TIME LGBT

Houston’s Pastors Outraged After City Subpoenas Sermons Over Transgender Bill

Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz is surrounded by preachers as he addresses a crowd at a Houston church Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 about a legal dispute involving several pastors fighting subpoenas from Houston city attorneys. Pat Sullivan—AP

City officials have subpoenaed the sermons of five pastors who oppose the Houston's new equal rights ordinance

Houston, with its left-leaning, openly gay mayor governing an influential conservative and evangelical base, is a city politically divided. That division has been made clear in recent days after the city subpoenaed sermons of several pastors who oppose a recently passed equal rights ordinance for gay and transgender residents. The subpoenas are an attempt by city officials to determine how the preachers instructed their congregants in their push to get the law repealed.

The city’s subpoenas targeted sermons and speeches by five Houston pastors with ties to religious leaders attempting to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which bars businesses from discriminating against gay and transgender residents. The law, passed into law by Mayor Annise Parker in May, is often derided as a “bathroom bill,” because it allows transgender individuals to choose whether to use a male or female restroom.

This summer, a group of local pastors and religious leaders began gathering signatures in an attempt to get a referendum to repeal the law on this November’s ballot. But City Attorney David Feldman blocked that attempt by throwing out thousands of signatures he said didn’t meet the criteria to qualify, incensing groups opposed to the rule.

Local religious leaders claim Feldman illegally disqualified the referendum and have filed a suit against the city. Mayor Parker, meanwhile, has pledged not to enforce the ordinance until there’s a court decision. But the move by the city to subpoena Houston’s pastors, who have been vocal on the issue and have urged their congregants to support a repeal referendum, has drawn national attention. Republican Senator Ted Cruz said in a statement that the subpoenas were “shocking and shameful,” and Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins has called for the city to drop them as well.

“The chilling effect of government scrutiny of our pastors is unconstitutional, and unconscionable,” Perkins said in a statement. “Mayor Parker’s use of her bully pulpit to silence pulpit freedom must be stopped in its tracks.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott also issued a letter saying the city impinged on the pastors’ First Amendment rights and called for the subpoenas’ immediate reversal. “Whether you intend it to be so or not, your action is a direct assault on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Abbott wrote to Feldman. “The people of Houston and their religious leaders must be absolutely secure in their knowledge that their religious affairs are beyond the reach of the government.”

University of Houston law professor Peter Linzer says the city reached too far in issuing the subpoenas. One subpoena sent to Pastor Steve Riggle, for example, asks for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the equal rights ordinance], the petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity.” However, Linzer says it wouldn’t impinge on the pastors’ First Amendment rights if the city only asked only for sermons or speeches related to the signature drive. “Let’s assume they gave instructions to cheat,” Linzer says. “That would be relevant speech and I don’t see how they would have any First Amendment protection for that.”

Among those fighting the city’s move is the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a religious freedom advocacy non-profit whose lawyers have filed a motion trying to quash the subpoenas. “I haven’t seen any indication that the city is backing down,” says Erik Stanley, the group’s senior legal counsel. “But we’re hopeful that they will. The only thing we can figure is they were subpoenaed because they spoke out against the ordinance. And they urged people to sign the petition. They exercised their constitutional rights to speak out.”

Still, Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman appeared to backtrack on the subpoenas Wednesday, saying they had only recently learned of them and that outside lawyers handled the lawsuit. They argued the city is merely looking for communications from those pastors regarding the petition drive, but that the subpoenas’ language was inappropriate.

“There’s no question the wording was overly broad,” Parker said in a news conference Wednesday. “But I also think there was some deliberate misinterpretation.” Feldman, the city attorney, called the uproar over the wording “ridiculous,” but also has argued that if a pastor is speaking about political issues from the pulpit, it’s not protected. The mayor’s office declined to comment further for this story.

On Friday, The Houston Chronicle reported that the city would remove the term “sermon” from the subpoenas. Mayor Parker, however, said that relevant sermons regarding the petition drive could still be gathered.

TIME Religion

What I Learned About God After My Son Died

Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love
Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love Courtesy Penguin Random House

A new memoir, Rare Bird, chronicles the loss of a child, and the emotional and spiritual aftermath of tragedy

When Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s 12-year-old son, Jack Donaldson, drowned in a creek behind her family’s suburban Virginia home three years ago, she turned to her blog, An Inch of Gray, which she had previously used to post about her kids and daily life. There, she chronicled her emotions, grief and spirituality. Eventually, she realized she wanted to write a book, which became the recently published Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love, from which this is excerpted.

