Bush Administration, Pro-Voucher Groups Bombard High Court With Briefs In Ohio Case

The Bush administration and an array of allied religious and political groups have filed legal briefs with the Supreme Court, asking the justices to uphold voucher aid to religious schools.

The administration brief, filed last month in a case from Cleveland, argues that voucher subsidies for church schools do not violate the separation of church and state. The administration's stand comes as no surprise. Bush supported vouchers during his campaign for president and last year directed the solicitor general's office to file a brief asking the high court to take the Ohio case.

Nearly two dozen organizations that support religious school vouchers have sided with the Bush administration and filed similar friend-of-the-court briefs.

Several Religious Right groups are among the throng. For example, TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice has joined forces with radio counselor James C. Dobson's Focus on the Family to back vouchers.

Recently, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a voucher front group run from Marquette University, placed an ad in The Washington Post hailing the diversity among the groups filing pro-voucher briefs. In fact, there is very little diversity. Most are the same anti-separationist organizations that have opposed public education for years.

A good example is the REACH Alliance, a Pennsylvania-based coalition that consists of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the Pennsylvania Knights of Columbus and the Pennsylvania Family Institute, among other groups.

Another organization that filed, the American Civil Rights Union, is a right-wing legal group formed by several high-profile political figures, including former attorney general Edwin Meese III; William Bradford Reynolds, an assistant attorney general under Meese; failed Supreme Court candidate Robert Bork; right-wing columnist Linda Chavez and Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, former editor of the Readers Digest.

Other groups filing briefs include: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, the Claremont Institute, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the National Association for Independent Schools, the Center for Educational Reform, Vermonters for Better Education, the CATO Institute, the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Rutherford Institute, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the Christian Legal Society.

In addition, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention joined forces with the Family Research Council and the National Association of Evangelicals to file a pro-voucher brief.

Several states also filed briefs in support of vouchers, including the attorney general of Wisconsin and the governor of New Mexico. In addition, a joint brief was filed by the attorneys general of the states of Florida, Alabama, Delaware, Mississippi, Nebraska and South Carolina.

As Church & State went to press, Americans United's Legal Department was working in coalition with allied education and civil liberties organizations on a brief that urges the justices to strike down vouchers as a violation of church-state separation. AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan helped draft the brief and shape the constitutional argument.

The case, Zelman v. Harris-Simmons, will be argued before the high court Feb. 20. A decision is expected by early July. For more details, see "Supreme Test," November 2001 Church & State.

Federal Appeals Court Overturns Louisiana School Prayer Law

A Louisiana law requiring public schools to set aside time each day for spoken prayer by students and teachers violates the constitutional separation of church and state, a federal appeals court ruled Dec. 11.

In a 3-0 ruling, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans held that the statute runs afoul of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The decision is a victory for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, the two groups that challenged the law.

Americans United and the ACLU filed suit Dec. 3, 1999, on behalf of local parents and children who objected to the school-sanctioned religious worship. The suit opposed the state law, as well as officially sanctioned prayer over the intercom in the Ouachita Parish public schools.

A federal district court ruled against the statute and the local religious practices, but Louisiana officials appealed the portion of the ruling dealing with the state law. The Dec. 11 decision in the Doe v. Foster case upholds the lower court ruling.

"This decision is an important reminder that government may not meddle in the religious lives of our children," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Public schools are supposed to teach, not preach. It's up to parents to decide what religious instruction their children receive."

The conflict springs from 1999, when the state legislature amended a state law allowing a brief time each day for silent prayer or meditation. The amendment struck the word "silent," thus allowing spoken prayer by both teachers and students.

The AU/ACLU lawsuit was brought on behalf of two families within the public school district who oppose the practices, but who have asked to remain anonymous.

The appeals court ruled that the law had a clear religious purpose, noting that during deliberation state lawmakers stated upfront that their goal was to return verbal prayer to public schools.

