Ashcroft Bails Out Of Presidential Race
Religious Right favorite John D. Ashcroft has shelved plans to run for president in 2000.
The Missouri Republican announced Jan. 5 that he will concentrate on running for reelection to his U.S. Senate instead. A hard-fought battle with Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan is expected.
Ashcroft's move disappointed his fan club in the Religious Right. The Missourian was rapidly becoming that movement's consensus candidate in the GOP presidential primary.
"I'm disappointed," Free Congress Foundation (FCF) leader Paul Weyrich told The Washington Post. "I have felt that if conservatives ever got together on a single candidate that we could definitely impact, if not outright win, the nomination."
Others who seemed to be in Ashcroft's camp included major Religious Right figures such as TV preacher and Christian Coalition Chairman Pat Robertson, Council on National Policy founder Tim LaHaye, American Family Association President Donald Wildmon, homeschool advocate Michael Farris and Eagle Forum leader Phyllis Schlafly.
But the Religious Right's support was a decidedly mixed blessing for Ashcroft. Political observers said the Missouri senator needed to move toward the center to secure the GOP nomination and win the presidency. But his friends on the right criticized every effort in that direction.
In a Nov. 30 speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Ashcroft emphasized economic and tax reduction issues with broad appeal and seemed to discount the Religious Right's social agenda.
"We must embrace the power of faith," he said, "but we must not confuse politics with piety. For me, may I say, it is against my religion to impose my religion."
This seemingly noncontroversial remark set off a firestorm on the right, with FCF's Weyrich denouncing the nod toward centrism as "a recipe for disaster." The two later mended fences, but Weyrich remained cool. "I told him you simply can't afford to have your base in an uproar over speeches you give."
Ashcroft's withdrawal leaves Religious Right forces without a favorite. Former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed told The New York Times that the move left "a large chunk of the religious conservatives' leadership all dressed up for the prom without a date."
But the decision is nonetheless a cause for rejoicing among possible Republican candidates who also are seeking Religious Right support. These include Gary Bauer (who took a leave of absence from the Family Research Council in January to explore White House possibilities), Steve Forbes, Dan Quayle, Elizabeth Dole, Sen. Bob Smith and Alan Keyes. The AFA's Wildmon has already moved into the Bauer camp.
The Christian Coalition's Robertson, meanwhile, is jockeying to play a kingmaker role in the GOP race for the White House. According to the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader, Robertson and his New Hampshire Christian Coalition affiliate are scheduled to host a "First In The Nation Presidential Primary Gala Celebration" Feb. 6.
Confirmed speakers include Bauer, Forbes and Keyes. Other GOP presidential contenders are invited.
Clinton Church Event Was Political Fund-Raiser, Newspaper Charges
President Bill Clinton's pre-election appearance at a Baltimore church was used as a political fund-raising opportunity by a Democratic member of Congress, the Los Angeles Times has charged.
Two days before the November election, Clinton spoke at Sunday morning worship services at New Psalmist Baptist Church, where he urged the more than 2,000 African-American parishioners to be sure to vote. Clinton mentioned the accomplishments of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Parris Glendening as the incumbent and other prominent Democrats sat beaming in the pews.
The event was characterized by the news media as a political rally intended to ensure a large turnout of Democratic-leaning African-American voters. Americans United reported the incident to the Internal Revenue Service, charging that the rally violated the ban on partisan politicking by churches and other tax-exempt groups. Church officials denied any wrongdoing.
Now the Times reports that U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a New Psalmist church member who helped organize the Clinton visit, solicited $1,000 contributions from some donors to attend the Sunday service and a private reception with Clinton afterward on church grounds.
Cummings aide Vernon Simms said the fund-raising was necessary to pay for the cost of the Clinton visit. The presidential visit was deemed "political," not governmental, so government funds could not be used.
Simms said the church mansion where the reception was held was rented from the church for the event.
Robertson Lawyers To Defend Churches For Politicking
TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice has offered to provide legal assistance to churches if they get in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service for handing out Christian Coalition voter guides in the November election.
Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow said the ACLJ is contacting eight churches reported to the IRS in December by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (see "Pulpits, Politics and Penalties," January Church & State). If the IRS launches disciplinary action, the ACLJ will provide advice.
"This post-election ploy by Americans United is a biased and flawed attack on free speech," said Sekulow in a Dec. 15 press release. "The effort underway by Americans United is simply an attempt to confuse and pressure churches to refrain from speaking out at election time."
Sekulow charged that Americans United had "targeted only religious conservatives and conveniently ignored a number of churches around the country that distributed information and invited liberal candidates to speak before election day."