We begin visiting a different church. We don’t feel Jack’s absence as keenly here, even though it meets in a local elementary school in the same room where he attended Cub Scout pack meetings for five years.

We go at first to support the young pastor who showed up for us the night of Jack’s death, but then we keep coming. I have yet to tell him about a conversation I had with my pastor Linda three hours before the accident.

“Did you know there’s a new church coming to Vienna this fall?” I asked. She didn’t. I continued, “Well, I was reading their website during lunch, and I have a feeling we’ll be connected to them somehow.”

Strange. I guess I thought we could lend the church space in our building or maybe I would help them order materials for their Sunday school classes. Looking around the elementary school cafeteria now, months later, I know I got it wrong. I see two friends who recommitted their lives to God after Jack’s accident and started bringing their families here. I see the family we went to the beach with summer after summer when the kids were small, who understand what a precious person we lost in losing Jack. I see his math teacher, who got to teach him for only the first two days of seventh grade, but who is helping shepherd his classmates through their grief.

I see men who put on raincoats and traipsed through the mud, thinking surely they would find Jack injured but alive. And there are the couples who formed small groups in our neighborhood initially to talk about God and the death of a young boy, but who continue to meet and support one another week after week as more deaths and cancer diagnoses rock our small community. We are connected to this new church, just not in the way I had expected.

I don’t know if this is where we belong, but I’m open to it, even though I have worshiped in the same church my entire life. I’m not worried. What would have once seemed like a sea change feels more like a blip in comparison to losing Jack.

And whether I’m here or across town, I need church. I am not one who regularly sees God at the ocean, in the mountains, or in a sunrise, although since Jack died, I am increasingly finding Him there. God and I tend to meet in community, and even though I dread the exposed and vulnerable feeling I get walking into His house now, I can’t stay away.

It has nothing to do with obligation or religion. I need to show up, sit on the hard plastic chair, and say, “Here I am, Lord.” For me. I sing when I can, but I don’t push it if I don’t feel up to it. Margaret sometimes moves up to the front rows where the tweens sit, and I feel more freedom to cry than I do from our exposed perch in the balcony of our home church where my emotions continue to embarrass her.

The pastor, Johnny, jokes with Tim that he knows when we’ll visit because when we do, they always seem to have Jack and Margaret’s favorite hymn, “In Christ Alone,” on the schedule. They’ll start the music, he’ll scan the congregation, and bingo, there we are, wiping dripping eyes and noses with the back of our sleeves, because even though crying is inevitable, I don’t always remember tissues.

It feels a bit weird to be at a different church, even just part-time, but if we’re learning anything, it’s that life is weird. I take communion, but I don’t serve it anymore. I am not here as a leader or a giver. I don’t go out of my way to meet new people and make them feel welcome and comfortable, as would be my instinct. Instead, I am here to partake and absorb and let God’s words fall down on my head. I soak up the truth of who He is. I tell Him I am open to receive grace and comfort. I remind Him I trust Him, even though His ways are not mine and I am still sad and hurt.

I don’t know if I’ll speak at women’s retreats again or lead Bible studies. I don’t know how long I’ll work in a church. The look of my faith may be changing in light of Jack’s death, as I step back from what I saw as my work and my effort of growing closer to God and being a good Christian, but God hasn’t changed. It seems like this is a season for me to rest in love and just keep showing up.

Excerpted from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson Copyright © 2014 by Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

What the Vatican Really Said About Homosexuality

Pope Francis leads a mass honouring the canonisation of two Canadian saints in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 12, 2014.
Pope Francis leads a mass honouring the canonisation of two Canadian saints in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 12, 2014. Vincenzo Pinto—AFP/Getty Images

It's not the big shift people think it is

The Catholic world and the media were riled Monday by a Vatican document interpreted by many as signaling a softer church stance toward homosexuality, but the inclusive tone of the document is a long way from actual policy change.

