Florida Court Strikes Down Gov. Jeb Bush's School Voucher Program
A state court in Tallahassee has struck down Gov. Jeb Bush's Florida school voucher plan, holding that the scheme runs afoul of the state constitution.
Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. of the Circuit Court of Leon County said the plan violates Article IX, Sec. 1 of the Florida Constitution. That provision, passed by 71 percent of Florida voters in 1998, states that it is a "paramount duty of the state" to maintain an "efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools."
Observed Smith in his March 14 ruling, "By providing state funds for some students to obtain a K-12 education through private schools, as an alternative to the high quality education available through the system of free public schools, the legislature has violated the mandate of the Florida Constitution, adopted by the electorate of this state."
The Bush voucher program began operating last year. Under the scheme, public schools receive a grade from A to F based on students' performance on standardized tests. Schools whose students scored well get extra money from the state, but in the schools that receive an F, students are eligible for vouchers worth $4,000. The vouchers may be used at any private school, including religious schools.
So far, only two Florida public schools, both in Pensacola, have been labeled as failing. Currently, 53 students are attending private schools with vouchers, although state officials have speculated that thousands more may eventually qualify.
Americans United is one of several groups that joined forces to challenge the program. Reacting to the ruling, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said, "Florida's residents have made it clear that they want an efficient, well funded public school system. This voucher scheme undermined that goal, and Judge Smith was right to strike it down. I challenge the Florida legislature to stop wasting its time on this unconstitutional boondoggle and concentrate on supporting the public schools."
Bush, in a prepared statement, promised to "fight this ruling vigorously in the appellate courts....In my view, this is a gross distortion of the Florida Constitution, and will be reversed by the higher courts."
Lawyers on both sides of the issue said it is likely that the Holmes v. Bush case will be expedited to the Florida Supreme Court.
Federal Appeals Court OKs 'Student-Led' Graduation Prayer
A public school district in Florida may include prayers during graduation as long as the religious activity is initiated and led by students, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The full 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, ruled 10-2 March 15 that a school prayer policy approved by the Duval County, Fla., School Board in 1993 is constitutional. The policy allows students to elect a representative from the graduating class to deliver a two-minute "message." The "message" may include prayers and other religious references.
"The total absence of state involvement in deciding whether there will be a graduation message, who will speak or what the speaker may say, combined with the student's complete autonomy over the content...convinces us that the message delivered, be it secular or sectarian or both, is not state-sponsored," wrote Judge Stanley Marcus for the majority.
Dissenting Judge Phyllis Kravitch disagreed, writing, "Although the Duval County school administration may have distanced itself from prayer offered during graduation ceremonies, it did not disconnect itself from religious expression. Nor does the policy mitigate the influences that coerce audience members to participate in prayers offered at graduation."
The American Civil Liberties Union and other supporters of church-state separation had argued that the Duval County policy was clearly a ruse designed to get around the U.S. Supreme Court's 1992 Lee v. Weisman decision, which barred clergy-led prayers at public school graduations. The lead plaintiff in the case, Karen Adler, noted that nearly every message given at graduation since the policy was passed has been religious in nature. One Duval County school even elected a student "chaplain" to deliver a prayer at graduation.
Americans United, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, condemned the Adler v. Duval County School Board ruling. "Public school events must remain religiously neutral to protect the rights of everyone," said AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "Students should not be coerced to pray at a public school event even if a majority of students vote to do so."
Concluded Lynn, "This ruling allows the state to promote the prayer of the majority at an official public school event, while telling the minority, 'too bad.' At its core, that amounts to state-sponsored tyranny of the majority. If that isn't in conflict with the First Amendment, I don't know what is."
Christian Coalition Sues IRS Over Tax Exemption
The Christian Coalition has filed a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service, charging that the federal tax agency discriminated against the group by denying its application for permanent tax-exempt status last year.