Sekulow's charges are inaccurate. Prior to the voter guide filing in December, AU had reported 18 churches and other religious ministries to the IRS for partisan politicking. Six involved Democratic endorsements, eight involved Republicans and the remainder involved third parties or local elections.
Sekulow may have to do some fast talking to defend the "nonpartisan" character of the Coalition's guides.
The Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review has reported that a Republican Party official in Idaho all but admitted that his use of the guides helped the GOP.
Benewah County Republican Party Chairman John Ferris told the paper he personally handed out the guides at Lighthouse Baptist Church in St. Maries, Idaho, two years ago. Last November, he gave them to a church member who put them on the church table for congregation use.
Ferris admitted that his work gave the appearance of partisanship.
"That could be true, in a sense," he said. "I probably wouldn't pass out stuff that would be favorable to Democrats. There's no question it seems partisan. Democrats don't like the Christian Coalition."
Ferris told the Spokesman-Review he doesn't expect IRS trouble, but he's going to avoid the problem next time.
"As chairman of the Republican Party," he said, "I'm going to try and distance myself from the Christian Coalition."
Legal Disputes Over Religious Symbols Roil Holiday Season
A federal judge has sparked controversy by ordering the removal of a Nativity scene from the city hall lawn in St. Ann, Mo.
U.S. District Judge Charles A. Shaw ruled that the city's sponsorship of the creche violated the separation of church and state. "It's something seen by the public, and it fosters the image that the city of St. Ann is favoring one religion over another," Shaw said Dec. 9. "The current Nativity scene has to go."
The Missouri affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to block the government-sponsored Christian display. The ACLU said it took action because St. Ann Mayor Claude Buchheit broke a promise he made during the 1997 Christmas season to conform the display to the law in the following year. The city had been erecting the Nativity scene every Christmas for the past 50 years.
About an hour after Shaw's ruling, a municipal crew descended on the site and hauled away the figures.
St. Ann City Clerk Rhoda Womack told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that some 300 phone calls were received at city hall within two hours of the judge's decision, all of them opposed to the creche removal.
But the Post-Dispatch supported the action. "Just as the government can't stand in the way of a citizen's religious observance," the newspaper observed, "it can't force a particular religious observance on its citizens. By erecting a religious display, like a creche, a city is endorsing a religion. That leaves those who don't belong to the favored religion out in the cold, outsiders in their own city.
"Religious freedom is an inalienable right of all Americans," the editorial concluded. "The best way to protect it is to keep government out of religion."
The recent holiday season saw the usual number of legal battles over government display of religious symbols on public property.
xb7 Eddy County, N.M., officials figured out a way to avoid a church-state lawsuit: They added secular holiday symbols to the Carlsbad holiday display, including a Santa Claus wearing a cowboy outfit, Mickey Mouse, a saguaro cactus and a few plywood snowmen, reported the Albuquerque Journal.
Faced with the threat of a lawsuit from the ACLU, the Eddy County Commissioners at first voted to refuse to remove the Nativity scene. They later decided to add the secular items, a practice federal courts have ruled can make a holiday display legal.
xb7 Pittsfield, Mass., resident John Papa won the right to display a creche on city property on Christmas day after intervention by TV preacher Pat Robertson's attorneys. The Pittsfield Park Commission voted 3-1 to allow Papa to erect the display at Park Square from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. Dec. 25, provided he also put up a sign saying it was not sanctioned by the city.
Attorneys with Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice had sent city officials a threatening letter promising to sue on Papa's behalf if he were denied permission.
Some area religious leaders expressed concern about the move. In a Dec. 12 letter to The Berkshire Eagle, the Rev. Robert R. Kyte, president of the Pittsfield Area Council of Churches noted that a creche is already erected on the lawn of St. Stephen's Church. "The Nativity creche," observed Kyte, "is a religious symbol depicting for Christians the birth of Christ. We hold that its proper place is on church, not public, property. It is not, and should not be allowed to become, a Christmas decoration like Santa Claus or Rudolph."
xb7 Lexington, Mass., teenagers protested a Nativity scene on public property at historic Battle Green in December. Rally goers, organized by the Lexington High School Progressives Club, carried posters that said "Respect religious minorities" and "Separate church and state."
Some passersby were unappreciative, according to the Lexington Minuteman. One driver made a vulgar hand gesture, while another called the protestors "heathens" who would "all burn in hell."
Protest organizer Matthew Cohen said he hoped the Knights of Columbus, sponsors of the creche, will reconsider. "This is not an attack on Christianity," he said. "We are calling for the separation of all religious symbols from our public land."
