January 2001 Church & State | People & Events

Bestiality Charge Against Candidate Was Error, Says Christian Coalition

The Oklahoma Christian Coalition has admitted that it erroneously reported that a state lawmaker favored repealing laws against bestiality and sodomy, but its action comes too late for the official, who lost his seat Nov. 7.

State Sen. Lewis Long, a Democrat from Glenpool, is suing the Coalition for libel because its voter guide reported that Long voted in 1996 to repeal state laws against bestiality and sodomy. In fact, Long did not support the provision, which was part of a lengthy bill intended to repeal old portions of state law and modernize the criminal code.

Long lost his reelection bid by fewer than 300 votes. His opponent, Republican Nancy Riley, was listed on the voter guide as opposing repealing laws against bestiality and sodomy, even though she was not in the legislature at the time the matter come up for a vote.

Two weeks after the election, Oklahoma Christian Coalition Executive Director Ken Wood issued a statement apologizing to Long. "Regretfully, the Oklahoma Christian Coalition made a mistake on its 2000 voter guide [regarding] the issue of decriminalizing sodomy and bestiality," it read. "The coalition extends a public apology to Senator Long and his family."

Wood claimed that the Coalition confused Long with another former senator, Ed Long, an Enid Democrat.

But Lewis Long said the Coalition's apology was not enough. Long, noting that thousands of the voter guides were distributed in churches the Sunday prior to the election, said the Coalition's mis-statement of the facts may have been crucial to his defeat.

"Their whole objective is to elect Republicans and defeat Democrats," Long said. "It's just blatant, outright untruths."

Speaking of his libel suit, Long added, "If I ever see a dime out of this, it still won't be for the money. My motive here is to let the public know that this group, this group that calls itself Christian, is not trustworthy."

The Coalition's efforts in Oklahoma paid off at the ballot box this year. Days after the election, the CC's Wood issued a statement noting that eight new representatives were elected to the state House of Representatives and three to the state Senate.

"All are conservative, all are pro-life, and all are Republican," Wood said. "Each Republican candidate won by either unseating a liberal Democrat incumbent or by winning an open seat vacated by a liberal Democrat incumbent."

Wood wrote that Steve Edwards, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, thanked the Christian Coalition "for its great work in turning out the pro-life, Christian vote on behalf of conservative candidates."

Meanwhile in Missouri, election officials are investigating a voter's complaint that a Clay County poll worker distributed Christian Coalition voter guides. Dane Dingerson reported that when he went to vote at Oakwood Manor Elementary School in Gladstone, he was surprised to see a stack of Christian Coalition voter guides at the polls. Dingerson said he complained to poll supervisor Sara Manichia, who told him, "God wants Bush to win."

Manichia later confirmed the incident for the Kansas City Star. "Yes, I told him that God wants Bush to win," Manichia said. "I'm proud of my beliefs, and I love the Gospel, and God hates abortion....He wants Bush to win."

State law prohibits electioneering within 25 feet of voting areas. Election Board Director Arnie Day later met with Manichia and asked her to apologize, which she did. Day told a local newspaper that Manichia said she did not regard the Coalition voter guides as partisan.

"We don't want this to happen again," Day told the Clay County Dispatch Tribune. "We want the voters to know they can trust they can vote as they chose."

Dobson's FOF Attacks JFK For Stand In Favor Of Church-State Separation

President John F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin's bullet 38 years ago, but that didn't stop James Dobson's Focus on the Family from recently launching a belated attack on the nation's 35th president for his strong stand in favor of church-state separation.

According to FOF Associate Editor Pete Winn, writing in Citizen Issues Alert, a FOF fax newsletter, Kennedy deserves scorn because of his church-state stance a view Winn says ushered in an era of secularism.

Winn charged that Kennedy, by making public declarations of his support for church-state separation during the 1960 campaign, was advocating "a kind of public atheism by default. In the noble attempt to fight discrimination, he succeeded in advancing the terribly ignoble idea that religion and state were somehow like chemical components that, should they ever combine, would create something so toxic as to destroy the nation."

