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With US President Donald Trump Pick Aboard, Top US Court Tackles Religious Rights

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President Donald Trump watches as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy administers the judicial oath to Judge Neil Gorsuch during a re-enactment in the Rose Garden of the White House White House in Washington, April 10, 2017. VOA

The U.S. Supreme Court is set this week to hear a closely watched case testing the limits of religious rights, and new Justice Neil Gorsuch’s judicial record indicates he could tip the court toward siding with a church challenging Missouri’s ban on state funding of religious entities.

Trinity Lutheran Church, which is located in Columbia, Missouri and runs a preschool and daycare center, said Missouri unlawfully excluded it from a grant program providing state funds to nonprofit groups to buy rubber playground surfaces.

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Missouri’s constitution prohibits “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state taxpayer money.

Gorsuch, who embraced an expansive view of religious rights as a Colorado-based federal appeals court judge, on Monday hears his first arguments since becoming a justice last week. He will be on the bench on Wednesday when the justices hear the Trinity Lutheran case, one of the most important of their current term. Gorsuch, appointed by President Donald Trump, restored the Supreme Court’s 5-4 conservative majority.

Trinity Lutheran wanted public funds to replace its playground’s gravel with a rubber surface made from recycled tires that would be safer for children to play on.

The U.S. Constitution calls for a separation of church and state and guarantees the free exercise of religion.

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At the very least, a victory for Trinity Lutheran would help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety.

But it also could bolster the case for using public money for vouchers to help pay for children to attend religious schools rather than public schools in “school choice” programs backed by many conservatives. For example, Colorado’s top court in 2015 found that a Douglas County voucher program violated a state constitutional provision similar to Missouri’s.

Trinity Lutheran’s legal effort is being spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal activist group, which argues Missouri’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.

If the church wins, “religious organizations cannot be excluded from general public welfare benefits that apply to everybody,” said Erik Stanley, an alliance lawyer representing the church.

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Referring to Gorsuch, Stanley said, “He has definitely been a friend of religious liberty. So we are hopeful that will continue when he’s on the court, and we’re grateful he gets to participate on this important case.”

In 2013, Gorsuch sided with the evangelical Christian owners of arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby and allowed owners of private companies to object on religious grounds to a provision in federal healthcare law requiring employers to provide medical insurance that pays for women’s birth control.

Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion that Hobby Lobby’s owners faced a choice “between exercising their faith or saving their business.” The Supreme Court later affirmed the ruling.

Missouri said there is nothing unconstitutional about its grant program.

“Trinity Lutheran remains free, without any public subsidy, to worship, teach, pray and practice any other aspect of its faith however it wishes. The state merely declines to offer financial support,” the state said in legal papers.

The church has drawn support from the religious community including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Mormon Church and Jewish groups.

‘Open the floodgates’

Groups filing legal papers opposing Trinity Lutheran, including the American Civil Liberties Union, said government funding of churches is precisely what the Constitution forbids.

“Forcing states to provide cash to build church property could open the floodgates to programs that coerce taxpayers to underwrite religion,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU’s program on freedom of religion and belief.

Mach said three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions like Missouri’s.

Alliance Defending Freedom, which also opposes gay marriage, transgender protections and abortion, has another major case involving religion that the Supreme Court could take up in its term beginning in October. It represents a Colorado bakery’s Christian owner who argues the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom means he should not have to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Trinity Lutheran sued in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court’s dismissal of the suit. The appeals court said

accepting the church’s arguments would be “unprecedented,” noting the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in the case Locke v. Davey that upheld a bar on Washington state scholarships for students preparing for the ministry.

The justice who Gorsuch replaced, the late fellow conservative Antonin Scalia, was one of two dissenters in the Locke ruling. When a state withholds a generally available benefit solely on religious grounds, it is like an unconstitutional “special tax” on religion, Scalia said.

Judicial observers have described Gorsuch as very much in the mold of Scalia.

Missouri’s grant program was meant to keep tires out of landfills while also fostering children’s safety. The church’s brief to the high court stated, “A rubber playground surface accomplishes the state’s purposes whether it cushions the fall of the pious or the profane.” (VOA)

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President Donald Trump Can Begin Steps to Pull United States Out of Landmark Paris Climate Agreement

It was negotiated in 2015 with lots of prodding by the United States and China and went into effect Nov. 4, 2016

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President, Donald Trump, United States
In the Paris agreement, nearly 200 countries set their own national targets for reducing or controlling pollution of heat-trapping gases Wikimedia Commons

For more than two years President Donald Trump has talked about pulling the United States out of the landmark Paris climate agreement. Starting Monday he finally can do something about it.

