Charitable Choice 'Avalanche' Moving In Congress
Five separate bills with "charitable choice" provisions that entangle church and state are moving in Congress this session.
"It's an avalanche," said Julie Segal, Americans United's legislative counsel. She encouraged all AU members to contact their senators and representatives to voice opposition to measures that would inappropriately give tax funding to religious groups to supply social services.
In the Senate, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Reauthorization Act will be considered. Similarly, the Senate's Judiciary Committee is weighing juvenile justice legislation that includes charitable choice provisions.
The Senate may also take up a bill, known as the Charitable Choice Expansion Act, that would allow tax aid to religious groups across a spectrum of programs. The measure is being pushed by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.).
The House is considering some legislation of its own that features charitable choice, including the American Community Renewal Act and the Older Americans Act, the latter of which is also being considered in the Senate.
AU's Segal noted that members can keep up to date on the progress of these bills and other church-state legislation by visiting AU's website.
Supreme Court Skips Hare Krishna Soliciting Case
The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand a lower court ruling that restricts Hare Krishnas from soliciting donations and selling their materials at Miami International Airport.
On Feb. 22, the Court dismissed without comment ISKCON Miami v. Metropolitan Dade County. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness had argued that the restrictions on selling religious materials in the airport's terminals violated the First Amendment free speech rights of the group, an American offshoot of Hinduism.
The ruling is consistent with a 1992 Supreme Court decision that said airports can forbid solicitations but may not prohibit distribution of free literature. Attorneys for the religious group argued that the 1992 ruling should be revisited in light of the increasing commercialization of airport terminals.
House Exempts Amish Children From Labor Laws
The House of Representatives has created an exemption in federal child-labor laws to allow Amish teenagers to work in sawmills.
The new law makes it legal for Amish teenagers to work limited hours in woodworking settings, so long as they do not directly operate mechanical equipment. H.R. 221 passed the House March 2 and was sent to the Senate for consideration.
Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), the bill's chief sponsor, said the measure recognizes the Amish tradition of apprenticeship.
"The Amish view this work as part of their schooling," Pitts said. "The regulations have severely threatened the lifestyle and religion of this humble community."
The bill was not without opponents. Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.) said that the "inexperience, small size and lack of maturity" of minors makes the religious exemption potentially dangerous.
Wisconsin Weighs 'Charitable Choice' Aid To Religion
A Wisconsin proposal to allow "charitable choice" aid to churches to help with crime prevention is meeting with concern from civil liberties groups, including Americans United.
The state legislature has created a task force on the matter, known as the Special Committee on Faith Based Appropriations to Crime Prevention and Justice, with members of the panel coming from the State Senate, Assembly and concerned citizens.
The committee, led by State Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R), is responsible for developing recommendations and priorities for public funding of religious groups on matters of criminal justice.
In testimony before the committee March 11, Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green emphasized the importance of church-state safeguards to protect the rights of taxpayers, as well as the religious freedom of clients receiving the social services. He added that the charitable choice model passed by Congress as part of the Welfare Reform Act is "untested and of questionable constitutionality."
Idaho Christian Coalition Opposes Immunization Plan
An Idaho bill that would create a statewide registry for child immunizations is facing a serious challenge from the state's Christian Coalition.
Jim Hawkins, who recently retired as director of the state's Department of Commerce, is leading Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's effort to improve child health care by making vaccinations more common in a state that ranks 49th in child immunization.
Some religious groups, joined by paramilitary and white separatist organizations, are concerned about government keeping their children's names on public lists.
"We're worried that the government wants to keep medical records on every man, woman and child, and we'll have no right to privacy," Nancy Bloomer, executive director of the Idaho Christian Coalition, told The New York Times.
The bill's supporters say those fears are unfounded. State Sen. Jack Riggs, a physician, noted that the legislation does not force parents to place their children's names on the registry. In fact, he explained that parents have to sign a form in order for their children's names to be added. Riggs added that almost all parents want vaccinations for their kids, but sometimes forget to do so.
