December 2002 AU Bulletin

President Bush's 'Faith-Based' Initiative Fails In Senate

The two-year fight over President George W. Bush's controversial "faith-based" initiative came to an anticlimactic ending in November with the derailment of a compromise version of the bill in the U.S. Senate.

For months, the White House and supporters of aid to     church-based social services have backed the CARE Act (Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment), which emphasized tax incentives instead of direct government grants. The legislation was part of a compromise between Bush and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to pass new laws that would spur charitable donations.

In November, senators tried to add amendments to the legislation to improve church-state safeguards and ultimately killed the bill. 

During a "lame duck" session preceding the start of the 108th Congress, Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and others introduced measures to apply stronger constitutional safeguards and employment protections. When senators could not resolve the issues, the clock ran out and the bill died.

In 2001, Bush's plan to offer public funds to religious groups to provide social services was introduced in the House of Representatives as the "Community Solutions Act" (H.R. 7). That bill, which contained controversial "charitable choice" provisions, passed the House in July after months of bitter partisan conflict, but stalled in the Senate.

With the end of the congressional session, supporters of faith-based legislation in both chambers of Congress will have to start all over again next year.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who co-sponsored the CARE Act with Lieberman, told reporters that he and his allies will "get on it right away" in January.

Bush, Powell Condemn Rhetorical Attacks On Islam

Despite close political ties to the Religious Right, President George W. Bush has sought to distance himself from anti-Islamic remarks recently offered by several of the movement's leaders.

On Nov. 13, before an Oval Office meeting with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Bush said he disagreed with those who disparage Islam and its adherents.

"Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans," Bush said. "Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance...and we respect the faith and we welcome people of all faiths in America."

Bush's comments came after several close political allies in the Religious Right had offered a series of vitriolic tirades against Muslims. On Nov. 11, for example, TV preacher Pat Robertson compared Muslims to Nazis, telling his viewers, "Adolf Hitler was bad, but what the Muslims want to do to the Jews is worse." Similarly, Jerry Falwell outraged many in October when he told CBS's "60 Minutes" he believes Muhammad "was a terrorist."

Bush, who didn't mention the names of those he was disagreeing with, was not the only administration official to express displeasure with the anti-Islamic remarks.

The day after Bush's remarks, Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressing business executives at the State Department, encouraged Americans to condemn extreme anti-Islam rhetoric.

"This kind of hatred must be rejected," Powell said. "This kind of language must be spoken out against. We cannot allow this image to go forth of America, because it is an inaccurate image of America."

Senate Approves Judicial Nominee Michael McConnell

Despite the determined opposition of progressive and civil liberties organizations, the Senate has confirmed Bush judicial nominee Michael McConnell to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Nov. 15, with Democrats maintaining temporary control over the Senate, McConnell was approved on a voice vote. The confirmation came one day after the Judiciary Committee approved McConnell, a University of Utah law professor. He will be among 18 judges responsible for a judicial circuit that encompasses Utah, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

Some Senate Democrats, most notably Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), had expressed serious reservations about McConnell's nomination since May 2001 because of the nominee's rigid opposition to church-state separation and abortion rights. With Republicans set to take control of the Senate in the wake of the 2002 elections, Democrats saw little reason to continue fighting.

Upon successfully weathering the Senate confirmation process, McConnell told The Salt Lake Tribune, "All I can say is I'm going to do my best to interpret the law fairly."

His detractors, however, maintain that McConnell is more interested in shaping the law to fit his political ideology.

Among the most ardent critics of McConnell's nomination was Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The group noted that McConnell advocates taxpayer funding of religious schools and has criticized the Supreme Court for rulings removing state-sponsored religion from public schools. McConnell has even gone so far as to write his own constitutional amendment to water down church-state separation, which he offered to the House of Representatives in 1995.

Bush Administration Funds Voucher Front Group

The Bush administration has announced a partnership with the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a group that advocates for religious school vouchers, to promote the president's education policies.

On Oct. 15, Department of Education Undersecretary Gene Hickok said the BAEO would receive a $600,000 grant to develop "an intense public information campaign" to inform parents about "choices" available under the Bush education plan passed by Congress in 2001.