At issue are three words most people have never heard of: Relatio post disceptationem. That’s the name of the document the Catholic Church’s Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops released Monday, one week into the Synod’s gathering to discuss the state of the family in the modern world. It translates, “Report After Debate,” and it was read aloud in the Synod hall to kick off the Synod’s second week. One of the report’s 58 sections—the one causing the biggest stir—is titled, “Welcoming homosexual persons.”

“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” the passage begins. “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

For a Church that has historically linked the word “homosexual” with the word “sin,” the idea of welcoming gays in any capacity can appear to be a significant move. Headlines immediately spoke of a “dramatic shift” and a “more tolerant” stance from the church.

But before rushing to conclusions, everyone, on all sides, should calm down.

First, here’s what the document actually is:

The relatio is a mid-Synod snapshot of 200+ Catholic leaders’ conversations that happened in the Synod hall last week. It is a starting point for conversations as the Synod fathers start small group discussions this week. It is a working text that identifies where bishops need to “deepen or clarify our understanding,” as Cardinal Luis Antonia Tagle put it in Monday’s press briefing. That means that the topic of gays and Catholic life came up in the Synod conversations so far and that it is a topic for continued reflection.

Second, here’s what the document is not:

The relatio is not a proscriptive text. It is not a decree. It is not doctrine, and certainly not a doctrinal shift. It is also not final. “These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view,” the document concludes. “The reflections put forward, the fruit of the Synodal dialogue that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015.”

So, what does all of that mean? Cardinal Tagle perhaps said it best when he said at Monday’s press briefing, with a smile, “The drama continues.”

The relatio reaffirms at several points that marriage is between a man and a woman. Substance on that point is not changing. The Vatican has been repeatedly clear that this Synod will bring no changes to doctrine, or even a final document with new rites. To “welcome gays” does not mean the Church is no longer equating “gay” with “sin.”

Instead, tone—as it has always been with the Francis papacy—is what is on the table. The style that Pope Francis lives is one that starts with a spirit of embrace, of mercy, and not with sin. It begins with figuring out at what points embrace is possible before determining the points at which it is not. That may be one reason why people like top Vatican watcher John Thavis are calling this mid-synod report “an earthquake.”

But it is also important to remember that the Synod on the Family is almost a two-year-long process, and this snapshot is just that, a snapshot of one week in that process. There will be more such snapshot documents in the coming months. The conversation started earlier this year when bishops around the world surveyed their congregations about family life, it kicked off more formally last week with the gathering in Rome, next the bishops will take the conversations back to their communities, next summer there’s the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia (a traditionally conservative American diocese), and then finally next fall there will be the second Synod with even more bishops from around the world with even more discussion.

Looking for revolution can be misleading. It can mar the actual story of what is and what is not happening. Casual Vatican observers—especially those in the United States, where conversations about sexuality have a different trajectory than in the Vatican or in many developing countries—should be careful to not read into the conversation what they want to hear. The interest in a relatio, a relatively obscure document, does however point to another shift: people actually care about what a group of bishops is doing.

That itself, for many, may be a revolution.

Read next: Pope Francis Wouldn’t Have Wanted the Nobel Peace Prize

TIME Religion

Pope Francis Wouldn’t Have Wanted the Nobel Peace Prize

Pope Francis Attends His Weekly Audience at St Peters Square
Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on March 19, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

Accepting the honor would've been out of character for the Holy Father

Malala Yousafazi and Kailash Satyarthi were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Friday morning. Pope Francis, a hotly-rumored choice for the honor, did not. And that’s almost certainly just how Pope Francis would want it to be.

Popes do not win the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s just not done. Not even Pope John Paul II was awarded the prize, even when it was widely rumored that he would be its recipient in 2003 for his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

MORE: Pope Francis, 2013 TIME Person of the Year

Part of the current Holy Father’s global appeal is that he shies away from accolades. They do not fit with his mission, or the ethos of humility that he is trying to infuse into Holy See culture. This is a man who pays his own hotel bill the morning after being named the heir of Saint Peter, even though the Vatican owns his hotel anyway. He is a man who wears old shoes and simple robes, and who refuses to live in the Vatican’s apostolic palace. He has his eyes on a bigger prize, to quote words of the Apostle Paul, toward the upward call of God.

