March 2002 People & Events

Bush Budget Includes Nearly $4 Billion For Religious School Aid

President George W. Bush's recently released 2003 budget includes nearly $4 billion to pay for a "tax credit" for tuition at religious and other private schools.

Congress rejected a Bush voucher proposal last year, and now opponents of the measure say the president is trying to do an end run around the House of Representatives and Senate by inserting the tax-credit plan directly into the budget.

Under the Bush scheme, parents with children in public schools deemed "failing" would receive a tax credit of up to $2,500. The credit would also be available to cover the costs of home schooling or transfers to other public schools.

Americans United was quick to denounce the proposal.

"This tax credit is actually a back-door voucher scheme," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It takes money from the public treasury to finance religious and other private schools. Congress should quickly reject this misguided gambit. At a time when lawmakers are struggling to maintain a balanced budget, a costly multi-billion subsidy for religious schooling is an incredibly bad idea. On this test, I'd give Bush an 'F.'"

Another controversial education feature of the White House budget is a "Choice Demonstration Fund." Media reports indicate the fund will use $50 million to support local education "experiments," including aid for religious and other private schools.

The president's education measures are being unveiled about a year after Bush initially proposed a multi-billion-dollar voucher scheme. Vouchers were dropped in negotiations with congressional Democrats, and the compromise education package drew criticism from Religious Right groups.

To respond to these concerns, the administration has now proposed the tax credit plan. AU's Lynn believes Bush's proposal is a political payback.

"This tax credit plan appears to be a payoff to Religious Right pressure groups," Lynn said. "If the president truly wanted to ensure that no children get left behind, he'd abandon this useless plan. It diverts resources away from real public school reform."

In December, top White House political strategist Karl Rove expressed concern that evangelical Christian voters turned out in smaller-than-expected numbers in 2000 to cast ballots for Bush. He suggested that the administration may have to do more to earn this voting bloc's support.

Religious Right and conservative Catholic parochial school groups were angry that the education bill Bush signed in January did not contain vouchers. The National Catholic Educational Association called the bill "modest at best and a disappointment to Catholic educators."

Radio counselor James Dobson's Focus on the Family also issued a statement criticizing the bill and insisting that vouchers should have been included.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have been meeting to find ways to win passage for the tax credit proposal. One of the ideas they are discussing is giving tax credits to people who donate to private organizations that provide vouchers for students. Such laws already exist in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

According to The Washington Times, House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) has chosen Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.) to draft a proposal that could win passage in Congress.

Religious Broadcasters Remove Director Who Opposed Politicking

The new president of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) quickly lost his job by daring to question the organization's involvement in far-right politics.

Wayne Pederson, former executive vice president of Northwestern Radio in Roseville, Minn., was scheduled to assume the presidency of the group during its annual convention in mid February. Instead, he ended up submitting his resignation.

Pederson ran afoul of Religious Right activists in the NRB, led by Focus on the Family head James C. Dobson, by asserting in a newspaper interview that the organization should present a less political image.

In a Jan. 5 interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pederson said that when people think of the NRB "they think of the political right, and I think that's unfair. We missed our main calling with that."

Continued Pederson, "But what's probably more disturbing to me is that evangelicals are identified politically more than theologically. We get associated with the far Christian right and marginalized. To me the important thing is to keep the focus on what's important to us spiritually."

Pederson noted that the NRB's constitution doesn't say anything about politics.

"Our constitution says we're to make the Christian media as effective as it can be," he said. "We need to not be pulled into the political arena."

Pederson's comments did not sit well with several Religious Right leaders, who began clamoring for his resignation.

"I think this is a tragic thing for the NRB," said the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, a group that regularly broadcasts far-right political content over Christian radio. "Mr. Pederson has criticized those he calls the members of the Religious Right.... It is just tragic. I really think Mr. Pederson would best serve the cause to step aside, because if he does not there is a good chance, a real good chance, that either he would be replaced or that another organization more representative of our views would come forth."

Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Dobson's Focus on the Family, told the Star Tribune he was also concerned.

"This kind of thing represents a complete break with the recent history of the NRB and the leadership of Brandt Gustavson, who died last year," Minnery said.

Fundamentalist author and longtime Religious Right activist Tim LaHaye also weighed in.