"Once they're on a registry, they'll get a reminder phone call or postcard," Riggs said.
Idaho health officials have noted that low immunization rates have led to recent outbreaks of whooping cough, measles and rubella.
S.C. Fundamentalist School Bars Interracial Couple
State funding for a controversial fundamentalist Christian college in South Carolina is in jeopardy after an interracial couple was denied enrollment at the school due to their race.
Bob Jones University, whose students enjoy $450,000 in publicly funded scholarships, recently denied admission to an interracial couple from Alexandria, Va., explaining that "Bob Jones University does not endorse [interracial marriage]."
That prompted Sen. Darrell Jackson (D-Columbia) to sponsor legislation that would cut off state aid to any school that practices racial discrimination.
"When you send something in writing and say that because you are interracially married, the two of you cannot come together to this university, I have a problem with that," Jackson told The Greenville News.
Columbia's newspaper, The State, endorsed Jackson's proposal, saying, "the state has absolutely no business subsidizing the teaching of such views."
A spokesman for the Greenville-based university said lawmakers were aware of BJU's policies when they approved funding last year and wondered if the Alexandria couple applied intending to cause difficulties for the school.
Americans United urged the legislature not to subsidize BJU because the unaccredited school infuses its fundamentalist religious perspective throughout its operations.
Arizona Governor Drops 'Bible Week' Crusade
Three months after vowing to vigorously fight for her right to issue "Bible Week" proclamations, Arizona Gov. Jane Hull (R) has changed her mind.
Hull announced on Feb. 26 that she was backing off earlier statements, and in the interest of ending the divisive nature of the controversy, would no longer endorse Bible Week.
"I'm not going to issue a proclamation that says that I'm going to acknowledge...Bible Week," Hull told The Arizona Republic. "I want to bring people together. I don't want to divide them."
In November, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal suit against Hull after she issued a Bible Week proclamation. At the time, she vowed to vigorously fight the case with the help of Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, even after U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver issued an injunction against her proclamation. With her about-face on the issue, the matter appears to be closed.
On a similar matter, Gilbert Mayor Cynthia Dunham continues to face an ACLU challenge to her Bible Week proclamation. However, after Hull's announcement, a spokesman for Robertson's ACLJ, which is lending legal assistance to Dunham, said negotiations were under way for a settlement.
Pope John Paul II Meets With Iranian President
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami became the highest-ranking Islamic official ever to visit the Vatican when he met with Pope John Paul II on March 11.
After their private meeting, described by a Vatican spokesman as "cordial," both displayed admiration for one another. Khatami, a Muslim cleric, was quoted as saying, "At the end of my visit to Italy and after this meeting with you, I return to my country full of hope for the future."
Iran and the Vatican have worked together in the past including a discussion in 1996 between the head of Vatican Radio and Iran's state-run radio service on a campaign to combat immorality. The two have also teamed up at United Nations events to oppose abortion rights and population control programs.
Also in March, John Paul II urged the U.S. bishops to campaign against abortion despite public disapproval. In a letter to the bishops, the pope said, "At the end of the 20th century, we are witnessing a strange paradox: the sanctity of human life is being denied by an appeal to freedom, democracy, pluralism, even reason and compassion....Words have become unmoored from their meaning, and we are left with a rhetoric in which the language of life is used to promote the culture of death."
Catholics And Protestants Demand Equal Rights In Greece
Religious leaders of the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities of Greece are demanding the same liberties the government extends to followers of the Greek Orthodox Church, the nation's officially approved religion.
Legal curbs were initially imposed on minority churches during Greece's 1936-37 dictatorship, including a requirement that military officers be Greek Orthodox and a requirement that Orthodox bishops give permission before a house of worship can be built.
"Orthodoxy is the church of the state, so non-Orthodox are considered incompletely Greek," Catholic Archbishop Nikolaos Foscolos of Athens told Ecumenical News International.