December 2001 Church & State | People & Events

Bush Pressures Senate To Take Action On 'Faith-Based Initiative'

Seeking to spark action on his controversial "faith-based initiative," President George W. Bush in November wrote to Senate leaders, urging them to move forward on several provisions of the measure this year.

In his Nov. 7 letter to Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Bush said Americans have contributed generously to groups offering assistance related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but asserted that other charities may suffer a drop-off in donations. As a result, Bush insisted that an "Armies of Compassion" bill should be passed before the end of this congressional session.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has spearheaded opposition to unconstitutional provisions in the Bush faith-based scheme, urged the Senate to exercise extreme caution in drafting such legislation.

"The last thing the nation needs at this critical time is a controversial proposal that divides Americans," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

Bush's letter calls for legislation offering tax incentives for charitable donations, as well as "equal treatment of community and faith-based charities." AU's Lynn said that while Americans United has no objections to the tax incentives, the president's use of the term "equal treatment" is troubling because it is usually code language for direct tax funding of sectarian organizations.

"When the president talks about 'equal treatment' for religious groups, I am concerned that he means 'special treatment,'" continued Lynn. "The administration has repeatedly urged Congress to fund religious groups without requiring them to play by the same rules that other groups play by."

It remains unclear if Bush will settle for a compromise package that removes some of the initiative's most troubling church-state language. Last month Agape Press, an evangelical news service, reported that Bush hopes to work with Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) on a "consensus bill" that focuses on tax incentives and mentoring programs for the children of prison inmates.

The president's initiative passed the House of Representatives in July. It has stalled in the Senate, however, over concerns that the so-called "charitable choice" components of the initiative violate the First Amendment. Those provisions undercut civil rights laws by allowing religiously based employment discrimination with tax dollars, pit houses of worship against each other in a contest for federal funding and could subject needy Americans to unwanted proselytism.

In his letter to the Senate, Bush indicated that contributions to New York relief efforts will leave other charities without needed donations. There is evidence, however, that he is mistaken. A poll commissioned last month by Independent Sector found that 59 percent of those who contributed to Sept. 11-related assistance said they plan to continue with their normal charitable donations to other groups. An additional 14 percent of respondents indicated they will increase their giving.

The day after the release of the Bush letter, 28 religious organizations wrote to Bush to urge him to drop the "charitable choice" provisions of the bill.

"Mr. President, any effort by the White House to advance charitable choice in the foreseeable future has the potential to turn the national sentiment away from feelings of unity and patriotism and back to the contentiousness and partisanship that were so evident before September 11," the groups argued. "As people of faith, we are particularly concerned about the following unintended consequences of having a debate on charitable choice at this time."

Endorsing organizations include the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Congress of National Black Churches, the Association of United Hindu and Jain Temples of Metropolitan Washington, the General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church, the Interfaith Alliance, the Presbyterian Church (USA) Washington Office, the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the American Jewish Committee.

In other news about the faith-based initiative:

 Don Eberly has been named acting director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, succeeding John J. DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor who resigned from the position in September.

The appointment of Eberly is expected to appease the Religious Right, which never warmed to DiIulio, a Roman Catholic and a Democrat. Eberly, an evangelical with strong ties to the Religious Right, formerly ran the National Fatherhood Initiative, a group that extols the traditional family.

Eberly is apparently going to use the same arguments DiIulio relied on in trying to win over the religious community. Speaking at Baptist-affiliated Campbellsville University in Kentucky in October, Eberly insisted that the plan will not damage the independence and integrity of churches. "We would argue," he said, "that this is operating comfortably within the existing boundaries of church-state separation."

Religious Campaigns To Help GOP Candidates Fail In N.J., Virginia

Religious intervention in statewide elections in New Jersey and Virginia failed last month, when voters rejected candidates supported by the Religious Right and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

In Virginia, two Religious Right organizations produced "voter guides" on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Earley and other GOP nominees. TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition claimed it distributed over a million guides, while American Renewal (the political arm of the Family Research Council) claimed to have distributed almost a million guides as well.

