January 1999 People & Events

Robertson Targets Northeast For Coalition Growth

TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition is looking to expand in a region of the country where it has historically been weak: the Northeast.

Robertson traveled to Secaucus, N.J., Nov. 20 for a "God and Country Gala" at a Hilton Hotel. Joining Robertson at the $40-a-plate dinner were former presidential candidate and business tycoon Steve Forbes and two Republican members of the state assembly, reported the Newark Star-Ledger.

New Jersey and other northeastern states have been a tough sale for the Christian Coalition, largely because the region is heavily populated by Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and non-religious people who don't respond favorably to Robertson's agenda. The Coalition, which is made up mostly of fundamentalist Protestants, tried a few years ago to launch a Catholic spinoff called the Catholic Alliance. The group still exists but is no longer officially tied to the Christian Coalition.

In his remarks, Robertson insisted that recent electoral setbacks for Republicans have not diminished the power of the Coalition. "If we can mobilize even a small percentage of people, we could play a significant role" in the next presidential election, he told the crowd of about 600.

Robertson also asserted that Republican losses had nothing to do with the party's closeness to the Religious Right. "They were just outflanked and outgunned in the election by some very smart politicians," he said. "I don't think it had anything to do with the conservative agenda. If there had been a stronger conservative agenda, like the Contract for America, I think many more would have been elected. There was a great deal of apathy in our ranks."

In other news about the Christian Coalition:

U.S. Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) is furious that the Coalition worked against him in his bid to unseat House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). Although Largent is a social-issues conservative, the Coalition backed Armey after the Texas congressman asked the group for help.

Largent's bid was unsuccessful, and he found out about the Coalition's effort on behalf of Armey only after group members began calling GOP members of Congress who backed Largent and lobbied them to switch to Armey.

In the closing days of the race, Largent said the organization has no business intervening in an internal GOP election. "There was nothing Christian...about the way the muddled this," Largent told the Tulsa World. After the race, Largent told a Coalition representative, "You have some fences to mend with Steve Largent."

Coalition spokeswoman Molly Clatworthy said the group supported Armey because "he has been very supportive on a broad range of issues we care about." She also said, "I want to make it clear that it wasn't that we were against Steve Largent. We like Congressman Largent. We admire Congressman Largent."

xb7 The Coalition has been named the seventh most influential political lobby in America by Forbes magazine. The Coalition out-paced the National Right to Life Committee, which came in ninth, but fell behind the National Rifle Association, which was fourth. (The American Association of Retired Persons came in first.)

Television 'Prophets' Profit By Spreading Y2K Hysteria

TV preacher Jerry Falwell is warning followers to stock up on canned goods and water -- as well as guns and ammunition -- to prepare for societal chaos in the year 2000 thanks to the so-called "Y2K" computer bug.

Y2K is a problem because most computers are programmed to accept dates ending in two digits, such as '98 and '99. The fear is that on midnight, Jan. 1, 2000, many computers will misread the two zeroes in "2000" and either cease functioning entirely or slow down. Governments, businesses and private organizations have been working to solve the problem.

Y2K, Falwell intones on a recently issued videotape, "may be God's instrument to shake this nation, to humble this nation...[Y2K could] start a revival that spreads [over] the face of the Earth before the Rapture of the Church."

But the Lynchburg evangelist warns that Y2K may have a dark side as well and recommends that his followers stock up on food, water and weapons. "[I]f I'm blessed with a little food and my family is inside the house with me," Falwell observed, "I've got to be sure that I can persuade others not to mess with us."

Falwell is not the only TV preacher worried about Y2K. In Virginia Beach recently, Pat Robertson urged putting provisions aside, telling about 500 attendees at a Christian Broadcasting Network conference on the computer bug, "We are looking at a man-made global crisis of such magnitude that nobody can assess it. We should think now how we can store up supplies...so that at the time of crisis, we can help people. It can be the church's finest hour."

