April 2003 AU Bulletin

Istook Launches Another 'Pledge And Prayer' Crusade

Hoping to capitalize on a recent unpopular court ruling dealing with recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, U.S. Rep. Ernest J. Istook (R-Okla.) is preparing to reintroduce his school prayer amendment.

Istook's proposal, outlined in a March 3 letter to his House colleagues, would open public schools to prayer and other worship activities and would allow display of sectarian symbols in public buildings. An earlier version of the amendment was rejected by the House in 1998.

Americans United charged that Istook is reintroducing the measure now to capitalize on Religious Right-led hysteria over the recent ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals striking down public school recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance because of its religious content. The amendment's preamble states that it is designed to "include protection of the Pledge of Allegiance, the display of the Ten Commandments and school prayer."

The three-sentence "Pledge and Prayer" Amendment also aims to get recognition of God in the Constitution. Its reads, "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people retain the right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including schools. The United States and the States shall not establish any official religion nor require any person to join in prayer or religious activity." (At Church & State press time, the Istook measure had not been given a bill number in the House.)

Remarked Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "Istook's proposed amendment strikes at the very heart of the principle of church-state separation. Istook wants to put the First Amendment through a shredder and see what comes out. All defenders of the Constitution will vigorously fight this proposal."


Supreme Court Skips Battle Over N.Y. Kosher Laws

A New York law that attempted to enforce kosher food standards has been erased, after a recent action by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Feb. 24 the high court announced that it will not hear an appeal of a lower court's decision that New York's kosher law is unconstitutional. The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the law, originally passed in 1915, improperly involved government in religious matters, thus violating church-state separation.

Two Long Island butchers challenged the kosher law, maintaining that it relied on Orthodox standards to determine what constitutes kosher, as opposed to other branches of Judaism. Attorneys for the butchers argued in court that this policy was akin to the state declaring the Roman Catholic version of communion official and making it the standard for all other Christian faiths.

"If another denomination of Christianity offered its members Communion, they could only use a Eucharist and wine approved by the Roman Catholic Church; otherwise, the Communion was illegitimate and perpetrated a fraud," they wrote in court briefs.

At least 19 other states have kosher laws that could now be susceptible to legal challenges. In addition, some states are considering similar laws governing the Muslim version of kosher, called halal. (Silver v. Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats)


Alabama Governor Seeks Christian Nation

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley has asked his Religious Right political allies to enlist in a crusade to restore the Christian character of America.

Speaking to the Alabama Christian Coalition's "Friends of the Family" Celebration March 8, Riley said, "If we are going to save this country, if we are going to reestablish that belief in God, it's up to us. If we don't do it, who will?"

Noting that the country is facing a war in Iraq, Riley observed, "There is another war going on in this country. This one is far more insidious. It's one that you just can't go and attack. It's a war for the absolute soul of this country."

According to the Mobile Register, Riley claimed the United States has Christian origins.

"God looked down on this country because this country was founded on the rock and that rock was our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," Riley said. "And when the storms came and the rains came, the rock, it did not move. But over the last 15 or 20 years, something began to erode."

Riley's appeal had a distinguished audience. Among those at the head table were U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions and U.S. Reps. Robert Aderholt, Spencer Bachus, Jo Bonner and Mike Rogers. Chief Justice Roy Moore was also present.

AU Challenges Crosses On City Logo In New Mexico

Attorneys with Americans United have asked government officials in Las Cruces, N.M., to remove three crosses from the city seal.

In a Feb. 27 letter to Las Cruces Mayor Ruben Smith, City Manager Jim Ericson and City Attorney Fermin Rubio, AU attorneys note that federal courts have ruled that religious symbols on city seals and logos violate the First Amendment.

"Courts have been highly skeptical about the use of crosses as governmental symbols," wrote AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan and Attorney Fellow Kerry Kornblatt Jowers. "Indeed, courts have rejected virtually every argument that could be made in defense of Las Cruces' logo."

Crosses have not always appeared on the city's seal. The original city logo consisted of a cluster of grapes. The three crosses were adopted in the 1940s and the current logo three crosses outlined by the sun was adopted in 1975.

The recently formed Americans United chapter in Las Cruces has also protested the city 's use of the religious seal.

