April 2001 AU Bulletin

Supreme Court Skips Graduation Sermon Case

A California high school valedictorian who was prohibited from preaching as part of the ceremony at his graduation has failed to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in his case.

Chris Niemeyer was co-valedictorian at Oroville High School in 1998. In accordance with school policy, Niemeyer submitted his remarks in advance to school administrators. Officials insisted that the speech be changed when they learned that he planned to encourage students to "accept God's love," tell classmates that "God seeks a personal relationship with each one of us" and argue that "Jesus wants to be our best friend."

When Niemeyer refused to make any alterations, the high school would not permit him to deliver his speech. Niemeyer promptly filed suit in federal court, arguing that his First Amendment rights had been violated.

A federal district court disagreed and ruled in favor of the school. In October 2000, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also sided with the school, concluding that Niemeyer's remarks amounted to "a religious sermon." If the school had permitted him to go ahead with the speech, the appeals court ruled, it would have amounted to "government sponsorship of, and coercion to participate in, particular religious practices."

On March 5, the high court refused to review Niemeyer v. Oroville Union High School District, allowing the 9th Circuit ruling to stand without comment.

Ohio School Voucher Proponents Lose Again

Proponents of Ohio's religious school voucher program are taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court after striking out again in the lower courts.

On Feb. 28, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals announced it would not consider a full-panel rehearing of the Cleveland voucher case, leading voucher advocates to appeal to the high court. On Dec. 11, the appeals court ruled 2-1 that the Cleveland program is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

"This scheme involves the grant of state aid directly and predominantly to the coffers of the private, religious schools, and it is unquestioned that these institutions incorporate religious concepts, motives, and themes into all facets of their educational planning," the appeals court held. "There is no neutral aid when that aid principally flows to religious institutions; nor is there truly 'private choice' when the available choices resulting from the program design are predominantly religious."

Supporters of the Cleveland program, led by the Institute for Justice, announced March 1 that they will ask the high court to review Simmons-Harris v. Zelman. If the justices agree to consider the matter, it will likely set a sweeping precedent in church-state law.

Falwell Sparks Controversy With Anti-Muslim Remarks

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who has a propensity for making headlines with controversial remarks, has done it again. This time his target was the Islamic faith.

In a March 7 interview with beliefnet.com, Falwell said, "I think the Moslem faith teaches hate." Responding to the fact that Islanic groups may be eligible for public funding through President Bush's faith-based initiative, Falwell said, Muslims "should be out the door before they knock."

"I think there's clear evidence that the Islam religion, wherever it has majority control and I can name a dozen countries doesn't even allow people of other faiths to express themselves or evangelize or to exist in their presence," Falwell said. He added, "Whenever Islam, God forbid, ever gets a majority in the United States...free expression will disappear."

Muslim leaders, incensed by Falwell's comments, cried foul.

"These offensive remarks are symptomatic of the very intolerance that you claim Islam promotes," said Omar Ahmad, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in a letter to Falwell. "Your destructive rhetoric could lead to discrimination and even physical attacks against Muslims in North America."

Falwell is no stranger to generating outrage with controversial comments. In February 1999, the TV preacher became the subject of international ridicule after publishing a "parental alert" warning his followers that Tinky Winky, a character on the popular "Teletubbies" television program for children, might be gay. The same year, Falwell told a pastors' conference in Kingsport, Tenn., that the Antichrist prophesied in the Book of Revelation is a Jewish male living in the world today.

Appeals Court Approves Ohio's Use Of Religious Motto

Ohio may continue using the phrase "With God, all things are possible" as its state motto without violating the separation of church and state, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, ruled in favor of the motto 9-4 on March 16. A lower court had struck down the state's use of the religious phrase, but the full panel disagreed, saying the expression was akin to the use of "In God We Trust" as the national motto.

Representing a Presbyterian minister in Cleveland Heights, the American Civil Liberties Union asserted that the motto is an endorsement of Christianity. The ACLU noted that the phrase is a statement of Jesus from the Book of Matthew.

The court majority disagreed. "The motto is merely a broadly worded expression of a religious/philosophical sentiment that happens to be widely shared by the citizens of Ohio," asserted the court. "As such, we believe, the motto fits comfortably with this country's long and deeply entrenched tradition of civic piety, or 'ceremonial deism'...." (ACLU of Ohio and Peterson v. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board)

Mandatory Pledge, God Motto Fail In Virginia Legislature

A crusade in the Virginia legislature on behalf of the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" has failed, but not before stirring bitter debate.

