House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is helping a controversial Religious Right group raise money to defeat a so-called "war on Christianity" in America and preserve the nation's alleged "Christian heritage."
DeLay has endorsed a campaign by the Rev. Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), which claims in a recent fund-raising letter that it will raise $12.6 million to "stop the all-out assault on Christians being waged by our government, by America's educational institutions, by the media and throughout popular culture."
The TVC appeal, which is currently circulating nationwide, includes a one-page endorsement letter from DeLay lauding Sheldon and the group's work. In the letter, DeLay calls Sheldon "a dear friend" and implores recipients to send money to the TVC.
"For the last 40 years, the anti-Christian Left in America has waged a sustained attack against faith in God, traditional moral norms, the rule of law and the traditional marriage-based family," writes DeLay. He asserts "the anti-Christian Left considers TVC its #1 enemy in the great civil war of values raging in America today."
Continues the DeLay letter, "TVC is fighting in the halls of Congress to roll back this 40-year assault on America's Christian heritage and the traditional moral values that made America great."
DeLay's missive accompanies an eight-page letter from Sheldon that makes a number of extraordinary charges, including the claim that Christianity is under attack in the United States and that "Christianity will be completely erased as a significant influence in American life if Christians fail to take immediate emergency action."
Elsewhere, TVC pleads for funds to stop the "'legal and culture war' being waged against Christians and Christianity."
TVC was founded and is headed by Sheldon, a controversial California minister who has a long track record of making unsubstantiated charges about religion in American public life and culture. For many years, Sheldon has been best known for shrill attacks on gays, public education and church-state separation.
"Sheldon's claims are, to put it bluntly, simply ludicrous," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The United States is one of the most religious nations in the world. The so-called 'war against Christianity' is a total fabrication for fund-raising purposes."
Lynn deplored the DeLay-Sheldon alliance, remarking, "Rep. DeLay holds an important position in Congress. He should not be helping Sheldon raise one dime. I call on DeLay to publicly cut his ties to this organization."
Lynn called Sheldon's recent fund-raising appeal a "catalog of lies." Among other things, the letter:
Asserts that Americans United and the ACLU have filed lawsuits and lobbied to have tax exemption denied for houses of worship. In fact, no such legal actions have been filed, nor has any lobbying on this issue occurred.
Claims that students have been suspended from public schools for saying grace over lunches and that Bibles have been removed from school libraries. It gives no specific details of when and where these incidents occurred, putting them in the realm of Religious Right "urban legends."
Asserts that a federal court struck down Ohio's use of the motto "With God, all things are possible." It fails to mention that a higher court overturned the ruling.
Lynn noted that Sheldon, in the TVC missive, claims he wants to raise $12.6 million to fund a "legal strike force," lobby Congress, train "Christian teachers" in public schools, run radio and TV advertisements and attack companies that promote "anti-Christian bias and bigotry in the media with their advertising dollars."
Lynn pointed out that TVC's budget has never been more than a few million dollars and that the group clearly has no intention of doing any of these things.
"I've never read more falsehoods crammed into one letter," remarked Lynn. "No member of Congress should endorse an organization that must resort to lies, distortions and fear-mongering to raise funds."
Last year, DeLay came under fire for criticizing Texas A&M and Baylor universities while addressing a Religious Right group in Texas. More recently, he was criticized for using shrill rhetoric in a fund-raising appeal on behalf of an anti-union organization.
Lynn said the House majority leader apparently failed to learn any lessons from these incidents.
In a push to implement the "faith-based" initiative, officials with the U.S. Veterans Administration are shifting funds to religiously affiliated organizations and moving to drop regulations that require religious groups to maintain non-discrimination policies.
In a recent interview with The Roundtable, Peter H. Dougherty, director of the VA's programs for homeless veterans, said a recent review of VA regulations uncovered a policy stating that groups contracting with the VA could not discriminate on the basis of religion.
"Obviously, some religious oriented organizations wanted to have people of the same religious belief. We did not find that that would interfere with their ability to provide service to veterans, and so we are deleting that provision in the new regulations," Dougherty said.
Dougherty also said the VA is changing its funding formula from a contract basis to a per-diem payment. Under the latter approach, the VA will be obligated to work with non-profit groups and presumably more "faith-based" organizations. Dougherty noted that in the most recent funding cycle, 40 percent of the money went to faith-based organizations.
