June 2002 AU Bulletin

U.S. Subsidy Of Muslim Textbooks Sparks Complaint

A plan by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to use public funds to produce religious texts for schools in Afghanistan has sparked criticism from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In January, the federal agency announced it would spend $6.5 million to produce a series of textbooks for use in Afghanistan's schools. USAID officials approved a proposal to include Islamic teachings and verses from the Koran in the taxpayer-financed books.

As part of the program, USAID will give a grant to the University of Nebraska at Omaha to provide textbooks and teacher-training kits to schools in Afghanistan.

Legal experts, including those at Americans United, believe that the arrangement is legally dubious. Several court rulings on similar controversies have said that the government is prohibited from financing books that advance a religious viewpoint for use in American public schools. Also, a federal appeals court ruled in 1991 that taxpayer funds may not subsidize religious instruction overseas.

USAID officials have defended the Afghan appropriation by noting that neither the agency nor the U.S. government is identified on the texts themselves. But AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan, in an April letter to USAID, said this distinction is "not significant."

"It is the use of government funds to purchase or produce religious materials, and not the identification by Afghan school children of the United States government as the source for the books, that is constitutionally troubling," Khan wrote.

AU's April 15 letter to the agency asks that the government resolve this situation promptly.

"[W]e ask that you take steps to ensure that the textbooks are not financed with taxpayer dollars, and that any funds that have already been disbursed are returned," AU's letter said.

Falwell Wins Right To Incorporate Virginia Church

A federal court in Virginia has ruled that a centuries-old state law forbidding church incorporation is unconstitutional.

In a lawsuit brought by TV preacher Jerry Falwell in November 2001, the evangelist's Thomas Road Baptist Church challenged a Virginia law passed in 1787 that prohibited corporate charters for religious institutions. The case, Falwell v. Miller, was filed by Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group that merged with Jerry Falwell Ministries two years ago.

On April 15, U.S. District Judge Norman Moon struck down the state law as unconstitutional and ordered the Virginia State Corporation Commission to grant Thomas Road a corporate charter.

In his ruling, Moon explained that the law punished churches by denying them "the benefits of incorporation because of their religious status."

By incorporating, Falwell's Lynchburg church will be able to expand the size of its property, gain legal protections and have the power to enter into contracts.

Baptist Evangelists Arrested On Utah Plaza

Two Baptists were arrested in April for handing out religious leaflets on Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake City, a thoroughfare that used to be public but was sold to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) three years ago.

Kurt Van Gorden and Melvin Heath were distributing Baptist pamphlets on April 7 on a plaza walkway, near the Conference Center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where the church was holding its semiannual conference. The men ignored warnings from a church security guard, who told the two they were trespassing on private property. When Van Gorden and Heath refused to leave, the police were called and the men were charged with a misdemeanor.

Civil liberties advocates expressed outrage that citizens could be arrested under these circumstances on a street in America.

"This is exactly the kind of entanglement we've been concerned about from the beginning," Stephen Clark, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "It really illustrates the fundamental problem with what the city agreed to."

Clark and the ACLU have been involved in an ongoing case against Salt Lake City for selling the Main Street Plaza to the Mormon Church. The case is currently being litigated at the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Utah Congressman Wants To Sell Wyo. Land To Mormons

A member of the U.S. House of Representatives who belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) is working to sell hundreds of acres of federal land in Wyoming to his church, a move that has sparked controversy with advocates of church-state separation.

Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah) is sponsoring legislation to sell his church 1,640 acres of land currently belonging to the federal government. Under H.R. 4103, the LDS Church would pay market value for the property, which is currently under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and considered a National Historic Landmark.

The church has a special interest in the land because of Mormon history. In 1856, hundreds of Mormons died on the land known as Martin's Cove after a snowstorm blanketed the area.

"The site is historically significant to the LDS Church," Hansen told the Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune. He added that he believes the church would turn Martin's Cove into "a great attraction and increase tourism" for the area. Hansen acknowledged that the Bureau of Land Management is currently doing a good job with the property, but believes control of the land by his church would "make it better."

Wyoming's lone congressional representative, Rep. Barbara Cubin (R), has expressed skepticism about Hansen's legislation.

