July/August 2001 People & Events

Supreme Court Approves After-School Religious Clubs In Public Schools

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 June 11 that public schools may not exclude private religious groups from using classrooms for meetings immediately after the school day ends if those facilities are open to other community groups.

The high court's ruling in Good News Club v. Milford Central School does not overturn the existing precedents barring school-sponsored prayer and other religious activities but could open the door to evangelical groups seeking to proselytize to young children.

Americans United had filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court urging the justices to allow the school to bar the evangelical group. The day the decision was handed down, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn called it a mistake.

"The court's ruling means aggressive fundamentalist evangelists have a new way to proselytize school kids," Lynn said. "I can't imagine most parents will be happy about that. The only good news here is that safeguards remain in place to prohibit evangelism during the school day."

The case began in 1996 when the Rev. Stephen Fournier sought permission for his Good News Club to hold meetings at Milford Central School in Milford, N.Y., immediately after school hours. The adult-run club planned to use the facility for religious lessons and worship.

Good News Clubs are sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a national group that seeks to convert young children to fundamentalist Christianity. At weekly meetings, children are divided into groups of "saved" and "unsaved." Children labeled "unsaved," who may be as young as 5 or 6, are pressured to make faith professions.

Despite this clear evangelical emphasis, the court majority held that the activity did not violate the separation of church and state because it was not school sponsored. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the opinion for the majority, held that the school building was a public forum and that by barring the Good News Club, the school officials had violated the organization's free speech rights.

"[S]peech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded from a limited public forum on the ground that the subject is discussed from a religious viewpoint," Thomas wrote. "Thus, we conclude that Milford's exclusion of the Club from use of the school...constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination."

Joining Thomas in the opinion were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer.

Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. In his dissent, Souter accused the majority of overlooking the evangelistic nature of the Good News Club.

"It is beyond question that Good News intends to use the public school premises not for mere discussion of a subject from a particular, Christian point of view, but for an evangelical service of worship, calling children to commit themselves in an act of Christian conversion," Souter wrote. "The majority avoids this reality only by resorting to the bland and general characterization of Good News's activity as 'teaching of morals and character, from a religious standpoint.' If the majority's statement ignores reality, as it surely does, then today's holding may be understood only in equally generic terms. Otherwise, indeed, this case would stand for the remarkable proposition that any public school opened for civic meetings must be opened for use as church, synagogue or mosque."

The high court ruling does not mean that all public schools must allow evangelistic groups to use their facilities at the end of the school day. Schools may still ban all outside organizations or give them access only later in the day.

In other news about the Supreme Court:

The justices on June 18 decided that they will not hear another appeal of an Alabama school prayer case brought by Americans United. AU won most of the issues presented in the case in the lower courts, but attorneys with the group said there was some troubling language in the decision by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that approves certain types of "student-initiated" prayer at public school settings.

AU had asked the Supreme Court to take the case to deal with that matter only, but the justices declined. (Chandler v. Siegelman)

Congress Votes To Reject Religious School Voucher Proposals

The House of Representatives voted May 23 to reject two attempts to add private school voucher plans to an omnibus education bill favored by President George W. Bush, and the Senate followed suit three weeks later.

In the House, right-wing members had promised before the measure came up for a vote to fight aggressively to make sure vouchers were part of the legislation. But the White House, facing determined opposition from Democrats, retreated on the issue and announced that the president did not want to jeopardize chances for passing the larger bill.

The education bill contains mandatory testing provisions and other features sought by the White House. The day before the vote, Education Secretary Rod Paige urged conservative Republicans not to bottle up the bill in a dispute over vouchers.

Paige said Bush and the administration are "clearly, unequivocally, forcefully for private school choice" but added that Democratic opposition was too strong for the GOP to prevail.

Some House Republicans were furious over the White House's retreat. U.S. Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.), called the Bush education bill "worse than current law" and said he was disappointed that so many conservatives went along with it.

