July/August 2000 AU Bulletin

House Gives Religious Broadcasters More Airwaves Access

In a major victory for the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would give religious ministries broad new access to the airwaves.

On June 20, the House approved the "Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act of 2000" (H.R. 4201) by a 264-159 vote. The measure gives religious broadcasters virtually unlimited access to educational radio and television stations that have traditionally been used by universities and nonprofit educational organizations.

Under the measure, the Federal Communications Commission cannot regulate religious programming at educational stations and cannot require that a portion of hours be set aside for educational material. Moreover, the bill exempts religious broadcasters from requirements concerning proof of educational programming.

The House began consideration of the proposal after controversy erupted last December over new FCC criteria for educational programming. The agency ruled that at least half of a noncommercial station's broadcasts must be educational and that preaching and worship services would not count as educational. The FCC reversed itself a month later after the NRB, other Religious Right leaders and their allies in Congress expressed outrage.

"We are simply trying to prevent and prohibit the FCC from going down a dangerous path of regulating religious speech," said Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering (R-Miss.), who sponsored the legislation.

Critics of the bill explained that it undermines noncommercial broadcasts by allowing religious broadcasters to promote their beliefs under the guise of "educational programming." If the bill were to become law, critics say, religious broadcasters could buy stations and replace educational programming that benefits an entire community with sectarian broadcasts and evangelism.

The measure now moves to the Senate for consideration. A companion bill, S. 2215, has already been introduced by Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.). 

House Backs Words Of Jesus As Ohio State Motto

The U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a symbolic resolution declaring support for Ohio's state motto "With God, all things are possible."

The non-binding resolution passed 333-27. During the June 27 debate, several House members railed against a recent court decision declaring the motto a violation of church-state separation. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the motto, which is a comment by Jesus from the Book of Matthew, gave government endorsement to Christianity.

Twenty-five Democrats and two Republicans voted against the measure. In addition, 65 Democrats and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont voted "present." Speaking against the measure, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) called it "just a little bit of demagoguery to appeal to constituents back home." Nadler said it was useless for the House to try to instruct judges on constitutional issues since "they won't listen to us anyway."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State also criticized the House vote. "This is shameless political grandstanding," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "God should not be used as a political football by politicians in Congress.

"Courts decide these issues based on the Constitution, not gratuitous advice from Congress," Lynn continued. "It's hard to see this as anything other than election-year posturing."

Funds For 'Historic' Churches Blocked In Georgia

State officials in Georgia have announced that public funds will no longer go to houses of worship for historic preservation.

Grants ranging in size from $2,500 to almost $40,000 have subsidized Georgia churches for years, usually at a pace of three to five grants annually. However, fearing constitutional violations, on May 24 the state's Department of Natural Resources approved a revision of the criteria used for distribution of funds.

The department's commissioner, Lonice Barrett, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the state will look for alternative ways to fund the churches.

"It may be that we cannot find a way," Barrett said. "But it's important that we find some way of preserving Georgia's most outstanding historic buildings, some of which also happen to be historic churches."

In related church-state news from Georgia, Attorney General Thurbert Baker announced that he believes the state should discontinue funding of after-school reading programs at churches and religious groups.

"Based upon my review of the law in Georgia and in other states with a similar constitutional prohibition, it appears to be an inescapable conclusion that the state may not provide a grant or enter into a contract for after-school care with a sectarian organization," Baker said in a written opinion.

Controversy arose in 1998 when the state Board of Education decided to give nearly one fourth of the $10 million budget for the Reading Challenge program to private groups, including religious organizations.

Educational Gains May Limit Florida Voucher Program

Gov. Jeb Bush's voucher program, which allows public funding of private education for Florida students at "failing" schools, has been beset by legal troubles since its inception. But the program's future is now facing a new, more practical, impediment: None of the state's schools are "failing" anymore.

