Virginia Supreme Court Approves Bonds For Regent University
The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that the state may issue $55 million in bonds to finance construction at TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University.
In a 5-2 ruling Nov. 3, the state high court agreed that Regent is a "pervasively sectarian" institution, but held construction bonds are not a form of direct government aid. The court also said that, with the exception of Regent's divinity school, the purpose of the university is not to provide religious or theological training.
Observed the court, "Because the bond proceeds are the funds of private investors, the bond proceeds are not governmental aid received by the institution. No taxpayer dollars are transferred directly or indirectly to a participating institution."
Thus, Regent qualifies for the bonds, except for the university's divinity school, which remains ineligible.
Dissenting Justices Lawrence L. Koontz Jr. and Barbara Milano Keenan argued that Regent's sectarian policies should make it ineligible for the bonds. "Theological education is not at issue here," they wrote. "Religious training contemplates teaching religious doctrine to accomplish a particular result. Thus, when an institution's principal purpose is to teach its particular religious doctrine, and when the institution pursues that principal purpose through its teaching of secular subjects, that institution has as its primary purpose religious training within the meaning of [state law]. The record clearly reflects that such is the case with Regent."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which sponsored the lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, criticized the ruling, calling it a blow to church-state separation.
"Thanks to this ruling, the state of Virginia can now help Robertson pass the collection plate," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Churches and church schools should rely on private donations, not public support."
Lynn, a Virginia resident, served as lead plaintiff in the Virginia College Building Authority v. Barry Lynn case. The AU director said the decision undermines the right of Virginians to support only the religious ministries of their choosing. "Pat Robertson is a multi-millionaire, and he shouldn't look to the state for a handout for his ministries," he noted.
Observed AU Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan, who argued the case before the Virginia high court, "The facts demonstrate that Regent University is a deeply religious institution. While Regent is free to strengthen and expand its religious activities, it should not be free to ask the state to help foot the bill. We're disappointed with today's decision."
Robertson sought the bonds to underwrite new construction at Regent's Virginia Beach campus and a satellite campus in Alexandria, Va. On July 30, 1999, Richmond Circuit Judge Randall G. Johnson ruled against the bond issue, noting that the Virginia Constitution forbids government support of sectarian institutions. The ruling by the state high court overturns that decision.
Americans United argued that the bonds would be a form of government aid to Regent. Although the state will not be responsible if Regent defaults on the bonds, government issuance will save the school $30 million in debt service over the 30-year loan period.
At the lower court, Americans United attorneys were able to prove that Regent includes its fundamentalist Christian perspective in all classes and other educational activities, based on a series of documents that the group had obtained. Americans United noted that Regent's mission statement says the school exists to "bring glory to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit." The university, the statement continues, seeks to provide "education from biblical perspectives" and "to be a leading center of Christian thought and action."
In addition, the school's admission form asks student applicants to submit a clergy recommendation and to discuss in detail "how your personal and spiritual objectives relate" to Regent's "Christ-centered educational philosophy." Moreover, a faculty handbook obtained by Americans United demonstrated that Regent's faculty members are required to make a declaration of faith and must provide the school's dean with a copy of class syllabi, each of which is to include a "statement of how the Christian faith and Bible will be incorporated into the class."
FOF's Dobson Says Ministry Under Attack By Satanic Forces
Focus on the Family leader James C. Dobson has charged that Satan is attacking his organization, in the wake of two highly publicized sex scandals that have rocked the Colorado Springs-based radio ministry.
FOF's 1,350 employees joined hands and circled the ministry for prayer Nov. 3, seeking "corporate repentance and confession," according to an Associated Press report.
The ministry is reeling from recent revelations concerning two prominent staffers. On Oct. 11, Mike Trout, an FOF senior vice president and co-host of radio broadcasts with Dobson, resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair. In late September, John Paulk, a self-proclaimed "ex-gay" who works with Focus to persuade homosexuals to go straight and adopt fundamentalist Christianity, was caught in a gay bar in Washington, D.C.
Dobson seems to believe that outside forces are responsible for the moral failings of some of his staff. "Satan has thrown just about everything in his arsenal at us in the last several weeks as you know," Dobson told FOF employees in a recorded message. "I am certain those who hate our cause are doing everything they can to undermine and to discredit it."