"I understood the process, but I did not expect it to go so far," Souder said. "Some conservatives in Washington need to stand up and say, 'We cannot go there.'"

During floor debate, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) offered an amendment that would have given $1,500 vouchers to any student in a school deemed unsafe or failing after three years. The House rejected the plan, 273-155. A second voucher proposal, aimed at establishing "experiments" in five states, was also voted down, 241-186.

Much of the debate focused on the public policy issues surrounding vouchers. Several advocates asserted that students taking part in existing voucher programs have improved academically. Foes countered that the research in this area has been mixed at best. Others noted that voters in several states have solidly rejected vouchers at the ballot box in referenda votes.

But some members made note of the church-state problems with vouchers. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), asserted that "vouchers pose a serious threat to values that are vital to the health of American democracy. These programs subvert the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and threaten to undermine our system of public education."

On June 12 the Senate deliberated the same bill and also rejected an attempt to add a voucher provision. By a vote of 58-41, the Senate turned down an amendment by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) that would have provided $50 million to 10 cities in three states to establish experimental voucher programs.

After the vote, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) withdrew an amendment he had planned to offer that would have established a four-year voucher plan in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post reported that McCain acted at the behest of pro-voucher organizations, which feared another losing vote.

But pro-voucher forces in the Senate have not given up completely. They are expected later this year to attempt to attach a provision to a bill providing funding for the District of Columbia.

Attorney General Ashcroft Applauds TV Preacher For 'Christian Nation' Views

Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared at a June 5 rally by D. James Kennedy in Washington, applauding the controversial televangelist for his "Christian nation" views.

During the session, held in the Cannon House Office Building, Ft. Lauderdale preacher Kennedy touted his standard "Christian nation" viewpoint while introducing Ashcroft. Kennedy quoted founder John Jay as saying America is "a Christian nation" and "as Christians we should prefer and select Christians to rule over us." Observed the televangelist, "We would have far less trouble I'm sure if we did."

The closed-door, invitation-only event was sponsored by Kennedy's Center for Christian Statesmanship, a Washington-based group that seeks to evangelize public officials and their staffs. Although Kennedy is less well-known than other TV preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, his Florida-based ministry is equally extreme in its approach to politics and religion.

Kennedy, who campaigned for Ashcroft's approval during the heated Senate confirmation hearings, repudiated those who have criticized the attorney general's prayer and Bible study sessions as a violation of church-state separation. "No such principle," said Kennedy, "is found in the Constitution."

Kennedy also argued that the nation's founders supported religious activities in government. He even claimed that Thomas Jefferson insisted that the Bible and Isaac Watts' hymnal be used in District of Columbia public schools. (In fact, this claim was debunked years ago. Jefferson was not on the board when this action was taken; he specifically opposed requiring youngsters to read the Bible in school, arguing that most would be too immature to understand it.)

Far from repudiating Kennedy's "Christian" version of America, Ashcroft took the podium to praise the television preacher, noting that he watches Kennedy's show on Sunday mornings.

Americans United quickly issued a statement condemning Ashcroft for endorsing an intolerant Religious Right leader. "Ashcroft's failure to repudiate Kennedy's bigoted version of America is appalling," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Public officials should be chosen because of their leadership skills, not their religious affiliation. America isn't a 'Christian nation'; it's a pluralistic democracy that welcomes persons of all religions and none. As attorney general, Ashcroft ought to reject any appeal for sectarian politics, especially when it occurs in his presence."

Instead, during the applause that greeted Ashcroft, the attorney general turned toward Kennedy and applauded him. Ashcroft then mentioned the trumpets that open Kennedy's TV show. Citing scripture, Ashcroft said, "You know the Bible says, if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare for battle?" Ashcroft said the trumpets on Kennedy's show are impressive but they are "second rate compared to you." He later told the crowd that "you ought to get college credit for listening to him."

The attorney general added, "Obviously, the Center for Christian Statesmanship and Dr. D. James Kennedy are a wonderful addition to the voices that need to be heard in the United States Capitol and in America." (Ashcroft received the first "Distinguished Christian Statesman" award from the Center in 1996.)