In other news about religion in public schools:

Bible distribution in the public schools in Johnson County, N.C., will be discontinued due to a complaint from Americans United.

Responding to the concerns of a community resident, AU attorneys wrote to Superintendent James Causby and McGee Crossroads Elementary School Principal Terry Weakley Oct. 30, asserting that the Constitution does not permit distribution of Bibles to third and fifth graders by the Gideons, an evangelical Christian group.

Noted the AU letter, "The reason for the prohibition on Bible distribution is not that the Constitution requires schools to be hostile toward religion, but that it requires schools to remain neutral on religious matters, by neither encouraging nor discouraging particular religious points of view. In this way, schools demonstrate appropriate respect for the legal rights of parents to direct the religious upbringing of their children."

In a Dec. 3 response, Causby said he will direct the principal to refrain from allowing further distribution at this time.

A federal court has ruled that public school officials in Rapides Parish, La., violated the Constitution by pressuring elementary school students to accept Bibles.

U.S. District Judge F.A. Little Jr. ruled Sept. 27 in favor of a Muslim girl whose parents sued the Rapides Parish School Board over Paradise Elementary School's Bible-distribution policy.

The lawsuit asserted that fifth-grade student Hesen Jabr was among a group of students summoned to Principal John Cotton's office and presented with Bibles in December of 2000. According to the complaint filed by Hesen's parents, the child said she did not want the book, but Cotton replied, "Just take it." Hesen testified that she felt pressured and accepted the Bible.

The complaint also noted that when Jabr later expressed concerns about the incident to fellow students, some of them subjected her to "scorn and ridicule" because her family is not Christian.

School officials disputed the Jabr family's account and insisted that the child could have refused the Bible, but the court found this argument unpersuasive.

"The pressure created by the principal in his office was coercive and, thus, illegal," Little wrote. "This court can imagine no more intimidating or coercive environment in an elementary school than those conditions in the principal's office." (Jabr v. Rapides Parish School Board)

Knoxville, Tenn., school officials must stop sponsoring Christian rallies for basketball players, according to Americans United. In a Nov. 14 letter to officials at the Knox County School District, AU attorneys noted that the organization received a complaint about a Nov. 1 incident during which a basketball coach held a mandatory meeting for players featuring clergy who addressed the students about the need to adopt fundamentalist Christian beliefs and then led them in a hymn.

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan enclosed information explaining the law relating to religion in public schools and asked the officials to make sure the incident is not repeated.

Special prayer rooms for Muslim students during Ramadan will not be set aside in New York City public schools after all. Controversy erupted in the Big Apple after Muslim students demanded the right to have special prayer rooms established in city schools. The students said they needed the space for prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Chancellor Harold O. Levy at first directed schools to set up the rooms but later changed his mind. Levy issued a statement pointing out that students of all faiths may pray in school in a non-disruptive fashion whenever they like but adding that it would be improper "to set aside rooms or designate areas for student prayer or for school officials to organize or lead such prayer."

Public school officials in Chicago are also grappling with the issue.

The Family Research Council has launched a campaignbacking a moment of silence in public schools. The organization says it will urge states to adopt legislation similar to a moment-of-silence law in Virginia that survived a legal challenge in the federal courts.

Official Prayer Service May Lead Nation 'Back To God,' Says DeLay

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) hopes that a "National Day of Reconciliation" prayer service held at the U.S. Capitol Dec. 4 will give Congress an opportunity to "lead the nation back to God."

Appearing on TV preacher Pat Robertson's "700 Club" the morning of the event, DeLay, who is known on Capitol Hill as "the Hammer" for his take-no-prisoners style of politics, said, "[A]fter this last election, I realized that at no time in my adult life have we had such strong believers in leadership in the nation, starting from the president down through the Senate and the House, and I think that's for a reason."

DeLay said he was convinced that "we have a chance to lead the nation back to God."

Asked by Robertson what would occur at the event, DeLay replied that he was not sure but added, "I am very anxious to see what the Holy Spirit has in store for us this afternoon."