The lawsuit, brought by TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice in federal court in Norfolk, Va., Feb. 25, contends that the IRS has unfairly penalized the Coalition while allowing liberal groups to engage in similar political activities with no penalty.
Robertson founded the Christian Coalition in 1989. That same year, the organization applied for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(4) organization under the Internal Revenue Code. Groups holding this status may engage in some politicking, as long as that is not the primary thrust of their work. Coalition critics charge that nearly all of the Coalition's work is political in nature and thus it does not deserve to be tax exempt.
Last June the news media reported that the IRS had denied the Coalition's application for tax-exempt status, which had been pending for nine years. Although the IRS did not release any official statements regarding the matter, it was widely assumed that the group was denied due to its partisan political activities.
In the wake of the decision, Robertson split the Coalition into two separate entities, one called Christian Coalition International, which is set up like a for-profit business, and another called Christian Coalition of America, which is now operated through the non-profit status held by the Christian Coalition of Texas.
Americans United said the Coalition's lawsuit is without merit and asserted that the case is probably little more than a fund-raising ploy. In the court papers filed by the ACLJ, the Coalition lists Attorney General Janet Reno, a frequent target for Coalition broadsides, as a defendant. Naming Reno as a defendant makes little sense, since the IRS is a subdivision of the Treasury Department, not the Justice Department.
Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "This lawsuit is an act of desperation by a group that has lost much of its membership and even more of its credibility. There is not a shred of evidence that the current IRS has any ideological bias."
Lynn said a mountain of evidence shows that TV preacher Pat Robertson's group is a political machine that does not deserve tax exemption. Americans United has submitted volumes of evidence to the IRS documenting the Coalition's political character, Lynn said, including a tape of a closed-door Robertson speech in which the TV preacher called on the group's state leaders to emulate Tammany Hall, one of the most corrupt political machines of American history.
In other news about the Christian Coalition:
* The Coalition's move to Washington, D.C., which was announced last November, has yet to take place. Observers say the inaction is yet another sign that the group is floundering.
"It's in the ICU [intensive care unit]," a source close to the group told the Norfolk/Virginia Beach Virginian Pilot. "And nobody's quite sure if this patient is going to live." Another source remarked, "They've essentially disarmed. Whether they move or not may be irrelevant. The question is: What's left to move?"
Roberta Combs, the Coalition's executive vice president, denied the group is having difficulties. Combs told the newspaper the Coalition has had problems finding a client to lease its office space in Chesapeake, Va., and hasn't had luck locating suitable new quarters close to the nation's capital.
"If people think we don't have influence, they're wrong," Combs said.
* Labor activists in Oregon have charged that the Christian Coalition is working to collect signatures on an anti-union ballot initiative in the state, receiving money for each signature it turns in.
The Northwest Labor Press reported recently that the Coalition joined forces with anti-union activist Bill Sizemore, director of a group called Oregon Taxpayers United, to win a spot on the November ballot for an initiative that is designed to reduce unions' ability to engage in political activity. In a fund-raising letter to Oregon members, state Coalition director Lou Beres accused unions of backing "the effort to normalize homosexuality, destroy religious freedom and take away our private property rights."
"Each signature you collect and return raises money for the Christian Coalition," wrote Beres. "[H]ave your friends, neighbors, co-workers and fellow church members sign them as well."
Religious Right Leader Randall Terry Censured By New York Church
Randall Terry, one of the most extreme figures in the Religious Right, has been censured by the Binghamton, N.Y., church he attended for 15 years and stands accused of abandoning his wife and children and engaging in "sinful" relationships with other women.
The letter of censure from Terry's former pastor, Daniel Little of Landmark Church, was issued last November but came to light only recently when it was posted on the World Wide Web. It has also been circulating among e-mail discussion groups sponsored by feminist organizations.
In a separate letter explaining the censure, Little wrote, "Many of [Terry's] longtime friends...are shocked and bewildered that a man who has traveled the country pleading with Christian people to think and act biblically is now thinking and acting so anti-biblically."
