Dobson, Religious Right Join Forces With Pope To Push 'Family' Agenda
A delegation of American Religious Right leaders, including Focus on the Family President James Dobson, traveled to the Vatican in late November to meet Pope John Paul II and attend a conference on families and the world economy.
The gathering was scheduled jointly by the Pontifical Council for the Family, an arm of the Vatican, and the Acton Institute, a Michigan-based conservative Catholic group that promotes free-market economic policies. The event took place Nov. 27-29 in Vatican City and featured a brief meeting between Dobson and the pope.
Dobson was accompanied by Charles Colson, the ex-Watergate felon turned Religious Right activist. Colson, who has been working with right-wing Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus to bridge the divide between conservative Catholics and evangelicals, hailed the conference as a historic moment.
"There was a time not long ago when evangelical Protestant leaders like myself would not have been invited to the Vatican," said Colson, who serves as president of Prison Fellowship. "And if we had we would not have come. Thank God those days are behind us. May the day soon come when the world is no longer scandalized by our division but scandalized only by the cross of Christ."
At the conference Dobson lauded the Catholic Church, saying it "has done more to protect the family and traditional morality than any other institution, and I salute you for that." According to the National Catholic Register, Dobson specifically cited the Vatican's efforts in curbing population control efforts around the world and its opposition to gay rights.
Dobson acknowledged that he has theological differences with Catholics but added, "When it comes to the family, there is far more agreement than disagreement, and with regard to moral issues from abortion to premarital sex, safe-sex ideology and homosexuality, I find more in common with Catholics than with some of my own evangelical brothers and sisters."
The Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, said the conference was a first step toward bringing Catholics and evangelicals together. "This kind of communion, this kind of dialogue, it's not an attempt to negotiate the truth but to approach it together in a bond of fraternal love," he said. "Part of the thing is to get over the hump of knowing each other. I think that's what's beginning to happen here."
In other news about Dobson and FOF:
A former Focus employee who worked at the organization as a youth counselor has been convicted of sexually molesting a young boy. A jury in Colorado Springs convicted Steven Wilsey, 33, in late December of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust. He will be sentenced this month and faces 12 years to life in prison.
According to the Associated Press, Wilsey approached another FOF employee in 1992 who was a single mom and offered to act as a mentor to her three sons, who were then 8, 4 and less than 1 in age. During the trial, the woman testified that Wilsey made the offer after FOF aired a radio broadcast claiming that boys who grow up without fathers are more prone to become homosexuals.
The woman agreed and allowed Wilsey to take her sons on camping and hiking trips and other events. In February of 2000 the woman discovered that Wilsey had molested her youngest son, who was then 8. Prosecutors charged Wilsey with a pattern of molestation from October of 1998 to late February 2000, but the jury convicted him of only one count of fondling the boy.
Dobson's Citizen magazine has attacked the Girl Scouts again. In last month's issue, the publication reprinted a hatchet job on the Girl Scouts that originally appeared in the National Review. The article claimed that the Girl Scouts are under the sway of radical feminists and lesbians.
"There are currently 2.7 million Girl Scouts in the U.S.," asserts the article. "That's a lot of liberal feminists to look forward to."
The article marks Dobson's second attack on the Girl Scouts. In February of 1994, Citizen assailed the organization for promoting "humanism and radical feminism."
Thou Shalt Not Meddle In Religious Matters, Court Tells Elkhart
Display of a Ten Commandments monument in front of a government building in Elkhart, Ind., violates the separation of church and state, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.
Local officials argued that the Commandments monolith in front of the city's municipal building is permissible because it is among several historical monuments featured in and around the building. In December of 1999, U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp agreed and dismissed a legal challenge. The appellate court's ruling in the Books v. Elkhart case overturns that decision.
The appeals court held Dec. 13 that the granite Ten Commandments monument, which sits on the lawn in front of the city's municipal building, is clearly religious in nature and that the presence of other monuments, including a Revolutionary War memorial and a display called the Freedom Monument, do not reduce the inherent religiosity of the Commandments.
"[T]his monument impermissibly suggests that, in this community, there are 'ins' and 'outs,'" the court declared in its 2-1 ruling. The court added that constitutional principles "simply prevent government at any level from intruding into the religious life of our people by sponsoring or endorsing a particular perspective on religious matters."
