Thursday, January 19, 2012


People who visited Google, Wikipedia or a number of other sites yesterday were greeted with severe changes to their usual Web browsing experience. These pages advertised their opposition to new proposed Internet piracy bills PIPA (Protect IP Act) and (Stop Online Piracy Act) and encouraged their users to learn more about these proposed bills.

For those that did not take this advice and opportunity, the primary argument, in nutshell, is that these bills will defeat the original purpose of the Internet. Their goal is to attempt to stop the pirating of images, movies and other original works created by other people. While this is a laudable goal, which even the protesting sites respect, they feel these bills are overbroad and compare them to “taking a sledgehammer to something when you need a scalpel.”

An interesting example of this alleged overreach is provided here. To sum it up, an ISP can shut down a site based on a complaint that the site has “pirated” materials. According to the example, it does not matter how rough or dissimilar the work is, if it in any way simulates the work created by another, the site may be banned.

And, the alleged offending site has no recourse. United States Internet service providers are granted immunity for what they decide to pull from their service. Extending the example given above, a person’s personal family Web site could be pulled based on the fact that they have videos of their children singing copyrighted songs, no matter how bad their singing may be. And once pulled, the person cannot then seek recourse.

Like many actions, the intentions behind these bills are justifiable. But the wrong tools are being used. This “sledgehammer” has the potential to violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and devalue the Internet entirely. There are ways to reach these goals without blowing up the whole infrastructure of the Internet.; SOPA and PIPA are not the right tools to do this.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Supreme Court Authorizes a "Ministerial Exception"

This week, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision recognizing a “ministerial exception” in relation to employment discrimination laws. Some believe that this is the Supreme Court’s “most significant religious liberty decision in two decades.” This ruling allows churches and religious groups the right to hire and fire their religious leaders without any type of government intervention.

Chief Justice Roberts conceded that employment discrimination is a very serious matter; however, this issue is apparently outweighed by the “interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.” While the ruling created the “ministerial exception”, limited guidance was provided in how to apply this exception. Also, while this exception protects religious organizations from employment discrimination claims, it does not negate the possibility of criminal prosecution and does not affect any other protections put in place for employees of these organizations.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Thomas suggested that it is not the court’s place to determine who qualifies for this new exception, and instead it should be the religious organization’s responsibility to make such a decision. In another concurring opinion, Justice Alito stated that concentrating on the title of “minister” was too stringent as this is a term primarily used only in Protestant denominations; he suggested that this exception instead be extended to “any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.”

While other protections remain in place for employees of religious organizations, this ruling, without any type of true guidance on its application, is problematic. For those that truly work as “ministers”, no matter their religious affiliation or actual title, the application of this exception is straightforward – people who lead their religious organization and/or performs what one would consider typical religious duties cannot bring claims of employment discrimination if they are terminated.

However, this ruling has the ability to be overextended in cases where employees of religious institutions minimally serve as “ministers”. In fact, the case that about this ruling involved an individual who only served forty-five minutes per day serving in a religious capacity; the rest of her work day was performed teaching secular subjects. While there were other factors the court considered before extending this “ministerial exception” in this case, it remains uncertain what type of minimal service is required before a religious organization can be exempt from employment discrimination under this exception.

For the complete article from the New York Times, click here.

For the Supreme Court decision, click here.