Tax Breaks For Religious Schools Get Priority In House
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has outlined a legislative agenda for this session of Congress giving top priority to a measure that would help finance tuition at religious and other private schools.
Hastert announced that the House will consider a bill to create "education savings accounts" (ESA) allowing individuals to contribute up to $2,000 a year to an account earning tax-free interest to be used for education expenses, including tuition at religious schools and costs associated with home schooling. The bill is expected to come up for a vote in February.
This latest push for the accounts comes a year and a half after Congress passed an identical measure introduced by Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.). Both houses of Congress passed Coverdell's original ESA bill in spring 1998, but President Bill Clinton vetoed the plan in May.
Critics argue that the accounts amount to little more than a back-door voucher mechanism that would subsidize religious schools.
The measure has received support from Religious Right groups such as the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council. When Congress first considered the proposal, Gary Bauer, then-president of the FRC, explained that his group is responsible for creating the legislation.
Religious Right, Congress Cheer Football Prayer
Religious Right groups and their allies in Congress have filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of school-sanctioned prayer at high school football games.
The high court announced in November that it would hear Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a Texas case dealing with student-led invocations at athletic events. Court watchers regard the lawsuit as the most significant school prayer controversy to be considered by the high court in nearly a decade.
In light of the case's importance, school prayer proponents are inundating the Supreme Court with legal advice.
One brief, filed by Reps. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) and J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), argues that, "A public high school need not -- indeed, constitutionally cannot -- ban a student's religious speech from a school event." Several other members of Congress joined a brief filed by Wallbuilders, a Texas-based Religious Right group founded by David Barton. The 21 representatives include House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Reps. Bob Aderholt (R-Ala.), Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) and Bob Barr (R-Ga.).
Lawyers working on behalf of Texas Gov. George W. Bush have also filed a brief in support of football prayer. In addition, Religious Right legal groups such as John Whitehead's Rutherford Institute, Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice and Jerry Falwell's Liberty Alliance urged the justices to uphold the invocations.
Americans United and other organizations that support church-state separation are scheduled to lodge their views with the high court this month. A decision in the case is expected by June or July.
Public School Performance Up, Says Report
Public school students are scoring better on their SATs, achieving more in math and science and going to college in record numbers, according to a new report by the Center on Education Policy and the American Youth Policy Forum.
The report, titled "Do You Know The Good News About American Education?," details improvements in public education that have been ongoing for the past two decades. Contrary to the rhetoric from public school critics in the Religious Right and elsewhere, more students are finishing school, taking more challenging coursework and Advanced Placement exams and completing four-year college degrees.
The report also notes that despite public perceptions about school safety, crimes against students have dropped in every category, including theft and violence.
"What is perhaps most remarkable is that our nation has made these improvements with a very diverse population, a strong tradition of local control of education, and enormous variation among states and school districts in their student population, policies and practices," the report concludes. (The text of the report is available at www.aypf.org.)
Pizza Magnate Forms Political Action Committee
Former Domino's Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan has started a political action committee.
The Ann Arbor Political Action Committee, named after the Michigan city Monaghan calls home, will support local, state and national candidates who share Monaghan's enthusiasm for Catholic schools and his opposition to abortion rights.
" We will be a significant player in elections both here in Michigan and across the county, at both the state and federal levels," Monaghan told the Ann Arbor News.
Raising funds should not be a problem for Monaghan due to his vast network of wealthy conservative allies. The PAC's advisory board already features former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, Amway chairman Dick Devos and Michael Novak, a policy wonk at the American Enterprise Institute.
Monaghan is also the founder of Legatus, an international group of multi-millionaire Catholic CEOs committed to applying religious principles in business. Despite Monaghan's insistence that his commitment is to principles and not politics, Legatus recently hosted a dinner at the Women's Republican Club of New York.
Ex-Seminarian Can Sue Jesuits For Sexual Harassment
Religious organizations are not exempt from sexual harassment lawsuits against their clergy, according to a recent decision from a federal appeals court.
