School Voucher Battle Expected In U.S. Congress
When Congress resumes work this month, religious school voucher subsidies are expected to be near the top of the agenda.
The effort to advance vouchers is likely to start with Senate consideration of a bill called "Academic Achievement for All" (dubbed "Straight A's"). The measure would create a pilot program giving 10 states unprecedented flexibility in their decisions on how to spend federal education funds. Church-state separationists are concerned, however, that if the scheme becomes law, "Straight A's" could open the door to the creation of voucher programs that aid church schools.
The House of Representatives passed the legislation (H.R. 2300) on a 213-208 vote Oct. 21. The Senate is considering its own version of the bill (S. 1266) in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Julie Segal, legislative counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, expects the upcoming session of Congress to be a busy one for those concerned with church-state separation.
"Bills such as 'Straight A's' are part of an election-year strategy for some members of Congress," Segal said. "They don't have any real education reform ideas to take to the voters, so they will be pushing vouchers."
Noting the flurry of voucher activity in Congress since 1997, Segal added, "If the last few years are any indication, this year looks like it will be an uphill fight for voucher opponents."
Catholic Bishops Tighten Controls Over Church Colleges
The Roman Catholic bishops in the United States have sparked a major controversy by approving a plan to exercise greater control over the nation's 230 Catholic colleges and universities.
Meeting Nov. 17 in Washington, D.C., the bishops voted 223-31 to implement a new set of rules, known as "Ex Corde Ecclesiae: An Application to the United States," intended to reemphasize the Catholic identity of the schools.
As part of the change, university theologians, priests and deacons working in campus ministry will all be required to receive permission from a bishop to teach. In addition, the new rules require Catholic universities to have Catholic presidents, a Catholic majority of each university's board and attempt to recruit Catholic professors "so that...those committed to the witness of the faith will constitute a majority of the faculty."
In addition to concerns about academic freedom, there is a larger concern about potential church-state difficulties. Catholic colleges and universities receive millions of dollars in government aid, and some observers think the proposed changes could make the church's schools so sectarian they could lose eligibility for funding. Further, even if funding continued after the changes were made, the schools may be inviting discrimination lawsuits.
However, Catholic prelates including Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., said these concerns are unfounded.
Federal Christmas Holiday Not Illegal, Says Court
The observance of Christmas as a federal holiday does not violate the separation of church and state, a federal court in Ohio has ruled.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan J. Dlott issued her decision Dec. 7, concluding that Christmas, while considered a religious holiday by many Americans, has become secularized and therefore raises no constitutional concerns as a government holiday.
"The celebration as a national holiday cannot be viewed, by a reasonable person, as an endorsement of religion," Dlott wrote. "The holiday itself is so deeply imbued with secular connotations that, indeed, its religious origins are lost on many."
Richard Ganulin, a Cincinnati attorney, filed suit last year, claiming federal recognition of the Christian holiday runs afoul of the First Amendment's church-state provisions. Since that time, he has been the subject of intense criticism.
"There have been threats," Ganulin told The Washington Times. "I have had to live with the fear that were the court to speak to a view that I'm advancing, some self-proclaimed righteous individuals would do the duty to do harm."
Dlott not only issued a formal written opinion in the Ganulin v. U.S. case, but also took the unorthodox step of punctuating her decision with a nine-stanza poem. One verse noted, "An extra day off is hardly high treason, it may be spent as you wish regardless of reason."
Ganulin has told reporters that he will appeal Dlott's ruling.
Harry Potter Books Spark School Controversy
"Harry Potter" children's books may be a hit on the bestsellers list, but an increasing number of Religious Right activists feel the books may be promoting the occult and have no place on public school reading lists.
The Potter books, written by British author J. K. Rowling, have done exceptionally well in the United States, selling over 5 million copies and collecting a series of awards. The main character, Harry Potter, is a boy who goes to "sorcery school" to learn to cast spells and fight evil. It is this subject matter that has some parents in an uproar.
For example, in October, a group of Christian parents petitioned the South Carolina State Board of Education to prohibit the books from being read to students by public school teachers, suggesting the books have "a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil." The board ultimately rejected the group's request.
