Ed. Department Must Protect Rights, Says Americans United
The U.S. Education Department should explicitly prohibit religious discrimination in after-school programs, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State and its allies.
To implement the "No Child Left Behind" Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in January, the Department of Education prepared guidelines for non-governmental organizations, including religious groups, that receive direct public funding to provide after-school services for students.
When Congress passed the law, Americans United and other groups successfully sought to include civil rights protections in the legislation that would have forbid religious discrimination in publicly funded programs. The Department of Education's proposed rules to carry out the law, however, were silent on civil rights.
In a March 1 letter to Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, Americans United and 28 other organizations argued that "the guidance, in its current form, omits critical information on civil rights standards" that are part of the law.
"Congress inserted explicit civil rights language into the 'No Child Left Behind Act of 2001,'" the letter said. "These civil rights protections were essential, given the structure of these programs, in which nongovernmental groups would be contracting with government to perform educational services.... The exclusion of these civil rights protections in the guidance is very troubling, and hopefully an oversight."
In subsequent meetings with officials from the Department of Education, the groups were told the omission was a mistake, and that the guidelines would be corrected.
Oklahoma School Chaplaincy Program Sparks AU Protest
An Oklahoma's public school district's policy of allowing ministers to serve as "school chaplains" has generated a complaint from Americans United.
Earlier this year, Jim Haynes, superintendent of schools in Commerce, Okla., endorsed a proposal from Baptist pastor Billy Bissell to institute a chaplaincy program in the district's public schools to be known as the Commerce Area Ministerial Alliance Chaplaincy Program.
The Commerce school board voted to approve the project in October and issued a resolution that "encouraged" individual school administrators to "make use of the services offered" by the pastors.
According to a report in Oklahoma's Baptist Messenger, the program will involve pastors from six Commerce-area churches spending time in public schools, offering counseling to students and teachers during the school day.
Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United, wrote to school district officials in March, insisting that the program is "constitutionally improper."
"Courts have approved public chaplaincy programs only in extremely limited contexts, such as in prisons and on military bases," Khan wrote. "The use of chaplains in these situations has been upheld because individuals would otherwise be unable to practice their religions because of the restrictions on their movement in these environments. This is not true of students or of teachers, who are easily able to access clergy members and religious facilities in their communities."
Private School Vouchers Get Little Support In New Poll
A new poll reflects widespread disapproval for private school vouchers across ethnic and racial lines.
The survey, conducted by the Teachers' Insurance Plan and released to the public March 14, shows that nearly two-thirds of respondents said they do not want a national school voucher program that would fund private school tuition with tax dollars.
The report broke down support for the controversial scheme among several demographic groups, and each segment of the population rejected vouchers by wide margins.
Overall, only 39 percent of African Americans approved of the creation of a national voucher plan. Support was even lower among white and Hispanic Americans, where support was measured at 34 percent.
Over 60 percent of African Americans indicated they would prefer more funding for public schools instead of vouchers. Similar results were found among whites and Hispanics.
When asked their top priority for improving the nation's schools, a mere six percent of white and Hispanic Americans listed vouchers. Only one percent of African Americans ranked vouchers as their top choice.
The report, however, was not entirely good news for First Amendment advocates. Though vouchers have been attacked as a violation of religious liberty, the Teachers' Insurance Plan poll showed this issue was less important with the public. Nearly four of five respondents said religious schools should be included if a voucher plan were to be implemented.
Massachusetts Attorney General Wants To Help Pick Priests
Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly has asked Boston's Roman Catholic Archdiocese for unprecedented influence over the way the church selects priests.
The beleaguered Boston Archdiocese, led by Cardinal Bernard F. Law, has been embroiled in a devastating scandal involving accusations of sexual abuse by as many as 90 priests over the last half-century. Considering what he called the "shocking and appalling" extent of the abuse and the subsequent cover-up by church officials, Reilly has said he believes the state should have a role in how the church chooses its clergy and how those religious leaders interact with children.
According to a report in the Boston Globe, Reilly foresees his office regulating the "recruitment, selection, training, and monitoring of priests."
Many local legal experts believe the state maintaining a role in regulating the internal affairs of a religious group such as the hiring and training of clergy violates the First Amendment's separation of church and state.
