March 2003 People & Events

Bush Administration's Religion Guidelines Push Prayer In School, Americans United Charges

The Bush administration's new federal guidelines "push the envelope" on religion in public schools beyond what the courts have allowed, Americans United charged last month.

On Feb. 7, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidelines governing religious activities in public schools. Under the terms of a federal education bill passed last year, public school officials must certify that they are in compliance with the standards. Any who fail to meet the government edict face the possible loss of federal education funds.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said some of the new rules are based on a biased reading of the law intended to advance inappropriate religious activities in public schools. Specifically, the guidelines imply that certain types of "student-initiated" prayer and other religious speech at school events are legal when in fact federal courts have split over the question.

"The Bush administration is clearly trying to push the envelope on behalf of prayer in public schools," said AU's Lynn. "Administration lawyers have selectively read case law to come to the conclusions they wanted.

"These guidelines assert that students can lead prayers or give sermons at some school functions," Lynn continued. "The Supreme Court has never allowed that. If the administration tries to cut off federal funding to any school on the basis of these guidelines, that action will surely be challenged in court."

Lynn said Americans United will assist any public school that is unjustly denied federal funding for failing to abide by the guidelines.

 AU cited two problematic examples from the guidelines:

 Implying that gray areas of the law have been settled: Federal courts have split over the question of "student-initiated" prayer at school events such as graduation, assemblies and sporting matches. The Supreme Court has struck down school-sanctioned prayer before graduation and athletic events, but the guidelines imply that "student-initiated" prayer is still permissible at these events. This interpretation is apparently based on one federal appeals court ruling; it is not applicable to the entire nation.

 Using inappropriate case law to bolster dubious conclusions: The guidelines cite cases from the college level and cases dealing with government funding of religion to assert that some types of religious activity are legal in public secondary schools. But these cases are not relevant. Courts have allowed more religious activity in colleges and upheld certain types of government funding for religion while still striking down coercive religious activity in elementary and secondary schools.

 The "No Child Left Behind" education law passed last year mandates that public schools certify that they are in compliance with these guidelines. Any school that is found guilty of violating them can lose federal funding. Thus, Americans United contends, the guidelines could easily become a weapon used by the Religious Right to harass public schools.

"The threat of loss of funding is a harassment tool designed to force public schools into following these flawed guidelines," AU's Lynn said. "We don't intend to stand for that. Any public school that is unjustly threatened with loss of public funds can count on AU's legal team for help."The administration apparently allowed Religious Right groups to give input into the guidelines before issuing them late in the day Feb. 7. In a Feb. 12 e-mail bulletin, Ken Connor of the Family Research Council claimed that his group "played a key role in fleshing out the new guidelines."

Mass. Veterans' Shelter Loses Funding Due To 'Faith-Based' Initiative

A shelter for homeless veterans in Northampton, Mass., may have to evict half of its residents due to new policies from the Bush administration that steer tax funding to religious groups.

Officials at the United Veterans of America shelter had hoped to add 60 beds to their facility this year to cover homeless vets on a waiting list. Instead, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) told the shelter that its budget of $1.4 million would be slashed by a third and that it can expect to lose 60 of its 135 beds.

At the same time, officials at the VA announced that 40 percent of its grantees this year will be religious groups. The VA insists it does not favor "faith-based" organizations, but some at the United Veterans of America shelter are skeptical.

"We feel there wasn't a fair playing field in the grant process, and it's clear that points were given to faith-based groups," Steven Como, a spokesman for United Veterans, told The Boston Globe. "Politics shouldn't play a role in this kind of decision, but it clearly did here, and that isn't fair."

VA grant applications now ask applicants to check off a box if they are a "faith-based" group. Some non-religious applicants believe federal officials are using this information to steer tax funds to religious organizations.

Even some "faith-based" providers admit that their religious ties help. In High Point, N.C., Open Door Ministries received $90,000 to house homeless veterans.

"The president has certainly made his position clear about faith-based organizations," said the ministry's Bruce Burch. "Also, I was told by a VA official we probably had a good chance because we're faith-based."

In Utah, Brian Currie of Catholic Community Services won a $207,000 federal grant.