Kennedy's support for church-state separation, Winn goes on to say, helped "open a door through which humanists and anti-religionists eagerly pushed America in the ensuing years. It helped feed what would become the churning '60s rebellion against traditional mores. It helped create the atmosphere for those who would lay the ground work for the 'God is Dead' movement and the move to eliminate school prayer, to legalize abortion, to normalize use of illicit drugs and to privatize belief.... The separation of church and state became the separation of church from state. And that doctrine is still with us."

Winn's history is creative, if not accurate. In fact, Kennedy was a Roman Catholic who made his statements in support of church-state separation to calm the fears of some Protestant leaders who worried that if elected, he would take direction from the Vatican. In his endorsements of church-state separation, Kennedy called not for an official policy of hostility toward religion but for religious freedom for everyone. His comments today are regarded as some of the most ringing endorsements of religious liberty in the modern era.

In other news about FOF:

The large, Colorado-based evangelical ministry is apparently experiencing financial difficulties. Last November FOF President Dobson, a child psychologist and radio counselor, asked supporters to send additional donations to counter an unexpected downturn in contributions.

In a letter to supporters, Dobson said the ministry will have to curtail "vital programs" if more money is not raised. According to FOF Vice President of Public Policy Tom Minnery, the threatened projects include upgrading the group's website, developing new abstinence education programs, creating a new video on parenting issues and translating FOF materials into Arabic.

In recent years FOF, based in Colorado Springs, has seen explosive growth. The group's annual budget is $135 million. Most of the money is raised through contributions from members and supporters.

One FOF project has already been shut down. Teachers in Focus, a slick, four-color magazine aimed at teachers, ceased publication in December. The magazine, which frequently ran articles urging public school teachers to find ways to work fundamentalist dogma into their lesson plans, had been published since 1992.

"The magazine has been running a deficit for some time, and in September that deficit got to the point where Focus on the Family could no longer afford to publish the magazine," wrote the editors in a farewell message. "What's more, the alternative formats we explored ranging from a Webzine to various scaled-down versions of the magazine promised to yield large deficits as well. Rather than watch the magazine draw larger and larger deficits, Focus on the Family decided to discontinue it."

Catholic School Lobby Demands Computer Aid In New York District

Frustrated by their inability to get taxpayer-funded computers for parochial schools, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and a group of Catholic school parents decided to hit the local public schools where it hurts the most in the pocketbook.

Catholic school parents in Kenmore and Tonawanda demanded publicly funded computers last November but were rebuffed by Superintendent David A. Paciencia. Paciencia said the financially strapped district is in no position to help private schools and added that the move might violate the separation of church and state.

In retaliation, Catholic school activists said they would lobby voters to reject a $66 million bond issue that appeared on the ballot Dec. 5. The money was to be used to renovate crumbling buildings in the district, including fixing leaky roofs and faulty heating systems. Voters rejected the bond by a vote of 60 percent against to 40 percent for.

"We'd like to support [the district], but they have to support us, too," Gary Annis, a Catholic school activist, told The Buffalo News. "We pay taxes, too, and we're a pretty large bloc."

The local chamber of commerce supported the bond measure, as did local public school parents groups. It was estimated that the bond would have raised taxes for the average property owner about $24 per year.

Now that they've defeated the bond, Catholic school forces are exploring the possibility of filing a lawsuit to get the computer aid. They cite a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last summer that permitted the state of Louisiana to give certain types of computer and other technology aid to private religious schools. Public school officials counter that while the decision in Mitchell v. Helms permits such aid if states choose to extend it, no government body is required to do so.

In other news about government aid to parochial schools:

Two Arkansas lawmakers have filed legislation that would set up a voucher program in the state aimed at students in public schools deemed "failing."

The bill, introduced by Reps. Jeremy Hutchinson and Dean Elliott, both Republicans, does not refer directly to vouchers, instead using yet another euphemism "learning endowments." Under the plan, students in public school districts deemed to be in "distress" would get "learning endowments" to subsidize private school tuition or costs at other public schools. Hutchinson said the bill does not currently include vouchers for home schooling but that he plans to change it to allow that as well.