"I think we need to reappraise whether we want him to run this organization, because what he is proposing would result in a sea-change from what we had at the NRB during the days of [former NRB President] Ben Armstrong and Brandt Gustavson," LaHaye said. "We don't need a passive, non-involved organization."

LaHaye and others expressed concern because the NRB dropped a plan to invite House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to give an address at the group's national convention last month. Over the years top Republican office-holders have been asked to speak at NRB meetings, but President Bill Clinton was denied an invitation during the 1990s. (For more information on the NRB's partisan politicking, see "God's Air Force," April 2000 Church & State.)

Pederson tried to defend his call for a new direction, saying, "I myself am a religious and political conservative. But it's important for NRB to position itself in a non-partisan way."

The Washington Times reported that Dobson, infuriated over Pederson's remarks, convened a meeting of Religious Right leaders who demanded Pederson's removal. One anonymous source called the meeting "an end run that bypassed the governing process."

The NRB's executive committee subsequently voted 7-1 to accept Pederson's resignation. A 47-36 vote by the full committee confirmed the ouster.

Pederson had held the job only six weeks.

Ashcroft Statement On Islam Shows Intolerance, Says Americans United

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has been criticized for comments suggesting that Islam falls short when compared to Christianity.

Ashcroft made the controversial remarks during an interview with syndicated columnist Cal Thomas in November, but they have only recently come to light. According to Thomas, Ashcroft said, "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you."

Justice Department officials say Ashcroft meant the comments to apply only to terrorists and not mainstream Muslims. A department spokesperson called the flap "an innocent misunderstanding."

But the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the controversy is further evidence that Ashcroft is intent on using his office to promote a religious agenda.

"The attorney general needs to learn that he represents all Americans, not just fundamentalist Christians, and that he has been appointed to a secular position," said Lynn. "Ashcroft is the attorney general, not the national pastor."

Lynn noted that Ashcroft is a favorite of the Religious Right. In a 1998 appearance before the Christian Coalition, Ashcroft attacked church-state separation, asserting that a "robed elite" has "taken the wall of separation built to protect the church and made it a wall of religious oppression."

Remarked Lynn, "During this difficult period in our nation's history, we need political leaders who understand the importance of inter-faith harmony. If Ashcroft wants to run down other religions and promote Christianity, he ought to do it as a private citizen and resign from the attorney general's office."

U.S. Muslim groups have also called on the attorney general to clarify his remarks. On Feb. 11 the American Muslim Council issued a statement noting that the comments had made many in the Muslim community uncomfortable.

"The Attorney General's alleged remarks, which are not factual, will provide another excuse for discrimination and persecution of a community already under a lot of pressures," read the statement. "We ask the Attorney General to publicly dissociate himself from these alleged remarks, which have deeply hurt the feelings of a peace-loving community."

On Feb. 13, Ashcroft issued a one-sentence statement, reading, "The reported remarks do not express my views and do not accurately reflect what I believe I said some 12-13 weeks ago."

Thomas, who first used the remarks during a Nov. 9 radio address and called them "profound," is standing by his interpretation of the exchange. Thomas did not tape record the comment but wrote it down at the time. He said he read the quote back to Ashcroft and his communications director during the interview.

In other news about Ashcroft:

A bare-breasted statue personifying Justice that has stood in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice since 1936 has suddenly been shielded behind an $8,000 blue curtain. The 12-and-a-half-foot "Spirit of Justice" statue has often appeared in the background during televised departmental press conferences.

Critics charged that the cover-up sprang from Ashcroft's religious and political conservatism. A department spokesperson, however, denied that Ashcroft had anything to do with it, saying the blue curtain made a better backdrop for televised events.

In a speech laced with biblical references, Ashcroft told the National Religious Broadcasters convention Feb. 19 that the Constitution "calls for the respect of religion in its indispensable role in forming a just and moral citizenry."

"Civilized people Muslims, Christians and Jews all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator," Ashcroft said. "Civilized people of all religious faiths are called to the defense of His creation."

The speech contained several favorable comments about Islam, but they might not have gone over well with the NRB. The day before Ashcroft spoke, many attendees went to a "Public Policy Breakfast" to hear Timothy Abraham, a Muslim convert to fundamentalist Christianity, explain how to convert Muslims.

