June 2001 Church & State | AU Bulletin

High Court Skips Case On Churches As Landmarks

A California law that exempts houses of worship from local historic preservation regulations has successfully withstood court scrutiny.

On April 30, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not hear an appeal of East Bay Asian Local Development Corp. v. California. The case challenged a 1994 state statute that prevents local governments from enforcing preservation laws against property owned by religious groups under certain conditions.

The law was drafted after San Francisco preservationists protested a decision by the Roman Catholic archdiocese to close nine churches. Preservationist groups, hoping to see the churches declared historic landmarks, argued that the law exempting religious groups amounted to an unconstitutional form of state preference toward religion.

The preservationists won at a state district court in 1996, but last December the California Supreme Court overturned that decision by a 4-2 vote. The religious exemptions, the court ruled, "simply free the owners to use the property as they would have done had the property not been designated a historic landmark."

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to hear an appeal of the case allows the state court's ruling to stand, but it does not set a precedent for other states.

Florida Supreme Court Sidesteps School Voucher Case

The Florida Supreme Court has declined to weigh in on one aspect of the controversy surrounding the state's school voucher law, temporarily handing voucher supporters a procedural victory.

The justices voted 4-1 on April 24 not to hear an appeal of a lawsuit against the voucher plan based on the claim that it violates Article IX, Sec.1 of the Florida Constitution. That provision declares that the maintenance of an "efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools" is "a paramount duty of the state."

A coalition of groups including Americans United, the Florida Education Association, the NAACP and the Florida PTA challenged vouchers shortly after they became law in 1999. In March 2000, State Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. agreed with AU and the other groups and struck down the plan. However, Smith's ruling was overturned by a state appellate court last October.

The Florida Supreme Court's inaction on Holmes v. Bush does not end the controversy. Instead, the case will return to the district court, which will now determine if the plan violates church-state separation and state constitutional provisions that require public education to be uniform and of high quality.

"[The ruling] is a setback," said Ron Meyer, a lawyer representing voucher opponents. "It's not a fatal blow."

Florida's voucher system, the first statewide program passed in the nation, was the centerpiece of Gov. Jeb Bush's education program. The plan funds $4,000 vouchers for students at public schools deemed "failing."

Religious Right Opposes Anti-Bullying Measure In Oregon

Legislation designed to curb bullying in Washington's public schools stalled after Religious Right activists charged that the bill was designed to promote gay rights.

The bill would have required public school districts to create policies against harassment, bullying and intimidation and would have mandated that school employees and volunteers receive training in bullying prevention.

According to a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Religious Right activists successfully lobbied against the measure, insisting that it would block the right of students to condemn homosexuality.

"It looked like it could be [used against] people who might speak out against behavior," said Rick Forcier, director of the Christian Coalition of Washington. "We don't want to see kids beat up on, and we would like to see the rules that are already in place enforced. But I think this one went well beyond what we think is necessary."

Supporters of the measure believe those concerns were unfounded. "We tried to take every red flag out of that bill that we could that would make conservatives think that," Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell) told the Post-Intelligencer. "We [wrote] it so it did not protect any group, it protected all kids."

The bill passed the State Senate by a 36-24 tally but never reached the House floor for a vote. Rep. Dave Quall (D-Mount Vernon) pushed the measure as co-chairman of the House Education Committee but couldn't get a vote without his GOP counterpart's approval.

The bill received support from Gov. Gary Locke (D), Attorney General Christine Gregoire, state police groups, the Washington Parent-Teacher Association and the Washington Education Association.

Alabama Legislature Considers Ten Commandments

If Alabama State Rep. Ken Guin (D-Cardon Hill) is successful, an amendment to the state Constitution to permit postings of the Ten Commandments in public schools and government buildings is about to get a lot worse.

The Alabama lawmaker has launched a crusade to greatly expand the proposed amendment, which he says doesn't go "far enough." Many believe Guin's effort is part of a clever scheme to defeat the Ten Commandments measure.

According to a report in the Birmingham News, Guin's proposal would not only allow the Commandments to be posted in schools, but also authorize state employees to "meet, pray and read holy scriptures" in the work place and post religious writings, paintings and symbols in common spaces in all of the state's public buildings. The proposal passed the House Elections Committee, which Guin chairs, by a 10-3 vote in May.

