September 2002 AU Bulletin

Church Electioneering Bill Headed For House Vote

A controversial bill to allow houses of worship to engage in partisan political activities is likely to face a vote in the House of Representatives in early September, according to sources on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Walter B. Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357) was drafted by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice and is being pushed aggressively by the Religious Right. The measure would change federal tax law to allow houses of worship to use personnel and resources to endorse or oppose candidates for public office.

Federal tax law currently forbids non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan campaigns if they are tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code. The Jones bill would lift that regulation but only for houses of worship.

Washington observers say a vote could occur on the House floor as early as Sept. 4. Moreover, the Christian Coalition, an ardent supporter of the measure, issued an alert to its membership in July noting that Jones "has been promised a mid-September vote" on his legislation.

The House vote is expected to be close. Jones' proposal has already garnered the backing of 128 co-sponsors, including high-ranking House officials such as Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Deputy Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.).

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn urged people to contact their House members and give their opinions on the measure.

Meanwhile, a companion bill to H.R. 2357 has been introduced in the Senate. On Aug. 1, Sens. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) unveiled S. 2886 to change federal tax law to allow "churches and other houses of worship" to engage in partisan politicking.

House Committee Holds Hearing On School Vouchers

Moving quickly in light of the June 27 Supreme Court decision upholding voucher subsidies for religious schools, Republicans on the House of Representatives' Committee on Education and the Workforce convened a hearing July 23 on the future of so-called "school choice."

Most of the discussion centered on a bill sponsored by Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) that would establish a $45-million voucher program in the city of Washington, D.C. Armey testified before the committee, telling the members, "The tired arguments against school choice grow less and less relevant every year. Now, in light of the recent court approval, the time has come for the federal government to step up to the plate and take the lead in ushering the school choice movement into the 21st century."

Several Democrats on the committee seemed skeptical. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) called the plan "a very tricky effort" to divert money away from public schools. Miller said vouchers "would drill a major hole" in public school reform efforts.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) rejected arguments that vouchers will help students in troubled public schools. She asserted that all students deserve quality public schools and said she opposes allowing private schools to "cherry pick a few children whose parents care enough about them to get down on their knees and beg" for vouchers.

Veterans' Administration Approves Gay Chaplains

The U.S. Veterans' Administration has approved the nation's only predominantly gay religious denomination to serve as a source of chaplains for use in hospitals and other VA facilities.

The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) said the application process lasted about nine months and the church encountered "no resistance whatsoever."

"This marks an historic step for MCC churches," said the Rev. Troy Perry, the Christian denomination's founder and moderator. "U.S. programs have long been hostile to gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender service members and veterans, so this marks yet another positive step toward full equality for America's gay and lesbian citizens."

The VA's National Chaplain Center accepts chaplains from about 225 registered faith traditions.

Courts have traditionally upheld the constitutionality of military and hospital chaplains because armed forces personnel and hospital patients are unable to visit houses of worship independently.

Charlotte Aid To Billy Graham Ministry Sparks AU Protest

A plan by city officials in Charlotte, N.C., to subsidize the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association raises church-state concerns, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

According to published reports, the city plans to deduct $325,000 from the price of 63.5 acres of land that it is selling to the Graham ministry, which is moving to Charlotte from Minneapolis. In a letter to Charlotte officials in July, Americans United charged that the price reduction is a government subsidy to a religious organization at taxpayer expense.

Graham's ministry, which in 2000 had an income of over $125 million and assets of over $286 million, intends to build its headquarters on the Charlotte property. A museum and an archive center are also planned.

Writing to Charlotte Mayor Patrick L. McCrory, AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan and AU attorney Allison Pierce asserted, "The courts have uniformly held that the transfer of public land to a religious organization at less than fair market value impermissibly advances religion. Accordingly, the City Council's plan, which would result in the transfer of public land to the [Billy Graham Evangelistic] Association at a price that is $325,000 less than fair market value, is likely to be found by a court to be unconstitutional."

