Bush Administration Urges High Court To Uphold Religious School Vouchers
The Bush administration has filed a legal brief with the Supreme Court, urging the justices to uphold Ohio's religious school voucher subsidy.
The move was considered unusual, because the federal government does not usually weigh in on a legal controversy until the high court has agreed to take a case. The Supreme Court has not yet said if it will hear Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, although a decision on whether to do so is expected in October.
President George W. Bush has been an enthusiastic booster of voucher aid to religious schools, although he dropped a voucher provision from his federal education package in the face of strong congressional opposition.
In the Justice Department brief, written by Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, the administration argues that "it is in the Nation's interest" for the high court to take the case. The brief goes on to argue that the Ohio plan is constitutional, asserting that it benefits religion only in an incidental and indirect way. Olson says previous high court decisions striking down government aid to religious schools have been eroded by more recent cases.
Ohio's plan has been in operation since 1995. It offers low-income parents in Cleveland public schools vouchers to pay for tuition at religious and other private schools. Approximately 3,700 children are currently taking part in the program, and 96 percent of them are attending religiously affiliated schools.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups challenged the program in court. Last December, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the program violates the First Amendment.
The state of Ohio has also asked the Supreme Court to take the case and brought in a big gun to pitch its case, hiring Kenneth W. Starr, the former independent counsel during the Clinton years. Starr, now back in private practice, works for a law firm in Washington.
Starr's brief for Ohio makes many of the same arguments as the Bush administration, asserting, "Not only is the resolution of this issue of vital interest to the parents and children of Ohio, it is of pivotal importance to the future of education policy across the country."
According to the Columbus Dispatch, Starr is being paid up to $10,000 a month for three months.
Bill Introduced To Lift IRS Ban On Church Politicking
Legislation has been introduced in Congress to repeal the portion of the Internal Revenue Service Code that bars houses of worship from engaging in partisan politicking.
Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) calls his proposal the "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357). Introduced June 28, the measure would repeal sections of the IRS Code that prohibit churches from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Although the prohibition currently applies to all non-profit groups, Jones' bill would affect only houses of worship.
Jay Sekulow, chief attorney with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), was quick to endorse the measure. On his "Jay Sekulow Live" radio program July 25, Sekulow aired an interview with Jones conducted by Gene Kapp, an ACLJ staffer. During the interview, Jones talked about having hearings this year.
"I spoke to Dick Armey yesterday, who's the majority leader," Jones said. "I told him about this legislation, and he's encouraged me to talk to one of his top staffers to, you know, bring that staff person the information....We should have a hearing on this bill, I'm hoping some time in September."
Jones, who has received a 100 percent rating on Christian Coalition scorecards, also told listeners that attorneys at the ACLJ had helped him draft the legislation. He cited in particular Sekulow and Colby May, a longtime ACLJ lawyer.
"Colby and I started talking about a year and a half ago about this legislation, how we should couch it and move forward with it," Jones said. "What it's going to take is the people that listen to your show and these other shows to contact their member of Congress, tell them about H.R. 2357, ask that member of Congress to join me in trying to push for a hearing on this bill some time in September."
Elsewhere during the interview, Jones asserted that removing the provision would help "men and women who are preachers, and I keep using 'priests' and 'rabbis.' In this country, a man who's serving our Lord, whether they be a Jew or Protestant, in all fairness, they are guaranteed by the Constitution the right to speak their mind and their heart. And that should apply to the pulpit."
Jones has also plugged his proposal on Robertson's nationally broadcast "700 Club" program.
The relevant section of the IRS Code states that non-profit organizations that hold a 501(c)(3) tax exemption may "not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."
The Christian Coalition and other Religious Right organizations oppose the language because it blocks their efforts to convert churches into cogs in their political machines. Were the language done away with, fundamentalist churches would be free to work with the Coalition to help elect Religious Right candidates to public office.
H.R. 2357 has six congressional cosponsors: Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.), Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.), Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), Rep. Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.), Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., a Virginia independent who usually votes with the Republicans.