In New Jersey, the Christian Coalition also said it distributed over a million voter guides, which critics charged were clearly stacked to support Republican gubernatorial candidate Brett Schundler. In addition, Schundler benefited from the implicit endorsement of the state's Catholic bishops, who issued an Oct. 22 "teaching" urging Catholic voters to make abortion restrictions a priority issue. (Schundler is strongly anti-abortion.)

Despite the intervention by religious leaders, Earley and Schundler failed in their bids for public office. Earley was defeated by Democrat Mark Warner, 52 percent to 47 percent, despite the state's GOP tilt in recent years. In New Jersey, Democrat Jim McGreevy trounced Schundler by 14 points.

Americans United said there are lessons to be learned from the campaign results. "The 2001 elections demonstrated that voters make up their own minds about candidates and don't respond to religious directives," said AU's Lynn. "One can only hope these groups realize that Americans don't want our religious communities herded into partisan voting blocs."

Lynn noted that the results in Virginia are particularly stinging for the Religious Right because the state is home to TV preachers such as Robertson and Jerry Falwell. In addition to Coalition voter guides, Robertson contributed at least $35,000 to Republican Earley's campaign, according to news media accounts.

Earley, a long-time Religious Right ally, has been especially helpful to Robertson. While serving as attorney general, Early declined to prosecute Robertson for fraud when the TV preacher solicited donations for a relief plane that actually was being used for a diamond-mining operation in Africa.

AU's Lynn said he believes an increasing number of churches are refusing to hand out the Religious Right voter guides. Although the Christian Coalition maintains that its guides are "non-partisan," independent political writers have noted that the flyers are clearly skewed to favor the most conservative candidate and make it obvious which hopeful the organization favors. In some cases, candidates' views have been distorted in the guides.

The week before the guides were supposed to be distributed by houses of worship, Americans United sent letters to churches in Virginia, encouraging pastors to consider the legal and ethical consequences of distributing the slanted partisan campaign materials. (Federal tax law bars churches and other tax-exempt entities from endorsing political candidates.)

Lynn also noted the New Jersey election outcome was a blow to the Religious Right. Republican candidate Schundler has been a long-time favorite of the movement, taking a high-profile stance against abortion rights and church-state separation and favoring voucher aid to religious schools.

In addition to Coalition voter guides, Schundler also won support from the state's Catholic hierarchy. Archbishop John Myers and 10 other bishops issued a letter to the state's 3.3 million Catholics, urging them to "use their voting privilege to reflect a choice of candidates who respect and sustain the dignity of all human life," an implicit endorsement of Schundler.

(Myers is well known in the Catholic Church for his hard-line approach to politics. While serving as bishop of Peoria, Ill., in 1990, he issued a pastoral letter saying it is "morally illicit" for Catholics to vote for candidates who disagree with the church's doctrine on abortion.)

An AU press release analyzing the election results drew a curious response from William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. In a League press release, Donohue accused Americans United of seeking to deny the Catholic bishops their free speech rights by asserting that they had violated the U.S. Constitution through their election intervention.

Donohue had apparently not read the AU statement very carefully. It did not accuse the bishops of violating the Constitution but merely pointed out that federal tax law bars religious and non-profit groups from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

In other news about the Religious Right:

 Pat Robertson is far and away the most political of the TV preachers, according to a new analysis of television evangelism.

Stephen Winzenburg, an associate professor of communication at Grand View College in Des Moines, monitored 150 broadcasts of 22 different televangelists from September through November of 2000 and ranked them according to the amount of the time they spent discussing politics, fund-raising, ministry and promotion of the ministry.

Winzenburg found that Robertson talked about politics 34 percent of the time. D. James Kennedy came in second at 13 percent. Jack Van Impe was third at 10 percent, and James Robison was fourth at 9 percent. In fifth place was Jerry Falwell, with 7 percent.

