Pa. Congressman Skips Radical Right Meeting After AU Complaint
After protests from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, U.S. Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-Pa.) has dropped plans to speak before a radical fundamentalist group that seeks to impose "biblical law" on the nation.
Pitts, who serves as the House Republican leadership's liaison to the Religious Right, was scheduled to speak at a conference of the National Reform Association in Ephrata, Pa., on Nov. 15-16. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn sent Pitts a letter Nov. 12 asking him to bow out.
"The National Reform Association advocates extreme policies that run counter to our Constitution and the American way of life," Lynn wrote to Pitts. "Your appearance at this event will inevitably lend credibility to that dangerous agenda. Accordingly, I ask you to withdraw from the event this weekend and issue a public statement repudiating the extreme views of the National Reform Association."
Lynn noted that the National Reform Association is the political arm of a movement called "Christian Reconstructionism." Adherents of this religio-political agenda favor scrapping democracy in America and establishing a "Christian" religious state in accordance with their literalist interpretation of the Old Testament's legal code. (For more information on the movement, see "Operation Potomac," October 2001 Church & State.)
In the Reconstructionists' model society, homosexuality, worshipping "false" gods, "witchcraft" and marital infidelity would merit the death penalty. One sponsor of the National Reform Association event, the Rev. William Einwechter, argued in a 1999 article that juvenile delinquents should be stoned to death. Another speaker at the event, Gary DeMar, asserted in a 1987 book that gay people, doctors who perform abortions and women who obtain abortions should be executed.
Four years ago, Pitts was appointed by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and other House Republicans to serve as a liaison between the GOP and the Religious Right. But Lynn said the agenda of the Christian Reconstructionists goes far beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse.
"The American people may disagree about homosexuality and abortion," said Lynn, "but only extremists favor executing gay people and abortion providers. No member of Congress should give credibility to these extremists by appearing at their events."
Gabe Neville, a Pitts spokesman, told the Associated Press that Pitts would not attend the event. "Congressman Pitts doesn't believe in stoning anybody," he said.
Einwechter expressed disappointment that Pitts cancelled and added, "I made it clear that we're not requiring anyone to endorse anything that we stand for." Einwechter also defended his 1999 stoning essay, saying, "This is what is in the Bible. To attack that is to attack Christians, to attack Jews, and it is its own sense of discrimination."
The National Reform Association was founded in 1864 with the goal of adding an amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially recognizing Christianity and Jesus Christ. Although the gambit failed, the organization remained a powerful religious lobby until the early part of the 20th Century, when its influence began to wane. A few years ago, the organization was taken over by a group of Christian Reconstructionists, who have been trying to revive it by visiting Washington and forging links with the Bush administration and members of Congress.
In other news about the Religious Right:
"Christian Reconstructionist" Gary DeMar is joining forces with prominent TV preacher D. James Kennedy. DeMar, whose American Vision is based near Atlanta, is working with Kennedy on a project to promote the idea of America as a "Christian nation." Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries recently published DeMar's new book called America's Heritage that promotes the Christian nation view.
Kennedy is apparently not bothered by DeMar's extreme views. In his 1987 book, Ruler of the Nations, DeMar advocated executing gay people, abortion providers and women who obtain abortions. "The law that requires the death penalty for homosexual acts effectually drives the perversion of homosexuality back into the closet," he wrote. A few pages later, DeMar added, "The long term goal [is] the execution of abortionists and parents who hire them. If we argue that abortion is murder, then we must call for the death penalty."
Jerry Falwell continues his efforts to build a Christian fundamentalist compound in Lynchburg, Va. In November the Associated Press reported that Falwell signed a contract to buy a 110-acre industrial site adjacent to his Liberty University. Falwell paid $10.2 million for the 888,000-square-foot complex and plans to move Thomas Road Baptist Church, the Lynchburg Christian Academy, Liberty Bible Institute and other projects to the property.
Falwell said he has already raised $5 million to pay for the project and will fund the rest through loans.
