January 2001 AU Bulletin

Religious Right Groups Aim For Power In New Congress

Fearful that congressional Republicans might select moderate committee chairs, Religious Right groups went to work in December, jockeying behind the scenes to maximize their influence in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A fierce battle is under way, for example, for chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the body's most important and powerful committees. Reps. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and Philip Crane (R-Ill.) are vying to replace Rep. William Archer (R-Texas) for the post. Thomas, considered by most observers to be fairly conservative, apparently isn't conservative enough for the Religious Right.

In a December letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the Eagle Forum, the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), the Free Congress Foundation and the American Association of Christian Schools said Thomas' positions on issues "are not in line with our members, nor the American people." The groups leveled this charge despite the fact that Thomas is opposed to abortion rights, supports vouchers for religious schools and voted for the Istook Amendment mandating prayer in public schools.

The Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the TVC, told The Washington Times that Thomas is "vindictive," while Crane is "a gentle conservative." One lobbyist, however, told the Times the Religious Right leaders have more than personalities in mind. "He's [Thomas] not as pliable," the lobbyist said. "They can't intimidate him as easily as they can Crane."

Despite the Religious Right's support, some have shown apprehension about supporting Crane in the race for the chairmanship. Earlier this year, Crane admitted to having a serious drinking problem that necessitated him leaving Congress temporarily to be checked into a rehabilitation program.

Indiana County Loses Ten Commandments Fight

Lawrence County, Ind., officials have removed a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse lawn, after being threatened with costly court fines by a federal judge.

The stone Decalogue monument had originally been created to sit on the lawn of the state capitol in Indianapolis. On Oct. 24, however, U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker agreed with a lawsuit filed by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and blocked the sculpture from being installed.

While the case is being appealed, commissioners in Lawrence County voted unanimously to install the monument in front of its county courthouse.

To no one's surprise, Barker ruled Nov. 14 that the monument is just as unconstitutional in front of a county courthouse as it is in front of the Capitol and ordered that it be removed.

Apparently annoyed at the officials' attempt to circumvent her earlier ruling, Barker added that the county would be fined $1,000 a day and that county commissioners would personally be fined $200 a day if the Commandments were not removed within five days of her ruling.

"It would be highly inequitable to allow a governmental body, or any other organization, to flaunt the authority of this court simply by claiming that the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing," Barker said in her ruling.

Three days later, local police defied the wishes of a lone protester, and the religious display was taken away.

In a related story, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down the display of the Ten Commandments in front of a municipal building in Elkhart, Ind. The court said the display was a clear example of government endorsement of religion. Officials in Elkhart plan to appeal the Books v. City of Elkhart ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. (See full story next month.)

Pennsylvania Parents Held Responsible For Child's Death

In a unanimous ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld the manslaughter conviction of a fundamentalist couple who rejected medical care for their ailing daughter.

Shannon Nixon of Altoona, Pa., died in 1996 at the age of 16 of complications from diabetes, including dehydration and a blood sugar level 18 times the normal level. Doctors agree that with insulin, she would have lived. Her parents, Dennis and Lorie Nixon, who have 11 other children and reject medical treatment for their family on religious grounds, argued unsuccessfully in lower courts that Shannon was a "mature minor" and had a constitutional right to privacy not to seek medical care.

In a 7-0 ruling published Nov. 28, the state Supreme Court rejected the Nixons' defense. Justice Stephen Zappala said in Commonwealth v. Nixon that the family's religious objections to medical care are overridden by the state's "compelling interest" in protecting the life of a child.

The parents, who belong to the Blair County, Pa., branch of the Faith Tabernacle Church, have been sentenced to terms of 2 1/2 to 5 years, but are free pending the outcome of their appeals. An attorney representing the family told reporters they are considering taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Shannon was the second child in her immediate family to die of a treatable condition. Her brother, Clayton Nixon, died in 1991 of an ear infection.

'Bible Week' Compromise Prevails In Arizona

A legal compromise has allowed an Arizona mayor to issue a "Bible Week" proclamation.

In 1998, Gilbert, Ariz., Mayor Cynthia Dunham was sued by the Arizona affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union after issuing a "Bible Week" proclamation. U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver dismissed the case in October 1999. But Silver changed her mind and reinstated it last August. Residents of Gilbert, she said, "are made to feel like outsiders, unwelcome in their own hometown" by the proclamation.