The censure letter accuses Terry of leaving his wife Cindy and their two children "in preparation to divorce, annul or otherwise dissolve their Christian marriage and for his unwillingness to repent of sin...." It also accuses him of a "pattern of repeated and sinful relationships and conversations with both single and married women."
Terry is currently living in Vermont where he is opposing efforts to legalize same-sex unions. Contacted by The Washington Post, he denied Little's charges, calling them "absolute nonsense, insanity." Terry acknowledged that he is separated from his wife and said his marriage is in "crisis" but denied he had done anything improper.
Asked about the allegations of inappropriate relationships with other women, Terry cited a letter signed by four pastors that says, "Mr. Terry has asserted he has only had sex with his wife."
Little responded by comparing Terry to President Bill Clinton. "That's like saying, 'I did not have sex with that woman,'" Little observed. "Both Terry and I know what the accusation is referring to."
Terry has since left Little's church and has joined another denomination, the Charismatic Episcopal Church. Recently some pastors in that denomination issued their own letter, declaring Terry's censure from Landmark Church null and void.
Terry's problems are ironic, considering his past writings. In his 1995 book The Judgment of God, Terry observes, "We have become a sex crazed society. Women are viewed as sex toys to be used and discarded by vile, pathetic males (I shall not call them men); families are destroyed as a father vents his mid life crisis by abandoning his wife for a 'younger, prettier model,' homosexuals and lesbians are no longer content to secretly live in sin, but now want to glorify their perversions."
Ten Commandments Display At City Hall Violates Constitution, Says AJC-AU Brief
Government display of the Ten Commandments violates the separation of church and state, Americans United and the American Jewish Congress have advised a federal appellate court.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, the two organizations charge that posting of the Ten Commandments by the Elkhart, Ind., city government is "inconsistent with the constitutional mandate of official religious neutrality."
The organizations called on the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court decision that permitted Elkhart to display the Ten Commandments adjacent to city hall. In their Book and Suetkamp v. City of Elkhart brief, AU and the AJC noted that the lower court decision was "tone deaf" to the constitutional prohibition of state establishment of religion.
Last Christmas Eve, U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp ignored precedent and upheld the city's display of the religious symbol. Sharp expressed hope that his ruling would lead to a "re-examination" of the issue of "religious messages and symbols on public property in the United States."
The AU-AJC brief disagrees, noting that the Ten Commandments include religious tenets not shared by all Americans. "Buddhists and Hindus," the groups assert, "do not accept all of the commandments on the 'first tablet' as part of a 'universal moral code' and neither do atheists."
The brief was prepared by Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress Commission on Law and Social Action, with assistance from Steven K. Green, general counsel of Americans United.
Michigan Town Rejects Censorship Plan For Public Library
Voters in a conservative city in western Michigan have rejected a library censorship plan backed by the American Family Association.
Residents of Holland went to the polls Feb. 22 and turned back the measure by a vote of 4,379 to 3,626. The proposal was pushed by the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based group. It was believed to be the first such proposal in the nation to appear as a ballot referendum.
The measure was heavily promoted by the AFA and other Religious Right groups, which outspent opponents 14 to 1. It was quite punitive and would have required the city's library to block all computers from receiving sites on the World Wide Web that contain "obscene, sexually explicit or other material harmful to minors" or lose all municipal funding. Members of the Holland Library Board opposed the measure, arguing that filters often don't work and that the library has policies in place to deal with patrons who access pornographic sites.
Gary Glenn, president of the AFA branch in Michigan, argued that libraries need filters because children may accidentally stumble across pornography on the Internet and become permanently scarred by it. "The librarians can't move fast enough to prevent that image from entering the child's mind and staying there forever," Glenn told The New York Times.