'Faith-Based' Approach Fraught With Problems, New Study Finds
Faith-based organizations are no less susceptible to management and accountability problems than their secular counterparts, a new study indicates.
The study, "Should we have faith in faith-based social services?: Rhetoric versus realistic expectations," surveyed press reports of wrong-doing in faith-based groups from 1995 to 2001. Authors Margaret Gibelman and Sheldon R. Gelman of Yeshiva University's School of Social Work, assert, "Findings reveal that faith-based groups appear to be as susceptible to managerial and accountability inadequacies, if not outright wrongdoing, as are nonsectarian providers."
Writing in the Fall 2002 edition of Nonprofit Management and Leadership, Gibelman and Gelman assert that President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative was predicated on several unproven assumptions, chiefly that government-run social services had failed and that religious groups could easily replace traditional service providers.
In fact, the two found several instances of fraud involving money and "scams that used faith and religion as the pretext for wide-scale fraud of those who identify with faith groups. The intent in these cases was to commit criminal acts under the cover of serving the faithful."
Conclude the two, "As the analysis of cases highlights, the sanctity afforded religion does not make faith-based institutions immune from the types of wrongdoings that occur among secular nonprofits."
Gibelman and Gelman also noted that small non-profits and houses of worship are often exempt from government scrutiny and IRS audits, making effective oversight all the more difficult.
"Emerging revelations about faith-based groups, however, negate the images emanating from Washington, D.C., that a distinctly religious approach to services is morally compelling," they write. "Just because an organization is faith-based does not exempt its leadership from the human frailties that beset other organizational leaders."
In their conclusion, Gibelman and Gelman assert that without appropriate oversight, scandals involving faith-based organizations may proliferate and result in a lack of public confidence in religious groups.
"The fact that faith-based groups provide good works under church auspices does not mean that they need not be accountable to anybody....," they write. "Unless we address the underlying conditions that made these wrongdoings possible, fresh scandals will fill our newspapers, and public trust in faith-based groups will erode, just as we have witnessed in the nonprofit sector in general."
In other news about the faith-based initiative:
TV preacher Pat Robertson issued a statement Oct. 30 trying to explain why he accepted $500,000 from the federal government for his Operation Blessing after earlier criticizing the faith-based initiative.
Robertson acknowledged that he had once asserted that accepting government money was dangerous because it could lead to government intrusion into religious affairs. He now claims that the Bush plan has been altered and no longer presents this threat.
"I am delighted that the faith-based initiative, as currently presented, does not have the same intrusive quality as was first laid out in initial proposals," he wrote. Robertson further asserted that Operation Blessing, which has an annual budget of $50 million, would not become dependent on government grants.
In fact, church-state experts say the Bush faith-based plan remains the same as ever in its approach to grants, so Robertson's explanation lacks credibility.
Jim Towey, director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, says President Bush's plan to direct potentially billions in tax aid to religious groups presents no church-state problems.
"This is about the poor," he told an audience in Hickory, N.C., Oct. 28. "When you hear this is about separation of church and state, this is a lie. The question you should be asking is, do the programs work and are they turning people's lives around?"
Ypsilanti Voters Reject Monaghan-Led Effort To Repeal Gay Rights
Voters in Ypsilanti, Mich., have rejected an effort led by Domino's Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan to repeal a city law banning discrimination toward gays.
Monaghan, an ultra-conservative Catholic who made his fortune through Domino's but no longer owns the company, does not live in Ypsilanti. Nevertheless, he funded the move to overturn the city's five-year-old anti-discrimination ordinance, including paying for solicitors to collect signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
The ordinance includes gays among 14 classes of people that are protected against discrimination. In 1998, opponents attempted to overturn the entire ordinance through a ballot referendum and lost. This year, they targeted only gays.
Two other groups joined Monaghan in pushing the repeal: the American Family Association of Michigan, a state affiliate of the national AFA headquartered in Tupelo, Miss., and the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, a traditionalist Roman Catholic group.