Attorneys for both sides in the dispute reached an agreement Oct. 24 in which Dunham can issue the proclamation, but may not urge local residents to read the Bible or plan city-sponsored events marking the observance.

TV preacher Pat Robertson's legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, which had assisted Dunham during the legal fight, downplayed the significance of the mayor's declaration. The ACLJ's Walter Weber told the Freedom Forum's online newsite, "This is simply a ceremonial proclamation."

Church-State Death Penalty Challenge Fails In Texas

A Texas woman sentenced to death for murder has unsuccessfully challenged death-penalty laws as being in conflict with the separation of church and state.

Brittany Marlowe Holberg was sentenced to death following the 1996 robbery and murder of an 80-year-old man. Among her appeals was an argument that Texas' death penalty laws were in conflict with the Constitution's Establishment Clause because they advance "the beliefs of fundamentalist Protestants over those other branches of American Christianity and other sects and religions that oppose the death penalty on contrasting religious grounds."

On Nov. 29, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Holberg's church-state argument.

"The primary effect of the statutes is penal in nature, not religious, and the mere fact that the statutes are consistent with the tenets of a particular faith does not render the statutes in violation of the Establishment Clause," the appeals court said in Holberg v. Texas.

Indiana Court Rejects Divine Driver's License

Just because you're headed to church doesn't mean you can flout state traffic laws, an Indiana court has ruled.

Leslie Dale Cosby of Clinton County, Ind., was pulled over for speeding in June 1999, and when the officer discovered he was driving without a license, Cosby was issued an additional citation. However, since he was on his way to attend church services, Cosby argued that the state was interfering with his "God-given right to worship."

According to the Freedom Forum's online news service, a lower court rejected Cosby's argument and found him guilty. On Nov. 27, a state appeals court agreed that Cosby has no constitutional right to drive without a license, even if he's driving to church.

"The law requiring those who wish to drive motor vehicles on public highways to obtain licenses is a neutral law of general applicability," the court said in Cosby v. Indiana. The ruling added, "Additionally, we see no evidence that our state police officer and other law enforcement bodies have set out to enforce this law only against Christians driving to church."

Catholic Church Heartened By Newly Elected Fox

Vicente Fox took over the presidency of Mexico on Dec. 1, ending nearly 70 years of power for the Institutional Revolutionary Party and the change is good news for the Roman Catholic Church.

After taking a back seat in Mexican affairs for decades, the church hierarchy believes Fox's leadership and the power of his National Action Party (PAN), representing the country's pro-Catholic faction, will mean positive results for the church's interests.

Fox, a former executive for Coca-Cola, said during the campaign that his personal faith will be "an integral part of my life, but never a bias." Nevertheless, that did not stop him from making 10 specific promises to Mexican Catholic bishops before his election, including "respect and support" for "parents rights on education," leading many to believe Fox may support public funding of Catholic schools.

To begin his Inauguration Day, Fox participated in a Catholic mass at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where he prayed "for the good of Mexico." This drew some criticism from political opponents.

"We're not saying he shouldn't be allowed to pray," said Eduardo Andrade, a PRI lawmaker from Veracruz state. "It's just that he shouldn't do it so openly, as his first official act."

Salvation Army Flunks Religion Test In Russia

An appeals court in Moscow has ruled against the Salvation Army, announcing Nov. 28 that the group is a foreign-based "military association" and therefore ineligible for registration as a full-fledged Russian religious organization.

The decision may force the religious group to relocate its headquarters, move five congregations into home churches and shut down operations that include providing about 6,000 meals in Moscow.

The Salvation Army ran into trouble because of a controversial 1997 law that requires religious groups to register with the Russian government in order to function as legal entities with the right to enter into contracts, open bank accounts and hire employees.

"In terms of the legal processes, it is the end of the road," said Colonel Ken Baillie, an American who commands the Salvation Army's operations in Russia and four other former Soviet republics. "We've had registration here for six years. Never a problem. With the new law, we had to re-register." Baillie added that an appeal to Russia's Supreme Court is unlikely.

In addition to the Salvation Army, local congregations of evangelical Protestants, Mormons, Roman Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses across Russia have sought court orders forcing the Ministry of Justice to re-register them after initial denials.