Falwell spent more time raising money, coming in at 22 percent, putting him in third place behind Oral Roberts (27 percent) and Robison (23 percent) and just one point ahead of Robert Tilton (21 percent). Robertson was at 5 percent, and Kennedy was at 6.

As part of the study, Winzenburg contacted all of the ministries and requested financial information. He reported that half never responded, among them Robertson, Falwell and Robison. About a fourth gave a vague financial statement. The rest sent more detailed statements, but Winzenburg noted that only two ministries sent detailed financial statements in a timely manner.

Wrote Winzenburg, "In summary: few television ministries are as accountable to contributors as they could be. Few are willing to give detailed information on how your donations are spent, and most will not even give potential contributors specifics regarding who is on the board."

Winzenburg's analysis appeared in the Oct. 22 edition of Christianity Today.

 Mark DeMoss, Jerry Falwell's longtime media spokesman, has dropped the TV preacher as a client. DeMoss, who served Falwell as a spokesman for 17 years, declined to give his reasons for the move. In a statement, DeMoss said he remains friends with Falwell and that he plans to remain on the board of trustees of Falwell's Liberty University.

Some observers, however, believe DeMoss despaired of working with Falwell after the TV preacher drew national animosity for his comments about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and his later attempt to use the issue to raise money.

 Jerry Falwell is suing the city of Lynchburg in federal court over restrictions on church wealth. The TV preacher contends that state and local laws that limit the amount of land churches may own are unconstitutional. Under the law, houses of worship may own up to 15 acres of land, unless the city grants an exemption to own up to 50. It also prohibits churches from owning land worth more than $10 million.

Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church sits on 25 acres, and he is building a new sanctuary on a 60-acre plot nearby, according to news accounts.

Salvation Army Drops Partners Provision After Religious Right Blitz

Officials with the Salvation Army have dropped a plan to start offering domestic-partnership benefits to gay employees in the face of a strong Religious Right protest.

Army officials had approved the change during a meeting at the organization's Alexandria, Va., headquarters in October. The change was made to avoid losing government funding in communities that have passed measures requiring government contractors to offer domestic-partnership benefits. Communities in a handful of states, notably in California, have passed such laws.

The Army, which is organized as a religious denomination, released a statement saying that it does not approve of gay unions but asserting that it sees a difference between its officers, who are members of the denomination's clergy, and its civilian employees, who may or may not be church members.

"There exists a clear difference in how we deal with homosexuality as an employer and as a church in ministering to our followers," the statement insisted.

An Army official, Lt. Col. Bettie Love, also told the San Francisco Chronicle that the organization has come to understand that the definition of family has changed in recent years. "I don't think there's been a theological shift," Love said. "I think there's been a new awareness of our world."

The Army's move sent Religious Right leaders into a frenzy. In a statement issued by Focus on the Family, James Dobson blasted the group for making decisions "based on cultural considerations rather than on what is right and ethical and of course on the impact of federal money."

Dobson accused the Salvation Army of abandoning a century of "moral integrity" and called on Army officials to reconsider. To turn up the heat, the Colorado Springs-based radio counselor urged his supporters to bombard the Army's headquarters with phone calls and letters. In early November, an anonymous operator at the office told The Washington Times that the calls were coming in at a fast clip.

"We had six lines going at once," the operator said. "Every line was lit up. It's been fun. I went home and fell right to sleep, I was so exhausted."

Tom Minnery, FOF's vice president for public policy, was even more shrill in his outrage. Minnery called the policy shift "an appeasement of sin" and said Army officials' defense of it was "monstrous," "egregious" and "disgusting." (In early November, Focus on the Family hosted a meeting for 100 evangelical leaders at its Colorado Springs headquarters to discuss "the threat posed by homosexual activism.")

Other Religious Right groups were quick to pile on. In Sacramento, the Capitol Resource Institute, a FOF affiliate, accused Army leaders of compromising "their own moral values."