Robertson Says 'Day Of Judgment' Due Soon For United States

The United States will soon experience a "day of judgment" from God so severe that the country won't come through it intact, TV preacher Pat Robertson has warned.

Speaking on his "700 Club" program Jan. 2, Robertson said he had spent time in prayer and asked God for information about what the year holds. The news was not good.

Robertson said God is angry because the nation hasn't truly repented since Sept. 11. He said, "Here's a few other things that the Lord said....and this is the first person, 'I will punish men and women for' get these things 'idolatry, sorcery, immorality, murder, violence, blasphemy and indifference to me. What is coming will be too horrible for you to contemplate. Know that the Day of Judgment is very near and warn the people to be ready.'"

Robertson said San Francisco and Detroit could be "a target of these people," adding that the attacks would probably come "through ship." He also said, "America will survive what is coming, but it won't survive in its present form. The proud will be humbled and then the time will come that they will turn to the Lord.... And, there's one last thing that the Lord led me to in Isaiah....'Destruction is certain for those who say evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.' Those who say evil is good and good is evil, and that's what's happening in this country. Certain perversions, sexual perversions, for an example, are being touted as a privileged activity, and those who oppose it are being called evil."

Despite all of the chaos, Robertson said, President George W. Bush will survive because, "The Lord told me he's going to put his mantle over George Bush to protect him. He said, 'He talks to me, and I will lead him.' This is a man who prays and God's going to put his mantle on him. We're going to see we thank God for a good leader in this nation, and God's going to bless him."

Robertson apparently rings in every new year by having a personal conversation with God. Unfortunately, the information he gets is often wrong. On Jan. 1, 1980, for example, Robertson gathered together the employees at his Christian Broadcasting Network to warn them that God had told him that the Soviet Union would invade several Middle Eastern nations, seize their oil reserves and cause the economies of Europe and the United States to collapse. This situation, Robertson said, would lead to the rise of the Antichrist. This scenario was supposed to occur by 1982 at the latest.

In other news about Robertson:

Robertson's plans to open an oil refinery in California have collapsed. Last month The New York Times reported that Robertson has shut down Cenco, a firm he launched in 1998 with the aim of reopening a shuttered oil refinery in Santa Fe Springs, near Los Angeles.

Local residents vehemently opposed the plan, calling the refinery an environmental and health hazard. They filed suit and won an injunction from a state court, blocking the plant's reopening.

Robertson, who spent $75 million to buy and restore the refinery, decided to pull out rather than continue fighting. He plans to sell the remaining structures, equipment and land. The site will eventually become an industrial park, although analysts say Robertson won't come close to recovering his initial investment.

Robertson's problems may not be over, however. The Times reported that the deal has sparked a wealth of lawsuits. The contractors who drew up plans to update the plant are suing for $2 million for unpaid services. Former Cenco lawyers are also suing Robertson, saying they have not been paid. State officials are also in court, claiming the site is harboring hazardous waste.

This has not been a particularly good season for Robertson-related business deals. On Nov. 16, Robertson announced that a for-profit website he founded,, would shut down.

Off to the races: Recent events do contain one bright spot for Robertson his racing horses are doing well. Washington City Paper reported in January that Robertson recently plunked down $520,000 for a Kentucky-bred colt he named "Mr. Pat." That horse is in training for future races, but a second Robertson-owned horse, "Tappat," has already won more than $235,000.

Ironically, the Christian Coalition, the Religious Right organization Robertson founded, has always crusaded against legalized gambling.

Va. Senate Panel Kills Proposal To Allow Posting Of Ten Commandments

A bill that would have encouraged public schools in the state of Virginia to post the Ten Commandments died after the state Senate Education and Health Committee voted it down 9-6 Feb. 14.

The measure had passed the Virginia House of Delegates the previous week, but lawmakers on the Senate panel expressed concerns over its constitutionality.

"We felt that we were in fact bringing religion in the schools with this," Sen. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax) told The Washington Post. "We were inviting a constitutional challenge."