Postal Service To Issue New Stamp Honoring Muslim Holidays

After decades of issuing Christmas stamps adorned with scenes of Mary and the baby Jesus, the U.S. Postal Service is branching out and has unveiled its first-ever stamp honoring two Muslim holidays.

The stamp commemorates Eid-al-Fitr, a Muslim feast that marks the end of fasting for the month of Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims. It also commemorates Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, during which faithful Muslims sacrifice a sheep or a goat in commemoration of the story in which God released Abraham from a vow that he sacrifice his own son.

The stamps honoring the Muslim holidays will be available in October 2001, just before the start of Ramadan.

U.S. Muslim groups hailed the move. "This is one sign that the Muslim presence in America is being recognized," said Omar Ahmad, board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The American Muslim Council (AMC) spearheaded the drive to get the stamps issued. As part of the campaign, the group arranged for 3,000 Muslim children to send letters to the postmaster asking for the stamp.

The AMC and other Muslim groups also did a little traditional lobbying on Capitol Hill. Those efforts paid off when U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who has six mosques in his district, introduced a congressional resolution calling on the Postal Service to honor the Muslim holidays on a stamp.

At a Nov. 16 press conference unveiling the stamp, Davis proclaimed, "We have Hanukkah and Christmas stamps, and now we have an Eid stamp. This is a giant step forward for a growing and vibrant Muslim community. I am proud to represent a district that has six mosques. This stamp is an appropriate symbol of the values American Muslims represent. I look forward to buying a whole sheet of them and sending them on my Christmas cards."

The stamp, designed by calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya, features the Arabic phrase "Eid mubarak" in gold against a blue background. The phrase means "blessed festival," and can be paraphrased, "May your religious holiday be blessed."

Proposed Bible Course Sparks Controversy In Memphis Schools

School board members in Memphis, Tenn., are fighting over the proper role of religion in the classroom.

The controversy began last year after some board members in Shelby County proposed adding a pair of courses on "Bible history" to the high school curriculum. Board members proposed that the classes be paid for with private donations, which led some residents to suspect that the courses would be more like Sunday School than objective instruction.

"Teaching the Bible as historical fact is just flat illegal," said Cheri Del Brocco, an Americans United member and church-state separation activist in the county. "If this is legal, why would it have to be paid for with private donations? They know what the law is, and they are trying to skirt it."

Last May, officials with the state Department of Education rejected the county's application to start the courses, saying the proposed classes appeared to be too sectarian in content. The courses, called Bible History I and Bible History II, state officials said, were taught almost exclusively from a Protestant perspective.

In response, some board members proposed a course in comparative religion as an alternative. This suggestion failed to excite Wyatt Bunker, one of the backers of the original class.

A comparative religion course, Bunker said, would be "just altogether a bad idea to teach Hinduism, Buddhism and voodoo and whatever else in schools." He added, "If they don't want God in our schools, then we're not going to have Gandhi in our schools."

Resident Judy Paalborg, who is Jewish and has two children in the county schools, was appalled by Bunker's outburst. "There is enough of a struggle among the children teaching them respect for diversity, and the last thing we need is adults especially adults involved in education spouting off this poison," she said. "I think he [Bunker] needs to resign after he apologizes to the entire community. He needs to take a comparative religion class himself."

Bunker said he would not apologize or resign and added he will "assure the rest of the community that I am going to be there to protect our children from these types of teachings."

Some board members later indicated they will try to come up with a new Bible course that meets state requirements.

In other news about religion in public schools:

A new report indicates that most states have mandated teaching about religion objectively in social studies classes. The report, "Teaching about Religion in National and State Social Studies Standards," was prepared jointly by the First Amendment Center and the Council on Islamic Education.

While the report applauds the growing movement to discuss religion objectively in public schools, it notes that more needs to be done. The report found, for example, that much teaching about religion tends to be superficial and that it is usually tied to discussion of holidays and customs. It also notes that outside of Christianity, most religions receive only a cursory examination in class.