Currie remarked, "[Being religious] certainly didn't hurt us. Usually, in grant applications, the more boxes you can check, the more favorable it is to you. They're usually looking for what they ask, or they wouldn't ask in the first place." 

Back in Massachusetts, people who work to help the homeless say the new bias toward faith-based groups and the cuts at established shelters like United Veterans are going to hurt those in need.

"Basically, this means more people will be sleeping on the streets and more people will die," David Foster, program director of Jessie's House, told The Globe.

At the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, Director James McIsaac said the facility is already operating at 120 percent of capacity and has lost nearly half a million in state funding. He promised to pack in as many homeless vets as he could, adding, "But there aren't any beds left, and we can't indefinitely operate this way. Something has to give."

In other news about "faith-based" initiatives:

 A Maryland pastor has been accused of selling surplus government food intended for the needy. The Rev. Donald Willard Sr. of Blessing House Ministries in Wicomico County was charged in January with two counts of fraud and two counts of theft. He is accused of requiring homeless and needy people to pay five dollars per box for food issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Department regulations stipulate that community and religious groups are supposed to distribute the food for free.

 Not all conservatives favor the faith-based initiative. Recently columnist Joseph Farah made it clear that he is no fan of the plan. Farah, who is chief executive officer for the conservative WorldNetDaily website, called the Bush plan "a scam to score political points that would further marginalize faith in the public square, empower bureaucrats and compromise churches and synagogues who cooperate with it."

Farah was angry over a recent announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency that it would encourage religious groups to apply for funds to fight global warming. In his Jan. 17 column, he accused the Bush administration of using the initiative to promote social policy.

"My biggest worry about the 'faith-based initiative' was that it would render previously effective religion-based charities ineffective," Farah wrote. "They would be neutered, I thought, by federal restrictions and red tape. Even I would not have imagined the very narrow social purpose of the initiative would be corrupted at least not this quickly."

Bush Renews Ties With Television Evangelists

President George W. Bush renewed his ties to the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) in February, urging the Religious Right group to help him win support for his "faith-based" initiative.

The NRB, a trade association for Christian TV and radio ministries, represents almost all of the heavy-weights of the Religious Right. James Dobson, Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell and other powerful and politically active figures are members.

Introduced at the Feb. 10 Nashville gathering as a "brother in Christ," Bush's remarks were heavily laced with religious rhetoric. For example, he commended the group for "sharing the gospel on the airways."

"Broadcasting is more than a job for you," he said. "It is a Great Commission." (Evangelical Christians regard the Great Commission as the biblical mandate to go into all the world and make converts.) The president also noted the NRB members have "dedicated your lives to sharing the Good News" another reference to the Christian gospel.

"I welcome faith," Bush told the broadcasters, most of whom represent fundamentalist and evangelical radio and television outlets. "I welcome faith to help solve the nation's deepest problems."

Bush pledged that "the days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious is coming to an end" and urged the broadcasters to use their power to persuade more churches to back his plan to fund faith-based social services.

The NRB reaffirmed its commitment to political activism at the Nashville convention, anointing Frank Wright of the Center For Christian Statesmanship as its new president. The group erupted in controversy last year when its new president Wayne Pederson suggested that the NRB should focus more on spreading the gospel and less on politicking.

Pederson was forced to resign in February 2001 after a harsh crusade against him by Dobson and other Religious Right hardliners.

Wright, whose center is the Washington arm of TV preacher Kennedy's empire, is certain to maintain the NRB's close alliance with the Republican Party and right-wing politics. According to press accounts, Bush political operative Karl Rove worked the convention floor during Bush's appearance.

Dobson Group Gives Pink Slips To Workers

For the first time in its 26-year history, radio counselor James C. Dobson's Focus on the Family (FOF) has had to lay off employees.

The large evangelical Christian ministry, located in Colorado Springs, announced last month that 34 employees were being terminated. Another 66 positions were eliminated. The ministry said it planned to cut $5 million from its $130-million budget to offset a drop in donations, reported Religion News Service.

Located in a sprawling, multi-building campus at the foot of Pike's Peak, Focus has about 1,300 employees. The group relies on donations to meet its budget, and Dobson has reportedly said in the past, "If the money doesn't come in, we simply do less."