H.B. London Jr., an FOF vice president, told the AP, "We feel a need for corporate repentance and confession. We've been wounded by some of the recent events here. We're trying to cleanse ourselves and humble ourselves before the Lord."
Trout, who has been married for 31 years and has three grown daughters, called his affair "not a long-term thing" and said the woman involved was not a Focus employee. "I'm greatly saddened," Trout said. "I didn't work at Focus on the Family for 19 years because of the paycheck or the benefits or the positive environment. I worked at Focus on the Family because I believed in what we were doing. I know that might sound strange, because I violated it."
While Trout resigned, Paulk has been allowed to keep his job. Paulk was spotted Sept. 18 in a bar called Mr. P's in a heavily gay neighborhood in Washington. Paulk was recognized by Daryl Herschaft, a staffer with the Human Rights Campaign, a group that promotes gay rights. Herschaft called Wayne Besen, another HRC employee, who went to the bar and confronted Paulk.
"I asked him if he was gay," Herschaft told Southern Voice, a gay newspaper, "And he said yes." Herschaft said Paulk had introduced himself merely as John. Herschaft said he asked Paulk his last name and said, "He said his last name was 'Clint,' but he wanted to know why I was asking. He became evasive, but he was good at it. He was very calm."
Shortly after that, Besen arrived and said he immediately recognized Paulk. "I was floored," he told Southern Voice.
Paulk later insisted he had entered the bar only to use the bathroom. "I was walking around DuPont [Circle] and I needed to use the bathroom, so I walked in," he told the paper. "But I didn't know Mr. P's was a gay bar. Once I was inside I thought, 'Oh, this is a gay bar, and I probably shouldn't be in here.'"
Besen was skeptical of the story. Noting that Paulk had offered to buy Herschaft a drink, Besen remarked, "I didn't know using the bathroom involved 40 minutes of socializing in a bar and offering drinks to strangers."
In other news about the Religious Right:
Texas Religious Right activist Steven Hotze has been charged with driving while intoxicated, Houston police said. Hotze, founder and major financial backer of a number of ultra-conservative political organizations in Texas, was stopped by police at 1:25 a.m. Oct. 26 after officers spotted his car weaving across the center line of Houston's Memorial Drive. He refused to take a breath test but failed a field sobriety test. Hotze, who has denied that he was intoxicated, was booked but posted $500 bond and was released.
In a 1990 essay published in the Houston Chronicle, Hotze wrote that government often makes laws to impose moral and religious codes on citizens. He argued that examples include laws against "drunken driving, theft, murder, slander and perjury."
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has restored Watergate figure Charles Colson's right to vote, practice law and serve on juries rights Colson lost after being convicted of a felony for obstruction of justice and serving seven months in a federal prison in 1975.
While in prison, Colson became a born-again Christian and after his release founded Prison Fellowship. He has also become involved in right-wing politics.
"He certainly has served his time," Bush said. "The crime that he committed was a serious one, but I think it's time to move on. I know him. He's a great guy, he's a great Floridian."
Steve Case, chairman of America Online, has donated $8.35 million to far-right TV preacher D. James Kennedy's Westminster Academy. Case donated the money along with his wife, Jean, who graduated from the private school in 1978.
The bulk of the gift will be used to pay for a new high school in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., and the rest will be used to fund scholarships and establish "PowerUP" centers in the Fort Lauderdale area. The centers are designed to offer computer training to young people who don't have regular access to such technology.
Public Schools Can Bar Graduation Preaching, Appeals Court Rules
Public schools have the right to bar students from preaching to their peers during graduation ceremonies, a federal appellate court has ruled.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in October that officials at Oroville High School in California did not violate the free speech rights of graduating seniors Ferrin Cole and Chris Niemeyer when they refused to allow the two to deliver a sectarian invocation and remarks during the 1998 graduation ceremony.
Since 1985 the school has maintained a policy of reviewing remarks delivered by students during graduation. In 1998, school officials told Cole and Niemeyer to make their religious statements "non-denominational." They refused, were denied permission to speak and subsequently sued the school.
