Falwell's Partisanship Shows In Fund Appeal, AU's Lynn Tells IRS
More evidence has come to light that the Rev. Jerry Falwell is using a supposedly non-partisan voter mobilization drive to elect presidential candidate George W. Bush and other Republicans to public office.
Last month Americans United provided the Internal Revenue Service with a fund-raising letter from Jerry Falwell Ministries that provides compelling evidence the TV preacher's tax-exempt organization is violating federal tax law.
In a complaint filed with the IRS May 11, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told the federal tax agency that Falwell's appeal for donations shows his ministry is transgressing the ban on partisan politicking by tax-exempt groups.
Said Lynn, "Jerry Falwell is clearly playing fast and loose with the federal tax law. It's time for the IRS to take action."
The Falwell letter obtained by Americans United seeks funds to support his plan to register 10 million new conservative Christian voters and turn out 35 million "Bible-believing" Christian voters on Election Day this fall. The appeal includes blatantly partisan language.
In the second paragraph of the letter, Falwell complains of "personal attacks on me by Al Gore and Democrat attack-man James Carville." He later charges that Democratic presidential nominee Gore is lying about an alleged meeting between Falwell, fellow TV preacher Pat Robertson and GOP candidate Bush.
"By fabricating this false story," observes Falwell, "Mr. Gore is sending a clear signal that Christians will be the target of a focused assault by his campaign in this election. Al Gore is making no secret of the fact that he wants the 2000 Elections to be a referendum, at least in part, on whether Christian conservatives like you and me have any place in American politics."
Later Falwell adds that Gore is "openly courting the radical homosexual movement and pledging allegiance to the most extreme parts of the gay agenda."
The Lynchburg, Va.-based televangelist warns, "If Christian voters fail to vote in record-breaking numbers in 2000...the anti-Christian Left will very likely end up taking control of all three branches of our federal government."
Falwell concludes, "In all, 100,000,000 Americans are expected to vote in the 2000 Election. This means we can virtually guarantee victory in November by making sure that at least 35,000,000 of these voters (more than one-third of the total electorate) are Bible-believing Christians."
Americans United first asked the IRS to investigate the Falwell voter project on April 14 (See "He's Ba-a-a-ck!," May 2000 Church & State). The organization's May 11 follow-up complaint to the IRS includes the Falwell fund-raising letter that further demonstrates the project's partisan character.
"If the IRS needs a smoking gun, this is it," said Lynn. "Falwell's letter makes it abundantly clear that his voter project has blatantly partisan goals."
Lynn noted that the federal tax agency revoked the tax exemption of a charitable group that conducted a partisan voter registration project in 1984. Literature from that group (which has not been identified by the IRS) did not name specific candidates, as the Falwell letter does.
Concluded Lynn, "All Americans including evangelical Christians should register to vote and participate in our democracy. But Jerry Falwell and other Religious Right leaders must play by the same rules that everyone else does. I urge the IRS to act promptly to enforce the law."
In other news about Falwell:
* The Rev. George Sweet, a Virginia pastor who once worked with Falwell on a political effort to elect Republicans to state office there, has filed for bankruptcy.
Sweet was pastor of Atlantic Shores Baptist Church in July of 1997 when Falwell encouraged him and other preachers to endorse Mark Earley, a GOP candidate for attorney general, from their pulpits. Falwell heralded the scheme as a new model for evangelical involvement in politics but abandoned it after Americans United reported the plan to the IRS.
About a month later, in an apparently unrelated move, Sweet abruptly resigned from the church after an unexplained "tragic mistake" that he said "morally disqualified" him from the pastorate. According to The Virginian-Pilot, he and his wife went into counseling, and Sweet focused on two business ventures, both of which failed. He is now nearly $800,000 in debt and is being sued by some of his creditors, including his own sister and her husband.
Sweet was a rising star of the Religious Right. His Kempsville, Va., church was one of the largest in southeastern Virginia. He ran for Congress as a Republican candidate in 1994, drawing support from Jack Kemp, Oliver North and Tim Robertson, son of TV preacher Pat Robertson. Sweet served on the board of Falwell's Liberty University and some saw him as a possible successor to Falwell.
* The Southern Baptist North American Mission Board (NAMB) is teaming up with Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church to undertake missionary efforts in Chicago. According to Baptist Press, Falwell's Lynchburg, Va., congregation and the Baptist agency will each put up $250,000 to open a new "flagship" church in Chicago's northern suburbs.