The American Family Association's California branch was also upset. "We are very, very disappointed that the Salvation Army has capitulated to the homosexual pressure," said AFA's Scott Lively. Lively called the decision "a betrayal...of the church and of the pro-family movement" and added that he believes the Salvation Army made the decision because it had become dependent on government funds.

Facing mounting criticism, Salvation Army officials quickly reversed course. On Nov. 12, the Army released a statement caving in the Religious Right's demands. "Today, November 12, 2001, the Commissioners' Conference established a national policy to extend health benefit access to an employee's spouse and dependent children only," read the statement by Commissioner Lawrence R. Moretz .

The statement continues, "In rescinding this policy and in the establishment of a national policy on health care benefit access to spouse and dependent children, we must stand united in the battle that will undoubtedly follow from those who would now challenge our biblical and traditional position. We will not sign any government contract or any other funding contracts that contain domestic partner benefit requirements. This will mean that we may need to walk away from historical funding sources or cut back service in communities where such opposition or local regulations conflict with our policy. We must be prepared for this, and prayerfully accept the challenge to seek funding and continue our ministry that will not compromise any of our principles."

The issue of gay rights has frequently vexed the Salvation Army, in part because of the organization's reliance on government funds. In 1998 Salvation Army officials dropped contracts with San Francisco rather than abide by the city's domestic-partnership law for contractors. In the years that followed, the Salvation Army gave up $3.5 million in city money used for drug rehabilitation services, meal programs for the elderly and other programs, reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

Earlier this year, the Army drew sharp criticism for an attempt to strike a deal with the White House to support the Bush "faith-based initiative" in exchange for federal protections from local civil rights laws that protect gays. The back-room arrangement fell apart when it was publicized in The Washington Post.

Southern Baptists Back House Bill To Allow Church-Based Politicking

The Washington, D.C., lobbying arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, has endorsed a congressional measure that would allow houses of worship to endorse candidates for public office.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, announced the denomination's support of the bill in an October letter to U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), the measure's sponsor.

Jones calls his bill the "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357). It would alter sections of the Internal Revenue Service Code that prohibit houses of worship from intervening in elections.

Current law bars all non-profit groups that hold a 501(c)(3) designation from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Churches are permitted, however, to speak out on political, moral or social issues.

Jones insists his bill is not designed to allow churches to endorse candidates, but critics say that would be its practical effect. Patricia Meagher, Jones' press secretary, told the Baptist Press that Jones merely wants houses of worship to feel free to address issues without being threatened by the IRS.

But Americans United, which strongly opposes the Jones measure, pointed out that new legislation is not needed to protect the right of churches to address issues, since they can do that now. AU believes the measure is designed to give free rein to groups like the Christian Coalition, which seek to draft churches as cogs in their right-wing political machine.

Supporters of the measure include Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, James Dobson's Focus on the Family and TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.

No hearings have been held in the House on the Jones bill yet, although it is picking up support. It currently has 97 cosponsors, most of them Republicans.

Religious Right Groups Take Aim At Popular 'Harry Potter' Books

Wizard-in-training Harry Potter, the fictional star of a series of phenomenally popular children's books, has fended off evil warlocks, giant snakes and a three-headed dog, but he may have just gained his most powerful enemy the Religious Right.

The release last month of the first motion picture based on the Potter books, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," set off a new round of Religious Right Potter-bashing. The books, far-right groups asserted, teach that witchcraft is fun and lure children into the occult.

Authored by British writer J.K. Rowling, the four Harry Potter books have become a modern publishing sensation, selling millions of copies around the world. Aimed at young readers but also popular with many adults, the books recount the adventures of Harry Potter, an orphan who learns that he is descended from a line of wizards.

The books deal mainly with Harry's adventures at Hogwarts, an elite private academy for would-be wizards where students learn magical arts from witches, warlocks and even an occasional werewolf. Throughout the books, Harry must fend off attacks from an evil arch-villain, Lord Voldemort, who murdered Harry's parents and wants to kill him as well. In each book, good triumphs over evil in the end.

