December 2001 AU Bulletin

House Of Representatives Votes In Favor Of School Prayer

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Nov. 15 in favor of a resolution calling on public schools to set aside time for students to pray as a response to the war on terrorism.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the non-binding resolution, H.Con.Res. 239, is unnecessary and criticized it for recklessly encouraging school officials to ignore constitutional law.

"This resolution...is a radical departure from constitutional standards because it calls for a mandatory time of classroom prayer on a specific topic," observed Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, in a letter to House members. "Under our constitutional separation of church and state, it is the job of parents and clergy, not the government, to tell children when to pray, how to pray and what to pray for.'' During debate on the measure, Lynn's comments were read into the Congressional Record by Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.)

The resolution, which passed 297-125, was introduced by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a freshman lawmaker with strong ties to the Religious Right. It expresses the "sense of Congress that schools in the United States should set aside a sufficient period of time to allow children to pray for, or quietly reflect on behalf of, the Nation during this time of struggle against the forces of international terrorism."

Lynn noted this is the second time in less than a month that the House has devoted time to endorsing non-binding measures regarding religion in public schools. On Oct. 17, House members voted unanimously to endorse a resolution expressing support for the display of the words "God Bless America" in the nation's public schools.

"At this time of national crisis, the last thing we need is political bickering over prayer and religion," said Lynn.

Virginia Moment-Of-Silence Law Survives Court Test

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a case challenging a Virginia law that requires public schools to set aside 60 seconds each morning for students to "meditate, pray or engage in other silent activity."

On Oct. 29, the justices announced without comment that they will not review a federal appeals court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the statute.

The Virginia legislature passed the measure in 2000. Shortly afterward, the Virginia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of seven students and their families, arguing that government promotion of prayer in public schools violates the Constitution.

A federal district court rejected the ACLU challenge, and on July 24, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled that the law does not violate the First Amendment, despite the statute's reference to "prayer."

"Virginia has introduced at most a minor and nonintrusive accommodation of religion," Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote in the 2-1 ruling in Brown v. Gilmore. "Just as this short period of quiet serves the religious interests of those students who wish to pray silently, it serves the secular interests of those who do not wish to do so."

Religious Right groups were delighted that the law withstood court scrutiny.

"With the Supreme Court staying on the sidelines, and a highly-publicized law from Virginia being held constitutional," said Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, "it will be no surprise if other states follow the lead of Virginia and adopt similar measures for their own school districts that meet the constitutional standards that exist in the Virginia law."

White House Hires Muslim-Outreach Staffer

The Bush administration has hired a Muslim to work in the White House Office of Public Liaison and foster better interaction between the government and American Muslims.

Suhail Khan, who had previously served on the staff of former Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.), will assist other administration officials in attempting to improve Muslim relations and will help promote better understanding between Muslims, Christians and Jews.

As first reported by "Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly," a PBS television program, Muslim leaders expressed pleasure with Khan's new position in the administration but pointed out that there are still no Muslims in decision-making positions in the federal government.

The Bush administration has made repeated overtures to the Muslim community, a pattern started by the president during the 2000 campaign.

Alabama Textbooks To Keep Evolution Warning Label

The Alabama Board of Education has voted to add "disclaimers" on the covers of 40,000 new biology textbooks, warning public school science students about the reliability of evolution.

On Nov. 8, the board approved stickers that tell public school students that evolution is "a controversial theory.... Instructional material associated with controversy should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." The vote was unanimous despite the complaints of the Alabama Academy of Science, which told board members that evolutionary biology is not controversial among nearly all of the world's scientists.

The tactic of using disclaimers to warn students about evolution got its start in Alabama in 1995. Approved by then-Gov. Fob James (R), the policy mandated that labels tell students, "any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact." (James mimicked a monkey at the board meeting in an attempt to deride evolution.)

This year's board vote came after aggressive lobbying from opponents of evolution, including TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum

Neither side was entirely pleased with the new disclaimer. Religious Right activists applauded the fact that it tries to undermine evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, they complained that the anti-evolution language is toned down from its previous incarnation. For example, the new label tells students, "Science includes many theories and studies of scientists' work. The work of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein, to name a few, has provided a basis of our knowledge of the world today."

