Key House Ally Says Bush Seeks Faith-Based Conversions
In an unusually candid discussion about President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) acknowledged widespread concern over charitable choice and the president's desire to help "overtly Christian organizations."
Souder conducted an interview with the Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy in September. In his remarks, which were published on the group's website, Souder, who has long supported expansion of public support for religious charities, noted the breakdowns in the congressional process during the lengthy debate over the Bush initiative.
While charitable choice aid to churches has been at the heart of conservative faith-based politics for years, Souder questioned why the push was necessary.
"I don't know why in the world we got stuck on this charitable choice side because many of us as conservatives don't have a ton of faith in the government funding anyway, or at least the stability of it," Souder said. "[A religious social service provider] who gets attached to it and winds up the next year finding they got cut off from the grant--that isn't the way you build it."
Souder went on to identify Bush's motivation for the initiative.
"[Bush's] vision is helping overtly Christian organizations pick people up, change their character, convert them regardless of what religion they are and change their lives," Souder said.
This characterization of the president's goals as evangelistic is in stark conflict with the White House's official line. As far back as the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush and other administration officials have denied a religious agenda and insisted the initiative is simply about helping families in need.
Souder's remarks, therefore, lend credence to the proposal's critics who have argued that Bush's goal is to throw the massive weight of the federal government behind religious groups and religious conversions.
House GOP Cancels Vote On Education Tax-Credit Bill
Faced with unyielding opposition from Democrats and opponents of public aid to religious and other private schools, Republicans in the House of Representatives cancelled a vote on a controversial measure to expand federal tax credits to parents of children in private schools.
Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.) has been championing a measure he calls the "Back to School Tax Relief Act," or H.R. 5193. The bill, cosponsored by prominent House leaders including House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), would have allowed couples with an income of $40,000 or less or $20,000 for single parents to deduct up to $3,000 for education costs at public, private or home schools.
Opponents argued the bill would shift funds from public to private education, and serve as a "back door" voucher scheme. Some argued the effort was a political stunt close to the November elections.
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), for example, said Schaffer's bill "will not improve the education of a single child because it is designed to make a political point and not become law."
To counter the legislation, opponents of the measure introduced a substitute bill that would provide $25 billion in interest-free funds for school construction.
When supporters of Schaffer's bill realized they lacked the votes to block the substitute and pass the tax-credit bill, they cancelled the vote.
Council Prayers Can't Be Sectarian, California Court Rules
A California appeals court has ruled that Christian prayers offered at the beginning of city council meetings in Burbank are unconstitutional.
In a unanimous ruling issued on Sept. 9, the 2nd District Court of Appeals concluded that Burbank city officials were wrong to invite a Christian minister to offer a sectarian invocation at a city council meeting three years ago.
The controversy began in November 1999 when council members invited David King, a Mormon bishop, to offer a pre-meeting prayer. King concluded his prayer, "in the name of Jesus Christ."
This prompted Irv Rubin, head of the Jewish Defense League in California, to file suit challenging the Burbank policy.
City attorneys had argued the prayers were the private remarks of individuals. The state appeals court disagreed.
"By directing the prayer to 'Our Father in Heaven...in the name of Jesus Christ,' the invocation conveyed the message that the Burbank City Council is a Christian body, and from this it could be inferred that the council was advancing a religious belief," the court said in Rubin v. Burbank. The decision added that "any legislative prayer that proselytizes or advances one religious belief or faith or disparages another" is unconstitutional.
Satanic Service In Kentucky Prison Sparks Controversy
A satanic worship service at a Kentucky prison has prompted the state's Department of Corrections to consider a new statewide policy on inmate religious exercises.
In August, two inmates at the Green River Correctional Complex, a medium-security prison, successfully placed satanic services on the facility's official religious services calendar.
A reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader noticed the non-traditional religion's spot on the calendar and inquired to prison officials, who then promptly suspended the satanic services.