Although fantasy beings like witches, giants and other fabulous creatures have populated children's literature since the Brothers Grimm, some Religious Right activists are sure that the Potter series is a tool to indoctrinate young children into the world of the occult.

In November, Lindy Beam, a "youth culture analyst" for Focus on the Family, penned a piece titled "What Shall We Do With Harry?" that asserted that the series' main problem is that it presents the occult in a positive light.

Beam scored the books for "desensitization to witchcraft" and because author Rowling "does not write from the basis of Judeo-Christian ethics." She urged readers to use young people's interest in the book as a stepping stone to fundamentalist evangelism.

The Southern Baptists have also made it clear that they are not wild about Harry. On Nov. 2, the Baptist Press news service ran an opinion column by Robert McGee, associate pastor for discipleship at First Baptist Church, Merritt Island, Fla., blasting the Potter series and criticizing some Christians for defending the books as merely works of fantasy.

Wrote McGee, "God has declared the very practices presented in Harry Potter an abomination (see Deuteronomy 18). When individuals use the power of witchcraft, they are using demonic power and opening themselves to demons. Unfortunately many Christians appear to believe that God's warnings about witchcraft are worthless, as they have concluded that witchcraft is just a bad use of imagination and nothing else."

McGee said witches recruit over the Internet and asserted that many teens do not hesitate to experiment with witchcraft. "This is a crucial victory for Satan and has put our children in great danger," he wrote.

McGee is so worked up about the Potter books that he is working with Jeremiah Films, a group that often produces fundamentalist-oriented videos, to promote an anti-Potter website, McGee also appears in Jeremiah Films' new anti-Potter video, "Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged Making Evil Look Innocent."

Less than two weeks later, the Baptist Press blasted Potter again, this time in a column by Jennifer L. Zebel, director of children's ministries at Applewood Baptist Church, Wheat Ridge, Colo. Zebel asserted that Rowling is perhaps unknowingly doing the bidding of Satan by penning the Potter series.

"I cannot believe that any secular book, character or movie advocating witchcraft of any kind could be this wildly successful without Satan having an agenda for it," Zebel wrote. "The bottom line is that we know the right choice is to steer clear of these books and movies, but we don't want to make the sacrifice. Satan is a wonderful writer and movie producer."

Continued Zebel, "I grieve for the misguided effort of such a talented writer as J.K. Rowling. She may have no idea that her imaginative, creative mind is being used as a tool by Satan to casually draw an entire generation of Americans toward the seductive side of witchcraft."

Another anti-Potter activist, Richard Abanes, has been making the rounds in fundamentalist churches hawking his book Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magic. "The books," Abanes told the Associated Press, "present astrology, numerology, mediumship, crystal gazing. Kids are enthralled with it, and kids like to copy."

TV preacher Pat Robertson has also climbed about the Potter-bashing bandwagon. Numerous anti-Potter articles are featured on the website of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network ( A piece by Jack M. Roper, who describes himself as an expert on "cults," asserts that the Potter series is designed to lure young people into witchcraft.

Belief In Miracles Should Not Be Dismissed, Justice Scalia Says

Reports of weeping statues and visions of the Virgin Mary should not be brushed off lightly by a skeptical society, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told a largely Roman Catholic audience Oct. 14.

Addressing several hundred parishioners of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne, Ind., Scalia said people who report miracles should not be dismissed as irrational or poorly educated. He included among such miracles the resurrection of Christ.

"It is not irrational to accept the testimony of witnesses who had nothing to gain from their testimony, of the occurrence of Christ's resurrection," Scalia told the audience. "What is irrational is to reject...without any investigation of the possibility of miracles, and Jesus Christ's resurrection in particular."