Criticism has also been levied by Karen Jo Gounaud of Family Friendly Libraries, a Religious Right group based in Northern Virginia. Gounaud claims to have received "hundreds" of calls complaining about the Potter series.
"There's no denying that 'Harry Potter' has a lot of symbolism for Wiccans," Gounaud told The Washington Times. "Everyone is a witch or a warlock, they're casting spells, drinking blood, they believe in reincarnation.... It's interesting how public schools suddenly develop this amnesia when it comes to religious symbols."
Thus far, the censorship crusade has been unsuccessful.
Legislators, Politicians Tout 'Creator' In Schools
After years of failed attempts to circumvent Supreme Court rulings on prayer in public schools, some state legislators -- and even a couple of presidential candidates -- believe they have found a way to bring discussion of God into the classroom by way of the Declaration of Independence.
Last year, the New Jersey Assembly passed a measure that required the opening passage of the Declaration, including the phrase about rights "endowed by their Creator," be recited at the start of the school day. The bill stalled, however, in the state Senate and was opposed by Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (R).
Presidential candidates Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes have endorsed the idea, and integrated the proposal as part of their campaigns. Bauer suggested this plan might serve as an adequate substitute for school-sanctioned prayer that once started the school day in some communities.
"It would accomplish the same thing," Bauer told the Sacramento Bee. "It would remind all of our students that God is the author of our liberties and that nobody can take that liberty away."
State legislators in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and New York have considered similar measures recently, but none of the efforts have been successful so far.
Ala. Commandments Judge May Lead Mt. Sinai March
The Alabama judge who earned national notoriety after posting a hand-carved Ten Commandments plaque in his Etowah County courtroom has been invited to join a pilgrimage of biblical proportions.
Ed McAteer, a Religious Right activist from Memphis, Tenn., is in the process of organizing a trip of Christian "pilgrims" to visit Mt. Sinai for a reenactment of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. McAteer has asked Moore to lead the group in an event scheduled for April 2000.
"As we come down [from Mount Sinai], the people will have the tables of stone in their hands," McAteer told the Texas Baptist Standard. "This will be a repeat of what Moses did....This will be the first time in 3,400 years -- as far as we know -- that this has happened." He invited Moore because the controversial judge has become "better identified with the Ten Commandments that any man in America."
Moore also made headlines in December by announcing he will be seeking election to the Alabama Supreme Court. Moore has vowed to post his Ten Commandments plaque in the state Supreme Court's chamber if elected.
Calif. Public School Can Skip Commandments Display
A public school district in California can legally refuse to display the Ten Commandments on its baseball field wall, a federal appeals court has unanimously ruled.
In 1995, Downey High School in the Los Angeles suburbs was selling space for 40 commercial advertisements on the outfield wall of the school's diamond. School officials rejected a proposed Ten Commandments ad from Edward DiLoreto, chief executive of a local engineering firm, along with ads for alcohol, Planned Parenthood and taverns.
DiLoreto filed suit, alleging his First Amendment rights were violated. The school maintained that public school students are a "captive audience," and as such, officials could legally exercise discretion over the material posted. To avoid further controversy, the school later removed all the ads at the field.
On Nov. 8, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in DiLoreto v. Downey Board of Education that the school's action was permissible.
"We find that the district's decision to exclude ads on certain subjects, including religion, was reasonable, given the district's concerns regarding disruption and controversy," the court held. The three-judge panel added, "The fact that the district chose to close the forum rather than post Mr. DiLoreto's advertisement and risk further disruption or litigation does not constitute viewpoint discrimination."
Northern Ireland Peace Plan Advances
A mid-November compromise over disarmament has paved the way for peace among Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The region has been the location of some of the most religiously motivated violence in the world for 600 years, but that appears to be ready to change.
The "Good Friday" peace accord, originally reached in April 1998, laid the groundwork for the British government transferring political power back to a locally elected government in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1972.
The accord appeared to be in jeopardy when the new Northern Irish cabinet, elected in June 1998, could not take office because members of Northern Ireland's largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionist Party, refused to serve alongside members of Sinn Fein until the Irish Republican Army began to disarm itself. But the crisis was averted Nov. 27 when the pro-British unionists voted to join with the pro-Irish republicans in a local government on the condition that the IRA commit itself to disarmament by February.