U.S. Senate Approves Education Savings Accounts
The U.S. Senate has passed a bill to create "education savings accounts" that would help finance tuition at religious and other private schools, despite the fact that the bill faces a near certain veto by President Bill Clinton.
By a 61 to 37 vote March 2, the Senate approved S. 14, a measure that would allow individuals to contribute up to $2,000 annually into an account that would earn tax-free interest to cover education expenses, including tuition at private religious schools. If signed into law, the accounts would cost the government an estimated $7.3 billion over a 10-year period.
Supporters of church-state separation opposed the legislation, insisting that the accounts would serve as a back-door voucher program, subsidizing religious school tuition through government action.
The chances of the legislation becoming law appear slim. Clinton vetoed an identical measure passed by Congress in 1998, and has already announced his intention to do the same to this bill.
'Charitable Choice' Added To Education Bill In House
Supporters of "charitable choice," a controversial legislative proposal that gives federal funds to churches to provide social services, have a new target for their scheme: American education.
Charitable choice was first introduced by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) as part of the 1996 federal Welfare Reform Act. Subsequent attempts to expand the program have specifically exempted education. Now supporters of the measure wish to remove that exemption altogether.
Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) added charitable choice provisions to the "Literacy Involves Families Together Act" (H.R. 3222), legislation that finances literacy programs for children. The House Education Committee approved Souder's changes, and the bill is now awaiting action on the floor.
Additionally, supporters of the provision are attempting to add charitable choice to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), the largest bipartisan education spending bill at the federal level.
"Charitable choice raises a hornets' nest of policy and constitutional problems in providing welfare services; adding it to education programs is truly misguided," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "These latest developments are a disastrous step backwards."
When first introduced in 1996, charitable choice changed existing law by permitting federal funds to go to "pervasively sectarian" institutions, including churches and other houses of worship, to administer social services on behalf of the government. Critics charge that the policy violates church-state separation, permits federally funded employment discrimination and adversely affects religious institutions by subjecting them to government regulations.
Virginia Supreme Court To Hear Regent U. Bond Case
The Virginia Supreme Court has announced that it will decide whether TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University is eligible for $55 million in state bonds.
The state court granted the appeal of Virginia College Building Authority v. Barry Lynn March 6. The case was brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which argued that the bonds would be a form of taxpayer aid to Regent.
AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said he hopes the Virginia high court affirms the lower court ruling. "Religious schools should be supported by voluntary contributions, not money coerced from taxpayers," he remarked. "We're confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will uphold this important principle."
Robertson is seeking the bonds to underwrite new construction at Regent's Virginia Beach campus and the building of a satellite campus in Alexandria, Va. On July 30, 1999, Richmond Circuit Judge Randall G. Johnson ruled against the bond issue, noting that the Virginia Constitution forbids government support of sectarian institutions.
At the lower court, AU attorney Ayesha Khan was able to prove that Regent includes its fundamentalist Christian perspective in all classes and other educational activities, based on Regent documents AU had obtained. Khan's argument was so persuasive that Johnson ruled against Regent from the bench, remarking, "I don't know how in the world you can say its [Regent's] primary purpose isn't religious training or that it is not pervasively sectarian."
Americans United brought this action with the cooperation of the Virginia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Judge Moore Decides To Skip Trip To Mt. Sinai
Roy Moore, the Alabama judge best known for posting a hand-carved Ten Commandments plaque in his Etowah County courtroom, has turned down an opportunity to lead a pilgrimage at Mt. Sinai.
Moore had been invited to participate in a trip of Christian "pilgrims" to travel to Mt. Sinai for a reenactment of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. The event is being organized by Ed McAteer, a Religious Right activist in Memphis, Tenn.
Moore turned down the opportunity due to his ongoing campaign to get elected chief justice of Alabama's Supreme Court. "I've got too much on me," Moore told the Birmingham News. "Running for chief justice of Alabama is a pretty big undertaking."
Though understanding of Moore's commitment, McAteer was disappointed. "Judge Moore is more identified with the Ten Commandments than anybody in America," McAteer told the News.
Indiana Church Takes On IRS Over Payroll Taxes
An Indiana church that refuses to follow federal law by withholding income taxes, Social Security and Medicare contributions from employees' salaries is facing foreclosure by the Internal Revenue Service.
The Indianapolis Baptist Temple first faced punishment for tax evasion when the Justice Department filed suit against the church after it failed to pay payroll taxes for 60 people from 1987 to 1992. The IRS says the church now owes $5.9 million in taxes, penalties and interest.