According to the Associated Press, Scalia was speaking at a brunch that took place after the cathedral's Red Mass, an annual Catholic service for members of the legal profession. During his remarks, he criticized the media, asserting, "Even if a miracle occurred under their noses, they would not believe. To be honest, that is the view of Christians, at least of traditional Christians, taken by the sophisticated in modern society."

The "sophisticated," Scalia asserted, believe that doctrines like the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus and the resurrection are "extraordinarily ridiculous." He urged his listeners to "have the courage to reject the sophisticated world."

Scalia traced this extreme form of skepticism back to Thomas Jefferson, noting that Jefferson's doubts about the accuracy of the Bible led him to edit the New Testament, removing all references to the supernatural.

In other news about the Red Mass:

 Attorney General John Ashcroft was the guest of honor at Boston's Red Mass Nov. 4 and later addressed a gathering of Catholic lawyers. During the homily, Cardinal Bernard Law, who has known Ashcroft for nearly 30 years, called on members of the legal profession to fight "moral chaos" by opposing legal abortion and gay marriage. (While the Red Mass is billed as merely a service to seek the blessings of God on judges and others in the legal profession, church leaders often use it as an opportunity to lobby for church positions on issues that come before the courts.)

 Several Supreme Court justices attended Washington, D.C.'s Red Mass Oct. 28. Among those in the pews at St. Matthew's Cathedral were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer. Also attending was Washington Mayor Anthony Williams and Mel Martinez, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In the homily, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick urged those present to enforce and interpret civil law in ways that conform to divine law. "The challenge," he said, "is to recognize when [the law] fulfills the divine law, the law of nature, the laws of the common good, and when it seems not to be faithful to that, to apply it restrictively and where it is faithful, to apply it benignly and with great courage."

McCarrick also argued for the Catholic church's stance on abortion, asking for respect for "every human person...from the moment of conception to the moment God calls us home."

Federal Education Bill Sparks Concern About Religion And Schools

An omnibus education bill nearing passage in Congress contains language that may give Religious Right legal groups a new weapon to harass public schools over the issue of student prayer.

The bill, the "Leave No Child Behind Act of 2001" (H.R. 1), has passed the House and Senate but in different forms. Members of both chambers are currently meeting in conference to iron out the differences and prepare a final version to send to President George W. Bush.

Conferees have agreed to language that requires the Department of Education to issue "guidance" on the issue of school prayer every two years, subject to the approval of the Department of Justice. School districts would have to comply with the guidelines or risk losing federal funding.

Previous education bills have contained provisions allowing for loss of federal funding only if a school district is found by a federal court to have violated a student's right to engage in constitutionally protected forms of religious activity.

Opponents of the change, which include civil liberties organizations and education groups, say the new language is vague and dangerous. Religious Right legal groups, they assert, could allege violations of religious liberty and demand a cutoff to school funding.

Opponents also say that Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department and the Education Department may issue guidelines that are not in harmony with federal court rulings, putting local schools in a difficult spot.

On Nov. 8, a coalition of groups opposed to the language (including Americans United) sent a letter to conferees working on the bill, urging them to drop or revise the school prayer provisions.

School Voucher Claims Lack Hard Evidence, GAO Report Concludes

Claims that private school vouchers improve student performance cannot be verified, says a new report issued by the federal government's General Accounting Office (GAO).

The GAO surveyed existing research on voucher programs operating in Milwaukee and Cleveland. In its report, "School Vouchers: Publicly Funded Programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee," the report noted that research does not show that voucher students improved on standardized test scores.

Various evaluations of the two programs have found that voucher students perform at little or no better than their public school counterparts. A few studies have found that some voucher students have done better in some subjects, but the findings are controversial because the studies were undertaken by scholars with a strong pro-voucher bent.

"None of these findings can be considered definitive because the researchers obtained different results when they used different methods to compare for weaknesses in the data," the report concluded.

The GAO also noted that good data is hard to come by, especially in Milwaukee, mainly because of policies put into place by legislators. In Wisconsin, lawmakers voted to stop testing voucher students five years ago, after a string of reports showed that voucher students were doing no better academically than public school students. Thus, researchers are forced to use five-year-old data in evaluating the program, even though it has greatly expanded since 1996.