"[Reilly] sees a problem the public is interested in and he's going at it with both feet," John H. Garvey, the dean of Boston College Law School, told the Globe. "You've got to admire him for that. Maybe for an attorney general, not knowing when to stop is a good quality. But I think he has to stop somewhere short of this."
Reilly acknowledged that he was pushing the envelope by involving the attorney general's office in church employment decisions, but doesn't see a constitutional problem.
"We have the authority," Reilly told the Globe. When pressed by newspaper editors to explain his legal authority in this area, he declined to elaborate.
Colorado Legislative Prayer Causes Controversy
The Colorado State Senate's tradition of inviting guest chaplains to deliver morning invocations turned divisive in March, when a Pentecostal minister used his time at the dais to pray for a ban on abortions.
The Rev. David Meek, pastor of the Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church in Greeley, Colo., offered prayers to "Lord Jesus" that the state "reverse the Roe v. Wade so we can stop the killing and murder of the innocent little babies." Meek also expressed surprise during his sermon at the number of women who had been elected to the legislature.
Meek's remarks prompted a bi-partisan group of six senators to leave the chamber in protest.
"That was more than a prayer, that was a soapbox," Sen. Stephanie Takis (D-Aurora) told the Rocky Mountain News. "He was discussing policy issues that had no place in a prayer format."
Colorado Senate Secretary Karen Goldman said Meek had been instructed in advance to respect the diversity of the lawmakers. Like all guest chaplains, Meek was paid $25 for his time.
'Jesus Is Lord' Signs Proliferate In Louisiana
The debate over whether a Louisiana town can honor Christianity on government-posted signs may be over, but the religious push has shifted from public to private property.
In July, officials in Franklinton, La., posted four road signs around the small town that said, "Jesus Is Lord Over Franklinton." The signs prompted the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union to file suit. Fearing a court defeat, the signs were removed from public roadways.
In response to the lawsuit, however, local residents have taken to placing signs of their own on their lawns that proclaim: "God Is Lord Over All." An Associated Press report estimated that over a thousand of the signs have appeared on residential and commercial property in the town of 4,000.
"There was sort of an outcry from the Christian community," the Rev. Gene Richards, pastor of Hill Crest Baptist Church, told the AP. "It seems the ACLU is trying to de-Christianize the community."
Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU, rejects the criticism.
"If (the signs) are on private property and people want to make a statement, then that's freedom of expression," Cook said. "Let the words fly."
Irish Voters Reject Anti-Abortion Amendment
Voters in Ireland have rejected an anti-abortion referendum by the narrowest of margins.
On March 7, a proposed constitutional amendment tightening the ban on abortion was voted down, 50.42 percent to 49.58 percent, a total difference of about 10,000 votes out of 1.2 million ballots cast.
The proposed amendment was not a traditional ban on the reproductive choice. Ireland's Constitution already guarantees a "right to life" to the unborn, and abortions are forbidden even in cases of rape or incest. Physicians are permitted to perform abortions, however, if the pregnant woman would otherwise die.
The referendum, backed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, sought to close a potential loophole in the law by rejecting the threat of suicide as a justifiable basis for a legal abortion.
Hindu, Muslim Conflict Erupts In India
Indian Muslims attacked a train carrying Hindus in March, killing 58 and touching off several days of intense interfaith violence.
In 1992, a mosque was razed in Ayodhya, touching off the most violent religious riots since India's creation 1947. Indian Hindus are committed to building a temple at the site of the mosque's destruction, and this year's train attack was carrying Hindus back from the site where construction is scheduled to begin this spring.
For a week after the train strike, hundreds died in street riots, most of whom were Muslims.
In a New York Times report, Muslim residents said the Indian government did little to stop the religiously motivated mob violence.
"The government left them free to do whatever they wanted," one of the Muslim survivors told the Times.
Anglican Leader Seeks Help From British Government
Because the cost of maintaining its historic churches is becoming burdensome, the Church of England is seeking funding from the government.
In March, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey appealed to the British government to relieve the church of its "crushing burden."
"It is scandalous that we have to pay so much for buildings we have inherited on behalf of the nation," Carey to the Archbishop's Council. "We are not able to serve as effectively because of it."
Church estimates suggest that 16 percent of the Church of England's budget goes towards maintaining its buildings, some of which date back centuries.