Friday, he again showed that characteristic humility. The announcement of Malala’s win came at 11 a.m. Rome time. Typically, every day this week at 11 a.m., Pope Francis has been finishing a coffee break with the bishops from around the world gathered for the Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the Family. (The gathering is the first major policy event of his papacy, and one he specifically called so that church leaders could discuss practical issues facing modern marriages and families.) But this morning, he quietly snuck out of the Synod hall a few minutes before the Nobel Prize committee announced the honoree. Whether it was his intent or not, that move made sure that he would not be in front of any cameras or an audience that might have applauded him if he had won.

Malala’s win also means that Mother Teresa, who won the prize in 1979, remains the most prominent Catholic in history to have received the honor. It is fitting for Pope Francis, by his absence, to continue the legacy of honoring women’s role in society—not only has he been working to bring attention to challenges of family life in the Middle East, but he also has shown sensitivity to women and to their leadership in Church life.

Plus, in what is one of history’s ironic twists—or some might say, providentially recurring themes—Mother Teresa opened her acceptance speech with a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, the saint for whom Pope Francis chose to be named.

“Lord, make a channel of Thy peace,” the prayer begins, “that where there is hatred, I may bring love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness; that, where there is discord, I may bring harmony; that, where there is error, I may bring truth; that, where there is doubt, I may bring faith; that, where there is despair, I may bring hope; that, where there are shadows, I may bring light; that, where there is sadness, I may bring joy.”

For many, Pope Francis is doing just that, Nobel or not.

Dias reported from Vatican City

MONEY Charity

The Surprising Reason People Are Mobbing Church Pews

This Jan. 12, 2014 photo shows people gathered for mass inside Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Buffalo, N.Y., during a “Mass Mob.”
A "Mass Mob" in January packed the pews of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Buffalo, N.Y. Carolyn Thompson—AP

So-called "Mass Mobs" are flooding beautiful old Catholic churches in Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, and other cities to raise money and boost enthusiasm among the faithful.

The term “flash mob” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004, defined as a group of people meeting in a public place to perform an “unusual or seemingly random act,” before heading off again on their merry way, in also random fashion. While the original inventor of the flash mob came up with the idea as a way to mock hipster conformity, the concept was nonetheless broadly adopted (of course!) by the trend-following masses. Within weeks of the first flash mob, there were copycat events all over the world.

Mobs have since popped up everywhere from Target stores to Manhattan’s Katz’s Deli (the latter for a group re-creation of the fake orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally”). The movement has also been coopted by Russian political operatives, who reportedly paid people to form a flash mob in support of Vladimir Putin; by corporate brands like Oscar Mayer, BMW, Arby’s, and IKEA, which are known to hire “random” flash mobs for marketing events; and even by hoodlums who conduct “flash robs,” in which a group of young people floods a store and grabs as much stuff as possible before running off without paying.

In the next evolution of the flash mob, the masses have turned their attention to, well, mass. Credit for the rise of the Mass Mob goes to a group in Buffalo, which organized its first event at Saint Adalbert Basilica last November and followed that up with a handful of flash mass (in both senses of the word) attendances at other churches in the city. At a Mass Mob in January, for instance, Buffalo’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church received a helping hand in the form of 300 parishioners, when a typical Sunday mass sees fewer than 100 churchgoers.

“Maybe it will inspire people to come a few times a year,” Christopher Byrd, one of Buffalo’s Mass Mob organizers, said of the group’s efforts. “And it gives the church a little one-day boost, attendance-wise and in the collection basket.”

The idea has proven inspirational in another way, with similar Mass Mob groups and events popping up in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. A recent Mass Mob at Detroit’s St. Florian church, for instance, resulted in a crowd of 2,000 people for a mass that’s usually attended by about 200, and the collection basket topped $19,000, also roughly 10 times the norm.

TIME Religion

The Pope’s New American Archbishop Might Address Income Inequality

Pope Names Blase Cupich As New Archbishop Of Chicago
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 20: Archbishop-Elect Blase Cupich helps Francis Cardinal George from the lecturn during a press conference on September 20, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. This is the first time in the history of the Chicago Archdiocese that a new leader has been appointed while the former is still alive. Scott Olson—Getty Images

Blase Cupich is opposed to the lavish lifestyle that some of his peers embrace and has what is referred to as “a heart for the poor.” His elevation signals where Pope Francis intends to take the American church

The rap on Blase Cupich is that he’s a Pope Francis kind of guy. Which is to say that he’s politically moderate, opposed to the lavish lifestyle that some of his peers have formerly embraced (in Spokane, his post since 2010, he lived on a seminary campus and owned no furniture), and has what is often referred to as “a heart for the poor.” In his few public remarks since the Holy Father tapped Cupich to be the new Archbishop of Chicago beginning in November, he has been understandably muted about the task before him. He was chosen “to serve the needs of the people,” Cupich said at a press conference, characterizing his role more as “pastor” than as “messenger.”

