Supreme Court Ducks Religious School Voucher Cases
Indicating an unwillingness to make sweeping changes in current law, the Supreme Court refused Oct. 12 to hear four important church-state cases-including a pair of conflicts from Maine dealing with voucher subsidies for religious schools.
The Court's inaction was a victory for church-state separationists, particularly on the voucher issue. The justices left standing a federal appeals court ruling and a Maine Supreme Court decision barring the use of tax money to pay for tuition at religious schools. The cases (Bagley v. Raymond School Department and Strout v. Albanese) had been closely watched by both voucher opponents and proponents.
"This is an important victory for American taxpayers," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Parents have the right to send their children to religious schools, but they don't have the right to make the rest of us pay the tuition."
In addition to the Maine voucher cases, the Supreme Court also declined to review a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision against sales tax exemptions for Bibles and religious literature (Pennsylvania v. Newman) and rejected a case from New York's highest court striking down a special "public" school district for Kiryas Joel, an Orthodox Jewish enclave. (Pataki v. Grumet)
The news from the high court, however, was not all good. On Oct. 4, the justices declined to hear a challenge to an Arizona law granting tax breaks to those who pay for tuition at religious and other private schools. (Kotterman v. Killian)
Religious Conservatives Attack Population Control
Despite warnings of dire consequences from public policy experts, a group of religious conservatives was in a celebratory mood at the announcement that the world's population has surpassed six billion people.
In a full-page newspaper advertisement Oct. 12 in the Washington Times, Religious Right leaders and ultraconservative Roman Catholics criticized United Nations family planning programs and insisted that population growth should be encouraged.
"Let us join together in celebrating the birth of Baby Six Billion," the advertisement said. "He or she is a sign of our future, our hope and our prosperity.... We are grateful that Baby Six Billion has come into the world. Baby Six Billion...is not a liability, but an asset. Not a curse, but a blessing."
Ad signers included James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Charles Donovan of the Family Research Council, Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America, Paul Weyrich of the Coalition for America, Richard John Neuhaus of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation and Thomas Monaghan, chairman of the Ave Maria Foundation (and former Domino's Pizza magnate).
The advertisement goes so far as to insist that the world is not overpopulated, and in fact, does not have enough people. "Underpopulation, not overpopulation, is the greater threat to the world today....The populations of the developed nations are not doubling today, but are static or declining," the signers said.
Demographers and other population authorities noted the "six billion" announcement with significantly more solemnity. Despite the glee of Religious Right leaders, experts note that rapid population growth has led to deforestation, soil erosion, famine, water shortages and the extinction of 200 species a day. While the religious conservatives insisted in their advertisement that "humanity has never been so prosperous," scholars estimate that half of the world's six billion people live on $2 a day and one-fourth of the world's population lives on $1 a day.
Religious Leaders Celebrate Role Of Public Schools
The National Council of Churches and Central Conference of American Rabbis have issued a statement announcing strong support for public education.
The Sept. 1 statement, released to coincide with the beginning of the 1999-2000 school year, cites the values of public education, including how it has helped move children beyond poverty and prepared young people for citizenship and public responsibility.
According to the Religion News Service, the Jewish and Christian leaders warned that public schools are "under attack," citing budget cuts and the ongoing drive to divert funds to private school through vouchers.
"We call upon our leaders of government at all levels, and people of all faiths and backgrounds, to commit themselves to the protection, financial security and continued reform of our public school system," the statement reads.
It went on to emphasize the importance of teachers in the lives of young people. "Teachers, and other school workers, must be afforded the respect that we, as parents, need," the statement says. "The nation's teachers deserve our thanks and recognition for the critical role they play in the lives of our children."
The statement was signed by Rabbi Charles Kroloff, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive president of the conference. They were joined by Bishop Craig Anderson, president of the National Council of Churches, and the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the group's general secretary.
Brooklyn Museum Fights Censorship Bid
A national free speech controversy erupted in September when the Brooklyn Museum of Art opened an exhibit featuring pieces some found objectionable on religious grounds.
The show, titled "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," featured 90 pieces by 42 British artists, including several controversial works. Most attention focused on a painting of the Virgin Mary that includes an element of elephant dung.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) has threatened to terminate the museum's lease with the city, cut its city financing and take other measures unless the museum discontinues the exhibition. "What I am saying is that hard-earned public tax dollars should not be used for what I consider to be-and I think many people in the city consider-a desecration of religion," Giuliani observed on NBC's "Meet the Press."
