June 1999 AU Bulletin

Senate Adds Prayer Rider To Juvenile Justice Bill

The U.S. Senate has approved a rider affirming prayer and religious symbols as elements of memorials at public schools where anyone has been slain.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) introduced the measure in the wake of the school shootings in Littleton, Colo. Co-sponsored by Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), the proposal declares constitutional the "saying of a prayer, the reading of a scripture, or the performance of religious music, as part of a memorial service" for any person slain on that campus. Construction of campus memorials that include "religious symbols, motifs, or sayings" also would be permitted.

"Schools are afraid of being sued if there is a smattering of religious connotation to a memorial service," Allard said.

The measure drew criticism from Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Even great human tragedy does not permit suspension of the Constitution," said AU Executive Director Barry Lynn. "The Senate has gone down the wrong road. In a pluralistic society, this proposal would divide students, not bring them together."

The Allard plan was added as a rider to a juvenile justice bill by an 85-13 vote May 18. Voting against it were Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Paul Wellstone (Minn.). Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) did not vote.

Religious Freedom Bill On Fast Track In House

The Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) appears to be on a "fast track" in the U.S. House and could be voted on within a month's time.

RLPA was developed as a congressional proposal after the Supreme Court struck down a similar measure in June 1997. If passed, the government would have to show a "compelling interest," such as health or safety concerns, before it could infringe on religious practices. The government would also have to show that restrictions on religion were the "least restrictive" possible.

The legislation has broad support from a variety of religious and civil liberties groups, including Americans United. The House Constitution Subcommittee held hearings on H.R. 1691 in May.

For-Profit Broadcasters Shouldn't Discriminate, Says AU

Americans United has urged the Federal Communications Commission not to permit for-profit broadcasters to discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring employees.

The Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom, Concerned Women for America and Focus on the Family have asked the FCC to expand the definition of "religious broadcaster" so that all religious broadcasters, including those with commercial stations, can discriminate on the basis of religion when considering people for all positions.

AU Legislative Counsel Julie Segal said this request goes too far. "This proposal exceeds current law in that discrimination is only permitted in the non-profit activities of religious employers," Segal said in a reply comment submitted April 14. "The amendment of the Commission's proposed rules sought by [the groups] is therefore contrary to what is currently allowed under Title VII and by the U.S. Supreme Court."

Federal Court Strikes Down Fla. Graduation Prayer

A federal appeals court has struck down a Florida public school district's policy of permitting students to give two-minute "messages" at graduations, holding that it was a ruse to include prayer in the ceremony.

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 May 11 that the Duval County School District must discontinue its policy of allowing students to vote on whether to include the student-led messages in the ceremony. The messages frequently included prayer, and the policy was devised as a way to get around the U.S. Supreme Court's 1992 ruling striking down clergy-led invocation at public school graduations.

"We hold that the Duval County school system's policy coerces objecting students to participate in prayer," wrote Chief Judge Joseph W. Hatchett for the majority. The court asserted that the graduation ceremony is controlled by the school and that graduating students who objected to prayer would have no choice but to attend.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Phyllis Kravitch pointed out that only coercive, mandatory prayers are unconstitutional in public schools. "Contrary to popular belief," she observed, "the courts never have interpreted the [First Amendment] to prohibit any individual students from praying, for example, before a meal or before a test."

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Adler v. Duval County School Board case.

Washington Supreme Court Upholds Clergy Confidentiality

The Supreme Court of Washington has ruled that a Tacoma pastor cannot be forced to testify about a murder confession he may have heard during confidential religious counseling.

In a unanimous ruling May 6, the court dismissed a contempt charge against the Rev. Rich Hamlin, minister of the Evangelical Reformed Church, who had refused to testify in the murder trial of Scott Anthony Martin. Martin was charged with the murder of his 3-month-old son two years ago, and prosecutors believed Martin had confessed his crime to Hamlin.

A state law protects the confidentiality of religious confessions, but before the Washington v. Martin and Hamlin ruling, it applied only to clergy in denominations with a recognized confessional rite, such as the Roman Catholic or Episcopal churches.

Religious Freedom Bills Pass In S.C., Ariz.

State versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act have passed in South Carolina and Arizona.

The state legislation is designed to prevent government infringement on religious free exercise. In South Carolina and Arizona, the bills were approved with minor opposition.