"We have a strong television constituency in Chicago," Falwell said. "Many, many write us wanting a good evangelistic, Bible-teaching church in the area."
Federal Court Bars Mass. Ballot Question On Parochial School Aid
A federal court in Boston has ruled that government officials in Massachusetts cannot be forced to allow a vote on removing a provision of the state constitution that bars taxpayer aid to religious schools.
U.S. District Judge George O'Toole last month rejected a lawsuit brought by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative Catholic legal advocacy group. The judge agreed with Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly, who had earlier ruled that putting the question on the ballot would violate another provision of the state constitution that bans ballot initiatives relating to "religion, religious practices or religious institutions."
The Massachusetts Constitution contains strong language barring the diversion of tax money to religious institutions, including schools. Article 46, Section 2 provides that "no grant, appropriation or use of public money or property or loan of public credit shall be made or authorized by the commonwealth...for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any school or institution of learning...wherein any denominational doctrine is inculcated...."
Proponents of vouchers and other forms of taxpayer aid to parochial schools have been trying for years to get rid of the provision. The last time they succeeded in getting the question on the ballot, in 1986, Massachusetts residents voted overwhelmingly to keep it 70 percent to 30 percent.
This year, Attorney General Reilly ruled that the question could not even go on the ballot because it would violate the state constitution. That action was challenged in court by pro-voucher groups, who argued that the provisions were anti-Catholic and squelched religious freedom.
Judge O'Toole disagreed. "While a state may not bar debate about controversial issues, it may limit the use of a particular form of lawmaking to specified issues," he wrote in the Boyette v. Galvin decision.
Pro-voucher legislators will not give up, however. Despite O'Toole's ruling, leaders in the Massachusetts House of Representatives insisted on placing the issue of parochial school aid on the agenda during a "constitutional convention" a meeting on proposed constitutional revisions that must take place in both chambers of the legislature every few years.
Some lawmakers cried foul after House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a Democrat, insisted that the matter be on the agenda. "This question is something that was going to die," Rep. James Marzilli (D-Arlington) told the Boston Globe. "The speaker has chosen to put this amendment on life support."
To qualify for a spot on the 2002 ballot, 50 percent of the legislators in both chambers would have to approve the ballot measure. The issue would then go to the voters.
Groups that support public schools and church-state separation filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Boyette case. Joining on the brief were the American Jewish Congress, Americans United, the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts, Citizens for Participation in Political Action, Citizens for the Public Schools, the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
Ohio's Religious Motto Ruled Unconstitutional By U.S. Appeals Court
Ohio's use of the phrase "With God, all things are possible" as the state motto violates the separation of church and state, a federal appeals court has held.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 April 25 that the motto is a quote from Jesus found in the New Testament and is thus an endorsement of Christianity. The passage in question comes from Matthew 19:26 and deals with one of the central teachings of Jesus on how one can get into Heaven.
Judge Avern Cohn, writing for the court, said, "In the context in which the words of the motto are found as the words of Jesus speaking of salvation to a reasonable observer, they must be seen as advancing, or at a minimum, showing a 'particular affinity' for Christianity. Simply put, they are an endorsement of the Christian religion by the State of Ohio. No other interpretation in the context of their presence in the New Testament is possible."
Continued Cohn, "In sum, fairly read and understood, the State of Ohio has adopted a motto which crosses the line from evenhandedness toward all religions, to a preference for Christianity, in the form of Christian text. Thus, it is an endorsement of Christianity by the State of Ohio."
The motto, first adopted by Ohio in 1959, was inspired by a New Testament quote which reads, "But Jesus beheld them and said unto them, with men this is impossible; but with God, all things are possible." It appears on some state letterhead and on tax returns.
In 1998 the motto was engraved into a bronze plaque and installed on a walkway leading into the statehouse in Columbus, the state capital. Then-Gov. George V. Voinovich said he took the action after a trade mission to India where he saw a public building displaying the words, "Government Work is God's Work."
Dissenting Judge David Nelson said he considered the Ohio motto similar to the use of "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency.
The case was brought by the Rev. Matthew Peterson, a Presbyterian minister in Cleveland, with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. The ruling overturned a 1998 federal district court decision that the motto met constitutional standards so long as the state did not cite its biblical origin.
