January 2002 AU Bulletin

Supreme Court Skips Florida Graduation Prayer Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take a case dealing with a North Florida school district that allows seniors to elect a classmate to give a prayer or other "message" at graduation ceremonies.

On Dec. 10, the justices without comment announced they would not hear Adler v. Duval County School Board, a lawsuit brought by several students and their families who said the policy violates the separation of church and state.

The Duval County scheme was initially struck down by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in June 1999. The decision was reversed last year, however, when the court's full panel of judges ruled 8-4 that the policy is constitutional. The court majority concluded that since students select the speaker, and school officials do not review the remarks in advance, the school is maintaining neutrality on religion.

After the Duval County policy was upheld, students at one high school elected a classmate who gave an evangelical Christian sermon. In her remarks during the graduation, she thanked Jesus for "dying for our sins" and thanked God for "raising him from the dead three days later so that through your son's death we may be at peace with you and thereby may have fellowship with you."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the appellate level opposing the prayer policy, said the Supreme Court's inaction in the case is disappointing.

"Students should not have to sit through a prayer they don't believe in just to get their high school diplomas," said Barry W. Lynn, AU's executive director. "The rights of religious minorities should never be subjected to majority rule, whether it's by a graduating class or a school board."

The Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case does not set a national precedent, and the appeals court ruling will only apply to the three states within the 11th Circuit Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Mormon Missionaries Don't Count, High Court Rules

Officials with the U.S. Census Bureau acted lawfully when they refused to count Mormon missionaries living abroad as part of the population of Utah, the courts have ruled.

On Nov. 26, the Supreme Court affirmed an appeals court decision holding that Utah has no legal grounds to challenge the Census Bureau's policy. Currently, the bureau only counts Americans living abroad who are military personnel or civilian federal employees.

Utah strongly fought the federal agency's decision because of what was at stake politically: a fourth seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which allocates districts based on state population.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name of the Mormon church) said the bureau's policy excludes 11,176 people. Under existing rules, Utah fell 857 people short of the total needed for the extra House seat.

Church representatives told reporters that they will continue to research ways to get the missionaries counted.

Controversial NLRB Hopeful J. Robert Brame Withdraws Name From Consideration

Controversial attorney J. Robert Brame III has asked the White House to withdraw his name from consideration for a slot on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Brame became a contentious choice because of his high-ranking positions with two extremist organizations that promote "biblical law." The groups, American Vision and the Plymouth Rock Foundation, are aligned with the so-called "Christian Reconstructionist" movement, whose adherents seek to replace American democracy with a theocracy based on their interpretation of the Old Testament's legal code. American Vision, for example, has published materials that describe democracy as "the first step toward fascism," argue that women must be subordinate to men and insist that the Bible requires the death penalty for gays.

When media sources reported that Brame was a likely nominee for the NLRB, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a broad array of other civil liberties and concerned groups publicized Brame's ties to the radical organizations and rallied citizens across the country to contact the White House and oppose his selection.

In December, Brame told reporters that he asked President George W. Bush to remove his name from a list of possible NLRB nominees. He said he has decided to pursue other endeavors, but observers believe that the national outcry sparked by Brame's record is the real reason for his withdrawal.

Lynn cautioned that the situation must still be monitored. Although Brame has said he is no longer interested in the position, media reports have surfaced stating that Bush could still name Brame to the NLRB as a "recess appointment." Under the terms of a recess appointment, Brame could serve on the NLRB until the start of the next term of Congress in January of 2003, without undergoing Senate confirmation.

Creche Crusaders Lose Battle Of Lexington Green

A Massachusetts town may limit cr\xe8ches and other displays on public property, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Nov. 29 that Lexington's policy of barring any unattended displays on its historic Battle Green "inhibits some speech," but is legally permissible because the limits are applied evenly to everyone.

The lawsuit challenging the town's rules was brought by the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal group that had been erecting a large Nativity scene on the green every December. Some residents had complained that the depiction of the birth of Christ on public property amounted to a government endorsement of religion.