Supporters of the anti-discrimination law charged that the repeal question should not be on the ballot, because its backers tried to conceal their true sources of support. They noted that funding for the effort came almost exclusively from Monaghan, the AFA and the More Center. A state judge agreed and ordered that the question be tossed off the ballot, but the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed.
Anti-gay forces in Ypsilanti asserted that the ordinance offered "special rights" to gay people, but they also frequently employed religious rhetoric. "[Being gay] is totally against the word of God," Linda Caillouet, co-chair of Ypsilanti Citizens Voting YES, told the Ypsilanti Courier. "We love the word of God, and we love God. It's the lifestyle that is against the word of God, not the person."
Voters were not persuaded. On Nov. 5, the repeal effort failed decisively, with 3,023 voting to keep the anti-discrimination ordinance and 1,779 voting to scrap it.
After the vote, Gary Glenn, president of the AFA of Michigan, vowed to try again. "Defenders of marriage and traditional family values will learn from the defeat here," he said. "The biggest lesson learned here is to be even more aggressive about fund-raising."
Monaghan's failure in Ypsilanti is unlikely to slow down his efforts to merge church and state. He has recently been active in supporting right-wing candidates through a political action committee and has several other projects under way.
TVC's Sheldon Joins Effort To Help Murdoch, Fox Block Cable TV Deal
Although many in the Religious Right love the rightward tilt of Fox News Channel, most have little use for the Fox network, charging that it's a major purveyor of sleaze TV.
But at least one Religious Right leader seems to be willing to forgive Fox owner Rupert Murdoch for bring the nation fare like "Temptation Island" and "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" Louis Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, recently persuaded the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) to help Murdoch block a telecommunications merger that Murdoch didn't like.
Broadcasting and Cable magazine reported that Sheldon lined up NRB support to help block EchoStar's offer to buy and merge with DirecTV. Both companies provide satellite television services, and Murdoch had earlier tried to buy DirecTV. When he was rebuffed, he got to work stopping the merger.
Last summer, six religious programmers presented the Justice Department with half a million petitions protesting the proposed merger. On Oct. 10, the Federal Communications Commission blocked the deal, voting 4-0 against it.
Not all religious broadcasters were happy about the partnership with Murdoch. David Clark, president of FamilyNet and a former chairman of the NRB, wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft to suggest that the arrangement was brokered by Sheldon.
"I believe," Clark wrote, "the recent stand by the executive committee on the National Religious Broadcasters to oppose the merger may be the result of a meeting that Louis Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, arranged with Rupert Murdoch."
Clark told Broadcasting and Cable that Murdoch met with Sheldon and other ministers and promised them he would air more religious programming if he were to buy DirecTV. Glenn Plummer, NRB chairman, admitted as much, saying, "Murdoch did give us assurances."
Asked to explain his partnership with Murdoch, Sheldon replied, "Fox studio has a long way to go. But Rupert doesn't own that outright. He can't control [it.] It's like an adult son."
One conservative media watcher has been critical of the deal. L. Brent Bozell III, writing in The Washington Times Oct. 28, observed, "Many family-oriented groups have met with and written letters to FCC Chairman Michael Powell asking him to do something about Fox's regular flouting of FCC decency regulations. Last February, 15 groups asked that the agency stop its pattern of dismissing obscenity complaints with minimal or no fines.... But missing from that list of Fox-fighting family groups was the Traditional Values Coalition. The 'adult son' got no heat from them."
Religious Groups Issue 'Shared Vision' Statement Supporting Separation
Five national religious bodies joined forces in Washington, D.C., recently to update and re-issue a vision statement affirming the importance of church-state separation to religious liberty.
The first "Shared Vision" statement was issued in 1994 and signed by six religious and civil liberties groups and 80 individuals. The new version, issued Oct. 17, was limited solely to religious organizations. Signers include the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation.
The document notes that America is confronted by "two strikingly different and equally invalid views about religion in public life." One view, the document says, suggests that the United States was founded as a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation and that church-state separation was never intended. The other view holds that religion and religious groups should have a "minimal role in perhaps even being barred from the vital public discourses we carry on as a democracy."