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, hailed the appellate ruling. "All the Constitution requires is for government to be neutral on religion," said Lynn. "Making scripture the state motto is obviously not government neutrality. This case was a no-brainer."
The court of appeals noted that many other states mention "God" in a variety of contexts but pointed out that Ohio is the only state that directly quotes the Christian Bible in its state motto.
Concluded AU's Lynn, "The state of Ohio, which represents a broad and diverse population of many faiths, has no business promoting the Christian Bible or giving it official recognition. As a minister, when I'm looking for spiritual guidance, the last place I'd look is to state government."
The Family Research Council, a Washington-based Religious Right group, was infuriated by the ruling in the ACLU v. Capitol Square case. In an e-mail newsletter called CultureFacts, the FRC asserted that the court ruled incorrectly because "there is no 'wall of separation' between church and state." According to the FRC, all the First Amendment was intended to do was bar the establishment of a national church.
Wisc. Voucher School Had Convicted Rapist On Staff As CEO
The chief executive officer of a private school participating in Milwaukee's voucher program has been sentenced to prison for tax fraud, amid revelations that he once served time behind bars for rape.
James A. Mitchell, CEO of Alex's Academic of Excellence, was sentenced to six months in prison by Circuit Judge Elsa Lamelas last month. Mitchell's tax problems stem from 1991, before he began working at the choice school. He is accused of pocketing money from the Fresh Start Center, a non-profit group he started that received state and county funding to treat juvenile delinquents.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Lamelas said she is concerned that Mitchell may be cheating the state over the choice school as well. The judge said she had "concerns about some aspects of the school choice program. It seems that it is easy pickings for people who are not inclined to be honest." The school received $58,000 in tax money last year.
Mitchell and his attorney denied any wrong-doing in relation to the school. The facility, which opened this year, is allegedly owned by Diane Anthony, Mitchell's girlfriend. But Lamelas noted that Anthony was unable to state the address of the school or how many employees it has. Mitchell claimed this is because Anthony "mostly works out of the house." Anthony, however, told a state investigator who wrote a pre-sentencing report that she works five days a week at the school.
Mitchell has a long criminal record. In 1971 he and an accomplice were sent to prison for raping a Milwaukee woman at knifepoint. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, which was later reduced to 20. Mitchell was paroled in 1980 but ended up back in prison in 1981 for burglary. By 1984 he was free again, but in 1993 was charged with telecommunications fraud and sentenced to probation.
The principal of the school, Jerry Gilliam, told the Journal Sentinel that he did not know about Mitchell's rape conviction. Asked if a convicted rapist should be working around children, Gilliam replied, "Let me get back to you on that one."
Gilliam also defended Mitchell, saying the woman who wrote the pre-sentence report was biased. "It seemed like she was a feminist," he said.
Alex's Academic of Excellence has been plagued with problems since its inception. Last November it was forced to vacate its building after safety inspectors uncovered numerous code violations. It has had several locations since then. Currently, about 90 choice children are attending the school.
Officials with Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction said they visited the school after receiving complaints from parents and staff members. However, they noted that the choice law does not permit the department to force private schools out of the program.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction has released a report indicating that seven religious and other private schools taking part in the voucher program violated state law by imposing unlawful admissions fees and requirements.
Under state law, voucher schools are required to accept the voucher as full payment and not impose additional fees. They are also required to admit students on a random basis and not require participation in religious activities. People For the American Way and the National Association for the Advance of Colored People filed the complaint after testers for the groups contacted several schools and learned that many were flouting the rules.
Voucher School With No Students Approved For Florida Program
A private school that currently has no students and that lists its address as a residential high rise in south Florida has been approved to participate in the state's controversial new voucher program.
The Philosophical and Spiritual University lists its address as a high-rise building in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla. A reporter from the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, however, was unable to reach anyone at the "school," despite leaving repeated messages.
State Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami), a voucher proponent, said the state department of education should review the matter but insisted that pre-judging any school was "premature nitpicking."
Other voucher backers agreed. "The parent is supposed to be the gatekeeper on this," said Rep. Bill Andrews (R-Delray Beach). Andrews said he is not bothered that the school has no students because, "It's meaningless if nobody's using the money."
Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Orlando) agreed. "We don't want to discourage start-up schools," he said. "Part of the benefits you get from market competition is new, exciting ventures."
The Philosophical and Spiritual University may not exactly fit that definition. The school describes itself as a religious institution but gives little other information. It has not filed any financial statements with the state, although the school says tuition runs between $1,600 to $3,250 per year.
Voucher opponents were dismayed by the development. "This is exactly what we talked about last year in the arguments against vouchers," said Rep. Skip Campbell (D-Tamarac). Campbell said he fears more fly-by-night schools will open as the program expands.
Under the Florida law, public schools in the state are rated, and at schools given a failing grade, students are made eligible for vouchers. So far, only two schools in the state both in Pensacola have been deemed failing. However, the program is set to expand this fall to students in three other counties, including the heavily populated Miami-Dade County. As many as 60,000 students may enter the program at that time.
The program is facing a legal challenge, with opponents (including Americans United) arguing that it violates provisions of the state constitution. Last March Leon County Circuit Judge Ralph Smith agreed and declared the program a violation of the Florida Constitution. However, Smith later ruled that he will allow the program to continue while an appeal goes forward.
Idaho Christian Coalition Disavows Voter Guide In Judicial Race
The leadership of Idaho's Christian Coalition has disavowed a controversial voter guide that quizzed candidates for the state supreme court on their religious views.
The Coalition produced the guide and delivered thousands of copies to conservative churches in Idaho, but officials with the group now say they have asked churches to discard the guides and not hand them out. "This guide is not the official guide of the Idaho Christian Coalition," David Ferdinand, a member of the group's board of directors, told the Idaho Statesman in Boise.
The guide was based on a 31-question survey that the Coalition distributed to several political hopefuls recently, including to two candidates for the state supreme court. Questions on the survey included: "Do God's Laws or Natural Laws have a high [sic] authority than laws enacted by the United States Congress or the Idaho Legislature?"; "Do you agree that the United States Constitution is Christian-based?"; "Does hell exist as described in the Bible?"; "Do you believe in the fact that God created all the heavens, earth, creatures, plants and man?"; "Do you believe that God inspired the writing of the United States Constitution?"; "Vis a vis abortion, are you 'Pro-Life'?" and "Will you approve the displaying of the Ten Commandments in your court room?".
Incumbent Justice Kathy Silak refused to fill out the questionnaire, saying it would be unethical for her to state her views on issues that might come before the court. "It is very important to keep church matters and state matters separated because when they start to become mixed, government starts interfering with religion," said Silak, a Roman Catholic.
But her opponent, state Judge Daniel Eismann, an evangelical Christian who has been courting the Religious Right, filled out the survey and sent it back.
Eismann later told reporters that he saw no problem with giving his views on numerous social issues. During the campaign, he has stated his anti-abortion views upfront, lauded the Ten Commandments and said he has studied evolution and concluded that "you can prove scientifically that evolution has not and cannot occur."
Americans United and other organizations were quick to criticize the Coalition. In a May 10 press release, Americans United called the survey "an outrageous stunt that smacks of the Inquisition."
As the controversy escalated, the Coalition tried furiously to distance itself from its own voter guide. Ferdinand told the Associated Press that the questionnaire was compiled by a volunteer named Matt Roetter and claimed that he did not know what person or organization paid for their printing.
AU asserted that the Coalition is simply trying to cover up its misdeeds and said that the organization's claim that voter guides were compiled, printed and distributed in the group's name but without its knowledge is too fantastic to believe.
Complicating matters, Kelly Walton, the former head of the Idaho Christian Coalition, told Boise television station KTVB May 14 that the guides are appropriate and will be distributed through churches after all.
Walton promised to distribute the guides in "every conservative, evangelical, Catholic and Mormon church in the state." Walton said he would distribute the guides through a separate group called the American Conservative Coalition, even though they still carry the name of the Christian Coalition.
Meanwhile, a lawyer in Coeur d'Alene has asked the Idaho Judicial Council, which oversees the state's judges, to investigate the matter. Scott Reed charges that Eismann violated the law by disclosing how he would vote on matters that may come before the court.
Silak has also filed a separate complaint, asserting that a Pennsylvania firm has been conducting a telephone campaign against her under the guise of legitimate polling. Such "push polling" is illegal under Idaho law. Eismann said he did not authorize the push poll and told reporters he supports Silak's complaint.