In response, town officials decided to ban all freestanding displays. The Knights said the policy interfered with their religious freedom and filed suit.

A federal district court ruled in favor of the policy in December 2000. The appeals court ruling in Knights of Columbus v. Town of Lexington upholds this decision.

Selectman Peter Enrich told the Associated Press he hoped the ruling would finally bring the matter to a close.

"Our hope is that this will mark a conclusion to the controversy around the issue, and people can move on and enjoy the holiday," Enrich said.

That appears unlikely. Residents who favor the cr\xe8che have created the Citizens for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights, which is helping fight the Lexington policy in court. Attorneys representing the group told reporters that they are preparing to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Confidence-Breaking Clergy Can't Be Sued, N.Y. Court Finds

Two New York rabbis who revealed personal information about a congregant cannot be held financially responsible for breaking confidence, according to the state's high court.

In a unanimous ruling Nov. 27, the judges concluded in Lightman v. Flaum that a Long Island Orthodox Jewish woman could not sue her rabbis for damages after the two religious leaders disclosed information to her husband during divorce proceedings.

Chani Lightman told her rabbis that despite being Orthodox, she had dropped some Orthodox observances. The rabbis felt compelled under Jewish law to tell her husband, Hylton Lightman, about her practices, which he then used during divorce proceedings as an argument for custody of the couple's four children.

New York's highest court said it is not the role of the state to determine whether members of the clergy had violated the confidentiality rules of their faith.

"The prospect of conducting a trial to determine whether a cleric's disclosure is in accord with religious tenets has troubling constitutional implications," Judge Victoria Graffeo wrote on behalf of the court.

Groups Appeal Decision Upholding 'Faith-Based' Bias

Two civil liberties groups plan to appeal a federal district court decision allowing a publicly funded Baptist youth agency to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds.

In October 1998, the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children (KBHC) fired Alicia Pedreira, a family specialist, because she is a lesbian. Despite exemplary job performance, Pedreira was terminated because Baptist officials said homosexuality conflicts with Christian beliefs that are central to the agency's mission. Pedreira was dismissed despite the fact that $13 million of the Baptist home's $19 million budget in 1999 came from the state government.

Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky filed the Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children case in April 2000, arguing that the facility was using public funds to advance its religious beliefs.

In July, Judge Charles Simpson III said state and federal laws barring religious discrimination do not protect gay employees at religious agencies, even if the facilities accept tax dollars. Though Simpson also ruled that legal questions over public funding of a religious institution could go forward, AU and the ACLU have decided to appeal the judge's conclusion on the discrimination question.

Plaintiffs in the case include Pedreira, three members of the clergy and a civil rights activist. A couple whose child was helped by Pedreira at the Kentucky children's home are also plaintiffs. The couple said Pedreira was the first counselor to make a difference in their son's life.

The KBHC, meanwhile, is looking for private contributions to lessen the facility's dependence on state funding. Starting in January, the Baptist Homes plan to begin a limited fund-raising drive, with a broader push coming later.

"We'd like to raise enough money in the next three to four year that we can tell the state: 'Keep your money, we'll still serve your kids,'" KBHC President William Smithwick told the Kentucky Baptist Convention in November.

Pakistan Closes Hundreds Of Islamist Schools

The Pakistani government is closing down hundreds of Muslim seminaries that provide military training to their young students.

In December, the Ministry for Religious Affairs told reporters that the government had ordered all four provincial governments in Pakistan to shut down the schools, which are known as madrassas. The agency believes the total number of Islamic schools ranges between 25,000 and 35,000.

While most of the religious schools offer an education to children from poor families who lack other options, some madrassas include militant Islamic politics and military training in the curriculum. In fact, many leaders of Afghanistan's Taliban attended these madrassas.

Pakistani officials said the move to close the most extreme schools was prompted by concerns that some of the schools may have ties to the Taliban.