The 9th Circuit Court found that the school acted within its rights in an effort to avoid the appearance of government sponsorship of religious worship. In its ruling of the Cole v. Oroville Union High School District case, the court cited a decision handed down last June by the U.S. Supreme Court barring school-sponsored prayers before public school football games.
But a federal appeals court in another part of the country reached the opposite conclusion in a different school prayer case recently. On Oct. 19, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that certain types of "student-initiated" prayer in Alabama public schools are legal.
The case, Chandler v. Siegelman, was brought by Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. It challenged a number of coercive and school-sponsored religious practices in DeKalb County. Although some of the more egregious practices have been terminated, the court ruling opens the door to certain forms of coercive religious activity, asserting that it is student-initiated as opposed to school-initiated.
The U.S. Supreme Court had ordered the 11th Circuit to reconsider its earlier ruling in the Chandler case. Attorneys at Americans United interpreted that move as a strong signal that the high court wanted the 11th Circuit to reverse the earlier ruling. Since the 11th Circuit failed to do that, attorneys with Americans United say they will seek a rehearing.
In other news about religion in public schools:
Religious activity at football games remains contentious in many communities, with some public schools simply ignoring the Supreme Court's ban on coercive worship.
The Tulsa World reported recently that school officials in Fort Gibson, Okla., allowed students to meet for prayer on the field before the game and incorporate religion into the halftime show. The newspaper said the school band played four Christian hymns "Swinging Chariots," "Gospel John," "I Saw the Light" and "Sweet, Sweet Spirit" while marching in the shape of a cross and waving a flag bearing a cross.
In DeKalb County, Ga., some public schools are trying to skirt the prayer ban by allowing Baptist ministers to serve as team chaplains. School officials say the practice is permissible because participation in prayer is voluntary. Critics respond that peer pressure and fear of being benched make complaints unlikely.
Jimmy Carter Severs Ties To Southern Baptists Over Right-Wing Stands
Former President Jimmy Carter announced in October that he and his wife Rosalynn have left the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), holding that the denomination has become too conservative politically and too rigid in doctrinal matters.
In a letter issued publicly to fellow Baptists, Carter said he disagrees with some of the SBC's recent policy decisions, including its ban on women clergy and its declaration that women should "submit graciously" to their husbands.
Carter went on to say that he and Rosalynn would prefer to associate with "other traditional Baptists who continue to share such beliefs as separation of church and state, servanthood and not domination of pastors, local church autonomy, a free religious press and equality of women."
Wrote Carter, "Over the years leaders of the convention have adopted an increasingly rigid creed, called a 'Baptist Faith and Message,' including some provisions that violate the basic tenets of my Christian faith. These premises have become mandatory criteria that must be accepted by employees, by members of committees who control the convention's affairs and by professors who teach in the SBC-owned seminaries. Obviously, this can have a far-reaching and permanent effect."
Carter told Associated Baptist Press that he will remain a member of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., and will continue to teach Sunday School there. The church sends about half of its mission contributions to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate Baptist body that opposes the fundamentalism of the SBC.
"This is a torturous decision to make," Carter told the Associated Baptist Press. "I do it with anguish and not with any pleasure."
Some SBC leaders criticized Carter for the move. The Rev. James Merritt, current president of the SBC, told the Associated Press, "With all due respect to the president, he is a theological moderate. We are not a theological moderate convention."
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, wrote an opinion column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which he dismissed Carter's announcement as a "post-presidential publicity stunt." Mohler charged that Carter left the SBC years ago.
In a related story about the SBC, denomination members in Texas have voted by a wide margin to stop funding the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and to reduce funding of the six Southern Baptist seminaries.
The move means that the SBC will lose more than $5 million in annual funding from the Texas Baptists. Texas is one of a handful of states where moderate Baptists remain in control of the state SBC convention.
The SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission works closely with Religious Right organizations and often files legal briefs attacking church-state separation in cases before the Supreme Court.
Conservative Churches Say They Are Wary Of 'Charitable Choice'
A large number of conservative church leaders say they are very wary of accepting government funds to pay for social services, casting doubt on the feasibility of so-called "charitable choice" schemes.
Religion News Service (RNS) reported in October that University of Arizona sociology professor Mark Chavez has analyzed data from a 1998 national study of American congregations and concluded that only 3 percent of churches have ever accepted tax aid for a social service project. Chavez also found that only 28 percent of conservative and evangelical church leaders say they would consider applying for such aid.
