July/August 2001 AU Bulletin

Supreme Court Rejects N.J. School Bible Story Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear a case from New Jersey dealing with an elementary school student who wanted to read a Bible story to his classmates.

The dispute began in 1996 after Zachary Hood, then a first grader at a Medford, N.J., elementary school, was told he could read aloud to his classmates as a reward for doing well in class. Hood and other students who had been selected were asked to bring in short, simple stories, and the teacher, Grace Oliva, vetted their selections.

Hood wanted to read a story from The Beginner's Bible called "A Big Family," which is based on the Old Testament account of Jacob and Esau. Concerned about the religious character of the choice, Oliva told Hood he could not read the Bible story to the entire class but did allow him to read it to her privately.

Hood and his mother, Carol, sued the school district, arguing that the boy had a constitutional right to read the story out loud. The two were represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative Catholic-oriented legal advocacy organization.

Lower federal courts disagreed with the Hoods, holding that teachers have considerable discretion in making decisions about the educational activities that take place in their classrooms. (Hood v. Medford Board of Education)

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and allied organizations filed a brief on behalf of the school district at the lower court level. The groups argued that public schools have no obligation to allow students to present religious material to a captive audience of their classmates.

Ky. Public School Chapel To Be Turned Into Bathroom

A chapel inside a Kentucky public school will be renovated and converted into a bathroom before classes resume this fall, an attorney for the school has informed Americans United.

Johnnie L. Turner, Harlan County School Board attorney, told Americans United in a June 4 letter that constitutional concerns about the chapel, which Turner referred to as a "quiet room" at Cumberland High School, are unfounded. Turner said the room, previously a closet, "is presently being used as a room for students to go, sit, and do studies, meditation, and/or other things they should so desire."

Americans United wrote to Harlan County school officials after reports surfaced that the chapel had opened in April. Although Turner calls the space a "quiet room," AU noted that the room was dedicated to God in a ceremony attended by local clergy and students. It included a pulpit, an altar and pews decorated with crosses. The Lord's Prayer was posted on the wall.

In his letter, Turner claimed the pulpit was a podium and the altars were benches. He said there was no display of the Lord's Prayer and insisted that the crosses on the benches could be interpreted as the letter T.

Turner said the issue will be moot once the room is renovated. "I would advise you that this floor of the school building is going to be renovated during the summer months, as I understand," he wrote. "Since there are no bathrooms on that floor, bathrooms will be placed in the room which you have labeled as the 'Chapel and or Quiet Room.' This will take care of any issues that may involve the quiet room at this school."

Minnesota Court Throws Out Teacher's Anti-Evolution Suit

Public school teachers have no right to refrain from teaching evolution just because they object to the concept on religious grounds, a Minnesota appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel with the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in May against Rod LeVake, formerly a high school biology teacher in the Faribault School District. LeVake sued the district when he was removed as a biology teacher in 1998 after Ken Hubert, the co-chair of the science department, expressed concern that LeVake had not covered evolution adequately in class.

When Hubert asked LeVake about the matter, LeVake said he could not teach evolution because he does not believe it occurred. He later wrote a paper critical of evolution that ended with a promise to offer his students "an honest look at the differences and inconsistencies of the theory without turning my class into a religious one."

School officials told LeVake this was unacceptable and reassigned him to teach ninth-grade natural sciences. Backed by TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, he sued in state court, contending that this action violated his freedom of religion and free speech rights.

The court disagreed. "It is unclear on what basis LeVake argues that his right to free exercise of religion was violated," wrote Judge Daniel Foley for the appeals court. "LeVake does not contend that respondents prohibited him from practicing the religion of his choice. He does not assert that respondents demanded that he refrain from practicing his religion outside of the scope of his duties as a public school teacher in order to retain his teaching position, and he does not assert that the curriculum requirements incidentally infringed on his religious practice." (LeVake v. Independent School District 656)

Breakaway Church Can't Keep Building, Wisconsin Court Says

A Methodist congregation that broke away from the national denomination does not have the right to keep the church building, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled.

The court ruled 5-2 May 31 that members of the Elo United Methodist Church in Pickett, Wisc., must surrender the building to denominational officials. The church building, the court ruled, was held "in trust" by the local congregation but remained the property of the United Methodist Church.

