Senate Moves Closer to Passing ‘Respect for Marriage Act’ That Critics Say Threatens Religious Freedom

Senate Democrats—aided by 12 Republicans—took a giant step on Nov. 28 toward the final passage of the “Respect for Marriage Act” that many civil liberties experts say will seriously damage Americans’ freedom of religious practice and expression.

The 61 to 35 vote came on a cloture motion to limit debate on the Senate floor to 30 hours and have the vote on final passage. The same dozen GOP senators had voted on Nov. 16 with all 50 Democrats on a preliminary motion to move the proposal forward. The vote was set up by the pre-Thanksgiving approval of the preliminary motion.

The dozen Republican senators were Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Sen. Todd Young of Indiana.

The proposal was approved by the House in July.

Senior Senate Republican aides who asked not to be named said a vote on final passage is likely Thursday. Votes may also be allowed tomorrow on amendments proposed by Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Marco Rubio of Florida. Their amendments are intended to provide stronger protections for freedom of thought and religion.

Opponents had hoped prior to the Nov. 28 decision to persuade at least three of the dozen GOP senators to reverse themselves and instead oppose moving the proposal forward. Had three done so, the cloture motion would have fallen short of the required 60 votes and the proposal would at least temporarily have been stopped.

Supporters of the proposal like Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the measure’s original sponsor in the Senate, argued that an amendment incorporated in the text before Thanksgiving and designed to protect pastors, priests, and rabbis from being forced to perform same-sex or other non-traditional marriage ceremonies were sufficient to protect religious freedom.

Baldwin said the amended proposal is needed to “give the millions of Americans in same-sex and interracial marriages the certainty that they will continue to enjoy the freedoms, rights, and responsibilities afforded to all other marriages.”

The Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. The Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage in America.

But Baldwin and other backers of the proposal claim that the High Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision earlier this year threatens those decisions with coming reversals. In a floor speech prior to Nov. 28’s vote, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called that claim a “scare tactic.”

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Cannabis found in ancient Israeli temple called ‘revolutionary’ discovery

Holy smokes!

Archaeologists have discovered cannabis residue on artifacts in a temple in southern Israel, marking the first known use of hallucinogenic drugs in the Jewish religion, reports the Associated Press.

The study, which was published Friday in the Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, notes that the “revolutionary” findings from an eighth-century BC shrine at Tel Arad suggest “the use of mind-altering substances as part of cultic rituals in Judah.”

“Here, the official state religion of the kingdom of Judah was using this substance,” study author Eran Arie said of the psychotropic samples, which were found on two limestone altars. The synagogue was first unearthed in the 1960s at the Tel Arad excavation site near Jerusalem, however, archaeologists hadn’t identified the ancient marijuana until now.

Chemical analysis also revealed that the hashish was likely burned atop dried animal droppings.

However, it’s unlikely that the ancient Hebrews were smoking pot to get stoned. Yossi Garfinkel, an archaeology professor from Hebrew University, postulated that they took various mind-altering substances, including opium and wine “to get into ecstasy and connect with God.”

The marijuana milestone marks the “first time we see psychoactive substances in Judahite religion,” according to Arie, who hopes the discovery will shed more light on how ancient Israelites conducted worship.

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‘Sex cult’ leader who preached Islamic sermons while surrounded by scantily-clad women dubbed his ‘kittens’ is jailed for 8,500 years in Turkey for child abuse, rape and fraud

A Turkish sex cult leader and televangelist who preached Islamic sermons while surrounded by scantily-clad young women has been jailed for more than 8,500 years in prison for child abuse, rape and fraud following a retrial.

Adnan Oktar, 66, is known for holding theological discussions while surrounded by glamorous women who he dubbed his ‘kittens’.

He was sentenced last year to 1,075 years in prison after being found guilty of ten separate charges including child sexual abuse, leading a criminal gang, rape, blackmail, fraud, political and military espionage and causing torment.

