enduring popularity. In the U.S. and around the world, the seemingly ever-growing community of “Star Wars” fans watch and rewatch the original movies, read associated books and sometimes even integrate aspects of a galaxy far, far away into their religious lives.
Yes, you read that correctly. “Star Wars” has inspired religious activity. For example, the Temple of the Jedi Order invites participants to recognize “the force” at work in their own lives and use it for good.
That may sound whacky to you, but, in 2015, the U.S. government recognized Jediism as an international ministry and granted its request for tax-exempt status. The movement, which draws inspiration from the mythology of the “Star Wars” films, has had less luck in the United Kingdom. In 2016, the Charity Commission for England and Wales refused to grant charitable status to the Temple of the Jedi Order because commissioners determined it was not primarily focused on charitable purposes.
A guide to policy battles affecting faith-based foster care
Last week, I published a long article on faith-based foster care agencies that could have been even longer. Near the end of the writing process, I removed a whole section about policymaking out of concern that it didn’t fit well in a lawsuit-focused story.
In this week’s newsletter, I’m giving that deleted section a second shot at life.
Here’s a guide to the foster care-related policy battles that are playing out at the same time as the legal battles I explored last week.
Congress is considering the future of publicly funded faith-based agencies as part of a broader debate about gay rights. There are currently two bills in front of federal lawmakers that would add LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections to civil rights law and both would alter existing funding rules.
Under the Equality Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in February 2021, foster care agencies would be ineligible to receive public funding if they discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender. In other words, federally funded agencies could not refuse to place children with gay couples, even if they have a religious objection to same-sex marriage.
Under the Fairness for All Act, which is sponsored by Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, faith-based agencies would remain eligible for federal funding. The bill proposes an indirect funding model where government money goes directly to prospective foster parents and they, in turn, bring it to the agency of their choice.
The Biden administration
In addition to calling on Congress to pass the Equality Act, President Joe Biden has gotten involved in foster-care clashes by adjusting how the government handles requests for religious exemptions to nondiscrimination rules.
In November, the Department of Health and Human Services revoked waivers offered to faith-based agencies by the Trump administration. Current officials said they were still open to accommodating religious organizations, but that they would review exemption requests on a case-by-case basis.
Although notable, that decision wasn’t as significant as it might seem at first glance, according to Alex Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The Biden administration, like the Trump and Obama administrations before it, has a blanket policy of not enforcing nondiscrimination rules against faith-based agencies.
“Even though the Biden administration withdrew the waivers, there’s a notice of nonenforcement that has not been waived,” he said.
Still, November’s announcement sparked an outcry from more conservative faith groups, as well as Republican leaders.
In last week’s story, I described a new lawsuit in Tennessee that centers on a state law boosting religious freedom protections for faith-based agencies. The law was passed in 2020 as part of a wave of bills aiming to ensure that LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections don’t interfere with the work of religious organizations.
Today, around eight states allow publicly funded faith-based agencies to turn away couples who don’t meet religion-related criteria. Both Indiana and Arizona are debating similar policy proposals this year, but, for the most part, it seems like state legislatures have turned their attention to other issues, Luchenitser said.
“It seems like most of the states inclined to pass this type of legislation have already enacted it. Maybe there won’t be more coming,” he said.
Fresh off the press
- In the war over faith-based foster care agencies, is an end finally in sight?
- How Arizona’s new anti-discrimination bill aims to protect gay rights and religion
- “Religion and the 2022 Winter Olympics” from the “Interfaith Voices” podcast
What I’m reading ...
St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings, Oregon, like most churches, sees feeding the hungry as an expression of faith. But, unlike most churches, its free meals program has gotten St. Timothy’s in trouble with the law. The congregation is running afoul of a new town ordinance limiting free-meal programs to two days per week. St. Timothy’s and its Episcopal diocese recently filed a lawsuit claiming that this policy violates the church’s religious exercise rights, NPR reported last week.
The sport of basketball has deeply religious roots. It was created at a Christian college by a Presbyterian pastor. And its links to faith don’t end there, according to Paul Putz, a historian of sports and Christianity. In a great piece for Christianity Today, Putz outlines how Black churches helped shape the NBA into what it is today, as well as the ways they continue to inspire players’ social justice activism.
The tornado that ripped through Mayfield, Kentucky, in December left dozens of destroyed or damaged buildings in its wake. Historic churches are among the buildings, which means that several Mayfield congregations now face an important choice: Do they rebuild their space exactly as it was or take a leap of faith and try something new? My pal Bobby Ross wrote about the situation for The Associated Press.
Odds and ends
President Joe Biden’s pick for the position of U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, finally got a confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee’s Republican members had delayed the hearing for months due to concerns about Lipstadt’s political beliefs. After recent attacks on synagogues and individual Jews, a coalition of Jewish organizations successfully urged them to stop dragging their feet.
The Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation is a hosting a virtual event on Feb. 15 about religion’s role in the voting rights debate and other social justice issues. The program is one of the center’s Black History Month offerings.