"It was a higher percentage than in the past," he said. "We found that a higher percentage of faith-based organizations were in the per diem round of funding. Part of that is because many of the faith-based organizations already seem to have access to property and good locations to provide service, and they simply needed service dollars. "
Dougherty denied the VA is intentionally trying to shift more funding to faith-based groups. But some critics have their doubts. Recently, officials at a shelter for homeless veterans in Northampton, Mass., charged that they had been denied federal money because the aid was diverted to faith-based groups instead. The cutoff occurred even though the shelter is housed at a VA hospital.
John F. Downing of United Veterans of America is certain faith-based groups were given preference in the grant process.
"These people were given technical assistance and access to the system that the rest of us didn't have," said Downing, whose agency was denied a $500,000 contract renewal.
Government agencies cannot use tax funds to build houses of worship, Americans United advised the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last month.
Americans United submitted the comments in response to a plan from the Bush administration to use federal housing funds to help churches and other houses of worship construct or repair their facilities. Bush argues that houses of worship can get tax aid as long as their facilities are sometimes used for non-religious purposes, such as the provision of social services.
AU disagrees. The proposal, AU told HUD, is constitutionally flawed and should not be implemented.
In a seven-page memorandum delivered March 7, Americans United's legal department said the plan, which was first made public in early January, fails "to comply with constitutional requirements."
After Bush unveiled the proposed regulatory change, HUD announced it would accept public comment about it until early March. Washington observers think the agency may approve the plan despite constitutional objections in order to advance the White House's "faith-based" agenda.
Richard A. Hauser, HUD's general counsel, told The New York Times that the department's traditional rule prohibiting religious entities from using tax dollars to build or refurbish houses of worship would be dumped for the administration's new plan.
AU said the administration is on the wrong track.
"The First Amendment clearly forbids government to build or repair houses of worship," said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "I hope the Bush administration will scrap this egregiously unconstitutional proposal."
Lynn noted that the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that tax funds could not be used for the maintenance of religious buildings. In its Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist decision, the justices stated that "[i]f the State may not erect buildings in which religious activities are to take place, it may not maintain such buildings or renovate them when they fall into disrepair."
AU's memo to HUD noted that the Bush plan contains no explanation of how federal workers would ensure that public funds are not spent to advance religion or how they would ensure that the needy would not be subjected to religious indoctrination in publicly funded programs that provide shelter or housing.
"The new HUD policy is a reckless extension of Bush's initiative to provide broad-based financial support to religious groups," Lynn said. "It will also undermine our country's efforts to help our neediest."
Americans United intends to challenge the new policy in court if the administration implements it.
Public schools may require graduation speakers to keep their remarks free of prayer and proselytization, a federal appeals court has ruled.
Ruling in a case from the Bay Area of San Francisco, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said officials at Pleasanton Unified School District did not violate former salutatorian Nicholas Lassonde's free-speech rights when they told him to remove about 200 words from his prepared remarks. The section was religious in nature, and included Lassonde's plea that fellow students "seek out the Lord."
Lassonde, who graduated in 1999, was permitted to distribute copies of his full remarks, including the religious content, to fellow students after the ceremony. But he filed suit against the school anyway, with the aid of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal group based in Virginia. He claimed that his free speech and religious freedom rights had been violated.
The appeals court disagreed, asserting that school officials acted properly to ensure that the other students were not subjected to unwanted sermonizing. The court also rejected the claim that the school could have used a disclaimer that made it clear that Lassonde was speaking only for himself and not the school.
Even a disclaimer, said the unanimous court, would not "change the fact that proselytizing amounts to a religious practice that the school district may not coerce other students to participate in, even while looking the other way."
The Rutherford Institute has indicated it will appeal the Lassonde v. Pleasanton Unified School District ruling to the Supreme Court.
In other news about prayer in public schools:
A bill that would allow public school students to give "inspirational" messages and benedictions at school events has cleared the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives.
State Rep. Wilbert Holloway (D-Miami) has introduced the bill annually over the past three years. It has passed the House each time but died in the Senate. Holloway's measure does not use the word "prayer" but is seen as a backdoor school prayer bill. It would allow religious messages at graduation and other school-sponsored events if a majority of students vote for them.
The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel editorialized against the measure, saying it would lead to religious coercion.