This ruling was overturned earlier this year by an upper court. 

But following a retrial, the high court in Istanbul yesterday sentenced Oktar to 8,656 years in prison – an eightfold increase to his previous sentence.

The court held Oktar responsible for the crimes committed by his disciples as he was the head of the cult. Ten others were also sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. 

Oktar, who had pleaded not guilty, welcomed the final ruling, saying it is ‘God’s will’. 

‘We have full confidence in our state,’ Oktar said, reports Hurriyet newspaper. ‘We are happy with the decision. God made the decision. There are good days in our lives. 

‘Islam will dominate the world. Turkey will also be a beautiful country. May the decision be beneficial.’

A number of women who have since left the cult told his trial that they were subjected to sexual slavery. One woman testified that Oktar had sexually assaulted her and forced the women to take contraceptive pills. 

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California megachurch leader, grandparents charged with murder, torture in death of 11-year-old daughter

A California megachurch leader and her parents have been arrested on charges including murder and torture in the death of the woman’s 11-year-old daughter.

Leticia McCormack, a leader at Rock Church in San Diego, founded and led by former NFL player Miles McPherson, was booked in jail Monday on a charge of murder, three counts of torture, and three counts of willful cruelty to a child in the death of Arabella McCormack, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office reported.

On Thursday, McCormack’s leadership profile had been removed from the megachurch’s website.

Arabella was initially fostered before being adopted by Brian and Leticia McCormack, officials said.

The 49-year-old church elder’s father, Stanley Tom, 75, was also charged with murder, three counts of torture, and three counts of willful cruelty to a child, according to a news release from the department. Arabella’s grandmother Adella Tom, 70, was booked on three counts of torture and three counts of willful cruelty to a child.

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Meet the ‘Black Robe Regiment’ of Extremist Pastors Spreading Christian Nationalism

Days before the midterm elections, Pastor David MacLellan was ready to preach far-right politics through Bible verses to his small congregation. MacLellan, a hulking man with a long, grizzled black beard, isn’t an ordinary pastor. He proudly identifies himself as a far-right, extremist pastor and a Christian nationalist, someone who believes American politics should reflect fundamentalist Christian values. 

And he’s part of a growing national religious political movement called the Black Robe Regiment, a modern-day group inspired by a myth of a group of militant pastors during the American Revolution who took up arms to lead their flock into battle against the British. The movement, imbued with support from far-right political activists like Michael Flynn, wants pastors to play a central role in not only preaching politics from the pulpit but also actively getting their congregations to rise up and claim election fraud by weaving myths about the American Revolution together with modern-day conspiracy theories and hard-line Christianity. These pastors believe they’re saving democracy, though what they’re really doing is encouraging supporters to undermine the democratic process.

And MacLellan plans to take an active role: He’s convinced that the 2020 election was stolen and that fraud has already been committed in the 2022 midterms. He wants his congregants to fight back. 

“This Tuesday, I’ll be taking some of our seniors to the polling station,” MacLellan announced at the beginning of his service, held in the living room of his home in Mesa, Arizona. That day, he wore a tweed jacket over a black shirt, and a bolo tie. His hands are gnarled with faded tattoos—a nod, he says, to his Scottish heritage and a holdover from a past life when he played in punk bands in New York and was a “heathen biker.”

His sermon mixed Bible verses with remarks about evolution, made claims of violence against anti-abortion groups, and described Jewish people as a “wealthy group of people who didn’t believe in heaven or hell, didn’t believe in angels, and they had political control over everything.”

“Interesting, huh?” he said, as an aside to the congregation crowded into his living room, who responded with knowing sounds.

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Chase Bank Cancels Nonprofit’s Bank Account: Religious Freedom Is Under Attack in Corporate America’

A former United States ambassador for religious freedom says Chase Bank abruptly closed an account associated with his nonpartisan, faith-based nonprofit organization with little explanation.