Guin readily admits that his proposal is unconstitutional but said he's "tired of the legislature being lukewarm." In fact, he argues that if his colleagues were serious about promoting religion, they would follow his lead.

"We're passing something that is unconstitutional," Guin said. "If we're going to do that, we may as well put it all out there." He added that the legislature should also authorize public buildings to post biblical proverbs, the teachings of Jesus and the Golden Rule.

Supporters of government endorsement of the Ten Commandments suspect Guin's amendment is part of a ruse. Dean Young, executive director of the Alabama Family Association and a long-time advocate of government support for the Decalogue, believes Guin's measure represents "a stunt to slow down or kill" the proposal.

"He's been consistent about trying to stop the Ten Commandments from being voted on," Young told the News. "The consequences for Guin will be great. He will feel them at the ballot box when he is up for election."

Fla. House Approves School Prayer Law, But Senate Demurs

Florida's State House passed a controversial school prayer measure, only to see the bill die before action could proceed in the state Senate.

On April 25, the Florida House approved HB 1199 on an 84-29 vote. The measure would have permitted prayer at high school graduations, athletic events and other official school gatherings.

Lawmakers of minority faiths aggressively fought the bill, arguing that the proposal runs afoul of church-state separation. "Please let us remember prayer is a private matter between the individual or congregation and God," said Rep. Mark Weissman, (D-Deerfield Beach). "It is simply not in the province of the Florida legislature."

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Mike Hogan (R-Jacksonville), who sees prayer as the answer to societal problems. "I began every day with the Pledge of Allegiance and prayers," Hogan said. "I don't recall mass murders in schools, rape in schools."

The Florida Senate, however, hardly considered the issue, and no companion bill to the House measure was introduced. The legislature completed its session May 4 without action on the prayer bill in the Senate.

A similar bill passed both chambers of the Florida legislature in 1996, but the bill was vetoed by then Gov. Lawton Chiles (D).

Michigan Inmate Fails To Win 'Supernatural' Status

A federal district court has rejected a lawsuit by a Michigan prison inmate who asked to be treated as a god, calling the case "delusional."

Chad Gabriel DeKoven, a convicted armed robber, had filed suit seeking a full pardon, public acknowledgement of his claim to be king of the Jews and an end to strife in the Middle East. DeKoven, who called himself "Messiah God," also requested trees, animals, precious metals, full-time personal attendants and a return of all U.S. military employees stationed overseas.

On April 26, U.S. District Court Judge David M. Lawson dismissed DeKoven v. Bell as "devoid of merit," Religion News Service reported. Though Lawson said his court would not take lightly "the claims of any litigant, even those whose contentions appear fantastic and baseless on their surface," the judge said DeKoven had no First Amendment right to be treated as "Messiah-God or any other holy, extra-worldly or supernatural being of power."

French Government Proposes Greater Control Over Religion

Proposed government regulations that may lead to strict controls over minority faith traditions in France have raised the ire of many religious groups.

Adopted in separate forms by the French Senate and National Assembly, the measures would establish new restrictions on proselytizing and punish religious groups that violate vague personal "liberties."

Although the efforts have drawn criticism from the Vatican and the United States government, French officials have proceeded undeterred. "In Europe, we're more likely to consider that fundamental liberties should have fixed, legal limits," said Denis Barthelemy, secretary-general of the Interministerial Mission on Combating Sects, a French government task force. "We support the right to enter a religion, but also the right to leave it, and the right for individuals who have been swindled to claim reparations."

The French government has closely followed the activities of religious minorities since the suicides of 16 members of an apocalyptic cult known as the Order of the Solar Temple in 1994.

Indian Officials Ban Meat In State Guesthouses

Several official guesthouses throughout India have become meat free for one year in honor of the founder of the Jainist religion.

Officials in Gujarat state said the decision to ban nonvegetarian meals in the state-run guesthouses, effective May 1, has been instituted to pay homage to Lord Mahavir, who founded Jainism in the sixth century B.C. "The ban has been ordered as a mark of respect to Lord Mahavir, whose 2,600th anniversary is being observed throughout the country," said H.P. Jamdar, the state's principal secretary for roads and buildings.

According to Religion News Service, the ban will go into effect throughout Gujarat, which is governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The restriction on meat will join the existing prohibition on alcohol in guesthouses, created to honor Mohandas Gandhi, who opposed alcohol consumption.