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Pope Francis leads top religion stories of 2013

Published: Monday, Dec. 30 2013 11:20 a.m. MST

A faithful tosses in the air a jersey with the colors of the Argentine flag as Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sept. 18, 2013.

Riccardo De Luca, Associated Press

Religion played a prominent role in news events in 2013 from the change in leadership at the Vatican to the ongoing religious freedom challenges throughout the world and in the United States, according to rankings by several news organizations and publications.

The emergence of Pope Francis, who was elected head of the Roman Catholic Church in March, was the overriding religion story this year.

Outside of Argentina and the Vatican, few people had heard of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio before he was elected pope and took on the name of Francis. But that changed in just nine months, during which time he became a social media sensation who the Associated Press said captivated Catholics and non-Catholics alike with a new tone of openness, modesty and tolerance.

"Without challenging core church doctrine, he suggested it was time to rethink policy on divorce, focus more on serving the poor, and devote less rhetoric to condemnations of gay marriage and abortion," reported the AP, whose members ranked the Vatican changeover as the third overall biggest story of the year.

Pope Francis' fame wouldn't have happened without his predecessor unexpectedly resigning — something that hadn't happened in papal leadership in almost 600 years. Pope Benedict XVI, now 86, cited age and health concerns as reasons for stepping down and creating the unusual situation of past and present popes living within the Vatican compound, a development that the Religion Newswriters Association ranked as the second biggest story of the year.

Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service wrote that Benedict "perhaps single-handedly transformed the papacy from a lifetime appointment to an office that is bigger than any single man."

Religious freedom

Until the year's end, the legalization of gay marriage and its implications for religious freedom played out in courtrooms and state houses throughout the United States, landing it among the top 10 faith stories for 2013.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the federal Defense of Marriage Act, triggering a string of judicial and legislative decisions legalizing same-sex marriage in several states, including New Mexico and Utah in December. Today, gay marriage is legal in 18 states and in the District of Columbia.

The sudden change in momentum for gay rights has religious leaders scrambling to secure legal protections for not just clergy and religious institutions but also for individuals who claim their religious beliefs prevent them from recognizing a same-sex ceremony.

Stories about business owners who refused to accommodate gay marriage ceremonies for religious reasons captured national headlines in 2013 as examples of the ongoing conflict between gay rights and conscience rights. The online blog Religion Clause, which tracks religious liberty cases worldwide, ranked the combined rulings against a wedding photographer in New Mexico, a baker in Colorado and an innkeeper in Great Britain as No. 3 in its top 10 church-state and religious liberty developments of the year.

But not all faith leaders came out against gay marriage this year, according to Huffington Post rankings. Some 50 ministers performed gay marriages in support of now-former Methodist Rev. Frank Schaefer, who was tried and defrocked this year for officiating the marriage of his gay son.

The conflict over conscience rights will continue to make headlines in 2014 as the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in November to hear an appeal by national retailer Hobby Lobby, the owners of which say the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate violates their religious beliefs against abortion.

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