On June 19, state officials announced that all 78 of the schools that were graded "F" last year have improved enough to lose the distinction. The improved results come from a rise in writing test scores, one of three parts of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Voucher boosters had speculated that more schools would receive F's this year, and that as a result as many as 60,000 public school students might become eligible for vouchers.

After the announcement of improved test scores, at least one voucher supporter expressed disappointment.

"There were many families who saw that they could get more, or better and different, and they're not going to be able to do that now," Patrick Heffernan, executive director of Floridians for Choice, said in an interview with the Miami Herald. He added that he would begin lobbying for a "universal" voucher system, so private school tuition could be publicly financed even if public schools continue to improve.

Meanwhile, one prominent voucher opponent dismissed the argument that the threat of vouchers improved school performance. "The schools and the students are doing better in spite of the politicians, not because of them," said David Clark, spokesman for the Florida Education Association.

Wisconsin Clergy Counseling Program Struck Down

A federal court in Wisconsin has ruled that the state may not hire religious leaders to implement a plan designed to cut the divorce rate by strengthening marriages.

On May 25, U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled that a provision in the Wisconsin budget requiring taxpayer-financed clergy to help "develop communitywide standards for marriages solemnized in this state" is unconstitutional.

Shabaz concluded in his Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Leean ruling that the law violated church-state separation because it "promises the receipt of state assistance solely on an officiant's affiliation with religion" while offering no assistance to secular government officials, who are also authorized to perform marriages in the state.

The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation brought the suit in December. Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) was forced to hire a private attorney to defend the program when Attorney General Jim Doyle (D) said it was "indefensible."

Shabaz, a former Republican leader in the state Assembly, not only struck down the budgetary provision, but also ordered the state to pay the legal fees for both sides' attorneys.

Religious Right Group Drops Texas Bible Lawsuit

A Religious Right legal group that accused a Texas public school teacher of throwing two students' Bibles in the trash abruptly withdrew its lawsuit only 13 days after it was filed.

Controversy flared in May, when two Texas middle school students, Angela and Amber Harbison, claimed that a teacher confiscated their Bibles, called the religious texts "garbage" and threw them in the trash. Another student asserted that he was ordered to remove a book cover featuring the Ten Commandments. With assistance from the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel, the three students and their parents filed suit on May 19 against the Willis Independent School District.

The case quickly became fodder for Religious Right leaders who claim that public schools are hostile toward religion. As Jerry Falwell told supporters in the June 1 edition of his Falwell Confidential, "Leftists who hate the Judeo-Christian heritage of our nation are constantly attempting to discover new ways to ignore and neglect that history. As a result, students of faith are frequently targeted and persecuted for even the most simple expression of their faith. These brave young students are the martyrs of our day."

But now it appears that the incidents may have never happened. On June 1, Liberty Counsel attorneys dropped the suit without public explanation. The announcement was welcome news to school officials, who maintained that the charges were inaccurate.

"The district has always maintained that the allegations contained in the suit were untrue," read a statement released by the school district. "Students of Willis Independent School District have not been told they cannot bring Bibles to school, and Bibles were never confiscated or thrown into the trash.... The allegations contained in this lawsuit are totally inconsistent with the actions of this school district and its employees."

Pakistan Reaffirms Enforcement Of Blasphemy Law

Pakistan's military ruler has announced a reaffirmation of the country's blasphemy law, leaving minorities in the predominantly Islamic country fearful of persecution.

Despite earlier promises to amend the statute to make it more difficult to bring charges, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized control of the country last October, has decided to leave the blasphemy ban intact. In a statement to the press, he said the measure should be kept because the people of Pakistan support it.

"Since the (scholars) and the people are unanimous in their stance, the government has decided to restore the previous procedure," Musharraf said on May 17, according to a report in the Associated Press.

In Pakistan, blasphemy against Islam is a serious offense and punishment can be severe, including death sentences. In recent years, several Christians have been sentenced to death under the laws; while the sentences were overturned, two of those convicted were later murdered.

The Rev. Boney Mendis told Ecumenical News International that the blasphemy laws are "hanging like a sword on the head of Christians."