The event, which took place from 5-7 p.m., was closed to the media and public. Attendance was voluntary, and no roll was taken. The following day, however, Focus on the Family's Citizen Issues Alert fax bulletin reported that about 100 House members and 30 senators attended. President George W. Bush and members of the Supreme Court had been invited, but apparently none of them showed up.

The chaplains of the House and Senate presided over the event. (The Senate Chaplain, Dr. Lloyd Ogilve, is a Presbyterian; the House chaplain, the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, is Roman Catholic.) Although little information was released about the agenda, the FOF newsletter reported that participants "sang, read Scripture and prayed."

Although the membership of Congress is religiously diverse, the event had a heavy fundamentalist Christian cast. U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) told FOF, "It was just a different atmosphere tonight no cameras, no reporters, no staff. Just us talking about how this nation has honored our Lord and Savior, how it has honored God. It wasn't political at all. It was a time of prayer."

After the event, DeLay issued a brief statement, saying that at the conclusion of the service, "We walked out of the Capitol Rotunda inspired by the faith that guides our nation, strengthened by our common purpose and committed to serving the Lord."

Americans United charged that the event was inappropriate. Days before the service, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, issued a statement pointing out that the service was orchestrated by DeLay and his Religious Right allies to promote their fundamentalist version of Christianity.

"If members of Congress want a religious service, they can go to their houses of worship," said Lynn. "The U.S. Capitol is not a revival tent. In some countries, government leaders make religious decisions for the people, but that's not the case in America. It's especially troubling that this is occurring behind closed doors."

Americans United noted that DeLay, the driving force behind the resolution that authorized the event, told Religious Right leader James Dobson on his radio show Nov. 26, "This is about the nation that has pushed God out of its institutions, homes and communities, coming back to God and showing God that we are a nation that honors and reveres Him."

The resolution (S. Con. Res. 83) says the intent of the prayer service was to "humbly seek the blessings of Providence for forgiveness, unity, and charity for all people of the United States." DeLay, an avowed opponent of church-state separation, believes court rulings on school prayer, abortion and other social issues have alienated the nation from God and necessitate national repentance.

Said Lynn, "It is very strange for members of Congress to ask God's forgiveness for court decisions upholding basic constitutional values such as church-state separation. The Supreme Court has not 'pushed God' anywhere; it has simply held that churches, not government officials, are supposed to promote religion."

Bush Promotes Divisive 'Faith-Based Initiative'

President George W. Bush continues to press the Senate to pass his controversial "faith-based initiative," indicating that the proposal will become a strong legislative priority for the White House this year.

Appearing at a town hall meeting in Orlando, Fla., Dec. 4, the president remarked, "Governments shouldn't worry about faith. We ought to welcome faith." He insisted that under his program, all religions would be eligible for government assistance to pay for social services.

"I'm talking about the Muslim faith, I'm talking about Judaism and I'm talking about Christianity," he said. "No, the faith doesn't have a lock on a certain religion. I'm talking about people who have heard a call."

Continued Bush, "We fear state religion. That's not what we're for.... Government will never say, 'This is the religion.' We're a free society for religion. But government can embrace programs started because of faith and religion and encourage those programs to foster in neighborhoods all across America. I'm passionate on the subject because I understand the power of faith in people's lives, and I understand what it can mean."

During his weekly radio address Dec. 9, Bush insisted that the American people want more action on the domestic front, including "faith-based" legislation. He asserted that this issue and others "are stuck in Congress."

Said Bush, "At this season of the year, we're especially reminded of the importance of compassion. I sent Congress a bill to encourage charitable giving and support the good work done by people of faith without entangling government and religion. The House has acted. The Senate has not."

Critics, including Americans United, countered that the legislation Bush was referring to, the American Community Renewal Act (H.R. 7), would have indeed entangled government with religion and led to taxpayer-supported missionary activities.