The 7th Circuit's ruling is the latest in a long line of defeats for government endorsement of the religious document. During the past two years, several Religious Right groups have aggressively promoted government display of the Ten Commandments in city halls, public schools and other public buildings. Bills promoting such displays were considered in 11 state legislatures in 2000.
The crusade conflicts with the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham (1980) that a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools was unconstitutional. More recently, state and federal courts have struck down government-sponsored display of the Commandments in South Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and, just last month, in a separate Indiana case.
Americans United, which filed a brief with the appellate court and monitors these controversies nationally, applauded the 7th Circuit's Indiana decision. "The Ten Commandments have done pretty well for themselves for centuries," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "They don't need any help from politicians in Elkhart, Ind., or anywhere else. I hope this decision will bring a screeching halt to the misguided crusade to display sacred religious texts at government buildings."
In other news about government-sponsored Ten Commandments displays:
Allegheny County, Pa., officials have rebuffed a request from Americans United to remove a Ten Commandments plaque from the courthouse. In a letter to AU attorneys, Allegheny County Solicitor Terrence McVerry stated that the county does not believe the display violates the separation of church and state.
On Jan. 17, members of the county council voted 11-2 in favor of a resolution backing continued display of the commandments. Americans United is exploring the possibility of legal action.
Three rural Kentucky counties have re-posted the Ten Commandments alongside other historic documents in courthouses and public schools, after local officials asserted that the new displays are constitutional.
The developments are the latest in a long legal battle between the counties and the American Civil Liberties Union. In response to an ACLU lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman ruled in May of 2000 that the three counties may not sponsor Ten Commandments displays.
Officials in McCreary and Pulaski counties subsequently re-posted the commandments in their courthouses as part of larger displays containing other documents, among them the Bill of Rights and the Mayflower Compact. A few days later, officials in Harlan County voted to post similar displays in schools there.
The ACLU has asked Coffman to find the counties in contempt of court.
Washington County, Ind., officials have agreed to settle a Ten Commandments lawsuit by creating an educational display that erects the biblical code alongside historic writings by the ancient lawgiver Hammurabi, third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and others.
As part of the settlement, the county, which was defended by TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, also agreed to pay the legal fees incurred by plaintiff Jeffrey Adkins and his lawyers at the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.
Alabama Judge Roy Moore, a controversial jurist who became the target of a lawsuit for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, is cleaning house at the state Supreme Court. Moore, who was elected chief justice last November, has fired all five attorneys in the court's administrative office and the court's spokesman.
Moore says "major changes" are coming to the court and has hinted that there may be more firings.
Mixing Religion, Politics Troubles Americans, New Poll Indicates
A new poll of Americans' views on the role of religion in public life shows that most people are skeptical of infusing politics with religion.
The survey was conducted by Public Agenda, a New York City-based research organization, and released last month. In the area of religion and politics, 58 percent of respondents said it is wrong to vote on the basis of a candidate's religious affiliation. Thirty-seven percent said voters should consider a candidate's religious views, and the rest said they don't know.
Most Americans also oppose elected officials basing their votes on their personal religious beliefs. Fifty-seven percent of those polled said a deeply religious official should be willing to compromise on abortion. Similar majorities expected compromise on issues such as gay rights and the death penalty. Only 26 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to support a candidate who always votes on the basis of his religious beliefs.
Most Americans believe candidates who talk about religion frequently are just shilling for votes. Seventy-four percent told pollsters that when they hear candidates talking about their personal religious views, they believe this is just an effort to win votes.
The poll also asked people some in-depth questions about prayer in public schools. The results show that very few Americans a mere 6 percent favor mandating that students recite a Christian prayer every day, the position held by most Religious Right groups. The majority of respondents 53 percent favor a daily moment of silence in schools. Twenty percent backed recitation of a non-sectarian prayer, while 19 percent said the schools should do nothing.
Even among self-identified evangelical Christians, support for school-sponsored Christian prayers was low, at 12 percent. Like the general population, 53 percent of evangelicals favored a moment of silence.