But Cupich’s role encompasses far more than that. He will lead 2 million Catholics in the third-largest diocese in America. And Cupich is the Pope’s first leadership choice among the four most important posts in the American church – the archbishops of Boston, New York, Washington, and Chicago. His elevation signals where Pope Francis intends to take the American church.

Read the full article here.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

There’s Nothing Wrong With Medical Missionaries Talking About Faith With Patients

Emory Hospital Releases American Aid Workers Treated For Ebola
Dr. Kent Brantly speaks during a press conference announcing his release from Emory Hospital on August 21, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Brantly and another patient, Nancy Writebol, were released from Emory Hospital after receiving treatment for Ebola that they both contracted while working as medical missionaries in Liberia. Jessica McGowan—Getty Images

Domestically and abroad, people of faith are far more likely to give time and money to charitable causes than are secular people

patheoslogo_blue

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

“It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?” So muses Brian Palmer at Slate about the work of medical missionaries like Dr. Kent Brantly, who contracted Ebola in Liberia. I’m almost embarrassed to write about this piece, because it is such an easy target. But the Brantly case has put new focus on the work of medical missionaries, who are generating surprisingly negative comments from certain observers. These critiques have fallen into several categories: those who say that the missionaries are stupid for putting themselves in harm’s way, those who say that the missionaries should get no special treatment when they contract a disease that has affected so many others in Africa, and those like Palmer who insist that medical missionaries are wrong to speak about their faith to patients. Here’s three observations about this debate:

1) Palmer and other critics have a deluded sense of “neutral” medicine. Doctors who deal with suffering and dying patients will inevitably send messages, explicit or implicit, to their patients and patients’ families, about the meaning of dying and death. Doctors who think that death is a purely natural event, and that there is no afterlife, or who are agnostic on such questions, will tend to communicate that sentiment to clients. This partly explains why so many Christian doctors do volunteer for the mission field – they believe that there is transcendent meaning in both life and death, and that every person has an eternal destiny. They are uniquely positioned to help people who are struggling with such questions. All doctors can and should be sensitive to issues of politeness and propriety, and the religious convictions (or lack thereof) of patients. But no doctor – no person – is “neutral” on topics like suffering, death, and the afterlife.

2) Making volunteer medical service contingent upon silence about one’s faith would be devastating to impoverished regions internationally. As Palmer himself notes, disproportionate numbers of doctors and nurses serving in under-serviced areas of the world (like Liberia) are people of faith. Devout Protestant and Catholic Christians are among the most common volunteers. They serve to honor God, and they do not believe that they can honor God fully if they do not speak about Jesus Christ to clients, when appropriate. Palmer seems unable to identify with the vast majority of people in the world who do not believe that death is the end of life, nor does he fathom that serious believers cannot be silent about their faith in their vocations.

Domestically and abroad, people of faith are far more likely to give time and money to charitable causes than are secular people. (Just this week another survey appeared demonstrating that the most charitable states are those with the highest rates of churchgoing.) You can accuse these believing folks of having ulterior motives, but where are the legions of atheist volunteers to take their place? Palmer’s innuendos about how the missionaries might be doing more medical harm than good are vicious and slanderous.

3) Christians must not object to other medical volunteers who speak of their own faith (or lack thereof) to clients. Of course, there are secular medical agencies such as Doctors without Borders (though presumably many of their individual volunteers are people of faith as well), Muslim medical missionaries, and those of other faiths. While Christians will not agree with the implicit or explicit messages these doctors may share with clients, the principles of religious liberty and charity would affirm that all medical “missionaries” are free to serve and speak (or not) in the name of their faith, and that their healing work does great worldly and humanitarian good. If we expect others to honor Christians’ right to freely witness about Christ, then workers of other traditions, or no faith at all, should have that freedom as well. Of course, this point may be moot: I don’t recall hearing of many Christians echoing the kinds of complaints made by secularists like Brian Palmer…

See also Ross Douthat’s take on the piece, in which he concludes that he thinks Palmer’s real complaint is “not that the missionaries are necessarily doing something wrong (he won’t actually come out and say that), but that they’re doing something right in a way that makes his team, Team Secularism, look somewhat less impressive by comparison. Which isn’t really a reaction that Christians should be offended by. It’s one that should be welcomed, worn as a badge of honor, and joyfully provoked.” Agreed.