Although Robertson stopped short of recommending guns, he advised attendees to be cautious when discussing their Y2K stockpiles with others. "In some areas and at some times, it is advisable to use wisdom and discretion when talking to others about your personal Y2K preparations," he said. "This may not sound particularly Christian, but there are times when it is best to be wise as serpents, while remaining harmless as doves."

Critics say Falwell and Robertson are unnecessarily frightening people and spreading misinformation. While some glitches over Y2K may be inevitable, most computer experts are not predicting anything like the societal breakdown envisioned by Falwell and Robertson.

"That's definitely going overboard," Terry Riley, executive director of Hampton Roads Technology Council, told the Virginian-Pilot. "The fact of the matter is that the sky is not going to fall."

Continued Terry, "There could be some problems that go beyond mere convenience, but I don't anticipate any national or system-wide blackouts. The magnitude of the problem doesn't begin to approach survival level. People who are talking about survival are being opportunists."

Falwell and Robertson may have personal motives for promoting Y2K hysteria: money and power. Falwell is hawking his new video, "A Christian's Guide to the Millennium Bug," for $28 over the World Wide Web. Robertson has his own video, "Preparing for the Millennium: A CBN News Special Report," available though his Christian Broadcasting Network.

Other Religious Right figures, including Tim LaHaye and TV preacher Jack Van Impe, are jumping aboard the Y2K hysteria bandwagon. In Tyler, Texas, Christian Reconstructionist Gary North has issued dire warnings of a country thrown into chaos by Y2K.

Some Christian leaders take a dim view of the Religious Right's view of Y2K. "Americans are nuts about religion, and we tend to go particularly nuts about religion in any year that ends in a double zero, and this year has three zeros, so it's even worse," the Rev. Richard Mooney of the Church of the Holy Family in Virginia Beach told the Virginian-Pilot. "I find this Year 2000 nonsense perfectly predictable and utterly non-interesting....My advice to those who are worried about the Year 2000 problem is to buy new computers."

Atheist Club At Mich. High School Get OK With AU Help

A Michigan high school junior has been allowed to form an atheist club after intervention by Americans United's legal department.

Micah White, 16, of Grand Blanc, decided to form the club after noticing that several Christian groups were meeting on campus. But when he approached school officials with the idea, all he got was a runaround.

White told Church & State that the principal informed him he would need a teacher to sponsor the club. White found a sponsor but continued running into roadblocks.

"Suddenly I was getting completely ignored," he said. "No one responded to anything I said. The vice principal would set up meetings with me then not show up."

White did a search on the World Wide Web for "separation of church and state" and found Americans United's website. He contacted AU, and on Oct. 28 AU Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan sent a letter to school officials, warning them that their actions could result in a lawsuit.

The Equal Access Act, passed by Congress in 1984 and upheld by the Supreme Court six years later, states that public secondary schools must allow all sorts of student clubs, including religious ones, to meet on campus if any "non-curriculum related " clubs are meeting. The only types of groups that may be denied permission to meet are ones that might "substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities."

In the AU letter, Khan noted that since the school was permitting religious clubs to meet, it could not lawfully deny the same right to an atheist group. "[I]f you are like the vast majority of other public high schools in this country and receive federal funding, you must comply with the Act, which requires that you allow Mr. White to form his club, and that you provide him with the same resources and facilities that are made available to other student groups," wrote Khan.

School officials quickly backed down and told White to go ahead and form the club. The organization had its first meeting Dec. 8. White reported that he had expected about a dozen students to attend, but actual turnout topped 40.

Appeals Court Hears AU's School Prayer Case From Alabama

Attorneys with Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama squared off against TV preacher Pat Robertson's top lawyer in Montgomery, Ala., last month in a possible precedent-setting federal case over religion in public schools.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the Chandler v. James case Dec. 3. The lawsuit challenges a variety of school-sponsored religious practices in public schools in rural DeKalb County. The abuses were first brought to light by Michael Chandler, an Americans United member and principal in the system whose son attends a public school in the county.