The measure has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee. Americans United's Legislative Department is tracking the bill and will alert members if it starts to move.
Pa. Board Of Education Rejects Effort To Open Door To Creationism In Public Schools
The Pennsylvania Board of Education has rejected new language for state science standards that would have opened the door for the teaching of creationism.
The board voted 13-2 July 12 against proposed changes that would have required students to "analyze the impact of new scientific facts on the theory of evolution" and to "analyze evidence of fossil records, similarities in body structures, embryological studies and DNA studies that support or do not support the theory of evolution."
Critics noted that the theory of evolution is well supported in modern science and said the language was an attempt to undermine it by instilling doubts in the minds of students. The state's Independent Regulatory Review Commission, which had studied the recommended changes, called them unnecessary.
Most board members agreed, as did state education officials. "We're very pleased that they went through," said Charles B. Zogby, state education secretary. "The standards reflect good science."
The effort to introduce creationism into the standards was led by state Rep. Daryl Metcalf (R-Butler). In the wake of the vote, Metcalf vowed to try to alter the standards through separate legislation if necessary. (The state House of Representatives and Senate will vote on approving the standards later this year.)
But Pennsylvania's Republican governor, Tom Ridge, seems to have no interest in the crusade. In a statement, Ridge praised the science standards, calling them "good news for Pennsylvania parents, students and teachers."
Americans United weighed in on the controversy in May, urging the State Board of Education to reject the new language.
"The proposed language does not just raise concerns because of its effect on the student's science education," wrote Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "The proposed language is also objectionable because it appears to invite the teaching of creationism in the public schools."
In other news about creationism and evolution:
Hawaii's Board of Education has unanimously rejected a proposal to interject creationism into the state's public schools. In late July, the board's Regular Education Committee voted to replace references to evolution with "multiple theories of origin." Board chair Denise Matsumoto had complained that the old standards taught evolution as fact. But, facing widespread opposition, Matsumoto dropped the idea and voted against the proposal.
Chetek, Wisc., education officials are studying the possibility of offering creationism alongside evolution. The issue came up in May after a student complained to her pastor about being taught evolution in class. A group of parents later gave the school board a petition asking that creationism be included in the 10th grade curriculum.
Fundamentalist churches in Roseville, Calif., have besieged the local public schools, insisting that "intelligent design" be taught alongside evolution. The school board voted 4-1 June 14 to adopt science standards that stress evolution. Led by Presbyterian pastor Jim Barstow, local clergy have demanded that the board reconsider. The pastors want "intelligent design" a variant of creationism taught in class as well.
Ala. Christian Coalition Flunks Black Legislators, Bias Charges Mount
The Alabama Christian Coalition's scorecard gives every African-American member of the legislature an "F," prompting one black senator to urge the group to "check themselves for racism."
"The fact that all blacks tend to score low...they need to check themselves for racism," said Sen. George Clay, a Tuskegee Democrat. "That is a sin too."
Seventy-six of the state's 140 legislators received F's on the scorecard, the first one produced by the Alabama affiliate of TV preacher Pat Robertson's political group. Among them were 27 black House members and eight black senators. Thirty white lawmakers, mostly Republicans, received A's, while others received grades of B, C, or D, reported the Associated Press.
Clay said the organization had judged the legislators on narrow grounds, looking only at contentious social issues. He faulted the Coalition for not looking at votes on budgetary matters, which have the potential to affect the well-being of all state residents.
"If the fact that I disagree with them makes me a bad person, I am sorry for that," Clay said. "I am going to pray for them."
Alabama Coalition President John Giles said at a press conference that the scorecard was meant only for voter education. "It is by no means to be taken as a commentary on the personal faith of any legislators," he insisted.
The Alabama Christian Coalition's timing could not have been worse. The scorecard was released at about the same time a federal judge in Washington issued an order requiring the national Christian Coalition of America to cease taking retaliatory actions against several African-American employees who have charged the group with maintaining discriminatory employment practices.