Charter Schools Spark Church-State Concern In Illinois, New York
Proposals to convert private sectarian schools into publicly funded charter schools have led to concerns over the separation of church and state in Illinois and New York.
In Chicago, public school officials are talking with the Rev. Michael Pfleger about the possibility of converting St. Sabina Roman Catholic School into a charter school. The plan, which has the backing of Chicago Public School Superintendent Paul Vallas, would require St. Sabina to close down and reopen under the control of a non-profit organization.
The non-profit group, presumably a front for the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese, would have to apply for charter status with the Chicago School Board. If approved, the school would not be allowed to provide religious instruction, though church officials said they will continue to offer it on a voluntary basis before or after the school day. The school would also have to offer open enrollment and abide by other regulations that govern public schools.
The Chicago Tribune reported that St. Sabina charges annual tuition of $2,435. If it were a charter school, it would receive $4,700 per pupil in state funds.
"We've got every other private organization running charter schools, why not the archdiocese?" Vallas said. "Their experience and track record in running private schools is as good as any other group."
Gail Purkey, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, criticized the proposal. "Public education is always looking for partners to support their efforts, but the more you start crossing the line to religious educational institutions, then I think you are into dangerous territory because of, first and foremost, the constitutional separation between church and state. Second would be taking dollars from public education to run private-based religious organizations."
Illinois' charter law forbids converting "any existing private, parochial or non-public school to a charter school." Vallas and officials at the archdiocese believe they can get around this provision by closing St. Sabina briefly and reopening it under a non-profit board.
A similar controversy is under way in New York City, where several black and Hispanic ministers say they want to take advantage of the state's new charter schools law to open taxpayer-financed schools on church property.
The Rev. Floyd H. Flake of Queens and the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker of Harlem told The New York Times they hope to get around the church-state issue by offering religious instruction in the schools after hours. Although the new law expressly forbids taxpayer funding of religious schools, the ministers believe they can get tax aid by putting the schools under a separate secular arm.
Assemblyman Steven Sanders, a New York legislator who helped guide the charter schools law through the legislature, said Flake and Walker are "on shaky ground" with their analysis.
"The stuff that Wyatt Tee Walker and Floyd Flake are suggesting they can do, they can't do," Sanders told The Times. "You can't take charter school money and put that charter school money into religious schools that have unused space."
xb7 Two parents in Wyoming, Mich., are suing the charter school their children attend for inappropriate religious activities. The parents say officials at Vanguard Charter Academy allowed an adult prayer group to use the school during the day, exposed children to religious material and urged teachers to incorporate religious concepts into their teaching.
Vanguard administrators say they have taken steps to correct the problems, reported The Grand Rapids Press. They said the religious material was mistakenly left lying around the school by members of Lighthouse Baptist Church, which uses the facility after hours.
The school, which says it offers a "moral focus" but not religious instruction, is operated by National Heritage Academies, a Grand Rapids company that manages charter schools.
Library Of Congress Curator Backs Off Jefferson Paper
A curator at the Library of Congress who issued a paper minimizing the importance of Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state" metaphor has retreated from some of his claims.
James Hutson, chief of the Library's manuscript division, released the paper last June to kickoff an LOC exhibit titled "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic." In the essay, Hutson charged that Jefferson's famous 1802 missive to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association in which Jefferson spoke favorably of the "wall," was merely an attempt to respond to his political enemies, not make a statement about fundamental constitutional principles.
Jefferson wrote the famous letter on Jan. 1, 1802. In it he observed, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."
Hutson's views are at sharp odds with most Jefferson scholars. On July 29 two dozen church-state, religion and Jefferson scholars, led by University of Richmond professor emeritus Robert S. Alley and Prof. Robert M. O'Neil of the law school of the University of Virginia, issued a paper rebutting Hutson's conclusions. The scholars called on the Library of Congress to cease presenting Hutson's conclusions as settled fact.
Several Religious Right groups, including the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family (FOF), seized on Hutson's original paper, citing it as "proof" that Jefferson never meant to erect a wall of separation between church and state. Last October a photo of Hutson along with a glowing article about his claims appeared in FOF's Citizen magazine.
On Jan. 5 Hutson appeared at the Freedom Forum World Center in Arlington, Va., where he read a revised version of the paper backing off from some of his claims. The Freedom Forum's web-based publication free! reported that Hutson called his paper "casually written" and conceded that he is not a religious liberty expert. He also said he wanted to quell the "unfortunate sideshow" his paper has sparked.
"My view of the wall of separation...is that it is impenetrable, but punctuated by checkpoints, allowing religion to pass through...provided that it treats everyone equally who wanted to come along," Hutson said.