In other news about the Christian Coalition:
* Coalition President Pat Robertson has put GOP presidential hopeful George W. Bush on notice that U.S. Sen. John McCain would not be a suitable running mate. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" May 7, Robertson said the decision was up to Bush but added, "I was saying to folks back in the green room, I said, 'If Bush would like to have somebody screaming curses at him about three times a week at the other end of the White House, then McCain is his man.' I think other than that, if he wants harmony in his official family, I think he might look elsewhere."
Robertson added that he would be "very concerned" if McCain were vice president, adding, "I don't think he would make a good president." Robertson implied that McCain is not stable enough to have his "hand on the nuclear trigger."
Continued Robertson, "This is very dangerous. Can you imagine dealing with our foreign powers and you get mad and fly off the handle? It could be very dangerous. And I'm serious. It would be very dangerous. And I think we should have balanced leaders."
Robertson's comments indicate that he is still angry at McCain for attacking him during the primaries. During a Feb. 28 speech in Virginia Beach, McCain called Robertson and TV preacher Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance" and said the Republican Party should stop kowtowing to them.
Bush is laboring to keep both men happy. During a May 9 press conference in Pittsburgh, where McCain endorsed Bush, Bush was asked if he would repudiate Robertson's assertion that McCain is "dangerous." Bush declined to do so.
An anonymous source later told The Washington Times that McCain was "upset" over Bush's refusal, saying, "We felt that Gov. Bush missed a real opportunity to repudiate Pat Robertson's vicious attacks against Sen. McCain. He is tacitly endorsing [those] comments."
Rep. DeLay Attacks Church-State Separation
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) attacked the Supreme Court's rulings on church-state separation, promoted voucher subsidies for religious schools and touted school prayer during a May 4 speech at the National Press Club.
In a speech devoted to "cultural renewal," DeLay, an aggressive Religious Right-style conservative known by the nickname "the Hammer," accused "a fashionable elite" of declaring war on "our nation's founding principles." According to DeLay, this elite, centered in universities, the media and the legal profession, seeks to drive religion from public life.
"We must resist the growing hostility to religion in our public schools, a hostility that the left pursues in the name of religious neutrality," DeLay said. "And we must restore respect for the many gifts of religious faith in our private and in our public lives."
The "fashionable elite," DeLay said, lauds flag burning and nude dancing but opposes prayers before football games. He asserted that morality cannot exist outside of religion and insisted that "in schools, public assistance offices, in our public spaces, the new intolerance has meant a purge of religion from public life."
DeLay added, "Next January, I believe that a newly elected Republican president, working with an expanded GOP majority in Congress, will together share a small window, just a small window, of promise to begin renewing America's culture....Under a renewal partnership, I predict that next year Congress and the president will start clearing up two decades of confusing court decisions governing religion in our schools."
DeLay's remedies include broadly based legislation requiring the government to give funding to religion alongside secular programs. Such aid would include vouchers and other forms of tax aid to religious schools. Failure to do so, DeLay asserted, is discrimination.
"If a Catholic school wanted to participate in a program to provide computers to the classroom," he said, "it could do so without the need of a full-time federal police presence to make sure none of the computers were used to seek out religious material."
DeLay also called for a federal law requiring public schools to cease discriminating "against religious expression." According to DeLay, this would mean that students could pray voluntarily in schools and incorporate religious themes into their class work.
Asked to comment on DeLay's speech by news reporters, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said it reflected "unparalleled ignorance." Lynn said the First Amendment already protects voluntary religious expression in public schools so new laws are unnecessary. DeLay's support for vouchers, Lynn said, is really a call for demolishing the public school system and forcing all Americans to pay taxes to support sectarian institutions.
Ky. Lawmaker Sneaks Funds Into Budget For Cross Lighting
A Kentucky legislator relied on subterfuge to quietly slip a $50,000 appropriation into a larger budget bill to use state funds to light a 95-foot cross overlooking the Mississippi River.
Sen. Bob Leeper (R-Paducah) inserted a provision into a bill funding more than 700 projects statewide. Leeper's line item said the money would be used for "completion of construction and lighting of Ft. Jefferson State Park at Wickliffe."
There's only one problem: There is no "Ft. Jefferson State Park" in Kentucky. There was once a Fort Jefferson, but it was abandoned in 1781. The site, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, now features a 95-foot metal cross erected by a private group on property leased to it by the city of Wickliffe.