In a unanimous Dec. 1 ruling, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said a religious order could face civil charges without government interference in the institution's faith.
"There is no danger that, by allowing this suit to proceed, we will thrust the secular courts into the constitutionally untenable position of passing judgment on questions of religious faith or doctrine," Judge William Fletcher wrote in Bollard v. The California Province of the Society of Jesus.
The controversy arose when John Bollard left seminary in 1996 after allegedly being subjected to sexual advances by at least a dozen priests over a five-and-a-half year period. Bollard also claims that he received several pornographic cards from priests and invitations to attend gay bars while studying with the California Jesuits.
After leaving seminary, Bollard became the first former seminarian ever to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Jesuits. In his complaint, Bollard named the priests involved in the incidents and is seeking more than $1 million in damages.
Attorneys for the Jesuits insisted that the dispute should be handled within the church and that the First Amendment's separation of church and state shields the religious order from court involvement in the matter.
After his victory, Bollard told the Associated Press the ruling proves that "the church is not above the law."
W.Va. Teacher Wins 'Mark Of The Beast' Case
A state court has ruled that a West Virginia public school teacher cannot be fired for refusing on religious grounds to enforce his school's bar-coded identification program.
On Dec. 29, Circuit Court Judge John L. Henning ruled that the Randolph County Board of Education failed to accommodate the religious beliefs of Philip Hudok, a physics teacher at Elkins High School for 19 years. Hudok believes the bar-coded ID badges may be the biblical "mark of the beast" written about in Revelation.
Hudok originally protested having to wear a badge in February 1999, and the Randolph County Board of Education gave him an exemption. However, the teacher went on to allow his students to discard their badges, which school officials considered insubordination and grounds for dismissal. The circuit court disagreed.
"The Board of Education stipulated that Mr. Hudok had a sincerely held religious belief, and the Board of Education further stipulated that the Board of Education made no attempt whatsoever to accommodate Mr. Hudok on his religious belief," Henning said in a five-page opinion in Randolph County Board of Education v. Hudok. The judge added that the court "takes no position on the accuracy or inaccuracy of Mr. Hudok's interpretation of the Bible."
Hudok received legal assistance from the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based Religious Right legal group. Representatives for the school board have not yet decided whether to appeal Henning's ruling.
Sweden Officially Separates Church And State
The Church of Sweden officially cut ties with the Swedish government Jan. 1 after 500 years as the established faith.
Five years after the change was approved by the Swedish parliament, the Lutheran church is no longer an official part of the government and children of church members are no longer automatically enrolled in the church. As a separate legal entity, it will be on equal footing with other religious groups in Sweden.
"The church's identity as a people's church will become clearer when it's not part of the state apparatus," the Rev. Johan Dalman told the Associated Press Dec. 27. "The church gets more power over itself. It can influence its organization more and adjust it when needed."
U.N. Tells Canada To End School Funding Bias
A United Nations committee has ruled that a Canadian province may not provide public funds for Catholic schools, while denying aid to schools of other faiths.
On Nov. 5, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found Ontario's school funding program in violation of Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty Canada signed in 1976. The committee gave Canada 90 days to indicate how it will correct the discriminatory policy.
Arieh Waldman, a Jewish parent in Ontario, submitted a complaint to the U.N. committee after failing in Canadian courts. He explained that he has spent $95,000 on private education for his two children, while taxpayers finance all the tuition at Catholic private schools.
"I expect full compensation for the monies I spent to educate my children in contrast to my Catholic neighbors who spent nothing," Waldman said.
Though the U.N. ruling is non-binding, it is expected to increase political pressure to end the controversial system or risk tarnishing Canada's reputation as a leader in human rights. Provincial government officials have already announced their intention to ignore the committee's ruling.
Ontario's Education Minister Janet Ecker told the Calgary Herald that the province "remains committed" to the school funding system now in place.