Even then, though, the withdrawal process takes a year and wouldn’t become official until at least the day after the 2020 presidential election.

In the Paris agreement, nearly 200 countries set their own national targets for reducing or controlling pollution of heat-trapping gases. It was negotiated in 2015 with lots of prodding by the United States and China and went into effect Nov. 4, 2016.

The terms of the deal say no country can withdraw in the first three years. So Monday is the first time the U.S. could actually start the withdrawal process, which begins with a letter to the United Nations. And it doesn’t become official for a year after that, which leads to the day after the election.

President, Donald Trump, United States
Youths demonstrate for climate change during the “Fridays for Future” school strike, in front of the Ecology Ministry in Paris, France, Feb. 15, 2019. VOA

If someone other than Trump wins in 2020, the next president could get back in the deal in just 30 days and plan to cut carbon pollution, said Andrew Light, a former Obama State Department climate negotiator now at the nonprofit World Resources Institute.

Light and other experts say the withdrawal by the United States, the second biggest climate polluter and world’s largest economy, will hurt efforts to fight global warming.

“Global objectives can’t be met unless everybody does their part and the U.S. has to play the game,” said Appalachian State University environmental sciences professor Gregg Marland, who is part of a global effort to track carbon dioxide emissions. “We’re the second biggest player. What happens to the game if we take our ball and go home?”

Someone else, probably the biggest polluter China, will take over leadership in the global fight, said MIT economist Jake Jacoby, who co-founded the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

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The penalty for the U.S. “is not in economic loss. The penalty is in shame, in discrediting U.S. leadership,” Jacoby said.

Asked what the U.S. plans next, State Department spokesman James Dewey on Friday emailed only this: “The U.S. position with respect to the Paris Agreement has not changed. The United States intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.”

The agreement set goals of preventing another 0.5 degrees Celsius to 1 degree Celsius of warming from current levels. Even the pledges made in 2015 weren’t enough to prevent those levels of warming.

The deal calls for nations to come up with more ambitious pollution cuts every five years, starting in November 2020 in at a meeting in Scotland. Because of the expected withdrawal, the U.S. role in 2020 negotiations will be reduced, Light said.

President, Donald Trump, United States
Even then, though, the withdrawal process takes a year and wouldn’t become official until at least the day after the 2020 presidential election. Pixabay

Climate change, caused by the burning of coal, oil and gas, has already warmed the world by 1 degree Celsius since the late 1800s, caused massive melting of ice globally, triggered weather extremes and changed ocean chemistry. And scientists say, depending on how much carbon dioxide is emitted, it will only get worse by the end of the century with temperatures jumping by several degrees and oceans rising by close one meter.

Trump has been promising to pull out of the Paris deal since 2017, often mischaracterizing the terms of the agreement, which are voluntary. In October, he called it a massive wealth transfer from America to other nations and said it was one-sided

That’s not the case, experts said.

For example, the U.S. goal – set by Barack Obama’s administration – had been to reduce carbon dioxide emission in 2025 by 26% to 28% compared to 2005 levels. This translates to about 15% compared to 1990 levels.

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The European Union’s goal was to cut carbon pollution in 2030 by 40% compared to 1990 levels, which is greater than America’s pledge, said Stanford University’s Rob Jackson, who chairs the Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists that track carbon emissions worldwide. The United Kingdom has already exceeded that goal, he said.

“The U.S. agreement is not a tax on the American people. There is no massive wealth transfer,” said Climate Advisers CEO Nigel Purvis, who was a lead State Department climate negotiator in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. “In fact, the agreement obligates no country to make any financial payments.”

Formally getting out of the Paris agreement is bad, but at this point after years of rhetoric is more symbolic than anything, said Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb. She said she is more worried about other Trump carbon pollution actions, such as fighting California’s tougher emissions and mileage standards and rollbacks of coal fired power plant regulations.

The U.S. was not on track to reach its Paris pledge, according to the federal Energy Information Administration’s latest projections.

The EIA projects that in 2025 emissions will be at 4959 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, 17% below 2005 levels, about 500 million tons short of the goal. Emissions in 2018 were nearly 2% higher than in 2016, the agency’s latest energy outlook says. That spike likely was from extreme weather and economic growth, Marland and Jacoby said. (VOA)