AU and the ACLU filed the litigation on Chandler's behalf in February of 1996, and in March of 1997 U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent issued a ruling ordering the school system to stop sponsoring the religious practices. DeMent held that the abuses at the schools were so serious that monitors should periodically visit them to make sure his order was not being violated.

Religious Right organizations were furious and attacked DeMent's ruling, wildly distorting it and using it to spread hysteria among their members, raise money and attack the separation of church and state. Alabama Gov. Forrest "Fob" James (R) and other state officials joined the crusade and invited Robertson's attorneys to help them appeal. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, was subsequently named an assistant attorney general in Alabama to prepare the state's defense.

At oral arguments last month, the state was represented by Sekulow while James was represented separately by Leigh O'Dell, an attorney affiliated with radio counselor James Dobson's Focus on the Family. During her portion of the argument, O'Dell, reflecting James' belief, argued that Alabama is not bound to follow decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court or indeed abide by the Bill of Rights.

Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green said the argument went well, and he is optimistic that the decision will uphold the lower court. "Judge DeMent ordered public school officials to stop promoting religion but allowed individual students broad freedom to practice their faith," said Green. "This is a reasonable and constitutional approach that the vast majority of Americans would support."

Green added that since the ruling, school officials in DeKalb County have reported that school-sponsored religious activities have generally ceased but that individual students continue to pray freely.

Catholic Schools Take Wisconsin Tax Money, But Hope To Skip Regs

Figures released by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction show that Milwaukee's Roman Catholic schools have benefitted the most from the state's voucher program, enrolling 2,785 new students with taxpayer money.

Catholic school enrollment accounts for 70 percent of all students attending sectarian schools under the program. Lutheran schools enrolled 561 students, and 654 students are attending other religious schools. An additional 2,200 students are attending non-religious private schools.

Even though they are benefitting financially from the publicly funded program, Catholic and Lutheran schools remain reluctant to accept the same rules and regulations that govern public institutions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin recently sent letters to 112 "choice" schools asking them if they will guarantee eight basic rights that students in public schools are legally entitled to.

Both the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee and representatives of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod refused to answer the letters. "We do not believe that you have standing or any basis to seek the information requested," wrote Dr. John Norris, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. "At the same time you may rest assured that all Catholic schools in the city of Milwaukee comply with the law in all respects."

Jerry Topczewski, director of communications for the archdiocese, told the Shepherd Express that the ACLU has a right to ask about student rights, "but the Catholic school system is certainly a private school system." Regulations governing the rights of students, he added, apply only to public schools.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the Wisconsin ACLU, called the answer "evasive" and added, "In a choice school, they are expecting parents to sign kids right up without telling parents whether or not their children will be free of sex harassment, or whether they will be free from discrimination. Where are the assurances? In public schools they had these assurances. These parents will want the same assurances in choice schools."

In other news about vouchers:

California voucher supporters have gone high tech. Leaders of a group called LocalChoice 2000 are using the World Wide Web to solicit opinions about how to word a voucher initiative planned for the March 2000 ballot. Organizers also hope to gather many of the 433,269 signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot via computer, reported The Washington Times.

The effort is sure to face stiff opposition. California voters trounced a voucher initiative 70 percent to 30 percent in 1993, and the state's new Democratic governor, Gray Davis, opposes vouchers. Additionally, the LocalChoice website (www.localchoice.com) is attracting little interest. In its first week of operation, only 193 people bothered to log on and give their opinion on vouchers.

Ohio students attending a chain of private schools that were opened specifically to serve students taking part in Cleveland's voucher program are performing far worse than their public school counterparts or students attending other private "choice" schools, an independent study indicates.

A research team from Indiana University found that fourth grade students in the Hope Academies opened by industrialist David Brennan performed "significantly and dramatically lower" than their peers in other schools.