Thomas Kidd is Professor of History at Baylor University and is Senior Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. His books include George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014), Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Supreme Court

Meet the Lawyers Fighting for Religious Freedom Today Before the Supreme Court

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty outside of the Supreme Court in Washington. Courtesy Becket Fund

Arguing for a Muslim prisoner's right to grow a beard is just the latest effort for the firm that won the Hobby Lobby case

Gregory Houston Holt wants to grow a half-inch beard but he can’t, and that’s a problem. Holt is Muslim and he believes that wearing a beard is a requirement of his Salafi faith. But he’s serving a life sentence for attempted murder in Arkansas, where the Department of Corrections has banned beards as a potential security threat. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Holt’s case, and just as interesting as the outcome of his claim is who will argue it for him. Holt, who now goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad, has put his faith not in a big name first amendment litigator nor in the secularist American Civil Liberties Union, but in the lawyers of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Holt’s faith in the Becket Fund is well founded. A small, non-profit public interest law firm, with just eleven litigating attorneys and a $5 million annual budget, the Fund is a rising star in Washington. Everyone from unknowns like Holt to corporate giants like Hobby Lobby, which this year won expanded religious exemptions from Obamacare, turns to Becket for high profile cases at the high court. Its lawyers are most famous for arguing the often politically incorrect view that the constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion has been eclipsed in recent years by government deference to other parts of the constitution. That’s no easy task, since arguments over religious liberty can be some of the thorniest, and most heated, in America.

But the Becket lawyers are shaking up Washington for a simple reason: they win. Over 20 years, Becket has won 85% of its cases–from 1920-2000, the ACLU averaged a little over 65% in religion cases at the Supreme Court, according to the website procon.org. The Supreme Court repeatedly cites the Fund’s briefs in decisions, and Becket’s first case at the Court in 2012 was a 9-0 slam dunk, ruling that the government cannot interfere with a religious group’s choice of whom to hire, even when the employees claim they were discriminated against because of their physical disabilities. Becket is mastering a pattern, supporters say: identify religious litigants with strong claims, present compelling constitutional arguments, and recruit top free exercise litigators. The result is a resurgent ascendancy of religious freedom relative to other rights. “They have outsized success in these cases coming to the court and winning them at the court,” says Viet Dinh, former U.S. Assistant Attorney General and professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “In many ways I think of them as God’s ACLU.”

Every generation has its own fight over religious freedom—it’s a debate that has driven the American story from the day the pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower. The influx of Catholic immigrants after the Civil War prompted the rise of the Blaine amendments to stop public funding of religious education. Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the flag sparked national debates during World War II. Public school prayer, nativity displays, and the pledge of allegiance prompted the fights of the later 20th century.

It was in the midst of those debates, in 1994, that Kevin “Seamus” Hasson founded the Becket Fund. Hasson, a Catholic lawyer specializing in religious liberty law at Williams and Connolly, felt that the conversation about religion in America was becoming one great non sequitur—one side was arguing that religion was not a societal good while the other insisted that America was a Christian country. Hasson believed that religious liberty comes not from the government or from faith itself, but rather from human dignity. “What we require freedom for is to seek the true, the good, and the beautiful, embrace whatever it is we believe we have found, and express it according the full measure of humanity,” Hasson, who retired in 2011 due to Parkinson’s, says.

Though many of its recent and more prominent clients have been Christian, the Becket Fund has made a point of not pegging itself just to Christian interests, taking on Muslim and Jewish clients, and even more obscure religious causes, like those of a Santeria priest in Texas. Unlike commercial for-profit firms, Becket relies on donors to underwrite its free representation of clients. Some 70% of its donations come from individuals, usually in $25,000 to $100,000 chunks, says Becket Fund president Bill Mumma. The firm’s lawyers are first amendment religious liberty specialists, but the Fund requires they also all be faithful—employees include Mormons, Catholics, evangelicals, Muslims and others.