New York Cardinal John O'Connor joined Giuliani in opposition to the display during a service at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Sept. 27. After praising the work of "city officials," O'Connor suggested that the museum's officials may be motivated by bigotry against Catholics. Ironically, artist Chris Ofili, who created the controversial painting, is himself a Catholic.
Some religious leaders see the issue as one of power. The Rev. Herbert Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn, told the Associated Press, "If the mayor wants to protest this artwork as a citizen, it's one thing. But to say, >I'm going to use the machinery of government to punish you,' it borders on dictatorship."
Museum officials have filed a lawsuit in federal court to protect the museum from punishment by the mayor's office. Attorney Floyd Abrams told The New York Times, "There is no obligation from the city to fund the arts. But the First Amendment says, according to a wide, sustained, continuing body of case law, that the funding process may not be used to coerce institutions such as this to do the bidding of its political leaders."
In the meantime, the threats and complaints against the exhibit seem to have backfired. The show opened as scheduled and welcomed a record crowd of more than 9,200 attendees, each of whom paid $9.75 for admission. Many attendees waited in line for up to 90 minutes.
Mass. Parent Has No Sympathy For The Devil
One of the first things a visitor to Chatham High School's gymnasium will see is a banner that reads, "Welcome to the Home of the Blue Devils." However, that will soon change if one Massachusetts parent has his way.
Richard Porter has appealed to the Chatham School Committee to remove the Blue Devil mascot from the high school. He told the Cape Cod Times that allowing the symbol gives the devil "a road into our children's lives."
"I'm not an evangelist trying to sway people," Porter said. "But I am teaching my kids you stand up for what you believe, and as a Christian, I'm concerned about this." He added that his effort is part of an attempt to protect children from "the great deceiver."
Ann Ashworth, the high school principal, told the Times that she takes Porter's concerns seriously but "has far more important issues" to deal with. She added that she believes the mascot has been used at Chatham High School since it was built in 1962 and thought its use may be related to the Blue Devil mascot used by Duke University in North Carolina.
Similar attempts by Religious Right activists to rid public schools of devil mascots elsewhere have failed. In 1996 three public school students in Ohio filed a federal suit against their high school for using a Blue Devil mascot, a symbol they believed to be satanic. A federal court ruled against the students, and an appeals court upheld that decision.
Pa. Ban On Sunday Hunting Sparks Debate
Two of Pennsylvania's most influential institutions, deer hunting and religion, are going head to head in a heated debate at the state capital.
Last August a legislative committee took up a proposal to lift the state's ban on Sunday hunting during deer season. Pennsylvania is one of only 10 states that still bans hunting on Sunday.
Supporters of the change consider the long-standing ban a relic of the past. "Blue laws" in Pennsylvania once barred athletic events, shopping and movie screenings on Sundays, and opponents consider the hunting ban an unnecessary holdover from those days. Opponents also say the law is unfair, as it permits Sunday shooting of crows, foxes and coyotes as well as fishing. Deer hunters wonder why their activity remains singled out.
Supporters of the deer hunting ban Alike to stand on tradition," Mike Schmit, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, told the Allentown Morning Call. "For them, that the way it's always been."
Those opposed to the change also highlight religion as one of the reasons not to change existing policy. "As traditional religious beliefs allude, Sunday is a day to worship God, to rest and enjoy peace-not a day to toil, work or hunt," Michael Pechart, an official with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, told the Morning Call.
Hindu Party Retains Power In Indian Elections
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was the big winner in India's national elections on Oct. 7, after pulling together a centrist coalition of 24 parties.
Though the BJP has long been considered anti-Muslim and part of a Hindu revivalist movement, its leaders were successful in winning new allies in the election by largely abandoning the agenda that had raised the ire of Muslim and secular voters. For example, party officials no longer seek to build a temple on the site of a 16th-century mosque in Ayodha that was destroyed by Hindu militants in 1992.
The BJP victory was not due to increased seats in India's parliament, but rather from new alliances with smaller centrist parties. With nearly all of the votes accounted for, the party had won 294 of Parliament's 543 elected seats.