However, only 37 percent of the respondents believe that school prayer violates the Constitution. Jews and the non-religious were much more likely to see school prayer as a violation of church-state separation, with 78 percent and 72 percent respectively agreeing that it does.
The poll showed a split in opinion over issues related to "charitable choice." While most Americans approve of the idea of government giving tax money to religious groups to combat social ills, they disagree about how religious those programs should be. Forty-four percent said government should fund church-based social welfare projects even if they are religious. But 31 percent said this is a bad idea, and 23 percent said it is a good idea only if the programs avoid religious messages.
Summing up the survey's findings, Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda, remarked, "A majority of Americans recoil at the use of religion as a litmus test and have an almost instinctive wariness of injecting religion directly into politics or putting their own faith on a pedestal above others. On the other hand, they believe religion has enormous power to elevate people's behavior and address many societal problems."
For more information about the poll, visit Public Agenda's website at www.publicagenda.org.
Okla. School Ends Religious Halftime Show At AU Request
Responding to a protest from Americans United, public school officials in Fort Gibson, Okla., have agreed to drop a football halftime show that promoted Christianity.
Americans United attorneys wrote to the school in December after receiving complaints from concerned citizens. During the show, the band marched in the shape of a cross while playing Christian songs and hoisting a white flag bearing a gold cross.
Fort Gibson School Superintendent Steve Wilmoth said the district's attorneys advised him to stop the performances, and he in turn instructed band director Gordon Macklin to discontinue the show. In a brief letter to Americans United dated Dec. 19, Assistant Superintendent Linda Clinkenbeard informed AU, "The Fort Gibson marching band has discontinued the religious halftime performances as referred in your letter to me dated December 11, 2000."
Macklin said the issue was moot, since the football season is over. "I was not trying to make a statement," Macklin said. "I was just a band director looking for some good music." The Associated Press reported that Macklin had originally planned a halftime show with a "Wizard of Oz" theme, but dropped it when students expressed opposition.
The band director sarcastically added that next year the band would perform "Marilyn Manson's greatest hits, so we'll offend the other side," a reference to a controversial shock rock star. He added, "I can assure you, it won't be anything they could find in the Methodist hymnal."
In other news about religion in public schools:
The New York City Board of Education in early December ordered a public high school in Brooklyn to stop allowing Muslim students to use the auditorium as a makeshift mosque for daily prayers. Muslim students at Lafayette High School were being excused 10 minutes early from the seventh period of the day to pray in the auditorium. Board officials said the arrangement violated policies forbidding the promotion of any specific religion.
School officials said they were open to working out an accommodation but that it would have to cover all students, not just Muslims.
Keep Proselytizing Out Of Public Schools, AU Tells Supreme Court
Public schools should have the right to refuse space to religious groups seeking to proselytize young children, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has advised the Supreme Court.
Americans United presented its argument in a friend-of-the-court brief filed before the high court last month in the case The Good News Club v. Milford Central School. The legal controversy centers around a New York public school that has refused to rent its building to a religious group that wants to hold evangelistic classes for young children right after the school day ends. (See "Evangelism, Public Schools and the Supreme Court," January 2001 Church & State.)
Stephen Fournier, a local pastor in Milford, N.Y., wants to use the school for weekly meetings of his Good News Club that start just six minutes after classes end. Good News Clubs, which are sponsored by the national Child Evangelism Fellowship, are aimed at converting children as young as 5 and 6 to fundamentalist Christianity.
School officials note that while other outside groups are permitted to use the school, none have requested to do so at the very end of the school day on an ongoing basis.
In the brief, AU argues that young children are unable to distinguish between events that are school sponsored and those that are not. The brief also contends that it will be necessary for school officials to escort students to meetings of the Good News Cub, creating too much of a connection between the school and a private religious group.
"No child between the ages of six to twelve, under the circumstances of this case, can reasonably be expected to appreciate that, despite all of the similarities between Good News Club classes and his or her other classes the latter, but not the former, are school sponsored," asserts the brief.
Americans United filed the brief jointly with the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the American Jewish Committee and People For the American Way.
Armed And Dangerous?: Falwell Receives Life Membership In NRA
National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre traveled to Lynchburg, Va., in October to appear on the Rev. Jerry Falwell's television program and present him with a life-time membership in the NRA.