Said Ashcroft, "The Proverbs tell us 'where there is no vision the people perish.' Thank you for bringing your vision to Washington D.C."

Kennedy's "vision," however, is quite extreme. He has repeatedly attacked separation of church and state and insists that his version of Christianity should be taught in public schools and espoused by government.

Even the Center for Christian Statesmanship's logo takes a slap at church-state separation. It depicts an image of the Capitol with an open Bible and cross superimposed over it. "The overall crest," observes the Center's website, "presents a properly proportioned relationship of church and state not separated, as some would have it, but integrated and mutually beneficial."

For an overview of Kennedy's religio-political agenda and a sampling of opinions taken from his 1994 book, Character & Destiny: A Nation In Search of Its Soul, see "Reclaiming America For Christ?" in the April 1999 Church & State.

Appeals Court OKs Student-Led Prayer Plan in Florida

A federal appeals court has upheld a Florida school district's plan that allows graduating seniors to choose a member of their class to deliver a prayer or other message during the graduation ceremony.

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled May 11 that the policy devised by Duval County's public school system is constitutional. The court had reached the same conclusion in March of 2000 but was ordered to reconsider that ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In June of 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas school district's policy of permitting student-led prayers before football games was unconstitutional. The high court ordered the 11th circuit to reconsider its ruling in light of that decision. The move was seen as a strong indication that the Supreme Court wanted the 11th Circuit to find the policy unconstitutional.

Instead, the justices, sitting en banc as a full panel, ruled 8-4 that the Duval County policy can remain in place. The court insisted that the Duval policy is substantially different from the football prayer case, holding that school officials had no control over the speech of students.

Duval's policy allows seniors to vote on whether to have a message delivered by a fellow classmate. If they vote yes, school officials are not permitted to review the student's comments ahead of time. The messages are limited to two minutes.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which litigated the Adler v. Duval County case, has promised to appeal the recent ruling to the Supreme Court again.

In other news about religion in public schools:

A valedictorian in Illinois who filed suit to block prayers at graduation was booed while accepting her diploma in May. Graduating senior Natasha Appenheimer brought suit against Washington Community High School in Washington, Ill., challenging the practice of including an invocation in the ceremony. A federal judge blocked the official prayers May 17, rejecting arguments from the school that a majority of students had voted for the religious worship. (Appenheimer v. School Board of Washington Community High School District 308)

Seven state legislators in Washington have protested a decision to send about 650 public high school students on a field trip to Portland, Ore., to hear a talk by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual and political leader. In a May 2 letter, the lawmakers asserted that the trip was inappropriate because the Dalai Lama is a religious figure.

The event was organized by Sharon Kitzhaber, the wife of Oregon Gov. John A. Kitzhaber. She insisted that the gathering was not religious in nature and was intended only to educate the students about non-violence. After the controversy broke, private donors stepped forward and agreed to pay for the cost of busing the students to the event.

The Fredonia, N.Y., Board of Education has apologized to an elementary school student who was told he could not carry a cross during a Halloween parade. During the Oct. 31 parade, Zachary Cash dressed as Jesus and wanted to carry a cardboard cross reading "Jesus Saves." School officials told him he could not carry it, although they did allow him to post a sign reading "Jesus Saves" on his back.

Earlier this year, attorneys with Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice wrote to the school threatening a lawsuit. The school, unwilling to pay for a lawsuit over a matter it saw as fairly minor, agreed to issue an apology.

A ninth-grader in Union County, Tenn., has criticized education officials for dismissing students to take part in a religious crusade. Tyla Tracy says fellow students have harassed her and called her a witch for declining to attend the crusade, which is sponsored by a Baptist church and takes place at a park next to the school.

The school board allows elementary, middle and high school students to attend the crusade for 90 minutes a day and distributes permission slips for parents to sign. Tracy said she was once given extra schoolwork as punishment for not attending the crusade.