The employees, who worked in the Coalition's data-entry department, assert that they were required to enter the building through the back door, forced to eat lunch in segregated and substandard quarters and denied adequate health-care benefits. The workers claim that the Coalition slashed their hours after the case was filed in an effort to drive them off.
In late July, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ordered the Coalition to cease its retaliatory actions against the employees and to restore full hours to them. (Lee v. Christian Coalition of America, Inc.)
In other news about Robertson and the Christian Coalition:
The Idaho Christian Coalition has closed up shop, saying its work is done. The affiliate announced in July that it is ceasing operations. A notice in the chapter's newsletter said the local unit had achieved all of its goals and thus "we acknowledge the time is right for the Idaho Christian Coalition to cease to be. It has served the purpose for which it was created. Many have been educated on the biblical principles applicable to society and are doing their part as responsible Christian citizens."
Observers noted that there may be more to the story. During last year's elections, the group was split by a controversy over voter guides, which were so biased in favor of certain candidates that even some Coalition board members criticized them.
Despite the group's troubles, leaders of the Christian Coalition keep putting on a happy face. On July 21 Coalition staffers went to Portland, Ore., for what is to be the first in a series of 22 regional training sessions. (The group is not holding a national conference this year.) A press release issued by Christian Coalition National Executive Vice President Roberta Combs claimed that "over 250 enthusiastic pro-family activists from all around the state" attended. (The Portland Oregonian estimated the crowd at "about 200.")
Combs did not mention that Coalition founder Robertson had been scheduled to address the event but pulled out at the last minute. But she did tell the crowd, "For the last two years, they have been writing our obituaries. We are alive and well. If we're dead, we sure have a lot of corpses in here."
Combs also welcomed U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who made a brief appearance at the start of the event. Smith, elected with just 50 percent of the vote in 1996, faces reelection next year.
Disney/ABC announced in July that it has purchased Fox Family Network, formerly Robertson's Family Channel, for $5.3 billion. Robertson, the previous owner of the channel, sold it to Fox in 1997 for $1.9 billion. Disney plans to rename the channel "ABC Family" and air mostly children's programming.
When Robertson sold the channel to Fox, he included a stipulation requiring the network to continue airing his "700 Club" program. That obligation now passes to Disney, which has said it will honor it. Some industry analysts, however, predict that Disney will try to buy Robertson out rather than allow his program to consume valuable airtime in the mornings.
Since reports of the deal surfaced, Robertson and Disney executives have been trading compliments. Michael D. Eisner, Disney chairman, asserted that Robertson was not among the Religious Right leaders who have criticized Disney in recent years and added, "He is not that far to the right." Robertson in turn praised Disney for its "tremendous library of family programs."
Eisner chose to ignore Robertson's famous tirade three years ago, when he blasted the city of Orlando for agreeing to fly rainbow flags in honor of "Gay Days," a privately sponsored event at Disney World. At that time, Robertson said God might punish the city with "earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor."
The New York Times also reported that in September of 1997 Robertson said, "Disney, which is the family organization, is becoming the family of homosexuality and anti-religious bigotry."
Meanwhile, Robertson in mid July announced the sale of Middle East Television, a Christian Broadcasting Network affiliate. Robertson sold the station to LeSEA Broadcasting of South Bend, Ind., for an undisclosed price. The new owners will continue to carry the "700 Club."
Finally, Robertson is hard at work on a non-broadcasting business venture. For two years he has been trying to restart an oil refinery in California called Powerine Refinery. Robertson claims the big oil companies have blocked his efforts to secure financing for the facility, near Santa Fe Springs.
In June, Robertson wrote to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to solicit his help. Although Wyden is a liberal Democrat, he has been critical of big oil. The two later met in Washington to discuss the matter.
Wyden conceded that the partnership is unusual but vowed to help Robertson. "This is one of the cleanest refineries around, and it's having difficulty getting into the business," Wyden said.
Baptist Agency May Fire Lesbian Counselor, But State Funding Is Still Issue
A federal judge in Kentucky has dismissed part of a lawsuit against a Baptist youth agency, ruling that the institution can discriminate against gays, but may not be eligible for public funding.
