March 2000 AU Bulletin

FCC Caves To Pressure From Religious Broadcasters

Faced with a high-pressure lobbying campaign from religious broadcasters and their allies, the Federal Communi­cations Commission has backed down from proposed rules governing religious programming at noncommercial educational television stations.

In December, the FCC approved the transfer of a license between a noncommercial educational television station and a Christian network in the Pittsburgh area, and in the process, clarified its criteria for religious programming. The agency said at least half of the programming at educational stations must be educational and that worship services and sermonizing would not count as educational.     

However, on Jan. 28, the commission announced it had voted to vacate the controversial order. "Regrettably," said the FCC, "it has become clear that our actions have created less certainty rather than more, contrary to our intent."

The change came after an outpouring of criticism from religious broadcasters, Religious Right activists and friendly lawmakers. Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) led the criticism in Congress, sending a Jan. 6 letter to FCC Chairman William Kennard describing the changes as "outrageous." Oxley also helped cosponsor a bill in the House to undo the FCC's order.

The FCC vote to reverse itself drew one dissent. "This is a sad and shameful day for the FCC," said Commissioner Gloria Tristani. "In vacating last month's 'additional guidance' on its own motion, without even waiting for reconsideration petitions to be filed, this supposedly independent agency has capitulated to an organized campaign of distortion and demagoguery."

Maryland Good Friday Closing Law Upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to intervene in a dispute over a Maryland law that requires public schools to close on Good Friday and the Monday after Easter.

On Jan. 18, the justices dismissed without comment Koenick v. Felton, a case filed in 1996 by retired school teacher Judith Koenick, who had argued that the closings violated church-state separation. Koenick told the Associated Press that the Maryland law "sends a message of inclusion to Christian children and a message of exclusion to their Jewish, Muslim and nonbelieving classmates."

Last August, her argument was rejected by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that "the four-day holiday around Easter is supported by a pragmatic, legitimate secular purpose."

If the Maryland law "provided for a holiday only for followers of the Christian faith on the days around Easter, it would, on its face, discriminate between denominations and be subject to strict scrutiny," the 4th Circuit said in a unanimous ruling. "But it does not. Instead, the statute provides an annual holiday for all Montgomery County public school students from which all students benefit equally and thereby does not facially discriminate against any denomination."

Maryland is one of only three states, alongside Illinois and North Dakota, that requires public schools to close for Good Friday.

Alabama's Judge Moore Receives Ethics Warning

The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission has found evidence that Circuit Court Judge Roy Moore violated judicial standards and warned him to more closely follow ethical guidelines in the future.

The panel ruled, however, that no disciplinary action is needed.

Moore, best known for posting a hand-carved plaque of the Ten Commandments in his Etowah County courtroom, was investigated by the commission after multiple complaints. Among the allegations were bias against religious minorities, making public comments about pending cases, misuse of office for fundraising purposes and allowing extrajudicial activities to interfere with official responsibilities.

A defiant Moore seemed outraged by the commission's conclusions, despite the fact he was not being punished.

"The commission has the audacity and arrogance to admonish me to comply with the judicial canon of ethics," Moore said at a press conference. "They even attached a copy of the canons. I shouldn't be admonished. They are the ones who should be admonished."

Meanwhile, Moore continues to campaign in the June 6 Republican primary for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. As of the end of 1999, Moore had raised $28,450, the bulk of which came from out-of-state donors.

Court Rules Against Jesus Statue In Wisconsin Park

A federal appeals court has ruled that a fifteen-foot marble statue of Jesus featured at a public park in Wisconsin is unconstitutional, despite the fact that the artwork is not directly on public property.

The case began in March 1998 when the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) asked city officials in Marshfield, Wis., to move the statue to private land. When the city refused, a lawsuit was filed. In an apparent effort to bolster their chances in court, officials then sold the religious figure and a tiny parcel of land beneath it to a local citizens group for $21,560.

The property transfer did not shield the city from its responsibility. In Freedom From Religion Foundation v. City of Marshfield, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Feb. 4 that the layout of Praschak Wayside Park could lead "a reasonable person to conclude that the statue is a part of the public park and that the government, rather than a private entity, endorses religion."

FFRF attorney David Lasker was very pleased with the decision upholding church-state separation.