The statement calls for a third approach: It says the government should remain neutral on matters of religion, and it advocates an interpretation of the First Amendment that maximizes religious freedom under the Free Exercise Clause but prevents government from endorsing or funding religion under the Establishment Clause.
Specifically, "A Shared Vision" opposes state-sponsored worship in public schools, voucher aid to religious schools and tax aid to religion through "faith-based initiatives."
Reacting to the Supreme Court's decision in June upholding voucher aid for religious schools, "A Shared Vision" comments, "What may be constitutional is not always wise or good public policy. Therefore, we oppose direct and indirect government funding of parochial schools at primary and secondary levels and of pervasively religious colleges and universities."
Concludes the document, "Our heritage of religious liberty and church-state separation must be reaffirmed. The increasing religious pluralism in our country beckons us to turn this heritage into a legacy. The aspirations of the Founders that religion should involve a voluntary response and that government should remain neutral toward religion must be converted into practical reality." The entire document can be read online at the Baptist Joint Committee's website: www.bjcpa.org.
Private School Students Cheat More Than Public School Pupils, Says Survey
Advocates of school vouchers take it as a given that sectarian schools produce students with better ethics than public institutions, but a new study challenges that assumption
"Report Card 2002: The Ethics of American Youth," released by the Josephson Institute for Ethics in late October, found that 78 percent of high school students attending religious schools had cheated on an exam at least once in the past year; for public and non-religious private school students, the figure was 72 percent.
Among high schoolers, 52 percent of those attending a religious school admitted to cheating on an exam. Even 47 percent of those who said their religious beliefs were very important to them said they had cheated.
The survey also found that attendance at a religious school did little to prevent students from lying. Eighty-six percent of religious school students admitted lying to teachers; 81 percent of students in public and non-religious private schools said they had lied.
The survey questioned 12,474 high school students nationwide. It has a margin of error of plus or minus three points. Of the students surveyed, 5,858 were attending private religious high schools; 6,845 told the pollsters that they consider their religious convictions essential or very important.
Despite these findings, advocates of vouchers continue to assert that government aid to religious schools will boost public morals. In November, Stephen L. Carter, a Yale University professor and proponent of vouchers, went so far as to argue in Christianity Today that voucher programs could lead to a future with fewer big business money scandals.
"For the millions of parents who continue to support school vouchers, the religious school is seen as a partner in training the child in right and wrong," wrote Carter. "That nearly nine of ten private school students attend religious schools may reflect a parental judgment that raising good people is more important than raising test scores."
'Stealth Evangelists' Spark Controversy In New York, New Jersey
Education officials in New York City and New Jersey have warned local public schools to be wary of an alleged anti-violence program that is really a cover for Christian fundamentalist proselytization efforts.
"Rage Against Destruction," a St. Louis-based program linked to evangelist Joyce Meyer, is accused of offering schools a free assembly on avoiding violence that turns into a hard-sell for fundamentalism.
Attorneys with the New York City public education system wrote to the Meyer group in October and told staffers there that they will no longer be permitted to preach to students on campus.
"You may not proselytize during the assemblies, nor may you in any way use the assemblies as a vehicle to induce students to attend...other religious concerts or meetings," attorney Chad Vignola wrote to the group.
Three high schools in New York City have already hosted the program, which features hip-hop music and testimonials from group leaders. Postcards handed out during the event invited students to a separate event off campus that featured speakers stressing the need for conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. Students were told that the off-campus event would feature a free deejay, rap music and drawings for free DVD players.
The Anti-Defamation League has criticized the group for trying to convert students. "New York City is setting a precedent for school districts across the country who might be confronted with the stealth tactics used by this group," Joel Levy, an ADL official in New York, told the New York Daily News.
Education officials in New Jersey are also wary of the activities of Rage Against Destruction. ADL officials there, working in concert with the New Jersey Coalition for Free Exercise of Religion, warned area schools that the group seeks to convert students.