Becket broke onto the national scene thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Its clients Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts school, and Catholic organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Eternal Word Television Network, are among the 319 plaintiffs claiming the law’s requirement to provide female employees with insurance plans that include payment for various contraceptives violates religious freedom. But Becket also focuses on low-profile, high-impact cases. The Fund defended Amish men in upstate New York who said local building regulations infringed on their traditional construction methods. It backed a Sikh woman who wanted to wear a kirpan, a small, religiously-symbolic knife, at her job in a government building. Becket has also mastered plain English press releases and media-savvy optics. When the Supreme Court ruled with Becket that Hobby Lobby should have a religious exemption from the contraception mandate, Becket’s female lawyers, not its male ones, were front and center on TV.

Ultimately, though, Becket’s success comes from higher courts’ openness to new interpretations of the First Amendment’s religious protections. For the last half of the 20th century, the Supreme Court read the amendment’s ban on state-established religion and its guarantee of free religious exercise largely as protecting minorities including smaller sects, women and others. Under recent, more conservative courts, Becket has found sympathy for the idea that majority Christian religions get those protections, too, especially when they face off against local, state and federal governments. That casts religious freedom in a similarly broad jurisprudential light as the First Amendment’s subsequent guarantee protecting free speech. “The overall trend is the court coming to a good place for the proper accommodation of religious views,” says Georgetown’s Viet Dinh, and “that is largely due to the work of the Becket Fund.”

The next big question for Becket is how broad that approach can go—and which other government-protected rights the Supreme Court believes should rank below religious freedom. America’s rapidly shifting views on sexuality, and the government’s willingness to protect same-sex relationships, will soon conflict with groups that believe their religious freedom includes the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Mumma suggests his firm will remain on the front line of that fight. “Anytime the government moves strongly closer to or farther away from those big issues that religion occupies, you are going to get religious liberty cases,” he says. “I think we are not yet done with that sort of big round of religious liberty cases.”

For now, Becket’s small team of lawyers is already working on some 40 cases. Firm leaders say it has no plans to expand, instead maintaining its focus on finding and litigating high-impact cases. “When the music stops and we go into court, it really matters whether our lawyers have written a good brief, made a good argument, are able to present a case that’s compelling to judges of all political flavors,” says Mumma. “If we can’t do that it doesn’t matter how much public attention we get.” So far, that strategy is working.

TIME faith

No, Bill Maher, the West Doesn’t Have a Monopoly on ‘Liberal Principles’

The television host and pundit's arguments about Islam are not only inaccurate--they're dangerous too

Bill Maher is upping the ante in his campaign against Islam. In a steady escalation over the past year, he has shown a real commitment to his belief that Islam is an inherently evil and anti-liberal faith that animates much of the violence and oppression across the Muslim majority world. He’ll find, eventually, that he is fighting a losing battle – but it won’t be a battle without Muslim casualties both in the U.S. and abroad.

Last Friday, Maher dedicated a good portion of his show Real Time With Bill Maher to maligning Islam, backed up by notorious anti-theist Sam Harris. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pushed back, offering some nuance to their wholesale condemnation of the fastest growing religion in the world, and actor Ben Affleck responded with clear disgust, calling their arguments “racist.”

Putting aside the unavoidable optics and dynamics of a conversation about Islam that excluded Muslims (oh, and women too), it’s vital to point out what Maher seems to be missing: the absolute inefficacy of an argument that he could win only if 1.6 billion people suddenly decided to abandon the religion. Between you and me, Bill, that’s not going to happen. But here is what is happening:

This is a partial view of the landscape of what Muslims are doing without abandoning Islam, and instead being compelled by faith to work for justice across a spectrum of issues.

Under Maher’s construct, Islam itself is the culprit. It’s not an issue of terrible Muslims, it’s an issue of a terrible system, or as he put it “the motherload of bad ideas.” As if racial equality, women’s rights, social justice, charity, minority protections, and the avoidance of conflict were ideas generated in the liberalized West that Islam missed completely 1,400 years ago. To those of us who are countering social and political ills using Islam as our authority and foundation, Maher’s understanding of Islam is not just profoundly myopic, it is dangerous and hurts our work.