The report makes a number of recommendations for improving the quality of instruction about religion. It also recommends that secular ways of understanding the world be included in the curriculum and that all teaching about religion be intended to educate, not indoctrinate.

A new survey of American teens indicates that, contrary to Religious Right propaganda, most identify themselves as Christians. The study by evangelical pollster George Barna found that 86 percent of teens say they are Christians. About a third say they are "born again." Three out of five teens say the Bible is "totally accurate" in its teachings.

But the survey also found that many teenagers reject some of the central tenets of fundamentalism. For example, about two-thirds say they think Satan is more a symbol of evil rather than an actual being, and 53 percent say they believe Jesus committed sins while on Earth.

Molalla, Ore., school officials have terminated lunch-time visits by a Church of the Nazarene youth pastor. The pastor, Jason Rhoads, has been a fixture on campus for nearly a year, where he frequently talked with students about religious topics.

School officials stopped the visits after a parent complained that her child felt pressured to attend events at Rhoads' church. "We looked at this and said, 'Whoa, this is inappropriate,'" Ralph Gierke, chairman of the local school board, told the Portland Oregonian.

Superintendent Alice Ericksen said the schools have a policy forbidding outsiders to roam the buildings unsupervised during the school day and that an exception should not have been made in Rhoads' case.

Sectarian Prayers Before City Council Meetings Banned By Calif. Court

The Burbank City Council's practice of opening some meetings with sectarian prayer violates the separation of church and state, a state court in California has ruled.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alexander Williams III ruled Nov. 23 that the council's practice of using invocational prayers that refer to Jesus Christ violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Williams did not rule that the council must terminate all prayers, only that it must advise guest ministers that sectarian invocations are not permitted. "The court fully understands the reluctance of the City Council and the Burbank Ministerial Association to dictate the content of prayer," Williams wrote. "All that is required is an advertisement that sectarian prayer as part of City Council meetings is not permitted under our Constitution."

The legal challenge was brought by Irv Rubin, chairman of the Jewish Defense League. Rubin got angry last November when he attended a council meeting to discuss issues related to a municipal airport and heard a Mormon church official open the session with a prayer that ended "in the name of Jesus Christ." He subsequently filed suit along with Roberto Alejandro Gandara, a local Roman Catholic activist who opposes council-led prayers.

The Burbank City Council meets weekly. Its opening prayers are handled by the Burbank Ministerial Association, which is composed mostly of local Christian clergy. During the trial, the Rev. Ronald Degges, the Association's president, estimated that fewer than 50 percent of the prayers said at the meetings end in Jesus' name.

At the first meeting after the ruling, Pastor Jerry Jones of Burbank Community Church followed the guidelines and offered a non-denominational prayer. Jones told the Los Angeles Daily News that that had been his plan all along. "When I pray in a public setting, I'm old enough and wise enough to realize I'm in public," he said. "I'm not in my church. In my church, I would pray altogether differently.... I hope we can find a balance so we don't lose the invocation outright."

Members of the Burbank City Council later voted unanimously to appeal the ruling.

Meanwhile, successful plaintiffs Rubin and Gandara are asking other cities in the San Gabriel Valley to drop sectarian prayers.

Americans Support Separation In Theory More Than Practice, Politics Scholar Asserts

Americans support church-state separation and religious liberty more in theory than in practice, a political science professor says.

Ted Jelen, a scholar at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said his research has led him to conclude, "There is widespread support for the idea of religious freedom as a symbol, but many Americans are quite willing to restrict the actual religious liberty of specific groups considered dangerous or strange."

According to the Associated Baptist Press, Jelen presented his findings during the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Houston last November. During his remarks, he noted that "a great many Americans would deny so-called Moonies or Satanists the right to recruit among high school students or deny Native Americans the right to use hallucinogenic drugs as part of religious rituals."