Americans United also charged that the Bush plan would lead to government-funded religious discrimination in hiring, force families in need to endure religious proselytism before getting assistance and jeopardize the independence of houses of worship.

While the Senate has been reluctant to endorse the faith-based measure passed by the House, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) are drafting legislation that would provide various tax breaks designed to spur charitable giving. The Senate was preparing to deliberate this measure as Church & State went to press.

Mayor Banishes Satan From Florida Town

Residents of Inglis, Fla., can sleep easier at night: By official proclamation of the mayor, Satan is officially banished from the community.

Mayor Carolyn Risher wrote the proclamation Halloween night. It reads in part, "Be it known from this day forward that Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just, is not now, nor ever again will be, a part of this town of Inglis. Satan is hereby declared powerless, no longer ruling over, nor influencing, our citizens."

The proclamation goes on to say, "The body of Jesus Christ, those citizens cleansed by the Blood of the Lamb, hereby join together to bind the forces of evil in the Holy Name of Jesus. We have taken our town back for the Kingdom of God.... As blood-bought children of God, we exercise our authority over the devil in Jesus' name. By that authority, and through His Blessed Name, we command all satanic and demonic forces to cease their activities and depart the town of Inglis."

According to the St. Petersburg Times, Risher printed the proclamation on town letterhead and made five copies. She posted one in her office alongside pictures of Elvis Presley and a painting of the Last Supper. The others were stuffed into hollowed-out fence posts at the entrances to town. On the fence posts are painted the words "Repent," "Request" and "Resist."

Risher told the newspaper she got the idea to send Satan packing after a local minister, Pastor Richard Moore of Yankeetown Church of God, erected the fence posts and asked his congregation to skip one meal a day for 40 days.

The newspaper reported that Risher has a lot of support in the community of 1,400, but not everyone is pleased with the proclamation. "One person's beliefs are fine, but not on town letterhead," resident Steve Young said. "It doesn't seem appropriate."

FRC Launches Attack Comparing Daschle To Saddam Hussein

A political action committee affiliated with the Family Research Council (FRC) has placed ads in South Dakota newspapers comparing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The ad, sponsored by American Renewal, FRC's PAC, places photos of Daschle and Hussein side by side and asks, "What do Saddam Hussein and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have in common?" It then goes on to assert that both oppose drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The ad asserts that the United States is forced to buy oil from Hussein because Daschle "won't let America drill for oil at home."

Doug Hattaway, a spokesman for Daschle, called the ad "a truly outrageous attack at a time when the nation is unified." He asserted that drilling at the Alaska site would not decrease the nation's dependence on foreign oil and said Daschle is open to discussing energy policy once U.S. security measures are dealt with.

Since becoming majority leader last year, Daschle has increasingly been a target for Religious Right and far-right organizations.

In other news about the Religious Right:

Americans overwhelmingly reject assertions by TV preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell that the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was punishment from God, a new poll indicates. The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that 73 percent of respondents "totally disagree" with the idea that the attacks were a sign from God (including 63 percent of respondents who said they are evangelicals). Only 8 percent said they agreed with Falwell and Robertson.

TV preachers Paul and Jan Crouch are living well.The Los Angeles Times reported in November that the couple, who run Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), recently purchased a $5 million home in Newport Beach, Calif.

According to the Times, "The home was described as 'a palatial estate with ocean and city views.'" It has six bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a billiard room, a climate-controlled wine cellar and a crystal chandelier. The three-story mansion sits on an acre of land and has nearly 9,500 square feet, a six-car garage and a pool and fountain.

The Crouches had been living in a house in the same neighborhood but moved, the paper reported, because "Jan Crouch had been wanting a bigger yard for her dogs, sources said."

'Take Back Our Land,' Alabama's Judge Moore Urges Christian Rally

The United States was founded to be a Christian nation, and it's time Christians "take back our land," Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore told a crowd of 3,000 supporters in Chattanooga, Tenn., recently.