The study also found that voucher students attending schools other than the Hope Academies slightly outperformed public school students in language skills and science and did about the same in math and social studies. The results are significant because voucher advocates insist that students attending private schools at public expense will see significant academic gains. So far, no objective study of vouchers in either Cleveland or Milwaukee has borne that out.

Pope John Paul II Endorses Operation Rescue's Anti-Abortion Drive

Pope John Paul II met privately with Joan Andrews Bell, an activist from the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, July 30 and praised her for her work, Catholic New York has reported.

Bell traveled to the Vatican with her husband and two of their three children, reported the paper. She attended a mass celebrated by the pope at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, and met with him afterwards. Bell's husband, Christopher, runs six homes in New York for unwed mothers.

"We spoke to the Holy Father about Operation Rescue and about the Good Counsel Homes and asked him to pray for the work," said Bell. "He listened very intently and gave his blessing to us. His eyes just looked at you, full of sanctity and love and depths of understanding."

Bell told the Catholic paper that she thanked the pope for issuing "The Gospel of Life," an encyclical that condemns abortion and euthanasia, saying it helped energize the U.S. anti-abortion movement.

Bell spent 71 days in jail earlier this year for blocking entrances to abortion clinics with other Operation Rescue protestors. The organization, founded by radical anti-abortion protestor Randall Terry, is among the most extreme anti-abortion organizations in the country. The pope's endorsement of Operation Rescue, which is composed mostly of fundamentalist Protestants, is significant because up to now, many in the Catholic hierarchy have kept the group at arm's length because of its extreme tactics.

The pope's comments represent yet another escalation in the church's long-running campaign to end legal abortion all over the world. That undertaking recently reverberated in the United States, where the U.S. Catholic bishops have ratcheted up their opposition to legal abortion. Last November the bishops approved a new statement urging clergy to lobby pro-choice Catholic officeholders to change their view.

Some church officials are taking an even harder line. In Pennsylvania, Bishop Donald Trautman of the Diocese of Erie has announced that pro-choice Catholic officeholders are no longer welcome at church-sponsored events.

"Those who justify their actions on the grounds that abortion is the law of the land need to recognize that there is a higher law," Trautman said.

The policy seems aimed at Gov. Tom Ridge, a pro-choice Republican from Erie. Ridge, who says he personally opposes abortion but supports a woman's right to have one, told the Associated Press he would abide by the bishop's directive.

Other bishops are taking a similar tough line. At an October anti-abortion "Marian Conference" held by Human Life International in Alexandria, Va., Bishop James S. Sullivan of Fargo, N.D., called on Roman Catholics to hold pro-choice Catholic politicians accountable.

"It is time that Catholic citizens of the United States be reminded that their first loyalty is to Christ the King -- and not to the visceral satisfaction of 'winning' an election to 'resolve' problems that will only be exacerbated by officeholders who compromise the truth to advance career ambition."

Continued Sullivan, "What does it profit a voter to attach his loyalty to a candidate or party or ideology -- and turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the plight of innocent children; to the plight of authentic justice based on Jesus Christ and His Holy Church?"

Critics often charge that in their zeal to impose Catholic teachings on all citizens, the American bishops are demonstrating contempt for the separation of church and state. But a recent civil case form Omaha, Neb., shows that the church still finds the constitutional principal useful from time to time.

The Omaha Catholic Archdiocese is defending itself against a lawsuit brought by a former altar boy who claims he was molested by the Rev. Daniel Herek, a priest at St. Richard Church. The young man, known as John Doe in court documents, charges that the archdiocese allowed Herek to work around boys even after it knew he had "exhibited dangerous pedophile traits."

Attorneys for the archdiocese have argued in court that the case should be tossed out, saying the separation of church and state protects the church from being forced to turn over documents, such as Herek's personnel and medical records.

Public Education Needs Support Of Religion, Says Philly Supt.

The head of Philadelphia's public school system has challenged religious groups to affirm their support for public education.