"It's the subterfuge that is the key issue here," said Charles Goldstein, ADL regional director. "That is obnoxious and inappropriate."
The New Jersey Department of Education subsequently advised schools to be cautious of Rage Against Destruction. Deputy Education Commissioner Dwight R. Pfennig wrote to county superintendents, telling them that the "message of the group, while including anti-violence, may cross into areas that are sectarian in nature."
Meyer, whose ministry provides Rage Against Destruction with most of its budget, recently joined forces with the Christian Coalition to cosponsor the group's annual "Road to Victory" conference in Washington, D.C.
Fla. Voucher Students Decide To Return To Public Education
Students taking part in Florida's voucher program are quickly learning that the plan is not all it was cracked up to be. Of the 607 students who were participating in the plan in August, 170 have returned to the public schools.
Florida lawmakers approved vouchers in 1999 after prodding from Gov. Jeb Bush. Under the plan, public schools in the state are assigned letter grades based on students' performance on standardized tests. Parents with children in schools that receive failing grades may receive vouchers to pay for private education. Most of the private schools taking part in the program are religious.
Parents of voucher students cited various reasons for returning to the public schools. Some said their children simply felt more comfortable in neighborhood public schools. Others found that transportation issues made private schools inaccessible. Still others said the academics at the private schools were not up to par.
One mother, Sheila Evans in Miami-Dade County, pulled her son out of Heritage School, a Christian academy, after just a few months. "They teach a lot about the Bible," Evans said of the school. "But you can't get a job based on the Bible. You need knowledge."
Some low-income parents found that the private schools did not offer free or subsidized lunches, transportation or other features that are mandated by law in public schools. Others noted that the private institutions were not willing to work with special-needs students.
"The private schools were not the panacea they had expected," Mercedes Toural, the state's associate superintendent of education, told the Miami Herald.
U.S. Not Founded As 'Christian Nation,' Says Cal Thomas
Columnist Cal Thomas worked for the Rev. Jerry Falwell in the late 1970s and helped launch the Moral Majority, but these days he no longer believes one of Falwell's core articles of faith: The United States was founded to be a Christian nation.
Thomas, a conservative and an evangelical Christian, outlined his views on America's alleged "Christian" status and a host of other issues in an interview with John W. Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute in October. During the interview, which appeared in Rutherford's online magazine Oldspeak, Whitehead asked Thomas about the claim that America was founded on Christianity.
Replied Thomas bluntly, "It wasn't." Whitehead then asked Thomas to respond to the argument that "the goal should be to reclaim America for Christ and, in effect, have the Christians take over."
"Well, it was never the Christians' country to begin with," said Thomas. "I personally don't want it to be a Christian nation for the same reason that I don't want the federal government aiding the church. I think Bush's whole faith-based initiative thing is one of the biggest camel noses in the tent that I have seen in my life. I wasn't aware that God declared bankruptcy under Chapter 11. There is no mandate or expectation in Scripture that the state should fund the work of the things of God. I think that is extremely dangerous.... Then the government shows up at the church door and says, 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you.' We ought to shut them out as fast as if it were Satan showing up and saying, 'I'm from Hell, and I'm here to help you.' I think that's a bad bargain."
Elsewhere in the interview, Thomas discussed a New Testament passage that many politically conservative fundamentalists use to support church-based politicking. The passage, Matthew 5:13-14, commands Christians to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world."