"At official school functions, it forces some students and teachers to listen to prayers that they may not want to hear. An invocation or benediction is a prayer; no one is fooled," observed the newspaper. "More than likely, it will result in the Christian majority of students at many schools offering prayers that 'accidentally' mention Jesus Christ."
The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) wants religious groups to get tax aid to provide social programs but isn't interested in taking on new government regulations in the process.
Meeting last month at a national conference in Eden Prairie, Minn., the NAE adopted a resolution lauding President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative but insisted that any funds given to religious groups under the program be allocated with few strings attached. Specifically, the NAE resolution demands the right of religious groups to take government aid, yet still engage in discrimination on the basis of religion when hiring staff.
Opponents of the faith-based initiative have argued that exempting publicly funded religious groups from anti-discrimination laws rolls back the nation's commitment to civil rights. They are working to have provisions banning all forms of discrimination included in the faith-based initiative.
NAE leaders disagree.
"Faith-based organizations are based on having people of like faith and like vision," said the Rev. Bill Hamel, chairman of the organization's board. "They want the freedom to be able to hire who they want."
The NAE is an umbrella organization for various evangelical Protestant bodies. During the conference, the group sponsored a daylong training session on how to apply for government funding called "A Roadmap to Faith-Based Government Funding." Among the speakers was James Towey, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
The workshop was cosponsored by the Institute for Youth Development, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has received a federal grant to help faith-based and community groups learn how to apply for and get tax funding. Critics of the faith-based initiative said the Institute's decision to use federal funds to run a workshop in conjunction with the NAE conference is further evidence of the Bush administration's bias toward funding evangelical Christian groups.
The Institute is led by Shepherd Smith, who formerly ran a Religious Right-oriented group called Americans for Sound AIDS/HIV Policy.
Former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed found a lucrative career once he left TV preacher Pat Robertson's political outfit: As a consultant, Reed was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Enron Corporation over a five-year period until the company collapsed, a newly released Federal Election Commission (FEC) report has indicated.
The FEC looked into Reed's relationship with Enron as part of an investigation of President George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. Conservative activist Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch had asserted that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney arranged for Enron to pay Reed while Bush used Reed as a political consultant. If true, the payments would have been a type of in-kind contribution from Enron to the Bush campaign and a possible violation of federal campaign laws.
The FEC dismissed Klayman's allegations, but in the ensuing investigation found that the ex-Christian Coalition head was paid much more by Enron than had previously been disclosed. In 1997, Reed's Atlanta-based Century Strategies received $200,000 from the failed energy corporation. In 2000, he received $75,000 from Enron and by 2001 was receiving $30,000 monthly plus expenses.
Reed supposedly received the money for providing "ongoing advice and counsel to Enron" about electricity deregulation, although Reed has no background or special expertise in this area. The FEC also found that the terms Reed had with the company were extremely generous, permitting his consulting company to keep getting paid even if it finished its work early.
The New York Times reported last year that top Bush aide Karl Rove recommended that Enron hire Reed. The move was seen as a way to keep Reed in Bush's camp while at the same time avoiding having the Bush campaign hire him directly. Bush, who ran as a moderate, sought Reed's advice and valued his connections with religious conservatives but did want to appear too close to him publicly.
Enron's collapse dominated headlines for weeks when it was revealed that the energy company paid top executives exorbitant salaries, inflated its stock values and looted employee retirement plans. Even as the company was spiraling downward, it continued paying Reed until it filed for bankruptcy late in 2001.
The FEC found that Reed did legitimate work for the company in 1997 but said in 1998 there was an "apparent lack of work for the money." Nevertheless, the FEC ruled that Reed's dealings with the company were legitimate and not an effort by the Bush campaign to hide a contribution.
Rove admits that he talked to someone at Enron about Reed but now says he cannot remember who it was or when it occurred. Enron lawyers asserted that no one at the firm recalls talking to Rove about hiring Reed.
The controversy hasn't slowed Reed's advancement. In February he announced that he was stepping down as chairman of the Republican Party of Georgia to work on Bush's reelection campaign. Reed, who oversaw the election of a Republican governor and helped Republican Saxby Chambliss defeat incumbent Democrat Max Cleland for a U.S. Senate seat, said he enjoyed his tenure, but it was time to move on.
Religious Right organizations are pressuring President George W. Bush to use his $15-billion plan to combat AIDS in Africa to promote their religious agenda, including stressing sexual abstinence, downplaying the use of condoms and stopping legal abortion.