"The basic morality of the nation is at stake in public education," David Hornbeck, Philadelphia' superintendent of schools, told the annual assembly of the National Council of Churches Nov. 11. "The leadership responsibility to act courageously and imaginatively and to speak relentlessly and powerfully with a prophetic voice and moral authority rests with our communities of faith."

More than 200 church leaders attended the meeting, held in Chicago, reported Religion News Service. Hornbeck's comments came during a session on a proposed NCC policy statement on public education. He insisted that public education will be the "next great civil rights battleground."

"We need your moral vision and your political power," said Hornbeck. "We need it forcefully and we need it now. Those who do not understand and/or care whether poor kids and black kids and brown kids succeed have out-organized, out-smarted us and out-voted us."

The NCC statement on public schools reads in part, "Just as the nation has come together in the past to address situations deemed to be crises, so it must come together now in a national crusade to save the public schools and to bring to all children the abundant life which ought by right to be theirs as children of God." The statement also notes that the debate over public education has too often been "dominated by religious and political groups whose view of public schools is largely negative."

The statement will be debated one more time, at a general assembly later this year in Cleveland.

Neb. Public School Blows Whistle After Church School Foul

The superintendent of a Nebraska public school has cancelled all athletic competitions with a nearby fundamentalist Christian school that endorsed an anti-public school tirade by syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and called public education "evil."

The controversy started last October after officials at Central Christian Schools in Cass County invited Thomas to speak at a fund-raiser. During his remarks, Thomas, a far-right columnist and frequent public school basher, called for shutting down public education in America, saying he was not there to criticize public schools but rather, "I'm here to bury them."

"We've ignored in America the integration of moral and spiritual values and truth in our children," Thomas said. "Now the Bible is out and metal detectors are in. Why would you want to send them to a system that teaches them lies?"

After reading about Thomas' comments in the Omaha World-Herald, Elmwood-Murdock School Superintendent Dan Novak wrote to Don Lutterman, president of the board of Central Christian, to ask if he agreed with Thomas' remarks.

Lutterman said he did, writing, "Because the two systems (Christian and public) teach very different views of the nature of man and the universe, they cannot both be correct. Hence, it necessarily follows that if one school holds one position to be true and therefore good, the alternative position held by the other school must be considered a lie and therefore evil."

Novak told the World-Herald that he cannot understand why Lutterman wants anything to do with public education if he considers it evil. He added that sports competition is about mutual respect, and it's obvious that Lutterman has no respect for public schools.

"I really take offense at his comments," Novak told the newspaper. "I believe [public schools] are not propaganda. They do not teach kids to lie. I believe someone has to take responsibility for what Cal Thomas said. You can't just take cheap shots at public schools continually and not be held accountable. If Central Christian believes that's what public education means in Nebraska, I don't know why they'd want to be in competition with us."

Federal Court Blocks Arizona 'Bible Week'

A proposal by Arizona Gov. Jane Hull to declare "Bible Week" was blocked by a federal court in November, on the grounds that it would violate the separation of church and state.

U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver granted a temporary restraining order to the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona Nov. 20, ordering a halt to "Bible Week," which was to have started Nov. 22.

"On the face of this document, it certainly has the [indication] of being religion and purposely not secular," wrote Judge Silver. The ACLU had earlier blocked the town of Gilbert, Ariz., from issuing its own "Bible Week" proclamation, winning a similar ruling from Judge Silver. TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice is assisting the city with its legal defense.

States, cities and counties all over America are being asked to endorse "Bible Week," a project of the National Bible Association. The organization, based in New York City, has been promoting the idea annually for the past 57 years.

The proclamation it asks governments to endorse lauds the Bible as "the foundational document of the Judeo-Christian principles upon which our Nation was conceived" and urges citizens to read the Bible. The Associated Press has reported that 27 governors and more than 400 mayors issued the proclamation in 1998.

Thomas May, president of the National Bible Association, says the controversy surprises him. "This is not an attempt to influence or control anyone's religion," he told The Christian Science Monitor. "We're simply saying, 'Read a book.'"