Pope Francis kisses a child at the Vatican. (Gregorio Borgia / AP)

In the realm of religion, the No. 1 story of 2015 was provided by a nonreligious institution: the Supreme Court of the United States. The justices’ 5-to-4 ruling declaring that no one may be deprived of the freedom to marry — a liberty that they ruled is guaranteed in the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment — now means the choice to wed someone of the same gender cannot be legally denied. The opposition has continued to complain that the decision impinges on the religious liberty of those who oppose same-gender-loving couples, yet there is nothing in the ruling that requires religious bodies to participate, allow or in any way support same-sex marriage. The ruling is solely relevant to the civil courts and jurisdictions that authorize marriage licenses. Once a license is issued, the couple may be married by anyone authorized and willing to perform the ceremony. What really makes this a religion story is that the ruling allows clergy, congregations and denominations who support same-gender couples to freely and fully practice their beliefs. Until this ruling, ministers who performed same-sex weddings in states where they were illegal could not have those sacred ceremonies legally recognized in the same way that the ceremonies performed for female-male couples are. The second-biggest religion story of 2015 has to be Pope Francis. He makes the list for two big reasons. First, his encyclical, “Laudato Si’ ” — which called the world to recognize human activity’s contribution to the warming of the planet and to repent of the sin of this devastation — was a big thumb on the scale moving the worlds’ nations toward greater unity on this issue. Second, his tour de force visits to the United States and Cuba embodied his call for the church and society to refocus concern on the poor and vulnerable. Two images from the pontiff’s U.S. visit stand out. One is the striking contrast of the SUVs and limousines in his motorcade with the humble subcompact Fiat 500 that carried him through the streets of Washington, New York and Philadelphia. The other is the image of him inside a Philadelphia prison seated on a throne constructed by the inmates. His overall message throughout the trip — and throughout his papacy thus far — has been one of greater humility in the church hierarchy and a shift away from divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage and toward a mission to serve the poor. This shift back to the historic mission of the church has an almost radical feel to it after decades of an anti-sex-focused agenda. Unfortunately, in the next three stories, religion made the news for all the wrong reasons. First, there is Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who became a symbol of the backlash against the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality when she refused to issue any marriage licenses at all rather than comply with the court’s ruling that she must issue licenses to both opposite-gender and same-gender couples. After serving several days in jail for contempt of a judge’s order, she returned to work but altered the license form to omit her name and signature — which are required by Kentucky law. The legality of these forms is yet to be adjudicated. Davis became a conservative cause célèbre, drawing the support of some religious leaders as well as Republican presidential candidates such as Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz. Make sure to show your support for Truthdig’s independent journalism by visiting our donation page.

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