State Rep. Charles Geveden (D-Wickliffe), who also worked to get the state funding, said, "It's kind of a touristy attraction up there."
Wickliffe Mayor Syl Mayolo said last year that the display is supposed to be "non-denominational." Asked how a cross could be non-denominational, Mayolo would only say that people are free to interpret it as they wish.
Leeper took a similar line. Asked by the Associated Press if a cross is non-denominational, Leeper replied, "I'm not a theologian. I don't know." Leeper also claimed that the reference to the cross being in a state park was a mistake.
The State-Journal in Frankfort was not convinced. "Come on, senator," the paper editorialized. "Somebody had to come up with 'Ft. Jefferson State Park,' and we seriously doubt it was an overzealous or misguided legislative bill drafter. Rather, it was a deliberate and successful misrepresentation in order to gain $50,000 in public money for a privately-owned religious shrine. To his great shame, Gov. Paul Patton declined to use his line item budget veto power to stop this fraudulent appropriation, leaving the responsibility to the courts once again to uphold the separation of state and religion in Kentucky."
Rep. Kathy Stein, the state's lone Jewish lawmaker (and an Americans United member), was not amused by the shenanigans. "A cross and they're saying it's non-denominational and non-sectarian," she said. "How far can they go and still say that with a straight face?"
Stein said she is particularly dismayed that the religious subsidy is planned for a historic site named for Thomas Jefferson, one of the staunchest church-state separationists in American history.
"Isn't it interesting, here we are using his name in the budget to light a Christian cross," she said. "I am absolutely appalled."
Ariz. School Tax Credit Benefits Mostly Well Off, Newspaper Reports
Arizona's new tax credit for education has proved to be a boon to wealthy parents who already have their children enrolled in exclusive private schools or well funded public schools, in some cases helping those parents take tax write-offs for sending their children on class trips.
The Arizona Republic reported last month that the law, which was upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court in 1999, is widely used by well-off parents who "then claim it as a tax credit, disappointing schools hoping for a new source of cash."
The law allows parents to donate $200 to public schools or $500 to private schools and take the same amount off their taxes. It does not permit parents to donate money on behalf of their own children, but does allow them to earmark the money for another specific child. In the April 9 story, the Phoenix newspaper reported that many parents simply write checks earmarked for a friend's child, and then that child's parents return the favor.
The result is that some parents are sending their children to religious and other private schools at essentially state expense the operational equivalent of a voucher program. In 1999, private schools took in $13,315,172.
"This has turned into something so close to vouchers you almost can't tell the difference," admits Sen. John Huppenthal, a Republican and voucher supporter.
Meanwhile, public schools are finding that the program has not been the windfall they were led to believe it would be. While some poor districts have received donations, many others find that parents write checks to cover the cost of extra-curricular activities and then demand a receipt from the school. The school ends up with no extra money in its coffers and more administrative work to handle.
For example, Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan used her $200 credit to pay for the bulk of a $300 trip for her son to Catalina Island off the coast of California.
In Scottsdale, one school collected $150,242 in donations, but 98 percent of the money was claimed by parents as tax deductions. In Paradise Valley, assistant superintendent James DiCello noted that his district received $770,000 in donations but only on paper. $587,000 was quickly eaten up as tax credits, and the rest was nearly consumed by administrative costs. Said DiCello, "We're not any better off then we were before this legislation."
State officials have also admitted that they have no mechanism for tracking the program and making sure that money people claim was donated to schools actually ended up there. The newspaper reported that, "[F]ar more people claim they wrote checks to public schools than the schools actually report."
Mo. 'Wal-Mart' Charter School Under Fire For Wide-Ranging Problems
A Kansas City charter school run by a company founded by Wal-Mart heir John Walton may be forced to close after a state audit revealed numerous irregularities and financial problems.
The School Futures Research Foundation, a California-based company, is under fire for its operation of the Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology. The school was severely criticized in a report prepared by Central Missouri State University, which oversees the charter school for the state.
Auditors at the university found that the administration at Banneker had failed to provide financial information to its own board of directors and had experienced "persistent problems" paying staff and vendors. The school is reportedly $1 million in debt, and also stands accused of failing to do required criminal background checks on staff and of operating out of cramped, noisy quarters in a church basement.