When it comes to the wall of separation between church and state, Jelen reported that many Americans say they endorse a high wall but don't necessarily put it in to practice. "Large majorities of respondents in opinion surveys in the United States endorse such concepts as a 'high wall' of separation between church and state," Jelen reported. "However, many Americans are also supportive of particular public support for religion, such as organized school prayer, public displays of religious symbols especially during the Christmas season and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. Many citizens of the United States appear to experience little tension between these attitudes."

Through his work with focus groups, however, Jelen found that people adopt a more separationist perspective when told that all religions would have the same rights under certain types of church-state partnerships.

For example, many people supported school prayer but were not enthusiastic about the idea of non-Christian or unpopular religions having the right to take part in a rotating system whereby prayers were read from Christian and non-Christian traditions. That idea, Jelen said, "was rejected with virtual unanimity."

Jelen noted that many Americans still have had little experience with "genuine religious diversity" and as a result tend to assume that if church and state join forces, their own church will benefit.

Civil Law Must Bow To Church Dictates, Pope Tells Legislators

The civil laws of all nations must be brought into conformity with God's law, Pope John Paul II told thousands of legislators from nearly 100 nations Nov. 4.

Specifically, the pope said, lawmakers have an obligation to reject all proposals that permit abortion under any circumstance or that elevate same-sex unions with heterosexual marriages.

The pope asserted that any law that does not "respect the right to life from conception to natural death of every human being, whatever his or her condition healthy or ill, still in the embryonic stage, elderly or close to death is not a law in harmony with the divine plan."

He added, "Consequently, Christian legislators may neither contribute to the formulation of such a law nor approve it in parliamentary assembly, although, where such a law already exists, it is licit for them to propose amendments which would diminish its adverse effects."

John Paul went on to say that the same standard applies to laws that "would do harm to the family, striking at its unity or indissolubility, or which would give legal validity to a union between persons including those of the same sex who demand the same rights as the family founded upon marriage between a man and a woman."

The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope said, are not an "ideology" but are rather "a fundamental approach to understanding the human person and society in light of the universal ethical law present in the heart of every human being, a law which is clarified by the revelation of the Gospel."

The pope's comments came during a meeting with as estimated 15,000 public officials and legislators from 92 countries, Catholic New York reported.

AU Protests Town's Plan To Give Casino Funds To Two Churches

Americans United has warned officials in Boonville, Mo., not to give public funds to two churches to pay for restoration projects.

Officials in Boonville met in late November to decide how to distribute $850,000 in revenue from the Isle of Capri Casino. The so-called "850K Committee," appointed by the mayor, deliberated two nights before deciding how to spend the money. The largest shares will go to the city of Boonville and an organization called the Friends of Historic Boonville, but the committee also granted requests from other local organizations including two churches.

St. Matthew A.M.E. Church and the First Presbyterian Church of Boonville were given $85,000 and $25,000, respectively. St. Matthew wants to use the money to replace its stained glass windows and make its sanctuary handicapped accessible, while the Presbyterian congregation is seeking the money to replace its roof.

In a Nov. 29 letter to Boonville Mayor Bud Kemp, City Counselor Paul Wooldridge and Mayor Pro Term Morris Carter, Americans United attorney Margaret F. Garrett warned that the grants violate the separation of church and state.

"We are writing to inform you that these proposed allocations violate longstanding federal constitutional principles and should therefore be withdrawn so as to avoid legal liability," wrote Garrett. She noted the city's position that the churches are considered historic but added that they are still used primarily for religious worship. She advised the officials that no decision by the Supreme Court "has eroded the longstanding, elemental proposition that public monies cannot be used to build or renovate churches."

City officials seemed surprised by the controversy but have been researching the matter. In December Wooldridge told reporters be believes the city cannot give the money to churches. "This is not a judgment on my part, it's a well-established rule by case law and Constitution," he said.

Meanwhile, the pastors at the two churches are still hoping they get the money. "We're not asking the City Council to approve our religion," said the Rev. Edwin Donaldson of St. Matthew A.M.E. Church. "We're only asking for the money to be used to maintain a historical building."

In early December members of the Boonville City Council voted to put the grants on hold while the city seeks an opinion from the state attorney general.