Bush in January outlined an ambitious five-year program to fight the spreads of AIDS in Africa. He gave few details, but Religious Right groups are worried that the program might place too much emphasis on contraceptives and are urging the president to steer the effort in other directions.
"We commend you for proposing the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief," the leaders of more than a dozen groups wrote to Bush Feb. 27 "We believe that your principles as outlined are the right approach to stem the tide of this devastating epidemic."
The Religious Right leaders called for using the money to stress abstinence in AIDS education, followed by the idea of fidelity in marriage with instruction about condom use as a last resort.
"Condoms must no longer be treated as a panacea of HIV prevention," they wrote in the joint letter.
The group heads also insisted that "faith-based" groups be funded through the initiative but that organizations that provide or promote abortion not be permitted to receive any funding even if their main business is fighting AIDS or providing other types of information.
Signers included Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship; Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; James Dobson of Focus on the Family; Sandy Rios of Concerned Women for America; the Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals; Ken Connor of the Family Research Council; Franklin Graham of Samaritan's Purse; and Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition.
Critics said that the Religious Right agenda, if adopted, will only further hamper anti-AIDS efforts in Africa and prolong the suffering. U.S. assistance to block the spread of AIDS in Africa, where the disease is spreading rapidly, is already hamstrung by the politics of abortion. Last month more than 130 non-profit organizations wrote to Bush urging him to drop regulations that forbid funding of any overseas family-planning clinic if the facility also offers abortion or abortion referrals. The groups said the restriction would eliminate the most effective anti-AIDS organizations in Africa.
Ironically, mounting evidence indicates that the Religious Right's insistence of viewing AIDS in Africa as a moral problem that can be solved by changing people's sexual behavior overlooks the real cause of spiraling AIDS rates there. New research indicates that most of the 28 million Africans infected with AIDS did not get the disease through sexual activity but through unsanitary medical practices that are common in impoverished nations.
A series of papers published recently in the journal of the British Royal Society of Medicine argues that sexual transmissions accounts for just a third of Africa's AIDS cases. The rest, the authors assert, can be attributed to unsanitary medical practices in health-care clinics, specifically the use of unclean needles.
Attorneys with Americans United have warned officials at Kansas State University to discontinue religious activity and discriminatory hiring policies in the women's basketball program.
Women's basketball coach Deb Patterson has instituted group prayers with team players before games, has appointed a team chaplain from a local fundamentalist church and has stated that she hires staffers who share her faith. AU says these practices at a public university run afoul of the First Amendment.
The letter notes that although some federal courts have upheld non-sectarian prayers at university graduation ceremonies, it does not follow that a coach may pressure players to take part in Christian worship.
Observed the letter, "Though the team prayer session itself may not officially be mandatory, the hierarchical nature of the player-coach relationship is such that players will feel pressured to attend."
The letter also noted that The Manhattan Mercury reported Feb. 2 that Patterson "has put in place a group whose priorities and spiritual foundations mirror hers." Patterson is quoted as saying that it is her hope that, "We could build a program where we could talk about our faith, talk about the Lord."
AU attorneys pointed out that hiring on the basis of religion is forbidden at public universities.
Finally, the attorneys asserted that the team's use of a chaplain presents constitutional problems as well. Chaplains, the letter notes, have been approved only in limited circumstances such as in the military, not in colleges where students can easily access a variety of houses of worship.
The letter asks the university to "take measures to cure these violations and encourage Coach Patterson to find alternative ways of fostering team unity."
In other news about religion in public schools:
Sectarian prayers at a public university in Missouri have drawn protest from Americans United. In December of 2002, Missouri State Southern College in Joplin, Mo., asked the Rev. Henry M. Pullum of Calvary Baptist Church to offer a benediction at graduation. Pullum offered his prayer as a "talk to the Lord" and ended in "the name of thy darling son, Jesus."
Pullum also performed a song at the end of the ceremony that included the words, "Walk with me, Lord, walk with me.... I want Jesus to walk with me.... And now, in the grace and love of God, the fellowship and sweet communion of the Holy Spirit be with each and every one of us."
AU attorneys asserted that federal courts have upheld only non-sectarian prayers at public university graduations and requested that the practice of sectarian prayers and songs be terminated at the school.
Officials at the Coppell Independent School District in Coppell, Texas, have been urged to drop plans to include references to a "Supreme Being" in the district's strategic plan.