In a decision likely to become part of the national debate over public funding of "faith-based" social services, Judge Charles Simpson III said state and federal laws barring religious discrimination do not protect gay employees at religious agencies.
Simpson ruled that the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (KBHC) did not violate Alicia Pedreira's rights when it fired her in October of 1998 after learning of her homosexuality. Pedreira, who worked as a family specialist at a KBHC facility in Spring Meadows, filed suit in April of 2000, aided by Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Pedreira was dismissed despite the fact that 75 percent of the Baptist home's $19 million budget in 1999 came from the state government. Sources say only 5 percent of the religious agency's funding came from Baptist churches.
Americans United and the ACLU contend that the Kentucky Baptist Homes forfeited its right to impose religious strictures on employees by accepting government money. Simpson disagreed, noting that federal law bars discrimination on the basis of religion but not sexual orientation.
Simpson, however, did not dismiss the case entirely. He ruled that Americans United and the ACLU could proceed with their claim that government funding of KBHC violates the separation of church and state, as the facility may be found to be "pervasively sectarian." Americans United issued a statement pointing out that this type of job discrimination will become common if President George W. Bush wins passage of his faith-based initiative.
"This speaks volumes about the kind of activities we'll see if President Bush's faith-based initiative becomes law," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Religious groups will be able to pass the collection plate to taxpayers, but still be permitted to discriminate. That's morally wrong, and it should be illegal."
Lynn said one of the most controversial aspects of the White House faith-based plan is that it allows employment discrimination by publicly funded religious groups. When the House passed faith-based legislation two months ago, bitter controversy erupted over a Bush administration agreement with the Salvation Army to allow discrimination.
"I don't imagine most Americans want publicly funded job bias, whether it's against gays, divorced people, single moms or anyone whose conduct doesn't conform to religious dogma," added Lynn. "But that's what this decision and the Bush plan allow."
Americans United vowed to press ahead with the legal challenge. "This case is far from over," said AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan, co-counsel in the case. "The decision confirms our fears that certain forms of government-funded discrimination will be permitted, but it also bolsters our view that government funds cannot be provided to institutions in which religious and secular functions are inextricably intertwined." Plaintiffs in the Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children case include Pedreira, three members of the clergy and an African-American civil rights activist. One of the clergy plaintiffs is Paul Simmons, a member of the AU Board of Trustees. A couple whose child was helped by Pedreira at the Kentucky children's home are also plaintiffs. The couple said Pedreira was the first counselor to make a difference in their son's life.
Alabama Rep. To Push 'Court Stripping' Bill On Ten Commandments
Federal courts would be barred from hearing cases dealing with government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments under legislation expected to be introduced in the House of Representatives this month.
Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.) says he will reintroduce his "Ten Commandments Defense Act" after Labor Day. Aderholt has introduced the measure before, but it has never come up for a vote in the House. He believes that recent court rulings striking down state-sponsored Commandments displays in several states will turn the tide in his favor.
During a July 27 interview with TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, Aderholt said the 10th Amendment gives the states powers not reserved to the federal government and thus, if the jurisdiction of the federal courts were removed, states and communities would be free to erect the Ten Commandments.
"It's our argument that the Ten Commandments do not establish any religion," Aderholt said. "Certainly Christianity has a history with the Ten Commandments but also Judaism and Islam. So certainly there's no establishment of any particular religion with the Ten Commandments."
Aderholt went on to advance the rather unusual legal theory that the Supreme Court should not always be the final arbiter of the Constitution, asserting, "[O]ver several decades, there has been a view that the United States Supreme Court has the final authority.... And it would be our argument, we would make the argument, the Supreme Court does not always have the final authority over the interpretation of the Constitution."
Previous "court stripping" efforts have not fared well in Congress. Throughout the 1980s, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) tried repeatedly to remove the ability of the federal courts to hear school prayer cases. None were enacted into law. It is also unclear if the Supreme Court would allow Congress to limit federal court authority in this way.