The bill's sponsor, Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), argued that the bill was mainly designed to promote the study of "transcendent values" in public schools and proposed that schools also post the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Virginia Constitution. But opponents said there is no way several of the commandments that deal with humanity's relationship to God could be secularized.

Americans United Trustee Robert S. Alley, a resident of Richmond and former university professor, testified on AU's behalf against the measure. Alley reminded the panel that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 struck down a Kentucky law requiring public schools to post the Ten Commandments. The Virginia bill, if passed, he warned, would spark legal challenges.

A similar bill may secure passage in Alabama. The state Senate voted 28-0 Feb. 14 in favor of legislation requiring every public school in the state to post the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

"This bill is to teach our children where our laws come from," said Sen. George Callahan (R-Theodore), the measure's sponsor. The bill must still pass the House of Representatives and be signed into law by the governor before taking effect.

In addition, the Alabama Senate has unanimously approved a constitutional amendment that would alter the state constitution to specifically permit Ten Commandments displays at government buildings. If approved by the House, the measure would go before the voters as a ballot referendum question.

Va. Legislators Approve 'In God We Trust' Courtroom Postings

Legislators in Virginia have approved legislation requiring state courtrooms to post "In God We Trust" signs, but the measure may never take effect due to the state's budget crisis.

The bill, which overwhelmingly passed the House of Delegates in January, still requires the signature of Gov. Mark Warner (D) to become law. But even if Warner does sign the measure, the posters may not be going up anytime soon. Lawmakers added a provision to the bill requiring that the General Assembly pay for the postings, and lawmakers are reluctant to approve any new spending since the state faces a $3.8 billion budget shortfall.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, a Virginia Beach Republican, summed up the matter, saying, "So, unless the General Assembly appropriates funds, which I don't believe is done in the Senate budget, the law won't become effective."

The American Family Association, a Religious Right group headquartered in Tupelo, Miss., has launched a national crusade to prod states to pass laws requiring the posting of "In God We Trust" in public schools and government buildings. The drive has picked up steam since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

In related news:

Officials in the Troy, Mich., school district have voted to post "In God We Trust" signs in all of its schools. The display will also include a U.S. flag, state and national mottos and symbols such as the state bird.

Michigan Gov. John Engler signed a law Dec. 21 encouraging local governments to post the motto. Troy is apparently the first local jurisdiction to do so.

 An anti-terrorism bill in South Carolina contains an unusual feature: a provision requiring public schools to post "In God We Trust" and "E Pluribus Unum." The bill, which deals primarily with criminal justice issues, is pending before the House Judiciary Committee.

 A legislative panel in Florida has voted to require public schools to post "In God We Trust" in a "prominent place." The measure cleared the House of Representatives' Council for Lifelong Learning Feb. 7 and is pending before the entire House.

 Indiana lawmakers are also pushing "In God We Trust" legislation. A Senate panel in late January approved legislation that would require public schools to post an 11-by-14 inch framed display of the motto but states that the signs must be paid for with private funds. The legislation appears to have been based on a measure that passed and was signed into law in Mississippi.

School Prayer Forces Launch Grassroots Push For Istook Amendment

Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment to put officially sanctioned religious worship back in public schools are trying to launch a grassroots movement aimed at convincing local governments to endorse the school prayer drive.

The movement got a boost recently in Washington County, Pa., where the Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution calling on Congress to pass a school prayer amendment introduced by U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.).

Istook's amendment, H.J. Res. 81, would reinstate official prayers in public schools and allow local governments to display religious symbols. It was introduced Dec. 20 and has 74 cosponsors. An earlier effort by Istook to amend the Constitution to allow for official school prayer received a simple majority in the House in 1998 but fell short of the two-thirds needed to secure passage.

The Washington County drive was spearheaded by Diana Irey, a Republican who said she was motivated to act by the events of Sept. 11.

After the board unanimously passed the resolution Jan. 17, Irey announced that she would head up a campaign to send the resolution to every local government in the country and ask them to pass it. Irey said the effort would be volunteer run and involve no tax dollars.

A few weeks later, about 100 volunteers gathered at the county commissioners' offices to stuff envelopes and prepare the mass mailing.

Some of the volunteers appeared to be unaware of what the court rulings dealing with school prayer actually say. One woman, Donna Falvo, said the Istook amendment would merely allow students to pray if they wanted to.