But librarians in Holland said those concerns were overblown. Karen Goorhous, the library's computer trainer, noted that the computers in the children's wing of the library aren't even connected to the Web. Goorhous said she has only once encountered an adult looking at pornographic sites on a library computer, and she told him to stop.
Although bankrolled by the AFA, the crusade for library filters was led locally by Irvin Bos, a 59-year-old Holland resident who manages apartment buildings. Bos told The Times he was led to fight pornography because of an incident that occurred when he was 12. Bos said he found a sexually explicit book by a roadside and read it several times while hiding in the family's barn. Six months later, he said, the barn was struck by lightning and the family's prize bull and best cow were killed.
Remarked Bos, "I just knew I had caused that barn to burn down."
Don't Trivialize The Ten Commandments, Christian Magazine Says
The current drive to post the Ten Commandments in public schools and government buildings could ultimately trivialize a sacred religious text, Christianity Today magazine has warned.
In a March 6 editorial, the prominent evangelical Christian publication criticized "cultural decay" in society, but warned that the current Ten Commandments craze smacks of a fad and lends itself to "tokenism in religion."
"In an era in which we are struggling to find the proper place of religion in a pluralistic society, we must be careful neither to crusade for nor accept mere symbols," asserted the magazine. "Wall plaques rarely provoke deep moral reflection especially in an increasingly cynical student body."
The editorial warns that proponents of posting the Ten Commandments at government facilities also run the risk of trivializing them. "Beyond tokenism, beyond being mollified by the symbolic use of the Decalogue, there is another danger: treating the Ten Commandments as a totem," says the editorial. "When something becomes a rallying point for a cause or an identifying symbol for a movement, it runs the danger of becoming an idol. Too often in the history of Christianity one element of the faith has been lifted out of its context, sloganized, and used to marginalize (or even imprison or kill) others, including other Christians. No one is talking about using the Ten Commandments that way now, but their political use could take us down that path."
The editorial concludes that the Ten Commandments are "not an easy-to-secularize list of behavioral guides. They are fundamentally and inherently religious." It calls on parents to "put these precepts to work where they make the most sense: in home, church and synagogue. And let their well-taught offspring be the salt that preserves the schools."
The full text of the editorial can be read online at: www.christianityonline.com/ct/current/0303/0303a.html.
In other developments:
* Gov. Bill Janklow (R) of South Dakota says he plans to sign a bill that permits display of the Ten Commandments in public schools along with other documents that have cultural, legal or historic significance.
"I realize there are questions about it, but the legislature feels very strongly about it," Janklow said. The governor insisted he supports the separation of church and state, adding, "But by the same token, [the bill] doesn't hurt anything."
* Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon (D) has signed legislation that permits government to display the Ten Commandments if they are included along with other "historic" documents. O'Bannon said the state will erect a monument featuring the Commandments, the preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on the statehouse lawn this summer. The Indiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has promised to sue.
Texas Religious Right Activist Gets Fine For Campaign Violations
A Religious Right activist in Texas has been hit with a record fine by the Texas Ethics Commission.
According to Commission attorneys, three political action committees run by Dr. Steven Hotze failed to abide by election laws that require "accurate and timely disclosure of the source and use of political funds" and other requirements.
One of the groups, Conservative Republicans of Harris County, was assessed a $5,000 fine, the largest in the history of the Ethics Commission. Two other Hotze groups, Citizens for American Restoration and Houston Republican Forum, were assessed fines of $1,400 and $500 respectively.
Hotze is a controversial figure in Houston, where he has led efforts by the Religious Right to take complete control of the state Republican Party. A number of local candidates he backed in 1996 won GOP primaries, in some cases upsetting long-established incumbents. In recent years, party moderates have been trying to organize a counteroffensive.