Americans United and the Utah Chapter of the ACLU have also offered reservations about the bill. AU's executive director, Barry W. Lynn, described the proposal as "the bluntest effort I've ever seen to completely alter an established land-use policy for the explicit benefit of one church."

Report Finds Little Help For Poor In Arizona Tax Credit

A new report examining Arizona's controversial private school tax-credit program concludes the system does little to benefit the state's poorest families, who were supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the law.

A study published in March by the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University indicates that the Arizona program primarily benefits middle-income families whose children were already attending private schools before the tax-credit law was passed.

In 1998, the state created the tax-credit system that offers up to $665 in tax credits to taxpayers who donate to nonprofit groups that, in turn, pay tuition for students to attend private schools in Arizona. The program has cost Arizona taxpayers about $115 million so far.

At the time of its passage, tax-credit supporters argued the program would help expand "educational choices" for low-income families. Glen Wilson, the author of the report, told Education Week the system's failure to help people in need could have national reverberations.

"[The report] has national implications because vouchers have had such trouble in states, and some of the proponents here have been saying this is as good as a voucher," Wilson said. "The tax credit here was billed as a way of helping low-income kids, and as best as we can determine, it is spectacularly ineffective in doing that."

The tax-credit program has also been criticized for mixing church and state by offering indirect state subsidies to private religious schools. Shortly after the plan became law, several groups, including the Arizona Federation of Teachers and Americans United, filed suit arguing the program's unconstitutionality. In 1999, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the law.

Florida Court Rules Churches Not Immune To Lawsuits

The First Amendment does not protect houses of worship from lawsuits alleging sexual abuse, Florida's Supreme Court has ruled.

On March 14, the state's highest court said lawsuits filed against a Roman Catholic priest in South Florida could proceed in civil court and rejected the Archdiocese of Miami's argument that the court cases would lead to state infringement on religious matters.

"The First Amendment does not provide a shield behind which a church may avoid liability," the court said in Malicki v. Doe. The decision added that to rule otherwise would risk "placing religious institutions in a preferred position over secular institutions, a concept both foreign and hostile to the First Amendment."

The Malicki case arose from the allegations of two women who accused the Rev. Jan Malicki of sexual assault while he worked at St. David Catholic Church in Davie, a Miami suburb. The women's lawsuit targets Malicki, but also accuses the Miami Archdiocese of negligence for hiring priests without performing thorough background checks.

In a related matter, Florida's Supreme Court also ruled in Doe v. Evans that a lawsuit against an Episcopal priest accused of sexually seducing a woman seeking marital counseling could also go forward.

California City Honors Church-State Separation

Acting on a suggestion from Americans United chapter activists in California, Mayor Francisco Alonso of Monterey Park proclaimed April as State/Church Separation Month.

On April 3, as part of the decree, Monterey Park's mayor and city council urged all citizens to read the Constitution and several Supreme Court rulings "to discover for themselves [the principle's] unifying historic, legal and secular values."

The proclamation also noted that the Constitution "is the founding document upon which our nation was conceived and is governed," and that the Founding Fathers "sought not to stifle religious practice or beliefs, but to convey that a government of the people is best preserved when the two entities are separated."

The proclamation was also signed by Mayor Pro Tem Fred Balderrama, and Council Members David Lau and Sharon Martinez. The effort was part of a larger mailing by AU activists in the state, who wrote to local mayors and asked them for official proclamations in support of church-state separation.

Opus Dei Helped Back Failed Coup In Venezuela

Opus Dei, a secretive and ultra-conservative Roman Catholic group that operates internationally, is reported to have played a role in the failed coup aimed at Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.

The New Republic reported in May that many of Venezuela's conservative Catholics had expressed support for Pedro Carmona, head of a Venezuelan business federation called Fedecamaras. In fact, during Carmona's one-day term as president after the coup, he appointed several Cabinet members with ties to Opus Dei.

The report also indicated that tensions between right-wing Catholics and Chavez might have helped spur the coup. During his tenure, Chavez has cut government aid to the church's social programs and schools. In addition, in 1998, Venezuelan General Ruben Rojas Perez tried to prevent Chavez from taking power after his initial election victory. Perez has close ties to Opus Dei, and his son is one of the group's main leaders.