After a series of tactics to avoid compliance, including changing its name, the church lost its court battle in July when a federal judge chastised the church for years of evasive and flagrant law breaking.
Now the church's leaders are hoping to force the hands of the IRS by effectively daring the government to foreclose on the house of worship. The church's pastor, Gregory J. Dixon, told The New York Times that paying taxes "violates our religious liberty and what this means is the end of religious freedom in America."
To bring public attention to its cause, the congregation organized a rally of about 600 protestors in Indianapolis March 4. The church has also received support from paramilitary groups such as the Michigan Militia, whose leaders have offered the congregation assistance in resisting foreclosure.
Utah Senate Tries To Crack Down On Polygamy
The Utah State Senate has overwhelmingly approved a measure to help the state more aggressively counter polygamy.
Lawmakers voted 28 to 1 on Feb. 23 to spend $250,000 to prosecute abuse and fraud in polygamous societies and an additional $250,000 for helping women and children who leave the enclaves. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) bans polygamy, but a number of small fundamentalist offshoots still follow the traditional church practice.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ron Allen (D) said polygamy crimes "go to the heart and soul of human rights. Certainly it is to our advantage to deal with these issues we have put off so long before the Olympics." Utah is hosting the winter games in 2002.
The future of the bill still remains in doubt. Though a spokesperson for Gov. Michael Leavitt (R) said the governor supports the measure, the Utah House has already considered and defeated a similar measure this year.
Loggers' Claim Of Nature-Based Religion Rejected
A federal court has rejected a lawsuit brought by a group of Minnesota loggers who claimed U.S. Forest Service policy limiting tree-cutting is based on nature-based religious beliefs and therefore violates church-state separation.
The suit was filed last fall by the Associated Contract Loggers, claiming that environmental policy is based on a philosophy of "deep ecology," which in the loggers' minds is tantamount to religion. The suit asked that the government prove its motives for environmental law were secular and asked for $600,000 in damages.
Not only did U.S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum dismiss the case as having no merit, he also threatened to sanction the loggers' lawyer, Stephen Young, unless he could be persuaded otherwise within 15 days of his ruling.
"This lawsuit seems to be designed to harass and delay the defendants," Rosenbaum wrote. He added, "It appears probable that Plaintiffs have knowingly drawn this Court into an unseemly and baseless lawsuit, and has wasted the Court's time and the defendants' valuable time and money."
The loggers' group voted unanimously to appeal the ruling to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 22.
Promise Keepers Resume Fees For Conference Attendees
The Promise Keepers continue to show signs of serious financial difficulties, the latest being an announcement that the group will again charge fees for those attending the group's conferences for men.
The Colorado-based evangelical group has placed a high-priority on making its events free to the public, and as recently as Jan. 28, a fund-raising letter from Promise Keepers President Bill McCartney said the group's leaders are "committed to keep [the conferences] admission-free."
However, on March 2, the Promise Keepers said it will charge $69 for adults and $49 for youths 18 and younger.
"The return to charging a fee for conferences comes from earnest prayer and evaluation," McCartney said in a statement. "Also our attendees have been asking us to return to a fee-based conference."
The Promise Keepers have suffered from a series of setbacks recently, including the February announcement that all of its eight regional offices are being closed. The group was also forced to cancel rallies at all state capitals on Jan. 1, 2000, due to financial and logistical difficulties.
Christian-Muslim Violence Erupts In Nigeria
After religiously motivated violence led to at least 200 deaths in Kaduna, Nigeria, religious leaders in the Christian and Muslim communities have vowed to work together to restore peace.
Violence broke out Feb. 21 when Christian protestors voiced disapproval for a proposal to bring Islamic law to Kaduna, whose Christian population is estimated at 40 percent. Under the proposed changes, alcohol consumption would be prohibited, men and women would not be allowed to use the same public transportation or attend the same schools and separate Islamic courts would dispense harsh punishment for Muslim lawbreakers.
Christian residents in Kaduna are feeling increasing pressure as a number of other nearby Nigerian states, including Zamfara, Niger and Sokoto, have passed laws imposing Islamic law just weeks before the attempt in Kaduna.
To try to allay concerns, supporters of the legal change are trying to assure residents that non-Muslims will not be tried under Islamic law.
Christians have found little solace in the promises, leading to the outbreak of bloody violence. According to a report by the Associated Press, guns, cutlasses and other weapons were used during the religious clashes in the streets.