Voucher proponents have claimed for years that vouchers would improve students' academic performance. With that argument increasingly unavailable to them, pro-voucher groups are now relying on other assertions.

In the wake of the GAO report, for example, Christian N. Braunlich, vice president of the pro-voucher Center for Education Reform, criticized the GAO in Education Week for not looking at other factors such as parental satisfaction. Critics counter that parental satisfaction is unlikely to get voucher students into college if their grades are low.

The full GAO report, issued Oct. 1, can be read online at

In other news about vouchers:

 Support for vouchers drops when respondents are told that public schools may lose funding under the plans, a new poll indicates.

The poll, conducted for the National School Board Association by Zogby International, found respondents equally split on vouchers, 48 percent for and 48 percent against. However, when voucher supporters were asked if they would still support them if the program would mean a loss of tax dollars for public schools, 39 percent said no.

The poll also found that claims of African-American support for vouchers are exaggerated. In the poll, 41 percent of African Americans said they "strongly oppose" vouchers, while only 19 percent said they "strongly favor" them. Of those blacks with children under the age of 17 who said they favor vouchers, 55 percent said they would no longer support them if the result were a loss of public school funding.

Religious Right, Allies Meet In Washington For World 'Family' Congress

Religious Right organizations in the United States are continuing their drive to link arms with fundamentalist Muslims and other faith groups to advocate internationally for "pro-family" positions on education, reproductive rights, population control and individual freedom.

Representatives from an array of conservative religious groups met in Washington, D.C., in late October for a regional meeting of the "World Congress of Families." At the first Congress in Prague in 1997, delegates issued a declaration echoing Religious Right attacks on public schools, divorce, legal abortion and gay rights.

President George W. Bush welcomed delegates to the Washington gathering with a letter noting that he has "committed my administration to work hard to help parents and encourage the formation and maintenance of loving families." Bush added that his major initiatives include efforts to "promote responsible fatherhood, strengthen families and make adoption more affordable."

According to The Washington Times, a highlight of the conference came when Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a right-wing Jewish activist from Washington state and ally of TV preacher Pat Robertson, clasped hands with Mokhtar Lamani, the Organization of the Islamic Conference's ambassador to the United Nations.

"It is of great significance, with all the maelstroms swirling around us, that the ambassador stands shoulder to shoulder with us in the interest of advancing the family as the basis of civilization," Lapin said.

Less than two weeks after the World Congress session, Lamani took a public stand that seemed decidedly "anti-family," leading a successful effort to block a United Nations-backed treaty designed to combat international terrorism. Explaining his organization's opposition, Lamani said the treaty failed to distinguish between terrorism and "national liberation movements," such as the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"If someone is fighting against this situation, for us it is not a terrorist," Lamani said. "You cannot compare that at all to what happened at the World Trade Center. They have a right to fight if the peace process is broken."

The Organization of the Islamic Conference includes 57 officially or predominantly Muslim nations, among them repressive regimes such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. In many of the countries, "family law" is decidedly harsh.

Other participants at the World Congress session in Washington included U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.); U.S. Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.); Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis of the Family Research Council; conservative radio talk show host and film critic Michael Medved; Patrick Fagan, Heritage Foundation; Rita Thompson, a member of the Fairfax County, Va., School Board and a staffer at Concerned Women for America; Jeanne E. Head of the National Right to Life Committee and Dinesh D'Souza, American Enterprise Institute.

The gathering, which scheduled one session on the floor of the House of Representatives, was sponsored by the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation, Beverly LaHaye Institute, Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, Concerned Women for America, Brigham Young University Management Society, Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, Southern Virginia University, Toward Tradition, World Family Policy Center and the Family Action Council International.

Allan C. Carlson of the Howard Center is considered by some activists to be the key figure who brought the disparate religious groups together.