March 2001 AU Bulletin

Bush Proposes Millions To Remodel Churches

President George W. Bush has proposed spending $10 million in federal matching funds to make houses of worship accessible to the handicapped.

Bush unveiled the plan during a Feb. 1 announcement in the East Room of the White House. At the time, he did not mention a price tag, but his website during the campaign proposed spending $10 million to "aid religious and civic groups in making their facilities more accessible."

A background paper about the proposal notes that houses of worship are not required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a 1990 law that requires most public accommodations to be handicapped accessible. The Act exempts houses of worship partly due to a lobbying campaign some religious groups mounted 11 years ago. At the time, they argued that requiring them to make accommodations for the handicapped would amount to government interference with religion.

Bush aides insist that the proposal is constitutional because it would allow some secular organizations that are exempt from the ADA to apply for the government funds as well as religious groups.

The proposal is the latest in a string of Bush initiatives designed to funnel tax money into church coffers. Shortly after taking office, Bush proposed giving vouchers to religious and other private school patrons, and he has also introduced a plan to give houses of worship up to $10 billion in direct grants and tax breaks to provide social services.

Give Foreign Aid Through Religious Groups, Says Helms

U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) wants to abolish the federal office that coordinates foreign aid and channel all the money through religious organizations and charities.

Helms made the proposal during a Jan. 11 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. He called for eliminating the Agency for International Development (AID), asserting that private welfare organizations do a better job.

"The time has come to reject what President Bush correctly labels the failed compassion of towering, distant bureaucracies and, instead, empower private and faith-based groups who care most about these issues," Helms said.

AID has an annual budget of $7 billion. Under the Helms plan, the money would be transferred to a quasi-government foundation that would parcel it out to private groups, Religion News Service reported.

During his speech, Helms cited Samaritan's Purse, a relief agency run by Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, as the type of organization he would like to see funded. The organization, however, includes a heavy dose of fundamentalist proselytism alongside its help and does not want to give that up.

"We hope that we will be able to conduct our business of spreading the Gospel as our primary concern," a ministry spokesman told Focus on the Family.

Kansas Education Board Restores Evolution To Schools

It's safe to study evolution in Kansas public schools again, thanks to a recent action by the state board of education.

Board members voted 7-3 Feb. 14 to approve new science standards that reinstate the study of evolution. In August of 1999, the board, then dominated by fundamentalist Christians and their allies, voted 6-4 to remove references to evolution from the standards. The move caused an uproar and made headlines around the world.

The board's action also had significant political fallout. Last August, after a campaign that focused almost exclusively on the evolution issue, Republican voters went to the polls during the state's GOP primary and voted down two Religious Right board incumbents, replacing them with moderates; they also chose a moderate to run for an open seat. The moderates picked up three seats in the November general election.

"I believe now that we have science standards that the rest of the world could look to," said Carol Rupe, one of the newly elected moderates.

IRS Seizes Indiana Church For Back Taxes

In a move believed to be the first of its kind in U.S. history, federal marshals seized a Baptist church in Indianapolis Feb. 13, capping a long-running dispute over taxes.

Leaders of the militantly fundamentalist Indianapolis Baptist Temple refused to withhold income taxes for church employees, pay Social Security taxes and meet other tax obligations that churches must follow. (Like all houses of worship, the temple was exempt from property taxes.) The church argued unsuccessfully in federal court that it should not be liable for the taxes because it is answerable only to God.

A federal appellate court set a deadline for the church to pay the back taxes and fines, but church leaders ignored it. Agents with the Internal Revenue Service then negotiated for weeks with church officials, trying to forge a peaceful solution to the situation. When it became apparent that church leaders would not surrender the building, 85 federal marshals, joined by 65 city police officers, raided the facility and seized it as payment for back taxes. No one was hurt in the raid, although the church's former pastor, the Rev. Gregory J. Dixon, had to be physically removed from the building.