In other cost-cutting measures, Dobson announced that the organization will drop merit-pay increases for employees, cut its flagship magazine from 10 to eight issues per year, close a cafeteria and cancel an employee picnic. In a memo to staff, Dobson wrote, "Some programs will be eliminated or drastically reduced in scope." He did not offer more details.

Dobson's FOF is one of the nation's leading Religious Right groups. It is known for it antipathy for church-state separation, public education, reproductive rights and legal protections for gays.

Dobson, however, seems to have mixed feelings about President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative.

In a Feb. 7 interview with CNN's Larry King, Dobson said he thinks the initiative is a good idea but also expressed reservations.

"I have some apprehension about it," he told King. "It all depends on how the legislation is written. If it begins to, you know, intrude on the practice of faith, then I would be opposed to it. Certainly, Focus on the Family will not take any government money."

Asked why, Dobson replied, "Because there is likely to be strings attached, and if not now, then at some time in the future. And you start leaning on it, and then if it's pulled away, then that creates problems."

Texas Lawmakers Wrangle Over Content Of Legislative Prayers

Members of the Texas House of Representatives are trying to defuse a controversy over legislative prayers by issuing guidelines that urge guest clergy to be ecumenical in their approach.

A letter drafted last month by House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican, asks that clergy be mindful that "the tone and content be respectful of the diverse nature of the body, such that all members of the House, whatever their respective faith, may add their voice to the collective 'amen' that begins our day's work," reported the Austin American-Statesman.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat and one of three Jews in the House, noted that some prayers in the chamber this year have had a Christian fundamentalist cast and a proselytizing tone. Many, he said, have referred to Jesus Christ.

"There are a lot of us who do not pray in Jesus' name," Hochberg said. "That's not to take away from anybody who does, but when we are asked to do that, that cuts us out of the loop and that very much says we are not expected to participate."

Some pastors say they aren't sure they can follow the new rules. The Rev. Mark Moore of Lakeside Baptist Church in Canton prayed in the name of Jesus before the House earlier this year. He told the newspaper he doesn't know if he'll go back.

"To be able to say a prayer where Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Protestants all said 'amen' together, I don't think I could pray that way because the Bible clearly states the only way to the Father is through Christ," Moore said. "My prayer would be nullified if I did not pray in Jesus' name."

Controversy over prayer has also roiled the Texas Senate. Rabbi Barry Block of San Antonio sparked controversy in February when he offered a prayer that praised Planned Parenthood and supported legal abortion. The Senate parliamentarian removed the prayer from the Senate record, but Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst later ordered it reinstated, saying the official record could not be censored.

In other news about governmental prayers:

 Municipal officials in Orange County, Calif., are mandating generic prayers that don't mention Jesus to comply with a state court ruling banning sectarian invocations before council meetings.

A California appeals court ruled last year that generic references to God in pre-meeting prayers are permissible, but references to Jesus or other specific religious figures are not. The California Supreme Court later refused to hear the case. Now some local governments are moving to implement the ruling.

Some pastors say they won't offer the prayers anymore. Pastor Ron Sukut of Cornerstone Community Church in San Clemente declined to give an invocation before a January meeting of the city council after being told he could not mention Jesus.

"This is indicative of how confused we are, spiritually speaking, about what God is," Sukut told The Orange County Register.

 Members of the Maryland Senate have complained because some guest ministers are ignoring prayer guidelines that advise them to make invocations ecumenical.

Senate President Mike Miller (D-Prince George's County) said he will stress anew the need for ecumenism among guest clergy. Miller had earlier suggested that members who did not like prayers ending in the name of Jesus needed to be more tolerant.

That remark drew a swift rebuke from Sen. Sharon Grosfeld (D-Montgomery County) who told The Washington Post, "To place the burden on the members, many of whom represent minority religions, is misplacing the obligation for tolerance and respect."

Some ministers say they won't pray if they can't do it in Jesus' name.

"If I can't do it in Jesus' name, then I don't want to go to Annapolis," said the Rev. C.L. Long, pastor of Scripture Cathedral.

 Americans United has asked officials in Iowa to stop distributing Bibles to new state senators at taxpayer expense. The practice, a longstanding tradition in Iowa, came to light recently after a report in The Des Moines Register.