Catholic Church Can't Use First Amendment Defense

Officials with the Roman Catholic Church cannot use the First Amendment's religious freedom guarantees to dismiss cases of sexual abuse filed against priests in Massachusetts, a state court has ruled.

Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney on Feb. 19 rejected a motion by church attorneys to dismiss more than 400 sex-abuse cases. Church officials had claimed that the First Amendment prohibits civil courts from intervening in internal church affairs.

Sweeney said no interpretation of the First Amendment grants houses of worship "unqualified immunity from secular legal redress, regardless of how negligent [or] reckless" they might have been.

Sweeney did dismiss claims that church officials were negligent for ordaining priests who later turned out to be abusers or for not removing them from their posts. Decisions about who to ordain and who to remove from religious positions are "purely ecclesiastical matters" and none of the state's concern, she wrote.

Roderick MacLeish, an attorney who represents more than half of the 400 victims, told the Associated Press that the ruling proves that the Catholic Church "as a religious institution is not above and beyond the law."

Church officials said they made the argument in court mainly to satisfy demands of insurance companies, which said they would not pay claims stemming from the abuse until the church exhausted all legal defense options.

Tenn. Pagan Parents Sue Over School Promotion Of Religion

A Tennessee family that practices a Pagan religion is suing public education officials in Union County, claiming that the school illegally promotes Christianity.

Greg and Sarajane Tracy of Maynardville assert in a lawsuit that school officials denigrated their daughter India's faith and pressured her to take part in Christian religious activities. They also say the school failed to protect her from harassment and physical assault from other students.

India, who is 14 and a straight-A student, said she was sent to the principal's office after she refused to portray the Virgin Mary in a school play. On another occasion, the child says school officials harassed her after she refused to go to a religious crusade offsite during school hours, reported the Associated Press.

"The principal had called me into the office because mine was the only [permission] slip that said no," Tracy said. "He asked me why I didn't want to go. He asked my religion. I told him I didn't want to talk about it and for him to call my parents."

Tracy was the only fourth-grade student in the school in April of 1999 when the other students left to attend the Area Wide Crusade, a revival meeting sponsored by a local Baptist pastor. The suit alleges that other students subsequently assaulted Tracy and called her a "Satan worshipper." She has since enrolled in a private school.

The lawsuit asks for reimbursement for Tracy's psychological counseling, her private school tuition costs and the family's legal fees. It also requests that the court prohibit "the school system's continued religious indoctrination of children."

Catholic Charities Sues Over 'Faith-Based' Regulations

Catholic Charities of Maine has filed a federal lawsuit asserting that the city of Portland has no right to withhold public funds from the group because it refuses to extend employee benefits to domestic partners.

At issue is a two-year old Portland ordinance that requires groups that receive federal housing and community development money to offer benefits to gay and unmarried couples. Church officials say offering these benefits would violate Roman Catholic teachings.

City officials denied Catholic Charities' request for $87,000 in aid last year and is expected to turn down another application for money this year. The local Salvation Army has already turned down $60,000 in public funding rather than offer domestic partner benefits.

Municipal officials in Portland say they tried to offer a compromise. Under a plan called "Plus One," many private groups that contract with the city to provide social services offer benefits to each employee plus one other person in that employee's home. The other person can be a domestic partner, an elderly parent or an adult child.

Portland officials also rejected Catholic Charities' claim that the policy singles out religious groups for unfair treatment, noting that 37 social service agencies must comply with the rule.

Churches Not Welcome, Says Saudi Arabian Leader

Don't look for any Christian churches to be built soon in Saudi Arabia.

The ruling family of the oil-rich desert kingdom reconfirmed recently that Islam is the country's official faith and other religions are not welcome. Defense Minister Prince Sultan told reporters March 8 that Saudi Arabia, as the birthplace of Islam, has a special duty to promote that faith.

"This country was the launch pad for the prophecy and the message, and nothing can contradict this, even if we lose our necks," Sultan said. Sultan maintained that non-Muslim foreigners living in the country are free to worship as they see fit in their private homes but said they cannot erect their own houses of worship, such as churches.

Allowing even one church in the country, Sultan said, "would affect Islam and all Muslims. "

Recently the State Department issued a list of countries that severely restrict religious freedom. Critics noted that Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the region, was not on the list.