'Heritage Rock' In Florida Excludes Muslims, Hindus

A religious drive to display the Ten Commandments in the Polk County, Fla., administrative building will welcome Jews and Christians, but no other faith traditions, according a local minister who is organizing the effort.

The Rev. Mickey P. Carter, pastor of the Landmark Baptist Church, is heading a committee to create a religious monument on a rock in front of the public building. Carter announced that religious minorities including Hindus and Muslims are not welcome on the panel because he believes their faith traditions were not part of America's origins.

"It's a heritage rock, not a religious rock," Carter told the Lakeland Ledger. He added, "If they want to go to India or Pakistan and put up their own rock, that's fine. We certainly don't owe Hindus or Islam (a place on the Polk monument)."

According to the Associated Press, Harish Shah, a Hindu who is the former chairman of Polk's Indian Cultural Society, indicated he would like to see his faith represented on the monument.

Despite these concerns, the Polk County Commission voted unanimously in October to display the Commandments along with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

The move has been criticized by the local affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

'Faith-Based' Facility In Missouri Accused Of Abuse

Employees at a Missouri "faith-based" facility for troubled youths are facing criminal charges after multiple complaints were filed alleging child abuse and neglect.

The Heartland Christian Academy, located about 150 miles north of St. Louis, uses work therapy and a Christian-based education to help children with disciplinary and other problems. In October, however, state officials brought buses to the facility to remove 115 children because their safety could not be assured.

Earlier in the year, five employees at the school were alleged to have punished misbehaving children by forcing them into concrete-lined manure pits. Two months later, four Heartland staffers were accused of spanking a 16-year-old 35 times. Then, in October, another employee was charged with abuse after the staffer allegedly used his elbow to strike a disorderly 13-year-old in the ear, causing the eardrum to burst. School administrators said a lingering ear infection was the source of the problem.

State officials are in the process of investigating the Christian facility and reported on Nov. 6 that they have discovered 16 "substantiated" cases of abuse or neglect. Charles Sharpe, founder of the school, said his employees have done nothing wrong and insisted that officials have launched a "witch hunt" against Heartland.

Bible Distribution In Tennessee School Sparks Controversy

An elementary school policy that allows outsiders access to children for Bible distribution is being criticized in McMinnville, Tenn., and could spark a lawsuit.

Administrators at Dibrell Elementary School in Warren County permitted representatives of Gideons International to hand out pocket-sized copies of the New Testament to fifth-graders. Roy Pierce, human resources director for the school district, said the religious group had been distributing the Christian scriptures to children for at least 20 years, and the county had no plans to change the policy.

Sherry Trotman, the school's principal, told the Associated Press that students who were uncomfortable with the Bible distribution were allowed to leave the room while Gideons handed out the books.

After several parents complained about the practice, Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote to school officials and said "legal action" may be necessary if the religious promotion continues.

"The reason for the prohibition on Bible distributions is not that the Constitution requires schools to be hostile toward religion," wrote Americans United attorney Allison Pierce, "but that it requires schools to remain neutral on religious matters, by neither encouraging nor discouraging particular religious points of view."

Cardinal In Peru May Excommunicate Pro-Choice Pols

Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani has instructed Roman Catholic priests in Lima, Peru, that politicians and other public figures who oppose the church's stance on abortion will eventually be denied communion.

The Pastoral Commission of Lima's Archdiocese has sent a document to its pastors titled, "The Moral and Legal Dimension of Abortion," that tells priests that public figures who support abortion rights "are committing a grave sin, because they are supporting a crime." As a result, pastors can "deny him or her Holy Communion in public, after warning him or her in private."

The announcement was hailed by abortion opponents elsewhere. According to the National Catholic Register, the American Life League said Cipriani's directive could serve as a step towards excommunicating Catholic politicians in the United States who refuse to impose the church's position on the issue on all Americans.