Alley and Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green attended the Jan. 5 event and challenged Hutson's conclusions. Green, who recently completed a doctorate in church-state studies, told Hutson that he had failed to take Jefferson's entire thinking on church-state separation into account.
Green pointed out that Jefferson's actions and his other writings prove beyond a doubt that he was a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. "Thomas Jefferson personally labored to end state-established religion in Virginia," Green told Church & State. "He regarded religious freedom and church-state separation in Virginia as one of his major accomplishments, more important even than serving as president for eight years."
Continued Green, "Hutson's analysis of the Danbury letter is deeply flawed. But he is equally mistaken in trying to determine Jefferson's philosophy on the basis of one document. To really assess Jefferson's views on church and state, you must examine his life's actions and writings. Any honest examination of this material leaves no doubt that Jefferson stood foursquare in favor of the separation of religion and government."
Religious Right Applauds New House Speaker Hastert
Religious Right groups are excited about the selection of Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as the new speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Hastert was vaulted from obscurity to the speaker's chair in December after Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.) turned down the post following revelations that he has had several extramarital affairs. Livingston had been tapped to replace Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who resigned from Congress after the Republicans' poor showing in the November elections.
Hastert has a solid right-wing voting record and is rated at 100 percent by the Christian Coalition. He opposes legal abortion, support religious school vouchers and last year voted for the so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment," a measure introduced by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) that critics said would have effectively erased church-state separation from the Bill of Rights. He also voted for a Religious Right-backed plan to defund the National Endowment for the Arts.
Several Religious Right leaders hailed Hastert's selection. Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum called his appointment "a wonderful turn of events. We want a new face, and Denny Hastert is it."
Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition and a former one-term GOP member of Congress, told Focus on the Family's Citizen Issues Alert fax bulletin that Hastert is "a true conservative....He will be able to get the day-to-day business of the pro-family agenda passed."
Former Coalition director Ralph Reed took a slightly different view, saying of Hastert, "He's not somebody who religious conservatives view as hostile. He's friendly. But he's not someone who's going to be a lightning rod...as proprietary property of the movement."
Anti-abortion groups were ecstatic. Hastert has received a 100 percent approval rating from the National Right To Life Committee and a 98 percent rating from the Republicans for Life Political Action Committee. Steven Ertelt, director of anti-abortion GOP PAC, hailed Hastert's appointment in a press statement, saying, "[T]he pro-life community can be assured that one of their own will lead the House." (Hastert has been a cosponsor of the so-called "Human Life Amendment," a constitutional amendment that would make abortion illegal.)
In various congressional guides, Hastert's religion is described as "Protestant." He describes himself as an evangelical Christian and is a graduate of Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Illinois.
The New York Times reported last month that, "Religion has always been a strong force for Mr. Hastert, from his involvement with his church's youth groups to his days at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school near his hometown. In his professional life, Mr. Hastert says little about his religious beliefs, but it is not unusual to find a Bible open in his Capitol Hill apartment or to see him thumbing through Scripture before important votes."
Remarked U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), "Religion is in his heart and mind, and not on his sleeve. We need a little more of that kind of religion."
Ohio Voucher Program Is Being Mismanaged, State Auditor Says
The state auditor of Ohio has charged that Cleveland's controversial school voucher program is being mismanaged and that 30 families whose household incomes fall between $50,000 to $90,000 a year received vouchers, even though the program was intended to benefit low-income residents.
"Ohio must bring the operation of this program under better control," Auditor Jim Petro said in a Jan. 5 press release.
Petro's report found lax oversight of program rules regarding residency, inconsistent policies regarding the use of a lottery to choose participating students and consistent overpayments to taxi companies that were hired to ferry students to and from private schools. State officials had earlier uncovered $419,000 in overbillings over a two-year period from the taxi firms.
Ohio lawmakers passed the plan four years ago. At the time, it was promoted as a way to help low-income families send their children to private schools. But the audit noted that the program has no income cap, meaning that some families whose incomes is far above the federal poverty level have been participating.
Critics said the audit is further proof that the program should be shut down. "We need to re-examine the entire program," Sen. C.J. Prentiss, a Cleveland Democrat, told the Associated Press. "It's been totally mismanaged."
Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and other organizations have filed suit against the program in state court, insisting that it violates the separation of church and state. Arguments in the case, Simmons-Harris v. Goff, were heard before the Ohio Supreme Court last September, and a decision is expected soon.
In other news about vouchers:
xb7 Voucher advocates insist that religious school aid schemes will boost student performance, although to date no objective study of students participating in voucher plans has shown this to be true. One researcher asserted recently that the key to increasing student performance isn't vouchers, it's smaller class sizes.