In a laudatory article about the meeting published in Falwell's National Liberty Journal, the televangelist noted that "many of our fellow Americans have formed a negative opinion of the NRA, but the truth is that the NRA is helping to train millions of people to safely use their guns."
During the broadcast, LaPierre accused former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore of doing "everything they can do not to enforce existing federal firearms laws against the people doing the killing. What they've done instead is try to restrict the rights of honest people to own firearms in our nation."
Falwell replied, "It is up to America's patriots those people who cherish our constitutional freedoms to stand against leftist lawmakers and advocates who are resolved to eradicate our right to protect our families the way we see fit."
This is not the first time Falwell has recommended keeping firearms around. Throughout 1999, he sold a video claiming that the "Y2K" bug might spawn chaos in American cities. On the video, Falwell urged viewers to stockpile guns alongside food and water, saying, "If I'm blessed with a little food and my family is inside the house with me, I've got to be sure that I can persuade others not to mess with us."
In other news about the Religious Right:
A California pastor who frequently prays for God to smite his enemies has issued a statement calling for a "prayerful Cleansing [sic] of the Whitehouse [sic] in light of occult and demonic activities that have been going on in the past."
The Rev. Wiley Drake, a proponent of so-called "imprecatory prayers," says the White House must be cleansed with prayer because former President Ronald Reagan received an honorary Masonic membership there and his wife, Nancy, practiced astrology. Drake also accused President Bill Clinton of seeking "help from New Age environmentalism people" and said First Lady Hillary Clinton "called for s\xe9ances and necromancy in the Whitehouse [sic] Solarium to commune with the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt."
Drake, who founded an organization called Americans United For The Unity Of Church and State, says the White House must be spiritually made pure "for our new born again President to move in." Last year Drake announced plans to use imprecatory prayers against AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and the entire AU staff.
TV preacher D. James Kennedy paid CBS Television an unspecified amount of money to run a video about the life of Jesus on Dec. 26. CBS ordered the 16 affiliates it owns to cancel regular programming and air the Kennedy video "Who Is This Jesus?" Some stations were forced to cancel the evening news to run the program.
Kennedy decided to produce the video, which he claims proves that the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ are literally true, after ABC Television ran a two-hour program last summer called "The Search for Jesus" that examined the life of Christ as a historical figure and featured some scholars casting doubt on the literal truth of the Gospel accounts.
Promise Keepers, the evangelical men's group, has announced its 2001 line-up. The organization, founded by ex-football coach Bill McCartney, will meet in 18 cities, six of which are new locations. The cities are: Grand Forks, N.D.; Rapid City, S.D.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Baltimore; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Auburn Hills, Mich.; Providence; Nashville; Indianapolis; San Jose, Calif.; Kansas City, Mo.; Charlotte, N.C.; Houston; Tacoma, Wash.; Anaheim, Calif.; Nampa, Idaho and Oklahoma City.
The theme for this year's meeting will be "Turn the Tide: Living Out an Extreme Faith." Said McCartney, "Men should position themselves to deal with the prevailing currents of relative truth, pleasure at all costs and spiritual apathy. Extreme sports are the rage these days, but an extreme faith can change our families, our churches and our cities."
Pope Blasts European Union Charter For Lack Of References To God
Pope John Paul II and top Vatican officials have blasted the European Union's new Charter of Fundamental Rights, asserting that the document is flawed because it contains no references to God.
"I cannot hide my disappointment that the text of the charter does not include even one reference to God, the supreme source of the dignity of the human person and his fundamental rights," the pope wrote in a letter published Dec. 16.
Continued the pope, "It must not be forgotten that it was the denial of God and his commandments that created the tyranny of idols in the last century, expressed in the glorification of a race, class, state, nation, party, instead of the living and true God. Indeed, in light of the misfortunes poured on the 20th century, it can be understood that the rights of God and man are either affirmed together or they fall together."
John Paul charged that many European nations threaten family rights by permitting legal abortion and assisted-suicide. His comments came just weeks after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, called the EU charter a "godless" document that would cause "moral and social harm to" families.
The European Union officially approved the 54-point charter during a Dec. 7 meeting in Nice, France. The document is designed to outline the fundamental rights that should coexist among all the people of Europe.