Sen. Jack Holveck, a Des Moines Democrat, told the newspaper he declined the Bible when sworn in two years ago because he does not believe government should pay to print Bibles.

"I was just shocked, but it's always been that way," Holveck said. "It seems to me that if you are sworn in, you ought to be able to furnish your own Bible." 

The state spends about $500 a year on the Bibles, which are embossed with new members' names. The Iowa House of Representatives does not have the same tradition.

On Feb. 11, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan wrote to state officials and urged them to drop the practice.

"The likely reason that the Senate's practice is not widespread is that it violates [separation of church and state]," Khan wrote. "It has long been the law that '[n]o tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.'"

La. Bishops Demand Government Aid But No New Regulations

Members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Louisiana are gearing up for a big push for parochial school voucher subsidies.

Church officials have been holding meetings across the state designed to encourage parents to demand parochial school aid. The meetings, sponsored by Citizens for Educational Freedom, a statewide voucher front group, are designed to increase parental pressure on lawmakers as the legislature comes into session this month.

"We are at an historic moment," Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans told the Clarion Herald, the Catholic diocesan newspaper in New Orleans. "Parental choice in education is an idea whose time has come. It's a true moment of grace for the church and public education to join in the common work of teaching. We are stronger together than when we stand alone, or worse, at odds with one another."

Hughes said he expects a Louisiana bill modeled on the Ohio voucher plan to be introduced. (Ohio's voucher law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling in June.)

Hughes also made it clear that the church wants no government control over its schools, even while it expects tax aid.

"We would not be a part of this if this were to affect the Catholic identity of our schools," he said.

The issue of regulation of private schools may prove to be contentious. Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster (R) has said he will push for a voucher plan that lets students at failing public schools attend private schools as well as other public schools at taxpayer expense. But Foster wants private schools taking part in the scheme to agree to meet state education standards and publicize their students' achievement.

"The idea is to have similar levels of accountability for both systems," Foster's chief of staff, Andy Kopplin, told the Baton Rouge Advocate.

Catholic school officials say they will not accept those conditions. The archdiocese wants tax-funded vouchers worth $3,000 with no strings attached. The Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, told the Advocate that Catholic schools will not follow the state's standards for judging the quality of schools and will not publicize individual schools' test scores.

"We have no intention of creating competition among our schools" by allowing public comparison of their test scores, Maestri said.

In other news about parochial school aid:

  Maryland's new Republican governor has agreed to continue a $5 million textbook program that benefits largely Roman Catholic schools. Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. included the funds in his first budget. The aid was first extended by Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening. The money comes from the state's tobacco settlement fund. It allots $60 per private school pupil for the purchase of non-religious texts.

 Texas has become the newest battleground over vouchers. That state, which now has a Republican governor and GOP control of both chambers of the legislature, is expected to consider several private school aid bills this session. One leading proposal would create a voucher pilot program in the state's six largest school districts.

The plan, sponsored by Rep. Ron Wilson, a Houston Democrat, has its critics. At Northside School District in San Antonio, Superintendent John Folks said it is unfair to give tax aid to private schools without requiring them to meet all of the mandates public schools must meet, such as requiring students to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test.

"Let's require the private schools to give the TAKS test and let's see how they do," Folks told the San Antonio Express-News.

Texas Prof's Evolution Policy Becomes Subject Of Federal Probe

A Texas Tech University biology professor who refuses to give letters of recommendation to students who deny evolution is being investigated by federal authorities.

Professor Michael Dini was targeted by the Liberty Legal Institute, a Religious Right legal group acting on behalf of student Micah Spradling, a fundamentalist Christian. The Institute called Dini's policy "open religious bigotry," but university officials disagreed, asserting that a professor has no obligation to write a recommendation for any student.

Dini's webpage outlines his recommendation policy. He says students seeking a letter of recommendation must have earned an A in one of his classes, must know him fairly well and must be willing to "truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer" to the question of "How do you think the human species originated?"

Spradling, 22, had been a student in Dini's biology class in the fall but withdrew when he learned about the evolution policy. He later enrolled at Lubbock Christian University because, he said, "[I could not] sit there and truthfully say I believe in human evolution." Spradling later re-enrolled at Texas Tech.