Charlotte City Attorney Mac McCarley told reporters that AU's concerns were unfounded because the city routinely uses similar subsidies to attract major businesses to the city. AU rejected the comparisons because the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a tax-exempt ministry, not a business.

Colorado School Can Limit Religious Memorials, Court Says

A federal appeals court has ruled that Columbine High School, where a shooting led to 15 deaths in 1999, may prohibit religious ceramic tiles intended for a school memorial.

In the wake of the tragedy, the school offered students a chance to decorate 4-inch square tiles for a memorial display. The school, however, limited the messages that could be expressed.

A group of parents of slain students, who wanted religious tiles to represent their families, filed a federal lawsuit. With assistance from the Rutherford Institute, the parents argued that school limits on religious messages were a violation of the First Amendment's protection of free speech. School officials noted, however, that they had to maintain some control over tile content in order to limit offensive messages. For example, administrators said, tiles with symbols of anarchy and a head dripping blood were also excluded.

While a lower court initially ruled in the parents' favor, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned that ruling on June 27 and concluded in Fleming v. Jefferson County School District that school officials were correct to limit the content of the memorial.

The appeals court held that the school must be given some discretion over the tiles' content or it could be required to post tiles with inflammatory statements such as "God is Hate."

"When posed with such a choice, schools may very well elect not to sponsor speech at all, thereby limiting speech instead of increasing it," the ruling said.

The Rutherford Institute, a Religious Right-oriented legal group, reportedly plans to take this case to the Supreme Court.

'School Mosque' Proposal Raises Legal Concerns

A Pennsylvania public school's efforts to accommodate the worship requests of Muslim students and staff must meet constitutional guidelines, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has warned.

Philadelphia's Olney High School is considering a proposal to set aside space for Friday communal prayers required by the Islamic faith. Americans United contacted Olney Principal Edward Monastra and School District Chief Paul Vallas about the effort in August, urging the school officials to remain cognizant of First Amendment concerns while working to find ways to allow voluntary religious worship.

"We applaud your efforts to accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of your diverse student body and staff," AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan wrote on Aug. 7. "However, we urge you to do so in a way that comports with constitutional principles."

In order to comply fully with church-state law in this area, Khan said the school must ensure that students and staff who participate in the prayer gather in separate groups. In addition, Khan's letter asks school officials to refrain from setting aside a specific room at the school as the "permanent" location for Friday prayers.

"Such a designation would be akin to the creation of a 'school mosque' and would convey the unconstitutional message that the school favors and prefers Islam over other religions," Khan wrote.

Controversial California Cross Loses In Court

A controversial 43-foot-tall cross in San Diego lost another court battle in June when a federal appeals court said the religious display is unconstitutional.

In 1989, local resident Philip Paulson, with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit, charging that display of the cross on public property atop Mt. Soledad is unconstitutional.

To lessen the likelihood of losing a federal lawsuit, city officials struck a deal with a local veterans group to sell the cross and the land immediately around it in a non-competitive process. Officials said the display was now legal because it was no longer public property.

On June 26, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 11-4 in Paulsen v. San Diego that this arrangement was inadequate because the city limited the bidding process so that only groups wanting to keep the cross on Mt. Soledad could purchase it.

President's Papal Kiss Sparks Controversy In Mexico

When a Roman Catholic churchgoer kisses a pope's ring, it's considered a traditional sign of veneration. When the president of Mexico does it, however, it generates a church-state controversy that dominates newspaper headlines.

In July, Pope John Paul II visited Mexico and canonized the Americas' first indigenous saint. Yet when Mexican President Vicente Fox greeted the pope by kneeling and kissing his ring, eyebrows were raised nationwide.

La Jornada newspaper, for example, ran a headline asking, "And the secular state?" Mexico, a historically secular country, has long struggled over the appropriate role of the Catholic Church in public affairs. The church hierarchy sided with wealthy landowners in pre-revolutionary days, and its public role was sharply restricted by law until recent years.

The presidential gesture was the latest in a series of events that reflect the growing influence of the Catholic Church in Mexico.