September 2001 Church & State | AU Bulletin

Creationism Push In Congress Sparks Controversy

The U.S. Senate has approved a little-noticed amendment to an education bill intended to promote discussion of creationism in public schools.

On June 13, the Senate voted 91-8 to support Amendment 799 by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), urging public schools that teach evolution to "help students to understand why the subject generates so much continuing controversy."

The amendment is non-binding, but critics say it is an effort to slip creationism into the curriculum. The language was drafted in part by Phillip Johnson, a California law professor and vigorous advocate of "intelligent design," the latest variant of the creationism movement.

Although wary senators watered down Johnson's proposal before it was approved as part of the education bill (S.1), many believe it still sets a bad precedent by suggesting that evolutionary biology is controversial.

"There is an aggressive campaign under way to inject religious dogma into public school science classes," remarked the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Congress should not encourage this crusade, even indirectly."

The House version of the education bill a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed earlier this year and does not contain the language of the Santorum amendment. House and Senate conferees are meeting now to reconcile the two versions of the bill.

AU's Lynn called on conference committee members to remove the Senate provision before sending the bill to the White House for consideration.

Senator Demands Restoration Of 'So Help Me God' Oath

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (R) has accused Democrats running the Senate of slighting the Almighty by omitting the phrase "So help me God" when swearing in witnesses.

Sessions, a staunch Religious Right ally, launched into an attack against Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Aug. 2, during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sessions had compiled a list of recent witnesses before the committee who were sworn in without being asked to recite the religious component of the oath.

"Ninety-five percent of the people believe in God," Sessions said. "An invocation of His name, in conjunction with the seriousness of telling the truth, has an importance beyond mere legal requirement."

Leahy said he reads the swearing-in oath from a card and was not aware that "So help me God" has sometimes been omitted. He promised to make certain it is included from now on.

Clearly irritated that Sessions was exploiting the issue for political purposes, Leahy said, "If anyone is suggesting that this Irish-Italian-Catholic chairman of the Judiciary Committee is against religion, they are either biased or totally ignorant of my background."

Faith-Based Group Under Investigation Wins HUD Contract

A Washington, D.C., faith-based organization has struck a multi-million dollar deal with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) despite being under investigation for political fundraising irregularities.

In February, the D.C. inspector general's office began looking into the Church Association for Community Services after media reports surfaced alleging that aides to Mayor Anthony Williams (D) collected contributions for the group but used the funds for mayoral activities.

According to The Washington Post, the investigation will also examine $100,000 in donations made to the faith-based group that were used to subsidize Williams' expenses at the 2000 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and the reception for the mayor held by the Congressional Black Caucus last fall.

Despite the official inquiries into the group's financial affairs, HUD announced in July that the agency would sell 300 foreclosed properties to the Church Association group, which would then renovate the homes and sell them to low-income families below market value. The appraised value of the homes involved in the deal is over $14 million.

At a press event announcing the deal, reporters questioned Williams about the church group's new deal with the investigation still pending.

"I believe [HUD] would not be partnering in the program unless the church association will provide good management controls," Williams said.

Alabama 'Ten Commandments' Judge Strikes Again

Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who won national notoriety by erecting a Ten Commandments display in his courtroom as a state judge, has taken his crusade to the state's highest court.

On July 31 Moore called a press conference to unveil a four-foot high Ten Commandments monument weighing in excess of 5,000 pounds in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building in Montgomery. In brief remarks, Moore said, "It is axiomatic that to restore morality, we must first recognize the source from which all morality springs. From our earliest history in 1776, when we were declared to be the United States of America, our forefathers recognized the sovereignty of God."

Moore first gained national attention in 1996 when, as circuit judge in Etowah County, he refused to remove a hand-carved Ten Commandments plaque from his courtroom. A lawsuit challenging the display went to the Alabama high court, which dismissed it on technical grounds. Moore became a hero to the Religious Right and last year used that notoriety to win election as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Americans United and the Alabama affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union are exploring the possibility of a legal challenge against the display. Look for more details in the October Church & State.