The National Committee for Religious Freedom (NCRF), a 501(c)4 political action nonprofit, opened an account with Chase in April. 

According to Sam Brownback, the group’s chairman and the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom under the Trump administration, the bank decided to “end their relationship” with NCRF and close the account after only three weeks.

“We were surprised at being canceled by Chase,” Brownback wrote in an op-ed published in the Washington Examiner. When our executive director called to see if this was an error, he was informed that ‘a note in the file read that Chase employees were not permitted to provide any further clarifying information to the customer.’”

NCRF Executive Director Justin Murff reached out for more information but was told the decision was made at the “corporate” level and was “final and nonrevocable”.

“Why the cancellation? Why the secrecy and lack of transparency? Why was Chase hiding its reasons and intentions for closing the account of a client that seeks to serve the public good and defend religious freedom for every person in America,” Brownback questioned. 

The bank later stated the group had not provided requested documentation in a 60-day timeframe, but Brownback notes the account was only open for 20 days before it was closed. 

“To this day, the NCRF does not have a clear reason as to why our account was closed after only three weeks,” he said. “We certainly hadn’t made any transactions in that short amount of time that would have triggered any regulatory red flags.”

Murff was later told by a Chase employee identified as “Chi-Chi” that it might be possible to continue the business relationship if NCRF could provide more information about the nonprofit’s activities. 
Specifically, they wanted a donor list, a list of political candidates NCRF intended to support, and a full explanation of the criteria by which they would endorse and support those candidates. 

“It was entirely inappropriate to ask for this type of information. Does Chase ask every customer what politicians they support and why before deciding whether or not to accept them as a customer?” Brownback asked in his op-ed.

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Steinhatchee Church Deacon Convicted Of Production Of Child Pornography

Jonathan High, 30, of Steinhatchee, Florida, has been convicted of two counts of use of a child to produce child pornography. The guilty verdict, returned yesterday, at the conclusion of a one-day bench trial, was announced by Jason R. Coody, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida. Prior to the trial, High pleaded guilty to one count of possession of child pornography. 

In August 2021, law enforcement officers received a Cybertip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) that a user of a cloud storage account uploaded files constituting child pornography. An investigation revealed the account belonged to High. Law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant for High’s cell phones and desktop computer, and after an examination of their contents, confirmed that High was in possession of multiple child pornography images and videos that depicted prepubescent boys engaged in sex acts or exposing their genitals in a lascivious manner.  Further investigation revealed that some of these images and videos were produced by High personally; High produced separate video recordings of two young boys using the bathroom in a Perry, Florida church where High served as a deacon.

High’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for January 9, 2023, at 1:30 p.m., at the United States Courthouse in Tallahassee before United States District Judge Allen Winsor. High faces a minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years in prison and a combined maximum of 70 years in prison for all three counts.

This conviction was the result of a joint investigation conducted by Homeland Security Investigations, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the North Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Assistant United States Attorneys Justin M. Keen and Kaitlin Weiss prosecuted the case. 

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Rate of sexual abuse of kids is highest among religious Zionist sector

Students in religious public schools in Israel are at a higher risk of sexual harassment and assault than any other of the Jewish education streams, a new study examining cases of sexual abuse from the religious Zionist sector by the Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah movement has found.

“[These results] are a first step in the necessary in-depth discussions that oblige us to fight this phenomenon, recognize it, and to wake up from the illusion that a separated society [of men and women] is a guarantee of preventing harm.” Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah’s Shmuel Shatach

Researcher Ariel Finkelstein analyzed the scope and profile of sexual abuse victims in Israeli local authorities’ social services departments in 2020, by sector or stream.

In Israel, there are a number of educational streams: Secular public school (Mamlachti), religious public school (Mamlachti Dati) and ultra-Orthodox schools, which are either private or semi-private.

The distribution of the data on sexual abuse was filtered by sector, according to the type of educational stream where the victims are currently or were educated in their childhood.

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