The plan currently includes the phrase, "We believe that...faith in a Supreme Being adds meaning to life." In a letter to the district board and superintendent, AU attorneys argue that the policy amounts to government advancement of religion.
"The Strategic Plan...sends the message that members of polytheistic faiths and non-religious persons are not welcome in Coppell," reads the AU letter. "The Board of Trustees represents all of the children in a school district, not only those who adhere to the majority religious tradition."
Political radicals linked to extremist Muslim groups have exploited a federal program aimed at easing the entry of "religious workers" to the United States to slip potential terrorists into the country, according to a recent legal complaint.
A complaint from the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York, which was unsealed in February, asserts that a Muslim religious leader, Mohammed Khalil, brought more than 200 individuals into the country claiming they were religious workers. Khalil allegedly prepared fake documents for the people, claiming they were experts in the Koran or the Arabic language. He charged $8,000 apiece for obtaining the visas.
Khalil, who became a U.S. citizen in 1987, is alleged to have pledged support to Osama bin Laden in a secretly taped conversation and expressed his desire to see another terrorist attack on the country.
Khalil was able to run the scheme thanks to a federal law that critics say unfairly singles out self-proclaimed religious workers for special treatment in visa applications. In 1990, Congress created the Religious Worker Visa, often called the "R" visa, and ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to ease the process for allowing religious workers into the country. By 1998, some 11,000 overseas residents had received the special visas, which were ostensibly created to ease shortages at churches, mosques and other religious institutions.
The program has apparently been exploited by individuals seeking easy entry into the United States. A 1999 report by the General Accounting Office found lax supervision in the program. Concluded the report, "Neither the INS nor [the] State [Department] knows the overall extent of fraud in the religious worker visa program."
The report also uncovered evidence of R visa fraud rings at churches in Colombia, Fiji and Russia.
Conservative syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin blasted the program in February, writing, "This much is clear to immigration veterans: The R visa program is a notorious law-enforcement evasion scheme under which a number of religious facilities have been established as fronts to enable foreign nationals to enter the U.S. using false identities and evade criminal and terrorist watch lists."
Public school students in West Virginia won't be learning about "intelligent design" anytime soon.
The state's Board of Education voted unanimously Feb. 20 to adopt new science standards that require that students be tested only on evolution. The standards were drafted by a team of science teachers who worked on them for about two years.
During the process, the Intelligent Design Network, a neo-creationist organization based in Kansas, pressured the board to include language that critics said opened the door to the teaching of intelligent design. The group maintains that life is so complex that it must have been designed by a higher power. Supporters of evolution say questions like this belong to the realm of theology and point out that intelligent design advocates have published no original research in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Board members pointed out that the standards allow for open discussion of issues and noted that teachers remain free to tell students that some people disagree with evolution.
Intelligent design foes said the standards were needed to modernize West Virginia's science curriculum. Noting the lack of support for intelligent design in the scientific community, retired physicist Charles Pique told the board that supporters of the concept, "have the same station as people who say the world is flat. The scientific community believes that evolution is as certain a fact as the world is round."
TV preacher Pat Robertson claims the power to heal people from sickness and disease through faith alone, but he didn't take any chances when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer recently. Robertson availed himself of the best doctors his money could buy and promptly had surgery.
Robertson, who is 72, underwent surgery to remove a cancerous prostate Feb. 17. He recuperated for a week before returning as host of his "700 Club" program. He was declared cancer free after the surgery.
Although Robertson does not recommend that his followers refrain from consulting doctors or taking medicine, he emphasizes faith-healing in his broadcast ministry. His program and his books are full of stories of alleged miraculous recoveries from serious illness, although the details are often sketchy. In his 1984 book Answers to 200 of Life's Most Probing Questions, Robertson writes about a man "who went to bed blind, but a prayer request came in to our television program for him, and when he woke up, he could see."
More recently, in his 2003 book Bring It On: Tough Questions, Candid Answers, Robertson writes about a man in Ghana whose leg was cut off at the knee. While attending a revival service, Robertson writes, "God brought faith in his heart, and miraculously, spontaneously, his leg began to grow, his foot and toes grew, his entire leg was restored like new!"