N.Y. Teacher Who Prayed With Students Loses Case

A New York teacher who was fired after praying and laying her hands on the foreheads of her sixth-grade students has lost her federal lawsuit against the local board of education.

Mildred Rosario, a Pentecostal teacher from the Bronx, became a cause c\xe9l\xe8bre for the Religious Right in June 1998 when she was dismissed from her teaching position. At the time, students in her class began making religious inquiries after one of their fellow students died in a drowning accident. Instead of encouraging the children to discus religious concerns with their parents, Rosario invited the public school students to "accept Jesus" as their savior. Then, as Rosario explained in a statement, "I put my hand on [the students'] forehead asking Jesus to take care of them and their families."

When confronted by school officials, Rosario was recalcitrant and refused to promise such an incident would not occur again. This attitude, coupled with Rosario's record of poor teaching performance and absenteeism, led to her prompt dismissal.

Aided by the Rutherford Institute, Rosario sued the board of education, insisting the firing was motivated by an anti-Christian, anti-Puerto Rican bias. On June 27, a New York jury rejected her claim, concluding that the board was justified in its decision.

Seventh-day Adventist College Gets State Aid In Maryland

A federal appeals court has ruled that a Seventh-day Adventist college in Maryland is eligible for state funding.

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously June 25 that Maryland officials did not sufficiently prove that aid to Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Md., would violate church-state separation.

"We recognize the sensitivity of this issue and respect the constitutional imperative for government not to impermissibly advance religious interests," wrote Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III in the Columbia Union College v. Oliver ruling. Nevertheless, by refusing to fund a religious institution because of religion, the government risks discriminating against a class of citizens solely because of faith."

Columbia Union applied for state aid in 1990 and filed a lawsuit in 1996 when it was denied. Religiously affiliated colleges can only receive government help if the aid is not used for religious activities. "Pervasively sectarian" schools those where secular instruction and faith are inextricably intertwined are ineligible for government assistance because it would inevitably advance religion. The state argued unsuccessfully that Columbia Union is a pervasively sectarian institution.

The appeals court ruling upholds a district court ruling issued last August.

Virginia Moment-Of-Silence Law For Schools Upheld

The Virginia legislature can require public schools to set aside 60 seconds each morning for students to "meditate, pray or engage in other silent activity," a federal appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on July 24 that a moment-of-silence law passed last year does not violate the First Amendment, despite the law's reference to "prayer."

"Virginia has introduced at most a minor and nonintrusive accommodation of religion," Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote in the 2-1 ruling in Brown v. Gilmore. "Just as this short period of quiet serves the religious interests of those students who wish to pray silently, it serves the secular interests of those who do not wish to do so."

Dissenting Judge Robert King, however, charged that the legislature "has engaged in a thinly veiled attempt to reintroduce state-sanctioned prayer into the schools."

The Virginia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the suit, has indicated it will appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

Christian Theme Park In Florida Must Pay Taxes

The owner of a Christian theme park has lost the first round in his fight to win tax-exempt status.

The Holy Land Experience opened in Orlando earlier this year to promote Christianity. Organizers applied for a property tax exemption, claiming that the park is an educational institution.

Bill Donegan, Orange County's property appraiser, disagreed. "I determined it was not exempt in that it was an's a business," Donegan said. "It's not a museum, it's not a school and it's not a church."

Marv Rosenthal, Holy Land's executive director, is considering taking the matter to court. "We think it's very inappropriate that a museum that teaches about science is tax-exempt but a museum that teaches about God isn't," he said.

The park's land will be taxed this year, but next year, the tax bill will include both land and buildings worth about $16 million. Taxes could total nearly $350,000.

French Sects Law Draws Criticism From Rights Advocates

The French government is under fire for a new law that cracks down on religious groups considered sects or cults.

Under the law approved by the French Parliament in May, government officials can ban religious groups considered cults and can stop them from changing their name and reorganizing. Officials can impose a fine and three-year prison sentence on religious group members who recruit new members by "abusing" a "state of ignorance or situation of weakness."

Critics say the law's ambiguities make abuse likely.

"Any religious education or proselytization can be suspect under the vague crime of 'abuse of a person's state of weakness,'" said Joseph K. Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.