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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of closely held corporations that sought an exemption to a federal law requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception. The owners of the plaintiff companies – Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based craft supply store chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania furniture company – cited religious objections to contraception as a reason not to comply with the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union, religious organizations, other civil rights and women’s health groups, business leaders, and members of Congress filed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that the companies’ owners cannot impose their personal religious beliefs on employees to withhold coverage for health services with which they disagree.

"This is a deeply troubling decision. For the first time, the highest court in the country has said that business owners can use their religious beliefs to deny their employees a benefit that they are guaranteed by law," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. "Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but that freedom does not include the right to impose beliefs on others. In its ruling today, the Court simply got it wrong."

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RALEIGH – The North Carolina House of Representatives today passed S.B. 370, “Respect for Student Prayer/Religious Liberty,” which purports to clarify the rights of public school students to freely engage in religious activities and the proper role of school personnel during such expression. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina opposes the bill because existing law already protects the right of religious expression for students and S.B. 370 could create confusion and serve to ostracize students of different beliefs.

“The right of students to voluntarily express and practice their faith in public schools is already well-established and protected by the First Amendment,” said Sarah Preston, ACLU-NC Policy Director. “Some of this bill’s unnecessary and confusing language could wrongly encourage public school personnel to takes sides in student-led religious activity, making students with different beliefs feel excluded or ostracized not only by their classmates, but also by their teachers and schools.” 

The bill has already passed the state Senate but was modified by the House and now must return to the Senate for concurrence before being sent to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature.

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RALEIGH – In a 5-4 decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a New York town’s practice of starting town meetings with official sectarian prayer. The practice was challenged by residents of Greece, N.Y. who objected to hearing government prayers, the vast majority of which were expressly Christian invocations, as a condition of attending public meetings.

“We strongly disagree with today's 5-4 decision,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina. “Today’s ruling is a disappointing setback for the rights of citizens of all beliefs to be treated equally by their government. Opening government meetings with prayers from a specific religious viewpoint tells citizens with different beliefs that they are not welcome and sends a message that the government endorses certain religious views over others. While we disagree with today's ruling, it is a fact-specific decision making plain there are still limits on the types of prayers that legislative bodies may permit.”

The ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a federal lawsuit in 2013 on behalf of three Rowan County citizens, demanding that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners stop its practice of opening government meetings with prayers that are specific to one religion. More than 97 percent of board meetings since 2007 had been opened by commissioners who delivered prayers specific to one religion, Christianity. On July 23, 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina issued a preliminary injunction ordering the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to immediately cease its practice of opening government meetings with prayers specific to one religion.

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CANTON, N.C. – The administration of a public high school in western North Carolina has agreed to allow a group of students to form a club for nonreligious students after the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent officials a letter explaining how denial of the club would violate federal law.

“Students of all beliefs, religious and nonreligious, deserve an equal opportunity to meet in a safe and welcoming space where they can socialize and discuss their views with peers,” said ACLU-NCLF Legal Director Chris Brook, who co-signed the February 11 letter. “We’re very pleased that this situation is now resolved.”

Students at Pisgah High School in Canton have been trying since October 2013 to form a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance, which seeks to create welcoming communities for nonreligious students, but were told by officials that the club would not “fit in” and could not find a faculty sponsor. The school has about 30 extracurricular clubs, including at least two religious clubs: the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Key Club.

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