Alex Molnar, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, outlines his findings in a report titled Smaller Classes Not Vouchers Increase Student Achievement. The 48-page report notes that nearly all of the research on vouchers stems from Milwaukee's Parental Choice Program and that five legislatively mandated evaluations of that program show no achievement gains for voucher students.
Molnar notes that voucher advocates have twice "reinterpreted" the Milwaukee data in an effort to show gains for the vouchers students. But, he asserts, "both have significant flaws that cast doubt on their findings."
Molnar found that Milwaukee public schools with small classes outperform choice schools. In his executive summary he writes, "A December 1997 analysis found that the best schools in Milwaukee are a group of 14 public schools with small classes that serve an economically disadvantaged population. Students at these public schools match voucher students on math tests and outperform them on reading tests. In sum, no strong evidence exists that participation in a voucher program increases student achievement."
Molnar wrote the report for the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, Pa., as part of an effort to respond to a push for vouchers there by Gov. Tom Ridge. For information on obtaining the report, contact the Center at 412 N. Third St., Harrisburg, PA 17101. Phone: (717) 255-7181, e-mail: KeystoneRC@aol.com.
Religious Protesters Aren't Above The Law, Appellate Court Rules
Anti-abortion protesters have no right to violate the laws of the land in the name of religion, a federal appellate court has held.
The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Dec. 14 that the so-called "conscience" defense employed by two anti-abortion protestors is invalid. The two, retired Bishop George Lynch and Brother Christopher Moscinski, have been protesting repeatedly at the Women's Medical Pavilion in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., since 1990.
Facing a charge of criminal contempt for violating a court injunction, Lynch and Moscinski argued that their behavior was permissible because they are required by their religious beliefs to oppose abortion. U.S. District Judge John E. Sprizzo agreed, acquitting Lynch and Moscinski and calling their actions examples of "conscience-driven religious belief."
The appeals court held that Sprizzo's ruling was in error because Lynch and Moscinski willfully broke the law. "Even godly motivation does not cancel this intent," wrote Judge Jacobs. "As the district court said in a prior proceeding involving these same defendants: That seal above my head says...this is Caesar's court. This is not a church, this is not a temple, this is not a mosque. And we don't live in a theocracy. This is a court of law."
Although the court unanimously rejected Lynch and Moscinski's conscience defense, it also ruled 2-1 that the two may not be tried again on the charges, since that would constitute double jeopardy. (United States v. Lynch and Moscinski)
Censorship Plan Sparks Opposition In Wichita Falls
The Wichita Falls, Texas, City Council has delayed a vote on a new policy governing controversial books at the public library after finding strong opposition from local citizens.
The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church last year demanded the removal of Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate when a parishioner checked them out of the library last year and brought them to his attention.
Jeffress confiscated the gay-themed books and refused to return them, later paying the library $54 in fines. The books were replaced but moved from the children's section to the juvenile section. (Jeffress also pledged to take the issue before the council and promised to unseat council members who opposed removing the books -- a threat which brought criticism from Americans United. See "Churches, Politics and the IRS," September 1998 Church & State).
In December, city council member Bill Altman, a member of Jeffress' church, proposed creating a new policy that would require the library to place any book intended for children under 12 on restricted access if 100 card-holders signed a petition requesting it. Only people age 13 and older could request books from the restricted area. Library staff would have no power to override a petition.
Prior to the Jan. 5 council session, Altman changed his proposal to increase to 300 the number of petitioners needed to restrict a book. The plan has Jeffress' support, but it didn't impress the more than 50 city residents who showed up.
According to the Wichita Falls Times Record News, some 20 individuals spoke against any plan to place books on restricted access. Many charged that a tiny minority of people should not be able to determine what others read.
"[A library] shouldn't be so slanted in its collection as to reflect the changing mores and views of a limited population," said Arthur Bea Williams, a former Wichita County justice of the peace. "If the resolution before this body were to pass, it would be the first brick in the demolishing of the solid brick wall of constitutional rights."
Mayor Kay Yeager also opposed the proposal. She charged that giving a minority the right to restrict access to books in the library would lead to censorship. "Once that door is open, it leaves the library open to attacks on materials at the very core of our beliefs and values. I chose not to open that door," she said to audience applause.
Only one person spoke in favor of the policy. A clearly chagrined Altman urged council members not to be swayed by the lopsided margin. "Obviously there could have been numerous religious and other people here," he said. "I told them I didn't think their appearance here would change any minds."
The council plans to discuss the issue again this month.