In South Carolina, RFRA passed the State House on a 90-2 vote, and in Arizona, the legislation passed the State Senate on a 26-4 vote. Both await signatures from the states' respective governors.

New Mexico also passed a similar religious freedom bill, including a unanimous endorsement in the House, but Gov. Gary Johnson (R) ultimately vetoed the bill, citing fear of lawsuits.

New York Atheist Can Skip AA Meetings

An atheist cannot be forced to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, a federal appellate court has ruled.

Robert Warner was ordered to attend AA meetings after being convicted of driving while impaired, but he said his First Amendment rights would be violated because the meetings involve religious exercises.

Warner filed suit on religious freedom grounds, and also sued the Orange County Department of Probation in New York for damages. A lower court agreed that the religious nature of the meetings would violate Warner's rights as an atheist but awarded him only $1 in damages.

The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld both lower court actions April 19 in its Warner v. Orange County Dept. of Probation decision.

Science Academy Reemphasizes Importance Of Evolution

The National Academy of Sciences says teachers should offer instruction in evolution, not religion, in public school science classes.

According to Education Week, the NAS has revised and updated its 15-year-old statement on the subject.

"The teaching of evolution should be an integral part of science instruction, and creation science is in fact not science and should not be presented as such in science classes," the NAS says in "Science and Creationism: A View From the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition," released in April.

A copy of the revised report can be ordered from the National Academy Press by calling 800-624-6242 or online at www.nap.edu.

Court Upholds Kentucky Good Friday Holiday

A Kentucky county may close government offices on Good Friday without violating the First Amendment's separation of church and state, a federal appellate court has ruled.

In a 2-1 decision April 19, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said reasonable observers would not view the closing of Kenton County offices on Good Friday as an endorsement of Christianity.

Three years ago, several local citizens sued county officials for closing the government facility and for announcing the action with religiously decorated notices. The lower court ruled in Granzeier v. Middleton that taking the day off is permissible but agreed that the signs are unconstitutional.

The appellate court based its ruling on evidence that Good Friday had become secularized and that the government offices were closed to allow for holiday travel, not religious reasons.

Gay-Oriented Church Isn't 'Main Line,' Texas Judge Rules

A state judge overseeing a divorce case in Wichita Falls, Texas, has ruled that the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church does not qualify as a "main line" Christian denomination and is therefore unacceptable.

The couple, whose names are being kept confidential to protect the child's privacy, agreed to end their nine-year marriage and enter mediation to settle issues surrounding their assets, child custody and other family matters. As part of their agreement, the mother, who is gay, was expected to take her daughter to church and Sunday school.

Judge Keith Nelson of the 78th Judicial District, in an order issued in March, said that the mother's choice of churches was not permissible.

Nelson wrote, "The primary issue is where the child would attend Sunday school and church....The intent was for main line churches to be utilized in the religious training of the daughter....The Metropolitan Community Church does not fall within this category."

The ruling has drawn criticism from several national organizations, many of which plan to get involved with the case legally. On April 23, Nelson's order was appealed to the Texas 2nd Court of Appeals.

Islamic Scarf Creates Furor In Turkish Parliament

Merve Kavakci, a newly elected member of the Turkish Parliament and member of the Islamist Virtue Party, has set off a political firestorm by wearing an Islamic head scarf to her swearing-in session.

Though Kavakci insisted that the scarf was a legitimate expression of her Muslim beliefs, scores of her fellow Turkish lawmakers protested her expression by clapping rhythmically, banging on desks and yelling, "Out, out!"

For years, Turkey has been locked in a political struggle between a staunchly secular establishment and a growing Muslim traditionalist movement. Turkish civil servants are prohibited from wearing head coverings for religious reasons, but Parliament has no such rules in place.

Errors In Koran Bring Down Kuwaiti Parliament

The emir of Kuwait has dissolved the nation's Parliament as part of a fallout over government misprinting of 120,000 copies of the Koran.

Outraged Kuwaiti lawmakers accused the administration of attempting to "disfigure the faith of Muslims." They threatened to remove the emir's minister of Islamic Affairs, Ahmed al-Kulaib, holding him responsible for the mistakes.

When it appeared a no-confidence vote against al-Kulaib would pass, Sheik Jabar al-Ahmed al-Sabah announced that he was dissolving the Parliament and that new elections would be held on July 3, more than a year ahead of schedule.