"We honestly didn't know it was on the religious calendar," Lisa Carnahan, a Corrections spokeswoman, told the Herald-Leader. "We are researching it to see what we are required to allow under the law. But we've found information that indicates that satanic services could be a threat to the institutions, so for now we won't aid or abet satanic worship."
Supreme Court rulings have said prisons may limit the religious freedom of inmates if the exercises compromise the safety of other inmates or prison staff.
Religious Activists Seek To Censor Library Books In Texas
A popular children's sex-education book may soon be banned from Houston-area libraries.
In August, officials in Montgomery County, Texas, voted to ban It's Perfectly Normal, a best-selling children's book about human sexuality that has been translated into 17 languages for youngsters around the world, out of concerns that the book condones homosexuality.
About a dozen Christian activists appeared at the Aug. 26 meeting of the Montgomery County Commissioners Court to demand the book's removal from public library shelves. Though the book's critics claimed not to have been organized into a specific group, each acknowledged they were made aware of the book by the Republican Leadership Council, a local conservative group.
"It's not sex education," Frances Brown, one of the activists, told the library officials. "It's pornography. It's horrible."
Commissioners were easily persuaded by the complaints and agreed unanimously to ban the book. One official, County Judge Alan Sadler, promised to "do everything in our power to ensure the book is taken out of the library immediately." He added that he was troubled by the book's approach to sexual orientation, complaining that the book "tries to minimize or even negate that homosexuality is a problem."
The final decision is subject to an official review of a committee made up of local librarians and members of a citizen book-selection panel.
The book has been kept in the library's "young adult" section, and was approved for library use after receiving the 1994 "book of the year" award by the School Library Journal. The Houston-area controversy is actually one of many fights over It's Perfectly Normal, which the American Library Association lists as one of the most challenged books in the United States since 1990.
Chicago Revises 9-11 Ceremony After AU Protest
An official ceremony in Chicago to commemorate the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which was originally announced as a government-sponsored religious service, was altered after concerns were raised by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
On Aug. 29, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley issued a press announcement that detailed events planned for the city's remembrance of the Sept. 11 tragedies. Daley said the "centerpiece" of the city's events would be a mass recitation of "the Chicago Prayer of Hope, Unity and Remembrance," written at city request by prominent religious leaders of Chicago.
Daley's announcement suggested that the official city prayer would be printed and distributed by the government to a memorial ceremony audience. Complicating matters, Daley said Chicago public schools would be asked to suspend their normal activities "so students can share in the observance."
Americans United expressed concern that the city's planned Sept. 11 memorial ceremony fostered too much entanglement between religion and government.
"All of us were affected by the events of Sept. 11, but this flagrant mixing of church and state is inappropriate," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU's executive director. "The people of Chicago can choose to honor the victims of terrorism through voluntary worship, not city-sponsored religion."
AU's concerns prompted a letter from James Law, executive director of Daley's Office of Special Events. Law explained that Chicago ceremony would fully respect church-state separation. The "Chicago Prayer of Hope," Law said, would not be "sponsored" by the city, would not serve as an official city prayer, and no taxpayer funds would be used to print or distribute the prayer.
Moreover, Law wrote that children in the city's public schools would be observing a moment of silence, but assured Americans United that "school children will not be joining in any religious observance."
Iran President Seeks Limits On Clergy Power
In theocratic Iran, Muslim clerics maintain strict control over most of the powers of government. That, however, may change if Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has his way.
Khatami was elected president twice on a platform promising economic and social reform. He's grown increasingly frustrated, however, by religious leaders who have stood in the way of his agenda, specifically Iran's Guardian Council, a religious panel that has blocked a series of reforms.
The Council's members are chosen by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, and are empowered with veto power over any legislation they deem to be inconsistent with Iran's Constitution or Islamic law.
Khatami has therefore decided to push for new legislation that would shift power toward his administration and away from Iranian clergy.
"I am announcing today that the president must have the power to perform his duties within the framework of the Constitution," Khatami said at an Aug. 28 news conference. "We cannot speak of democracy if we are not ready to play by its rules."