The Virginia State Assembly was deeply divided this session by efforts to force public schools to mandate recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and post "In God We Trust" signs in public school classrooms.

Del. Robert C. Marshall (R-Prince William) championed a proposal that would require all of Virginia's public schools to prominently display the phrase "In God We Trust." Marshall said his plan was legal because the religious motto appears on U.S. currency. The measure, however, failed in committee.

The national campaign to post the religious phrase was begun by the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association (AFA), a Religious Right group based in Tupelo, Miss. Wildmon published a column in the March 2000 issue of the AFA Journal asking Religious Right activists across the country to purchase 11 x 14-inch posters from his group with the phrase.

In a second Virginia legislative battle, Sen. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax) led a fight to force children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, despite a Supreme Court ruling that says students cannot be compelled to do so. When fellow members of the Education Committee recommended changing his proposal, Barry told reporters his colleagues were "spineless pinkos."

A watered-down version of the bill that allows students to opt out of the exercise passed both houses of the legislature, and Gov. Jim Gilmore was expected to sign the measure into law.

'Released-Time' Program At Indiana School Struck Down

Public schools officials in Perry Township, Ind., violated the separation of church and state by suspending all classroom activities for 30 minutes once a week to allow students to receive religious instruction in trailers on the school grounds, a federal court has held.

U.S. District Judge Larry McKinney ruled in February that "whether intentionally or not," the school district had set up the released-time program in a way that encouraged participation. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by parent Diane Marger Moore, whose daughter attends fifth grade at Glenns Valley Elementary School.

Moore objected to the district's practices of allowing trailers owned by a religious group to be placed on campus for the religious instruction and forcing children who did not take part to go to a room where they were allowed to read books from home but not permitted to do homework. She also objected to the district's practice of paying the electricity bills for the released-time program.

In Moore v. Perry Township School, McKinney ruled for Moore on all three points. The arrangement, observed the judge, "allows a tax-supported public school to aid a particular religious group in spreading its faith [and] violates the First Amendment."

he Supreme Court upheld off-campus released-time arrangements in 1952. The programs are popular in Indiana, and Perry Township's is one of the largest in the state. The Indianapolis Star reported that about 1,300 of the district's 1,800 fourth- and fifth-graders are released once a week to attend the classes.

The training is sponsored by the Perry Township Religious Education Program. The group claims to be "nondenominational," but its stated goal is to "help each child become aware of God as revealed through Jesus Christ."

Afghanistan's Taliban Destroys Ancient Buddhist Statues

Afghanistan's Taliban, which strictly enforces an Islamic theocracy in the Middle Eastern nation, drew the ire of the international community when soldiers began destroying historic Buddhist statues.

Two ancient statues carved into a mountainside in Kabul stood 175 feet and 120 feet, respectively, and dated back to the 5th century. The larger of two was believed to be the world's largest standing Buddha. The Taliban, which interprets Islam to forbid idolatry of any kind, used anti-aircraft weapons, tanks and rocket launchers to obliterate the ancient statues. The military also demolished Kabul's main museum because it contained smaller Buddhist statues and artwork.

Pleas came from around the world to save the Buddhist figures, including a direct request from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. In an 11th-hour appeal, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and other Muslim nations in the region joined the effort. They were ignored.

"All the statues in the country should be destroyed because these statues have been used as idols and deities by the nonbelievers before," the Taliban's official decree said. "They are respected now and may be turned into idols in the future, too."

By March 12, the destruction of the statues was complete.

Jehovah's Witnesses Win Court Victory In Russia

A Russian court has given the Jehovah's Witnesses an important legal victory, which will permit the group to continue its evangelism efforts in the country.

Under Russian law, religious groups are required to register with the government in order to function as legal entities with the right to enter into contracts, open bank accounts and hire employees. Religious groups that are believed to incite hatred or intolerance are prohibited.

Two and a half years ago, Moscow officials brought the Jehovah's Witnesses to court to deny the group registration. Prosecutors argued the sect instigates "religious enmity" by claiming to be the only true religion and endangers adherents' lives by prohibiting blood transfusions.

On Feb. 23, the court ruled in the Jehovah's Witnesses' favor. Most observers agree a defeat would have been devastating for the sect, which is one of Russia's fastest growing faiths.