Three Republican women filed complaints against the Hotze groups in 1997. One woman, Betsy Lake, charged that one of Hotze's PACs sent out mailings that appeared to be from the local Republican Party. The mailings endorsed GOP hopefuls backed by Hotze but did not mention the other Republicans in the race. In another case, a Hotze group was accused of failing to include proper identification on its mailing and failing to tell certain candidates that it was spending money on their behalf.
Mickey Lawrence, a party activist who opposes Hotze, told the Houston Chronicle that she hopes the fines will serve as a warning to other groups. "This is something that is needed in Harris County, for all those organizations who think they can violate the law and nothing will happen to them. Hopefully, this will help clean up all the negative campaigning and dirty tricks that go on."
Allen Blakemore, a spokesman for Hotze, insisted the fines were for "technical issues" and said they do not reflect poorly on Hotze.
Kentucky Lawmaker Grills Jewish Colleague On Belief In Jesus
The only Jewish member of the Kentucky legislature found herself undergoing a religious interrogation recently after she opposed a measure to post the Ten Commandments on the statehouse grounds.
Rep. Kathy Stein (D-Lexington) was questioned sharply about her beliefs by Rep. Billy Polston (R-Tompkinsville) after she spoke out in opposition to the proposal on March 17. Polston first demanded to know if Stein believes in "Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior."
Stein replied that Jews consider Jesus to have been a "wonderful rabbi and leader" but not the messiah, which prompted Polston to ask Stein if she believes Jesus rose from the dead. Stein replied merely, "No."
Rep. Tom Riner (D-Louisville), a Baptist minister who favors the Ten Commandments proposal, later said he thought Polston had gone too far. "I know he was sincere, but it was not a question that should have been asked in public," Riner told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "It's a private question."
Stein, who is a member of Americans United, told the newspaper she does not believe Polston's questions were mean-spirited. "He doesn't have a mean bone in his body," she said of Polston. "I think he asked out of innocent curiosity."
Ultimately, Stein's efforts to stop the Ten Commandments resolution failed. The measure passed the Kentucky House by a comfortable margin and is awaiting action in the Senate. The resolution requires state officials to erect a seven-foot-high Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol lawn. The tableaux was given to the state by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1971 but has been in storage since 1988, when it was moved to make way for a new building.
Kentucky seems to be firmly in the grip of Ten Commandments mania these days. In addition to displaying the Decalogue at the state capitol, some lawmakers also want the document posted in public schools. At least five pieces of legislation that would permit public schools to post the Ten Commandments have been introduced in the state legislature, and in rural eastern Kentucky, some public schools have jumped the gun and are already posting the document.
The action appears to be in defiance to a 1980 Supreme Court ruling, Stone v. Graham, which struck down a Kentucky law that required public schools to post the Ten Commandments.
In February, the Kentucky Senate voted overwhelmingly to support a resolution saying that the Ten Commandments can be displayed in public schools. Sen. Albert Robinson, who sponsored the measure, asserted that the Ten Commandments are appropriate for schools because most of the first European settlers were Christian.
"When the boat came to these great shores, it did not have an atheist, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew. Ninety-eight plus percent of these people were Christians," he said.
Robinson's original resolution also contained language calling on the Kentucky Board of Education to stop "suppression and censorship of American history" as it relates to "Christianity's influence." Other lawmakers in the chamber amended the resolution to read "Judeo-Christianity."
Robinson objected, saying he "never intended to be inclusive." Adding "Judeo," he said, does "Christians and the Christian history of this nation a terrible injustice."
Bluegrass State legislators have also been arguing over legislative prayer. Last February, Stein complained after the Rev. Tim Mills, a Baptist minister, gave an opening prayer that included a plea that "we must be saved in the name of Jesus Christ."
In a five-minute address on the House of Representatives floor, Stein criticized some lawmakers who she said "have promoted some very divisive and intolerant language being leveled toward members of minority faiths, including members of no faith, who also have rights."
Stein had earlier protested other religious bills in the legislature, including a proposal to prohibit public school extracurricular activities on Sundays.