By contrast, 40 percent of Roman Catholic churches said they would accept "charitable choice" aid, as do 41 percent of mainline Protestant leaders.
"Government funding will mainly go to African-American churches," Chavez told RNS. "Liberal, white churches will also step up and take advantage of this. But when it comes right down to it, signing a contract with a government agency is going to be much more difficult for a conservative church than a liberal church."
RNS interviewed several conservative pastors who expressed concern about taking government money. Most felt that too many strings would be attached. "We don't take government money and never will," Denny Nugent, director of development at Cleveland's City Mission said. "We've been here for 90 years. Even with this talk of faith-based organizations and charitable choice, we've found that there are always strings attached."
Nugent said the religious element is essential to his group's work and added that the Mission will not water down that aspect for government aid. "A relationship with God is the means by which people change their lives," he said. "If you don't change from within, any other change is a temporary Band-Aid approach. Without the freedom to teach that, our hands are tied."
In the New York City region, staffers at a Catholic-oriented shelter for AIDS patients called The Barn for the Poorest of the Poor are also skeptical of government money, even though the ministry is perpetually cash starved.
"We would object to any Army-type regimentation," said Barney Welch, founder of the ministry. "We don't want them to come in and do inspections and say the food crates we're using can't be used or that we need a different container."
Proponents of "charitable choice" have sought to get around church leaders' qualms by allowing churches to retain much of their sectarian flavor while still qualifying for tax aid. Many federal bills that contain "charitable choice," for example, permit the religious organizations to discriminate when hiring people to staff or oversee the programs.
"It's a really, really big deal for us in the faith community that we have a religious atmosphere in our facilities and maintain control of our internal governing boards. We don't want government telling us we have to have two gays and two of this and two of that instead of putting whoever we want from our church on the board," said Amy Sherman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who has studied "charitable choice."
Sherman, an evangelical Christian, says her study of "charitable choice" has led her to conclude that "religious groups accepting government funding are not having to sell their souls, and clients' civil liberties are being respected."
Americans United is not so sure of that. AU and other groups oppose "charitable choice," in part because the concept fosters taxpayer-funded discrimination on religious grounds. Earlier this year, Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky filed a lawsuit against a Baptist-run home for troubled youth in Kentucky that applies religious criteria in employment even though it is publicly funded.
Moon Backs Farrakhan 'Million Family' March In Nation's Capital
Two controversial religious leaders formed an unlikely partnership in October to promote a "Million Family March" in Washington, D.C.
Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a Korean evangelist who founded the Unification Church, co-sponsored the Oct. 16 march, a follow-up to Farrakhan's wildly successful Million Man March in 1995.
Religious Right researcher Frederick Clarkson explored the evolving relationship between Farrakhan and Moon in a recent edition of Salon, an online magazine. Clarkson noted that the two "aging demagogues" met in 1997 when Farrakhan helped Moon officiate at a mass wedding of couples at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. Although billed as a million-family march, The New York Times reported that the march attracted far fewer than a million attendees, estimating the number at below 200,000.
Farrakhan and Moon would seem an odd couple, if only for reasons of politics. Moon is far to the right, and Farrakhan, while he holds conservative views on human sexuality, takes a more liberal view on other issues. The march, for example, featured a number of speakers promoting liberal causes such as universal health care, an end to the death penalty and denunciations of corporate greed.
Clarkson reported that a Moon operative, Dan Fefferman, made it clear before the march that Moon was only supporting its "central themes such as the God-centered family, interracial harmony, interreligious unity and moral revival."
Farrakhan's outreach to Moon has been controversial with his own organization. According to Clarkson's article, Farrakhan met Sept. 21 with the National Organizing Committee, a group of black nationalists, and told them, "I don't want us to get bent out of shape because folk of another race desire to help. I say to the Muslims that are present that I am grateful for the help of the Family Federation for World Peace under Rev. and Mrs. Moon."
Farrakhan reminded Committee members that Elijah Muhammad, the former head of the Nation of Islam, "told us that people would come from the East, that they would teach us everything we need to know in order to be the people that God meant for us to be."