Thanks to the extreme rhetoric around the dangers of ISIS to the homeland, Muslims in the U.S. are already facing increased threats. A number of prominent American Muslims leaders I personally know have recently been advised by the FBI to keep a firearm and take the death threats seriously. We are having internal conversations on how to keep mosques and Islamic schools safe, training our communities on active shooter scenarios, keeping our homes and families safe. When the fear-mongering against Muslims on the political right starts being echoed in the political left, you can be assured a serious attack or attacks in this country against Muslims will happen. It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.

Likewise, as Maher and others step up attacks on Islam, it feeds directly into the narratives used by terrorists and extremists abroad to justify attacks on any Muslim person or institution seen as a Western apologist. Those of us who firmly believe that “liberal” Western values are part and parcel of Islam are viewed as apostates by extremists, and Maher is evidence that Islam is indeed under attack by the West.

I want to believe that Maher speaks from a real concern for humanistic values, and not from a deep-seated personal prejudice. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for not knowing what he doesn’t know about Islam, but I can’t give him a pass for not making a genuine effort to fill in his knowledge gaps. I won’t be surprised if Maher shows up soon wearing a “I learned everything I need to know about Islam on 9/11″ t-shirt.

If not compelled by the inaccuracies of his arguments, Maher should deeply consider their inefficacies. He could be a tremendous asset to Muslims fighting for the same kinds of social justice and reform he desires, if only he didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Rabia Chaudry is a National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation, the President of the Safe Nation Collaborative, and a CVE expert and consultant who focuses on community resilience and law enforcement engagement. She is an attorney with a background in immigration and civil rights law and has been a community and interfaith advocate for many years. She writes and speaks frequently on Islam, Muslims, gender inequities, violent extremism, community advancement, and faith and gender oriented approaches to social justice and conflict.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

The Hajj Airlift You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Hajj
Pilgrims arriving at Mecca's Grand Mosque on Oct. 10, 2013, during the hajj pilgrimage Fayez Nureldine—AFP/Getty Images

After thousands of pilgrims were stranded in Beirut on their way to Mecca, one American diplomat saw an opportunity to lend a helping hand.

The annual Islamic Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca kicks off this week, with some 2 million people expected to join. The religious occasion is considered to be the largest annual mass gathering in the world and is, unsurprisingly, accompanied by a litany of logistical hurdles, ranging from transportation to accommodations.

But it could be worse: in 1952, the problem was particularly acute. As TIME reported then, far more pilgrims were headed for Saudi Arabia, where Mecca is located, than had been expected, in part because Saudi Arabia had waived an entrance fee for pilgrims that year. As a result, flights from Beirut–a common layover–were overbooked, and thousands of people found themselves stranded in Beirut on their way to Mecca.

One American diplomat in Lebanon, Harold Minor, saw an opportunity to lend a helping hand and, in so doing, also attempt to mend the U.S.’s then-shaky relations with the Arab world. Here’s TIME’s account of the ensuing “miracle in Washington:”

Minor promptly dashed off a “night action” (most urgent) cable to Washington, pointing out that here was a real chance for the U.S. to make friends in the Arab world. Something of a miracle then happened: the State Department got the point. At Rhein-Main airport in Wiesbaden, Germany, at Wheelus Field in Tripoli, at Orly Field in Paris, U.S. airmen were suddenly alerted for special duty. Three days later, the first of 13 huge U.S. C-54s landed at Beirut’s airport. Next morning Operation Hajj was under way…

Five days later the last of 3,763 stranded pilgrims was loaded aboard the last flight. The airlift had traveled a total of 121,800 miles. Some of the U.S. airmen had spent 27 out of 40 hours in the air, but the trips had been more than worth it. The pilgrims’ airlift had done more good than any other act of the U.S.’s otherwise fumbling and unimaginative action and inaction in the Middle East. It was the one success U.S. diplomacy could claim in a week of continued crises.

The operation was reportedly a huge success and drew praise from Arab leaders and TIME readers alike. Wrote one reader, Nashville resident Robert Alvarez:

What a thrill—to read of our big, bumbling State Department actually showing a little imagination. This is the kind of thing they ought to be doing every day in the year—instead of once a decade . . .

Read the 1952 story about Operation Hajj: Airlift for Allah

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