Religion New Service reported that the 119-member congregation voted to leave the Methodist denomination in 1997 due to a disagreement over doctrine. Members renamed the building the Elo Evangelical Church, removed the name "United Methodist" from all church materials and even tried to evict the pastor from the parsonage.

After two years of unfruitful negotiations, the denomination's Wisconsin Annual Conference filed suit to get the church back. Declared the court, "Although the members of a local church may secede from a hierarchical system, they cannot secede and take the church property with them." (The Wisconsin Conference Board of Trustees of the United Methodist Church, Inc. v. Culver)

Massachusetts Mormons Win Right To Erect Steeple

A Mormon church in Belmont, Mass., may erect an 83-foot steeple even though some neighbors have complained that it is too big, the state's highest court has ruled.

Belmont's Mormon temple opened last October after years of litigation by some residents in the exclusive Boston suburb who unsuccessfully claimed it violated local zoning ordinances. When that effort failed, opponents went back into court arguing that the steeple was too tall and unnecessary.

In 1997, the local zoning board approved the temple's plan to erect the steeple. A group of neighbors sued, saying the structure would be a blight on the community. A superior court ruled in favor of the neighbors, but that ruling has now been overturned by the higher court.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rejected the neighbor's key arguments on May 16. "It is not for judges to determine whether the inclusion of a particular architectural feature is 'necessary' for a particular religion," wrote the court. "A rose window at Notre Dame Cathedral, a balcony at St. Peter's Basilica, are judges to decide whether these architectural elements are 'necessary' to the faith served by those buildings?"

When completed, the steeple will reach 83 feet above the roof and be topped by a statue of the angel Moroni.

Easter Pageant's Funding Jackpot Sparks Indiana Lawsuit

State gambling grants given to religious groups in Indiana, including an Easter pageant, have sparked a church-state lawsuit.

The money came from the Build Indiana Fund, which receives revenues consisting of taxes on the state lottery, riverboat casinos and other forms of gambling. It was created in 1989 and is supposed to be used for capital building projects.

The Indiana Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) contends that the fund lacks clear award-granting guidelines, leaving it open to pork-barrel appropriations by legislators. The organization surveyed the 1,500 grants made in 1999 and found that $500,000 to $1 million had been diverted to churches, parochial schools and other religious organizations.

Among the awardees was the Marion Indiana Easter Pageant Inc., a group that sponsors a six-scene pantomimed musical pageant each year depicting the last days of Jesus Christ. Other awardees included Cathedral High School and a private Catholic college in Fort Wayne.

ICLU officials said some of the grants, such as the Marion Easter Pageant, appear to be patently unconstitutional. "Clearly, when government is funding a pageant designed to honor 'the life of our Lord Jesus Christ,' one can hardly think of a clearer example of public funding of religion for religious purposes," said ICLU Legal Director Ken Falk. (Indiana Civil Liberties Union v. O'Bannon)

Robertson, Dobson Groups Suffer Donation Downturn

Two of America's largest Religious Right organizations are facing cutbacks due to a downfall in donations.

In May James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family announced that the Colorado-based ministry is $2 million in debt. Dobson was forced to issue an appeal for donations, telling his 2.4 million supporters that FOF is at a "crossroads that will determine where we go from here."

In a follow-up interview with Religion News Service, Dobson added, "If what we're seeing now continues, we will do less of what we planned to do."

The appeal marked the second time in seven months that Dobson had to use his monthly newsletter, normally a vehicle for social and political rants, for fund-raising. Last January he asserted that FOF was in debt to the tune of $2.5 million, which he later said donors had helped eliminate.

TV preacher Pat Robertson is also feeling the pinch. In March Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network announced that it would lay off 50 people, 5 percent of its workforce. Robertson said he wanted to trim $7 million in costs because of the economic slowdown.

Iranian Woman Stoned To Death For Movie Role

A 35-year-old woman in Iran was stoned to death in May after the country's highest court upheld her conviction for appearing in "obscene sex films."

Entekhab, an Iranian daily newspaper, reported that the woman, whose name was not given, was arrested eight years ago and charged with the offense. The woman denied any wrongdoing but was found guilty. Her conviction was recently upheld by the Iranian Supreme Court, clearing the way for her execution.

According to the press account, the woman was partially buried in a hole in the yard at Tehran's Evin prison and stoned to death. No further details were available.

Iran is an Islamic theocracy, but official sentences of death by stoning there are rare. Death sentences are often imposed on drug dealers and murderers, but the normal execution procedure is hanging.