In other news about the Ten Commandments:
North Carolina legislators have approved a bill allowing public schools to post the Ten Commandments as part of larger historical displays containing other documents, and Gov. Mike Easley has promised to sign the measure into law.
The bill passed the state House of Representatives 94-18 July 26. It had earlier passed the Senate by a wide margin. It states that the Ten Commandments may be posted alongside other documents that "exemplify the development of the rule of law."
A federal court in Colorado has ruled that the city of Grand Junction may keep its Ten Commandments monument at the city hall. U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel noted that he was bound by a 1972 ruling from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals allowing a government-sponsored Ten Commandments monument to stand in Salt Lake City. Grand Junction officials plan to spend $50,000 to add other monuments to the area listing other legal codes. They plan to call the site "Cornerstones of Law and Order Plaza."
The ACLU is considering an appeal of the ACLU v. Grand Junction case.
New Book Exposes Failure Of 'Faith-Based' Schools In Ireland
A new book chronicles the failure of publicly funded "faith-based" institutions for poor children in Ireland, asserting that the system subjected thousands of children to physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools (Continuum Publishing, 424 pp., $29.95), examines Ireland's "industrial schools," institutions run by the Roman Catholic Church with state funds where poor children were warehoused and often forced to work long hours at grueling jobs.
The system was first established in Ireland in the 19th century, when the country was ruled by Great Britain. It remained intact after Ireland gained independence in 1921 and was not dismantled entirely until the mid 1980s. Two years ago, after the release of a three-part television documentary examining the schools, government officials formally apologized to those who were mistreated in the institutions.
The authors of the book, Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan, interviewed hundreds of adults who spent their childhood years in industrial schools. Many said they were underfed, subjected to horrific forms of abuse and forced to work at menial jobs.
The story told by one woman, identified as Catherine, is typical. Born out of wedlock, Catherine was brought to St. Joseph's Industrial School in Dundalk by her mother in 1937. The institution was run by the Sisters of Mercy.
Catherine told Raftery and O'Sullivan that she was subjected to frequent beatings for bed-wetting. The children, she said, were fed mostly on bread, cocoa and potatoes, and the institution was overrun with mice. Girls were trained to be domestic servants and turned over to families for work at age 16.
"There were big fireplaces all over the building, but they never lit fires in them," Catherine recalled. "I remember being brought to a doctor in Dublin because I had a club foot, and he remarked how cold I was. He warmed up my feet in front of an electric fire. The teacher with me told one of the nuns about this and she beat me and beat me, just because I was cold. This nun, we used to call her the Witch, but even that was too good for her she was like a devil in nun's clothing. When she'd be walloping me, froth used to come out of her mouth."
A man named Barney told the authors about his experiences in Artane Industrial School, run by the Christian Brothers order. Barney said conditions were so bad that boys frequently tried to run away.
"Anyone who ran away got a horrific beating, and their heads were shaved," Barney said. "So you were bald, and you had to stand facing a wall for days and days. Sometimes you were chained to a tree, or tied to what we called the lamppost in the middle of the grounds. And if someone ran away, the whole school would be punished. We wouldn't be allowed margarine for maybe a week, and we'd have to eat the bread dry. And of course when you got the boy who ran away, you gave him a good kicking. He got a terrible time."
Ireland's system of industrial schools began to crumble in 1970, with the release of the Kennedy Report, a government-sponsored investigation that criticized the schools as "haphazard and amateurish" and accused them of lacking "awareness of the needs of the child in care."
Industrial schools gradually began to close in the wake of the report. By 1984, Ireland's Department of Health had taken over the care of orphans and indigent children and shifted the focus away from institutional care and toward foster care.
Some Catholic orders have subsequently issued apologies to those who were abused while in their care. However, the orders continue to fight several legal cases that have been filed against them by victims.
The new book about the scandal has drawn praise for its careful depiction of a church-state union gone horribly awry.
Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes, observed, "Suffer the Little Children is a book that might torment you, a story of incredible cruelties tolerated no, perpetrated by minions of church and state."