The event's organizer, Pastor Gary Beeler of Fairview Baptist Church, said the event is a form of released time. Beeler also told the website freedomforum.org that separation of church and state isn't in the Constitution.

Voters in North Allegheny, Pa., have removed several members from a Religious Right-dominated school board, replacing them with a slate of moderates. Four board incumbents who had promoted Religious Right causes were ejected during a May 15 primary election.

The board has become embroiled in a number of church-state controversies over the past few years. Last summer, for example, some board members tried to block the adoption of a fifth-grade social studies textbook that they claimed had a liberal slant.

The slate of moderate Republicans won by margins of nearly 2-1. "I believe that the social studies textbook flap and other similar issues brought people to the polls so that those individuals who had a connection to the Christian Coalition would be defeated," Rabbi Art Donsky told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Bush Administration Approves Aid To Theocratic Afghanistan

The Bush administration in May approved a $43 million grant to the Taliban, the extreme Islamic regime in Afghanistan, in exchange for a promise that the government there would continue to crack down on the growing of opium.

The aid, couched as "drought relief," was announced by Secretary of State Colin Powell. "We will continue to look for ways to provide more assistance to the Afghans," Powell said, "including those farmers who have felt the impact of the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that we welcome."

Afghanistan's economy is in tatters, and in a bid to turn the country around and perhaps seek more foreign aid, Taliban leaders have agreed to crack down on widespread poppy plant growing. The plant, a central source for opium and heroin, is grown by many farmers in Afghanistan because it's an easy source of cash.

James P. Callahan, director of Asian Affairs at the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, traveled to Afghanistan to observe the poppy growing ban in action. He later told The New York Times that the Taliban had expressed the ban on poppy growing "in very religious terms," citing Koranic injunctions against the use of drugs. He added that farmers in Afghanistan had told him that the Taliban "used a system of consensus building" to implement the edict.

But some are skeptical of the U.S.-Taliban alliance. Robert Scheer, a syndicated columnist, criticized the Bush administration for cozying up to a regime so repressive that it has banned education for women and shaving for men.

"In a country where those who break minor rules are simply beaten on the spot by religious police and others are stoned to death, it's understandable that the government's 'religious' argument might be compelling," Scheer wrote. "Even if it means, as Callahan concedes, that most of the farmers who grew the poppies will now confront starvation. That's because the Afghan economy has been ruined by the religious extremism of the Taliban, making the attraction of opium as a previously tolerated quick cash crop overwhelming."

The administration's move came at about the same time that Taliban leaders announced that members of the country's Hindu minority would be required to wear yellow badges identifying them as non-Muslim. The move quickly drew international outcry, with several human-rights groups charging that it is uncomfortably similar to the Nazi requirement that Jews wear yellow stars on their clothing.

Taliban leaders said the edict was meant to protect Hindus. The badges, said government official Abdulhanan Himat, will keep the religious police from imposing Islamic strictures on Hindus.

Staffer At 'Faith-Based' Juvenile Home In Texas Found Guilty Of Abuse

A former supervisor at a "faith-based" facility for troubled young people in Texas has been found guilty of two counts of unlawful restraint, stemming from an incident in which he tied two residents together at the wrist and forced them into a 15-foot-deep pit.

Allen Lee Smith was found guilty of a misdemeanor, not a felony as the state had requested. After the verdict was announced, Smith claimed vindication, saying it "tells me the jury didn't think the hole posed a danger."

But prosecutor Michael McCaig disagreed. "I think it does send a message," McCaig said. "Whether it will be heard or not I don't know."

Two residents at the facility, officially called the Lighthouse but also known as the Roloff Homes, claimed that staff used extreme discipline, including beatings and forced exercise. Staffers at the facility, which is run by People's Baptist Church, denied the charge.

The two young men who brought the case, Aaron Cavallin and Justin Simons, claimed that they were tied together, made to run through brush and forced into the pit after they were caught trying to flee the facility. Testifying in court, Smith said the two expressed regret after they were caught and that he wanted to test their sincerity by putting them into the pit.