In a Jan. 21 letter to Texas Tech, the U.S. Justice Department asked officials to respond to the charges that Dini's policy amounts to religious bigotry. School officials have said they will stand by the professor.

Dini, a Roman Catholic, told The New York Times that his policy isn't meant to disparage anyone's religious beliefs.

"The policy is not meant in any way to be discriminatory toward anyone's beliefs, but instead to ensure that people who I recommend to a medical school or a professional school or a graduate school in the biomedical sciences are scientists," he said. "I think science and religion address very different types of questions, and they shouldn't overlap."

Dini has written recommendation letters for religious students in the past. Student Brent Lawlis of Midland, who obtained a letter of recommendation from Dini, told The Times, "I'm a Christian, but there's too much biological evidence to throw out evolution."

Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of the Liberty Legal Institute, told The Times that if the Justice Department drops the investigation, he will probably file a lawsuit against Texas Tech.

Calif. Bishop Tells Pro-Choice Governor To Quit Communion

Sacramento Bishop William K. Weigand has urged California Gov. Gray Davis to drop his support for legal abortion or stop receiving communion at Roman Catholic services.

Weigand, speaking at a mass to mark the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court's legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade, singled out Davis, a Democrat who strongly supports abortion rights, and told the congregation that no Catholic can be pro-choice, the Sacramento Bee reported.

"As your bishop, I have to say that anyone politician or otherwise who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk and is not in good standing with the church. Such a person should have the integrity to acknowledge this and choose of his own volition to abstain from receiving Holy Communion until he has a change of heart."

Weigand said he was motivated to act by the actions of a local priest, Monsignor Edward Kavanagh, who in December told Davis that he and his staff were not welcome to visit a Catholic orphanage and distribute gifts to children unless he first renounced his support for legal abortion.

Davis told Kavanagh he had no intention of switching sides.

"I'm unapologetically pro-choice, and I'm not changing my position," he said. Davis later arranged for the children from the orphanage to come to the state capitol building to get the presents.

"Ever since the little incident last month, people have been asking questions," Weigand said. "They asked, 'How can a Catholic be in good standing and still hold that point of view?' I'm saying you can't be a Catholic in good standing and hold that point of view. The governor's position is very public and contrary.... You can't have it both ways."

Davis and his wife, Sharon, are active Catholics who attend mass regularly. His spokesman, Russ Lopez, pointed out that most Catholics support abortion rights.

"Does the bishop want all Catholics to stop receiving Holy Communion?" he asked. "Who's going to be left in church?"

The Weigand push may be part of a larger effort by the Roman Catholic hierarchy to crack down on pro-choice politicians. In January, the Vatican issued a statement insisting that no Catholic politician can support legal abortion, same-sex marriage or physician-assisted suicide.

One non-Catholic Religious Right leader hopes other bishops pick up Weigand's crusade. Ken Connor of the Family Research Council praised Weigand in The Pastor's Weekly Briefing, a publication of Focus on the Family.

"Gov. Davis apparently has bought into moral relativism, the notion that each man is his own moral authority, and that, as a Catholic, he is free to reject the church's teaching as he sees fit," wrote Connor. "Bishop Weigand deserves high praise for speaking the truth to power. Other church leaders Catholic and Protestant should follow his example."

Robertson School Settles Lawsuit Over Alleged 'Demon Possession'

A former law student at TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University has settled a lawsuit he filed against the school after fellow students accused him of being a "demon."

Herbert O. Chadbourne of Saco, Maine, filed suit against the graduate school, Robertson and several administrators in 2002, claiming civil rights violations, defamation and slander, the Virginian-Pilot reported.

Chadbourne, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, entered Regent as a law student in 1999. He has a facial tic that he believes is the result of exposure to chemicals during the war. Chadbourne asserted that several Regent students told him the tic was the result of demon possession and being in rebellion to God.

Chadbourne also maintained that he was suspended and told to leave Regent after he reported his suspicions about a student Chadbourne believed was responsible for several thefts on campus. The ex-student charged that Associate Dean Thomas M. Diggs told him to forget about the thefts and ordered him to undergo psychological evaluation.

Chadbourne has sought $1.3 million in damages. He settled for what was described as a nominal amount that was not publicly disclosed.