Asked why he is now critical of political efforts by the Religious Right, Thomas responded, "Well, I simply went back and took a close look at Scripture. As a result, I took those out-of-context quotes and misquotations you hear from a lot of people and began to read them in context. For example, the most misused Scripture for political agendas by conservatives is the one about salt and light in Matthew 5:13. This verse, in particular, is one that is ripped out of context with the implication that Christians can change an unbelieving generation, culture and government system that cares nothing about the true things of God; that is, other than a couple choruses of 'God Bless America' on the Capitol steps after a terrorist attack or a stupid argument over whether 'Under God' should be left in the Pledge of Allegiance. This is all civil religion taken to the extreme. If you read in context the salt and light verse along with the rest of the New Testament and what God expects out of unbelievers and the government and the state and even by extension culture, there is no expectation and no commission for believers to change the hearts or minds of unbelievers through the power of a fallen state in a fallen world made up of fallen people. There is, however, a commission to go out and make disciples disciples of Jesus Christ, not the Republican Party. But this is not to be done as part of a conservative movement and not as an agenda and certainly not as part of a fundraising scheme."
Other highlights from the Thomas interview include:
Some Religious Right leaders, Thomas said, need to get their own houses in order before criticizing others. "Well, I would like to pass a few laws that would ban lying and bearing false witness and all of that," Thomas said. "However, some of these preachers and others who are so heavily involved in some of the issues that you mention have no problem with gluttony or with 300 pounds and lying about people and bearing false witness and sending out fundraising letters that are flat-out lies and spending the money on other things. That's just the way it is.
For the full text of the interview, see www.rutherford.org/articles/oldspeak-calthomas.asp.
Florida AU Chapter Fights Eviction From Public Library
Members of an Americans United chapter in Florida found themselves without a place to meet after city officials in Tarpon Springs evicted them from the public library, claiming that organizations that discuss political or religious topics may not use community facilities.
The Suncoast Chapter of Americans United had been meeting in the library once a month for about two years when it was suddenly denied access to the facility in September. Officials at the library said they came upon AU's name during a routine review of community groups that use the library and decided to deny further access.
Gerald Eckstein, president of AU Suncoast Chapter, pointed out that the organization is non-partisan and non-sectarian, but city officials would not budge. City Attorney John Hubbard told The Suncoast News that the city "has to remain neutral and impartial when it comes to all political or religious matters. It appears that this group is both religious and political."
Attorneys with Americans United's national office believe the policy is clearly unconstitutional and have let officials in Tarpon Springs know that. In a Nov. 4 letter, Ayesha N. Khan, AU legal director, and Alex J. Luchenitser, AU litigation counsel, advised Tarpon Springs Mayor Frank DiDonato and other community officials to alter the policy to permit all community groups access to the library.
Other organizations in the city have used library meeting rooms, including an investment club, the Daughters of the American Revolution, a youth soccer league and a writers' club. AU argues that the Supreme Court has clearly said that once a community opens a facility to one outside group, it must allow them all access.
Khan and Luchenitser made it clear that Americans United will pursue litigation if the AU chapter is not allowed back into the library.
Members of a local Presbyterian church have also sided with AU. Twenty-three members of Faith Presbyterian Church wrote to city officials and urged them to grant the AU chapter access to the library.
"It would seem that education is a primary function of a public library, so to arbitrarily deny a meeting place to a chapter of a national, well-established organization is out of keeping with the purpose of a public library," asserts the letter. "In fact, the denial suggests some kind of censorship and a fear of education!"
'Satanism' Club Sparks Outcry Over Equal Access In Calif. Public School
The limits of equal access for student-run religious groups are being tested in a California public school, where some students have formed a club they call Satanic.
A group of students at San Mateo High School recently formed the Satanic Thought Society to, as one founder put it, "rile things up a bit." Club President James Doolittle says members don't really worship the devil but do admire the teachings of Anton LeVey, founder of the Church of Satan.
"Its purpose is to turn man back into a natural state and not have him corrupted by religion," Doolittle told the San Mateo County Times. A flier promoting the club that circulated in the school stated, "Satanism is not the practice of resurrecting hate and violence through evil spirits, nor is it a cult religion wherein people worship a horned beast symbolic of the leader of hell."
Doolittle says his club will not perform rituals and told the paper that it will not tolerate violence among its members. About 35 students showed up for the first meeting Sept. 24.
The federal Equal Access Act says that public secondary schools must allow students to form religious clubs if other types of clubs unrelated to the curriculum are meeting on campus.