According to a press statement released by the agency, BAEO will use the taxpayer money to launch a "full-scale media campaign" that will "use direct mail, television, radio, newspapers, the Internet and door-to-door visits."

The BAEO, formed in 2000, claims to be a grassroots advocacy group aimed at providing options for African-American families. Research has shown, however, that the organization's support comes from wealthy right-wing foundations that oppose church-state separation, including the Bradley Foundation and the Walton Foundation.

Virginia County Can't Discriminate On Prayer, Says AU

The Chesterfield County, Va., Board of Supervisors has told a Wiccan religious leader that invocations at the board's meetings are reserved exclusively for those "allied to Judeo-Christian practices."

In a November letter to county officials, Americans United for Separation of Church and State said that if Chesterfield is going to have official pre-meeting prayers, it can't discriminate against religious minorities.

Cyndi Simpson, a Richmond-area resident and practicing Wiccan, expressed an interest in sharing her faith's nature-based traditions with local representatives. She signed a volunteer sign-up sheet available to community members interested in leading the Board of Supervisors in prayer before meetings. She was quickly rejected.

In a letter sent to her by County Attorney Steven L. Micas, Simpson was told her faith is "neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities," which makes her ineligible for delivering invocations in Chesterfield.

Don Kappel, a Chesterfield County spokesman, said, "We offer prayers by people who are religious leaders allied to Judeo-Christian practices. This is what the board wants."

Americans United said "expression of such a preference is blatantly unconstitutional."

Religious Bigotry Fails In Tennessee Gubernatorial Race

Political opponents of Tennessee governor-elect Phil Bredesen used aggressive religion-based attacks to try to steer voters away from the Democratic candidate.

Two weeks before Election Day, Bredesen's opponents sponsored telephone "push polls" warning voters that Bredesen believed in teaching young public school students about Buddhism and Hinduism. (Push polls appear to be neutral survey questions but ask respondents biased, often misleading, questions as part of an attack on a candidate.)

Bredesen was apparently being criticized for allowing Nashville public schools to teach comparative religion classes featuring information on minority faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism while serving as the city's mayor. Though Bredesen explained the lessons were part of secular instruction on world history, his political opponents suggested the Democrat was undermining Christianity.

The state Republican Party and Bredesen's opponent, former U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, denied any knowledge of the push poll. Nevertheless, about the same time the calls were being made, the state GOP began a direct mail campaign attacking the comparative religious classes.

To supplement the project, Brian Eastin, a GOP activist in the state, sent an email to Tennessee pastors expressing concern that Bredesen promoted "Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam" while giving Christianity "dry treatment." Eastin added that he hoped pastors would "share this information with your congregation."

The appeal to religious intolerance did not ultimately sway the outcome of the race. Voters elected Bredesen over Hilleary, 51 to 48 percent.

Nebraska Couple Fined For Forced Prayer

A Nebraska minister and his wife were fined by a local judge in October for forcibly holding down a 16-year-old boy so they could pray over him.

Dwight Sandoz, a pastor at the Assembly of God church in Gering, Neb., and his wife Nadine, were found guilty of false imprisonment of a minor and fined $100 each.

The youngster had joined the Sandozes at their church for a youth group meeting in February. Sandoz claimed the youth became disruptive, so he and his wife laid their hands on him a common worship exercise among Pentecostal Christians.

The boy's mother called the police after seeing the pastor apparently restraining her child.

Scotts Bluff County Judge Glenn Camerer said on Oct. 30 that the couple may have had good intentions, but if the boy was disruptive, they should have called the police or the youth's mother.

"You have to be careful when you take the law into your own hands," Camerer said.

Iran Sentences Dissident Professor To Death

In the harshest criminal penalty for a political activist in years, an Iranian court has sentenced Professor Hashem Aghajari to death.

Aghajari, an ally of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and long-time reform activist, was charged with insulting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in August when he said Muslims should not follow their religious leaders "blindly."

Aghajari, who lost a leg in the Iran-Iraq war, apologized for his remarks in a letter to the speaker of Parliament and again during his closed-door trial. It wasn't enough.

The November announcement of Aghajari's death sentence prompted multiple student protests in Tehran, where on Nov. 11, a thousand students gathered to demand that the professor be released.