Temple members hold an extreme interpretation of tax law and insist the church is under no obligation to pay any taxes. Paramilitary militia groups had taken up their cause and for a while occupied the church, implying that any attempt to take it would meet with armed resistance.

Texas Education Officials Question Charter School

Education officials in Texas have appointed a special master to oversee a Houston charter school operated by a Baptist church that has received more than $20 million in state and federal funds over the past two years.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has appointed Dr. Robert Spoonemore, a former public school superintendent, to oversee the Prepared Table Charter School, reported the Kingwood Observer. The school is run by the Greater Progressive Tabernacle Baptist Church and operates out of an old public elementary school. The sum of money it has received in two years is much higher than comparable charter schools in the state.

TEA officials say an on-site visit and audit of the school conducted last October "indicated serious deficits for the current budget year." They also charged that members of the school's four-member board and its superintendent, the Rev. Harold Wilcox, were "not forthcoming" in providing financial information to the state.

Some legislators in Texas have called for reforming the charter system. Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco chaired a subcommittee on charter schools that has proposed more than 30 reforms. Dunnam has also suggested a moratorium on new charters for the near future.

Alabama Lawmakers Seek Ten Commandments Amendment

Legislators in Alabama have proposed amending the state constitution to allow the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools and government buildings.

The proposal is being pushed by Dean Young of the Christian Family Association. Young is a supporter of Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who gained national attention when, as a jurist in Etowah County, he refused to remove a Ten Commandments plaque from his courtroom.

Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Steve Windom, a Republican, have both backed the measure. To become part of the state constitution, the amendment would have to pass both chambers of the state legislature and be approved by voters as a ballot initiative.

Meanwhile, Moore and Young appear to be parting ways. Moore says he is not part of Young's new effort, and Young has recently criticized Moore for not following through on his promise to display the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court. Instead, Moore has put them up in his private office.

Asked about the matter by a reporter in late January, Moore replied, "Mr. Young and I have had no contact. We are not associated. He doesn't know of any of the plans we do have."

Afghani Religious Police Ban 'Titanic' Haircuts

Religious police in the Islamic theocracy of Afghanistan have arrested dozens of barbers for cutting young men's hair in the style worn by actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the popular movie "Titanic."

"Titanic," the highest-grossing film of all time, is officially banned in Afghanistan, but copies on video have been smuggled in from Pakistan, making the film an underground favorite. Some young men were apparently taken with the long, floppy forelocks DiCaprio wore in the film and have asked barbers to imitate the style.

All of this was too much for the country's religious police, known as the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. According to reports, 22 to 28 barbers have been arrested for giving the DiCaprio-style haircuts, and some young men caught wearing the cut in public have had their hair snipped off by scissors-wielding police.

The crackdown is nationwide. "They have arrested barbers from Khair Khana, Taimani, Karte Parwan and Charahi Ansari areas," an anonymous barber told the London Times. "The only reason is they say the barbers cut the youths' hair in the 'Titanic' style. The Taliban say we are popularizing anti-Islamic hairstyles."

The Taliban seem preoccupied with men's hair issues. After taking control of much of the country in 1996, they banned long hair and ordered all men to wear beards. Last year, several visiting football players from Pakistan were reportedly chased from the field by zealous religious police, bent on cutting their long hair.

Pope Complains That Sunday Is Losing Its Significance

Observance of Sunday as a holy day is under increasing assault, Pope John Paul II has asserted.

Addressing Hungarian bishops in late January at the Vatican, the pope noted that the church in Hungary faced persecution when that nation was under communist domination but insisted that the rise of consumerism is a new threat.

"In the last 10 years, the church has lived through a different reality," John Paul said. "The change has brought not only a new liberty but also new consumeristic shock. Material goods are offered with such insistence as to often suffocate any desire for religious and moral values."

Continued the pope, "In this context, I want to express my concern regarding the significance of Sunday, which is more and more threatened with emptiness."

In other developments in Rome, John Paul has signed a new constitution for the Vatican City State, the 108-acre domain of the church. This basic law names the pope as the sovereign of the independent state and gives him full political power over it.