"The pit was important," Smith said. "I just wanted to make it as difficult as I could for them to see if they were really willing to stay." Smith insisted that he had not forced them to do anything but offered entering the pit as an option.

A structural engineer who testified during the trial said the pit, which had been dug the day before as a drainage ditch, was not safe and could have collapsed.

State regulation of "faith-based" social services was dramatically weakened in Texas in 1997 when then-Gov. George W. Bush pushed through a new state policy. Roloff Homes' resistance to state inspection was one reason for the change.

Under the Bush plan, "faith-based" homes for juveniles were given the option of being overseen by independent religious associations instead of the government. The idea was that the religious homes would keep tabs on one another through periodic inspections, but critics charged that the plan would foster lax oversight of the institutions.

Ironically, few religious groups saw the need for the alternative system. There are hundreds of religiously affiliated juvenile homes in Texas, and most were happy to remain under state oversight. Only eight homes, Roloff among them, signed up for the alternative policy.

State legislators, arguing that the system had failed, recently allowed the policy to expire. By September, all eight religiously monitored juvenile homes must apply for state licenses or shut down. Leaders at the homes have said they will not apply for the licenses.

"I think there's a lesson here for the nation," Darla Morgan, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Carlos Truan, told The Washington Post. "As soon as the regulations stopped people were hurt."

In other news about "charitable choice":

A Baptist-run food pantry in Midland, Texas, has been denied federal aid because it would not stop quizzing clients about their faith. The Midland Baptist Crisis Center was deemed ineligible for assistance from the Department of Agriculture after it came to light that the center was asking people a series of questions about religion on its intake forms.

The Agriculture Department requires facilities that accept surplus food and aid not discriminate on the basis of religion. G.A. Magee, a retired pastor and member of the Baptist church that sponsors the food pantry, told the Baptist Standard that the church wanted to ask questions about religion in case clients needed spiritual help. The church and four other religious food kitchens decided to leave the program rather than comply with the restrictions.

"We pulled out," Magee said. We feel we are not being honest with ourselves if we don't witness."

"Faith Czar" John J. DiIulio told a delegation of Muslims in May that he disagrees with the Rev. Jerry Falwell's belief that no Muslim groups should get federal aid under President Bush's "faith-based initiative."

Falwell asserted in March that Muslim groups should be denied funding because Islam, he said, "teaches hate." In a press released issued May 15, the American Muslim Council reported that its leaders had met with DiIulio, who "expressed dismay at such declarations and replayed President Bush's own rejection of such discrimination."

A couple in Mililani, Hawaii, who run the local branch of Teen Challenge have been indicted for fraudulently obtaining food stamps and welfare benefits. State officials charge that the Rev. John D. Elleson and his wife, Suzanne, obtained about $74,000 in food stamp benefits by falsely claiming that clients at their facility were eating separately when they were not.

An investigation by state authorities found that the Ellesons would have clients apply for food stamps as soon as they turned 18. The clients would then be told they would be kicked out of the program unless they gave Suzanne Elleson their electronic benefits transfer cards.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported that teens told investigators that after they applied for public assistance, they were sent to a Christian college in Chicago and told to solicit funds for Teen Challenge. They were allegedly ordered not to tell state welfare officials that they had moved out of state.

Teen Challenge is a fundamentalist Christian drug and alcohol recovery program that has been frequently cited by President Bush as the type of activity he would like to fund through his "faith-based initiative."

Ex-TV preacher Jim Bakker may soon be applying for "faith-based" funding. Bakker, who served five years in prison after being convicted in 1989 of bilking supporters of his PTL Club out of $158 million, is hoping to make a comeback by opening a camp for troubled inner-city youth in the Florida panhandle. The Associated Press reported that Bakker, 61, was recently given a large parcel of land in Washington County, which he wants to convert into a rehab facility for urban youth plagued by gangs and drugs.