"This clear violation of the Establishment Clause was continuing despite a real estate transaction that nobody would have any reason to know about unless they were looking over the fine print of a document at the register of deeds," Lasker told the Associated Press.

Promise Keepers Closes Eight Regional Offices

Promise Keepers, the Colorado-based evangelical group that hosts rallies for men, has announced that it will close all of its eight regional offices and conduct all of the group's field activities from its headquarters in Denver.

The restructuring appears to be the latest sign of serious financial difficulties for the controversial 10-year-old organization. PK staffer Ed Barron told reporters that the new scaled-back approach will "greatly enhance our communication and use of resources."

This announcement comes less than a year after the group was forced to cancel rallies at all state capitals on Jan. 1, 2000, due to financial and logistical difficulties.

Despite its problems, Promise Keepers still shows signs of life. The group has tentatively announced its 2000 conference schedule, under this year's theme, "Go The Distance." Fifteen cities have already been announced, although only seven locations have confirmed dates and locations.

PK founder and president Bill McCartney has also launched "4th and Goal," a new radio commentary that began broadcasting Feb. 7 on 145 stations.

Unorthodox Prayer Surprises Legislators In Maryland

When inclement weather prevented ministers from getting to the Maryland legislature to deliver a morning invocation this winter, elected officials were given the opportunity to lead their colleagues in prayer.

State Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County) agreed to fill in on Jan. 27, but after hearing his prayer, many were wishing he hadn't volunteered. "Lord, God, Yahweh, Jesus, Buddha, Allah," Bromwell began. "Whatever your name is, whatever color you are, whatever gender you are, you know these people. You know that they are good. Pray for 'em. Thank you."

Not sure how to react, Senate members gave Bromwell's brief remarks limited applause and a bit of laughter. Bromwell did, however, have at least one admirer.

"That is really unique and unusual and inclusive," remarked Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount (D-Baltimore).

South Carolina Considers Religion-In-Schools Bill

A bill being considered by the South Carolina legislature would require the state's attorney general to designate a "Religion in Public School Officer" to advise school officials on church-state difficulties.

The Religion in Public Schools Act of 2000 was described by its sponsor, Rep. Chip Campsen (R-Charleston), as legislation that would "educate educators." "A lot of educators, because they are not conversant as to what is permitted, often behave in a heavy-handed manner," Campsen told Columbia's State newspaper.

The U.S. Department of Education, however, has already issued detailed guidelines that explain what is permissible. The pamphlet, titled "Religion In The Public Schools: A Joint Statement Of Current Law," was distributed nationwide in 1995.

"I'm sure this bill is well-intentioned, but it's unnecessary," Jim Foster, a spokesman for the Department of Education, told the State.

Campsen's proposal already has the enthusiastic support of South Carolina's most infamous State School Board member, Henry Jordan. Jordan made national headlines in May 1997 when he told board members, "screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims," during a debate over his effort to post the Ten Commandments in schools.

"I think this is a great effort," Jordan said of Campsen's bill. "I hope this is the beginning of us pushing back the march of things that started in 1963, when prayer in school was banned."

Orthodox Push Raises Concerns In Romania

A government-funded campaign to build new Romanian Orthodox churches in non-Orthodox communities has set off ethnic tensions in Romania.

Many of the churches are being built in Romania's Transylvania region, where ethnic Hungarians predominate. The Hungarians, most of them Roman Catholic or Protestant, believe the Orthodox Church would like to limit their freedom.

"There is a fever of construction of Orthodox churches in almost entirely Hungarian areas," said Joszef Baliant-Pataki, head of the Romania section of the Office for Hungarian Minorities Abroad, as quoted in The Washington Post. "Our feeling is that the ultimate goal is to change the ethnic makeup, and this has always been the strategic goal of the Romanian government. I cannot find any other explanation for these churches."

To support their concerns, critics of the church-building boom note that the government constructed one Romanian Orthodox church for only 30 worshipers in the small town of Chilieni. Many in the area think taxpayer dollars are being spent unfairly.

"I don't care what they build," said Francisc Veres, an ethnic Hungarian who represents Chilieni on the greater Sfintu Gheorghe council. "The only thing that bothers me is that the state gives money for a church for 30 people, and our other churches can't get anything."