A School Futures executive told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the group would move to solve the problems and noted that the principal, Esther Ritchey, has already been fired. However, Walter Ritchey, husband of the fired principal, said School Futures and not his wife is to blame for problems at the school. He told the newspaper that School Futures was late in paying bills and mishandled the school's finances. Esther Ritchey sued the firm, reaching an out-of-court settlement.
In other news about charter schools:
* A Missouri man is paying $15 per year to rent a vacant 24-acre state psychiatric center in St. Louis, part of which the state will then lease back from him for $200,000 per year for use by a charter school.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Gerald Beckerle says the deal is appropriate because he will have to renovate the site and fix crumbling buildings. Beckerle, who has set up a for-profit company to oversee the deal, plans to lease space to the St. Louis Charter School. Beckerle intends to use much of the remainder of the property for a soccer academy he hopes to found. Other buildings on site will be leased as well, and he plans to pay himself a salary out of the proceeds.
* A charter school in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., closed abruptly April 19, leaving 200 students without a school. REACH Charter High School closed after Education Commissioner David Hespe revoked its charter. It was the first charter school in New Jersey to be closed.
According to the Atlantic City Press, Hespe said he acted because the school was insolvent and plagued with problems. Education officials accused the school of failing to provide special-education services, not giving students the 150 minutes of health and physical education instruction per week mandated by state law, having no treasurer on its board, not maintaining student records properly and failing to enroll employees in state-mandated retirement funds and the Social Security System.
Prior deficiencies already noted by education officials included use of uncertified teachers, having an insufficient number of mentors and placement of students in unapproved grade levels.
State education officials said they expected that most of the school's former students would re-enroll in public schools.
AU, Allies Protest Official Prayer Days In Georgia, Florida
Americans United activists joined forces with like-minded organizations in Georgia and Florida to protest government observance of the National Day of Prayer last month.
In Cobb County, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, a protest organized by the Atlanta Chapter of Americans United received widespread media coverage. Chapter President Walter Bell organized the demonstration after government officials in Cobb County reneged on an earlier promise to stop sponsoring the annual religious event.
"The governments of Cobb County and Georgia must represent citizens of many different faiths, some Christian and some not," Bell said in a media statement. "It is inappropriate for government to endorse and promote a sectarian event of this nature. Promotion of religion is the job of our houses of worship, not the state."
Cobb officials sponsored a prayer breakfast May 4. It was coordinated by the county's Treasury Department, and various local officials attended. The keynote speaker was Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes (D). Bell noted that county employees sold tickets to the event and used government resources to promote it.
In 1998, Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia protested Cobb County's sponsorship of a similar prayer breakfast. At that time, Bill Byrne, chairman of the County Board of Commissioners, promised in a letter that the county would "no longer sponsor, financially support or otherwise endorse the event."
Bell organized a demonstration at the site of the prayer breakfast that received coverage on every local television station and in several newspapers. Other groups joining the protest include the ACLU of Georgia, the Atlanta Freethought Society, the Church-State Network of Georgia, Citizens for the Middle Ground, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Georgia Rural-Urban Summit, the Greater Atlanta Interfaith Alliance, the National Council of Jewish Women-Atlanta Section and People For the American Way Foundation.
In Florida, the Tampa Bay Chapter of Americans United adopted a resolution chastising Gov. Jeb Bush for issuing a Prayer Day proclamation inviting "all residents to pray with diligence and obedience and seek the face of Almighty God." Calling Bush's action "an egregious violation of the principle of separation of church and state," the chapter asked the governor to "keep your religious beliefs out of our state government."
At the national level, Congress marked the National Day of Prayer with an event on Capitol Hill that featured Christian clergy and one conservative Jewish rabbi. The event this year was again coordinated by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private organization run by Shirley Dobson, wife of radio counselor and Religious Right activist James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family.
Days before the event, Americans United criticized the task force for issuing materials replete with historical errors and slanted analysis of Supreme Court decisions.
Americans United also charged that the event has been taken over by Religious Right forces, who use it to promote a faulty "Christian nation" view of the United States. Defending the Christian character of the day, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ told Religion News Service, "It would dilute the meaning of this meeting if we just made this a religious gathering instead of a Christian gathering. It's not being selfish. It's not being prejudiced. It's simply being faithful to our heritage."