Less than a month after his surgery, Roberson and his son Gordon were on "The 700 Club" claiming to heal other types of cancers. On the March 13 show, Gordon Robertson announced that he had received a "word of knowledge" from God about a man preparing to receive surgery for cancer of the colon. The man had been fully healed, Gordon Robertson declared, and would no longer need the operation.
In other news about the Religious Right:
Focus on the Family leader James Dobson has launched a new program to recruit 50,000 pastors across the country. The effort, called The Shepherd's Covenant, is being coordinated by the Rev. H.B. London Jr., who runs pastoral ministries at Focus. It was officially launched during a Promise Keepers rally in Arizona in February.
London says the program will focus on keeping pastors accountable and lead them to renewal.
"We just become like robots," he said. "We just go from one day to the next, to one crisis to the next, and we don't really stop and let God's quiet voice speak to us at our need."
It's still legal to make fun of Jerry Falwell on the World Wide Web.
Last month, a federal court in Virginia threw out a Falwell lawsuit against Gary Cohn, an Illinois man who runs the parody site www.jerryfalwell.com. The Lynchburg, Va.-based televangelist had insisted that the site was libelous and infringed on trademark rights by using his name and image, but U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon tossed out the lawsuit, ruling that a court based in Virginia does not have jurisdiction over the matter.
Moon cited a 2002 decision from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that a prison warden in Virginia could not sue two Connecticut newspapers for libel because the papers did not target a Virginia audience.
"Mr. Cohn's site does not discuss anything that relates specifically to Virginia," Moon wrote in his Falwell v. Cohn decision. "Although Reverend Falwell's church and many of his followers are located in Lynchburg, Virginia, he is self-admittedly a nationally known religious figure."
Undeterred, Falwell told the news media that he would direct his lawyers to re-file the case in a federal court based in Illinois.
"I just feel that a person's name is his identity and his exclusively," Falwell said. "My objection as a minister of the gospel is to someone using my name and reflecting another philosophy contrary to what I teach and preach."
Cohn's website contains cartoons and articles that parody Falwell's views. It also includes several disclaimers that read, "This website is not affiliated with Jerry Falwell. (Duh!)." Cohn also includes a link to Falwell's actual site, www.falwell.com, for anyone who stumbles across the parody site while looking for the real thing.
For someone who has been in public life for decades and eagerly seeks media appearances, Falwell seems to have a thin skin when it comes to parodies of his views. In 1983, he sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt over an obvious parody that depicted Falwell recalling a drunken, incestuous sexual encounter with his mother in an outhouse.
Although lower courts ruled for Falwell, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed and upheld the right of parody in 1988.
Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., has received a $1 million federal grant to launch a program aimed at strengthening dialogue between U.S. Muslim and Christian groups.
Fuller will form a panel of 12 scholars, half of them Christian and half Muslim. The scholars will meet to see if there are "common basic assumptions and metaphors" that can lead to conversation and mutual respect, David Augsburger, a Fullerton professor of pastoral care, told the Pasadena Star-News.
"The Koran and Hebrew and Christian scriptures are often misunderstood on both sides," Augsburger told the newspaper. "The perspectives that emphasize peace are not as perceived as they should be."
Augsburger said the committee will produce publications to educate Christians about Islam and Muslims about Christianity. But he insisted that the group will not be in the business of trying to persuade anyone to drop a religious belief or adopt new ones.
"Being firmly committed to one's own faith and position doesn't preclude radical, open willingness to dialogue," he said.
In other news about Islam and church-state separation:
A U.S. Muslim group has issued a statement criticizing Supreme Court rulings upholding the separation of church and state. The Muslim American Society, based in Falls Church, Va., issued a paper Feb. 27 stating that "Muslims should join the call for an interpretation of the Constitution that accommodates religion, rather than stifles it, and support initiatives that would tend to promote religiosity in public life."
Mimicking language common among Religious Right group, the paper, titled, "Religion in the American Public Square: An Islamic Perspective," maintains that the government should not have to be neutral on the question of whether God exists. Current high court doctrine, the paper insists, has made irreligion "an official belief system."
Asserts the statement, "Since the courts have enforced irreligion as the officially approved religion, religious minorities indeed, people of all faiths have felt a coercive pressure to conform to it."
Elsewhere the statement argues, "Islam does not hold that if it is not the prevailing religion of a society, then irreligion must prevail. Islam considers Christianity a revealed religion, vastly preferring it to atheism, even considering atheism a form of polytheism, as it attributes God's power to other than Him."