Speaking at a Dec. 2 rally organized by a group called Ten Commandments Tennessee, Moore declared, "Since September 11, we have been at war. I submit to you there is another war raging a war between good and evil, between right and wrong."

Moore insisted there is no such thing as church-state separation in the Constitution and blasted federal courts for upholding that principle. "For 40 years we have wandered like the children of Israel," Moore said. "In homes and schools across our land, it's time for Christians to take a stand."

Moore said government is under no obligation to recognize the documents of other faiths, asserting, "This is not a nation established on the principles of Buddha or Hinduism. Our faith is not Islam. What we follow is not the Koran but the Bible. This is a Christian nation."

Earlier this year, Moore arranged for a two-ton sculpture of the Ten Commandments to be displayed in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court in Montgomery. On Oct. 30, Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama filed suit against the display in federal court. (See "Monumental Mistake," December 2001 Church & State.)

Moore's chief ally in the crusade is Florida televangelist D. James Kennedy. Kennedy, who has been raising money for Moore's legal defense, recently announced that he is selling a video showing Moore and some workers bringing the monument into the court building.

John Aman, a spokesman for Coral Ridge, told the Associated Press, "We [Moore and the ministry] have a long-standing relationship. We were informed and were happy to cover it for obvious reasons."

Coral Ridge is selling the video for a suggested donation of $19.

Religious Right Joins Muslims, Other Faiths At 'Family Congress'

Religious Right organizations in the United States are continuing their drive to link arms with fundamentalist Muslims and other faith groups to advocate internationally for "pro-family" positions on education, reproductive rights, population control and individual freedom.

Representatives from an array of conservative religious groups including evangelical Christians, Catholics, Muslims and Mormons met in Washington, D.C., in late October for a regional meeting of the "World Congress of Families." At the first Congress in Prague in 1997, delegates issued a declaration echoing Religious Right attacks on public schools, divorce, legal abortion and gay rights.

President George W. Bush welcomed delegates to the Washington gathering with a letter noting that he has "committed my administration to work hard to help parents and encourage the formation and maintenance of loving families." Bush added that his major initiatives include efforts to "promote responsible fatherhood, strengthen families and make adoption more affordable."

According to The Washington Times, a highlight of the conference came when Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a right-wing Jewish activist from Washington state and ally of TV preacher Pat Robertson, clasped hands with Mokhtar Lamani, the Organization of the Islamic Conference's ambassador to the United Nations.

"It is of great significance, with all the maelstroms swirling around us, that the ambassador stands shoulder to shoulder with us in the interest of advancing the family as the basis of civilization," Lapin said.

Less than two weeks after the World Congress session, Lamani took a public stand that seemed decidedly "anti-family," leading a successful effort to block a United Nations-backed treaty designed to combat international terrorism. Explaining his organization's opposition, Lamani said the treaty failed to distinguish between terrorism and "national liberation movements," such as the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"If someone is fighting against this situation, for us it is not a terrorist," Lamani said. "You cannot compare that at all to what happened at the World Trade Center. They have a right to fight if the peace process is broken."

The Organization of the Islamic Conference includes 57 officially or predominantly Muslim nations, among them repressive regimes such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. In many of the countries, "family law," based on the Islamic sharia code, is decidedly harsh.

Other participants at the World Congress session in Washington included U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.); U.S. Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.); Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis of the Family Research Council; conservative radio talk show host Michael Medved; Patrick Fagan, Heritage Foundation; Rita Thompson, a member of the Fairfax County, Va., School Board and a staffer at Concerned Women for America; Jeanne E. Head of the National Right to Life Committee and Dinesh D'Souza, American Enterprise Institute.

The gathering, which scheduled one session on the floor of the House of Representatives, was sponsored by the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation, Beverly LaHaye Institute, Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, Concerned Women for America, Brigham Young University Management Society, Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, Southern Virginia University, Toward Tradition, World Family Policy Center and the Family Action Council International.