In other news about the pope:
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) led a delegation of one dozen House and Senate members to Rome Jan. 8 to present John Paul II with the Congressional Medal of Honor. "This award celebrates your life, not only as a spiritual leader of a billion Catholics but also as a peacemaker, healer and beacon of light to the whole world," Hastert said. "For more than 20 years as pope, you have tirelessly traveled this globe, preaching a message of love and truth."
Past recipients of the medal include John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham and Nelson Mandela.
John Paul II was criticized in December for meeting briefly with Jorg Haider, a far-right Austrian politician whose views on immigration are considered extreme. Haider, governor of the Austrian state of Carinthia, traveled to Rome with a delegation of supporters to present an 80-foot Christmas tree to the pope Dec. 16.
Haider did not receive a private audience with John Paul, but the two spoke briefly before the presentation. Jewish groups and World War II veterans protested the meeting, saying it would give Haider legitimacy.
An Italian newsmagazine has reported that the pope believes former President Bill Clinton was not listening to him during a meeting they had at the Vatican in June of 1994. The magazine interviewed Gianfranco Fineschi, a surgeon who operated on John Paul in 1994. Fineschi claims that he and the pope had several informal conversations about the world leaders John Paul had met over the years.
The surgeon reports the pope as saying, "The only leader I did not manage to have a proper conversation with was Clinton. I was speaking, and he was looking at one of the walls, admiring the frescos and the paintings. He was not listening to me."
Walton Foundation Pours Millions Into School Voucher Crusade
An Arkansas foundation formed by Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton continues to pour millions of dollars into the private school voucher movement.
According to the Arkansas Democrat, the Walton Family Foundation is now worth nearly $1 billion and continues to grow. Established in 1987, it has enjoyed explosive growth. Walton, who died in 1992, left the foundation a trust worth $172 million that became its basis for operations.
While the foundation funds some museums, symphonies and community projects in Arkansas, the lion's share of its money goes to "school choice" initiatives. Recipients of Walton's largess include voucher front groups such as the American Education Reform Council, Floridians for School Choice, the Mackinac Center and the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.
Of the $66.5 million in grants the Walton Family Foundation distributed in 2000, $33.4 million went to fund the voucher movement, and $14.2 million went to charter schools or organizations supporting them. The foundation's largest single grant, $24.8 million, went to the Children's Scholarship Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based group that pays for tuition at religious and other private schools. (Fund backers hope the effort will convince politicians to support tax-subsidized voucher plans.)
In other news about parochial school aid:
Voucher strategists are looking for new approaches after the crushing defeat of two voucher referenda last November. According to the Family Research Council's Ed Facts bulletin, some voucher groups plan to push a "universal tax credit" instead. Under the proposal, parents, individual taxpayers and businesses would receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for money spent to pay for any student's private school tuition. Backers believe this proposal would skirt the church-state problems that have sunk some voucher plans in the courts.
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has proposed spending $8 million in state funds to buy textbooks for private schools, even though not enough private schools applied for books to use up $6 million allocated for them last year.
Some state legislators are skeptical of the plan, noting that they approved last year's request only because Glendening told them it would be a one-time allocation.
"I was comfortable with it as a one-time thing," Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, told The Washington Post. "I really can't support funding for private schools again this year as long as I feel the public schools are underfunded."
New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani is still pushing vouchers, undeterred by a recent federal appeals court ruling declaring Cleveland's voucher plan unconstitutional. Guiliani said he believes the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold the Cleveland plan on appeal and accused voucher opponents of "fooling people" with scare tactics.
Schools Chancellor Harold Levy has not taken a stand on vouchers but says he doubts they would be permitted under the New York Constitution.
Faced with a swelling student population and a reluctance to raise taxes to build new schools, some Utah lawmakers have come up with a novel solution: send children to private schools with state money.
Rep. John Swallow, a Republican from Sandy, says he will introduce legislation to give taxpayers a $2,500 tax credit if they send their children to private schools. "We need to get our children taught on someone else's nickel," Swallow told the Salt Lake Tribune. "It's one way to save public schools."
Public education officials say the plan is faulty and will end up costing public schools tax revenues in the long run.