"Just the freedom to do it," she said, "It doesn't matter if you're Jewish, Muslim or Pentecostal."

In fact, such voluntary activity is legal in public schools now; the high court's decisions only bar coercive or school-sponsored prayer.

Reed Planned To Recruit 'Pro-Family' Forces To Help Enron, Memo Says

Former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed promised to mobilize religious groups and "pro-family" activists around the issue of electricity deregulation to help the Enron Corp., The Washington Post reported last month.

Reed, now an Atlanta-based political consultant, received $380,000 to help the Houston-based energy company spread its message on Capitol Hill and build grassroots support for energy deregulation. In a seven-page memo obtained by The Post, Reed outlined his plan for helping Enron and explained how he would exploit his ties to conservative religious leaders to spread the group's business goals.

Reed noted that his Century Strategies has a history of activating the "minority community" and the "faith community" to achieve clients' goals. He also mentioned that he had used right-wing talk radio to spread messages to "faith-based activists."

Enron's recent collapse and filing for bankruptcy attracted national headlines. The firm had urged its employees to invest their retirement accounts in company stock. When Enron collapsed, those accounts were wiped out. Enron executives, many of whom saw the collapse coming and dumped their company stock, have enjoyed close relationships with President George W. Bush and influential lawmakers in both parties.

Reed's involvement with the firm apparently came via Karl Rove, a Bush strategist who recommended that Enron give Reed a high-dollar consulting contract in September of 1997. At the time, Reed was being courted by other Republicans considering a run for president, and Rove wanted to find a way to keep Reed loyal to the Bush camp, The New York Times reported.

Anonymous Republican officials told The Times that Rove wanted to keep Reed involved in the Bush campaign but at the same time keep his profile low, since Reed is known for his ties to the Religious Right, an association Bush wanted to avoid.

"It was basically accepted that Enron took care of Ralph," one source told the paper. "It's a smart way to cut campaign costs and tie people up."

Rove denied that he arranged for Reed to get the Enron contract to keep him under wraps, telling The Times, "I'm a big fan of Ralph's, so I'm constantly saying positive things."

After the deal was struck, Reed worked for Enron sporadically from late 1997 until the company's collapse. Now head of the Republican Party of Georgia, Reed refused to talk to The Post about his work for Enron.

In other news about the Religious Right:

 Americans United has protested an ongoing financial relationship between Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and TV preacher D. James Kennedy. Last month Kennedy announced that he would raise $200,000 to pay for Moore's legal defense in a case filed by Americans United and the Alabama ACLU. The two civil liberties groups are suing Moore, asserting that his display of a two-ton Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Supreme Court building violates church-state separation.

Kennedy, a Florida-based televangelist, recently announced that he will also host a summer cruise to Alaska featuring Moore, who will speak on "America's Christian heritage." Prices for the cruise start at $1,200.

Although Moore is best known for his Ten Commandments crusade, he recently captured national headlines for calling homosexuality "abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature's God upon which this Nation and our laws are predicated."

In the ruling, Moore joined a unanimous court in awarding custody of three teenagers to their father, rebuffing an attempt by the mother, who lives in California and is gay, to become the custodial parent. Moore wrote that the father, whom the mother accused of abuse, should retain custody.

Writing separately in a concurring opinion, Moore quoted several Bible passages to support his view and asserted that homosexuality is a violation of "Natural law," a concept he defined as "the law of nature and of nature's God as understood by men through reason, but aided by direct revelation found in the Holy Scriptures."

Moore also wrote, "The common law adopted in this State and upon which our laws are premised likewise declares homosexuality to be detestable and an abominable sin. Homosexual conduct by its very nature is immoral, and its consequences are inherently destructive to the natural order of society. Any person who engages in such conduct is presumptively unfit to have custody of minor children under the established laws of this State."

Perhaps most alarmingly, Moore implied that the government should have the right to imprison or execute gays, writing, "The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle." (In Re: D.H. v. H.H.)

 U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has blasted President John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 endorsement of church-state separation, saying that Kennedy's vow not to take orders from the Roman Catholic hierarchy has caused "much harm in America."

Interviewed in Rome while attending an event sponsored by Opus Dei, a far-right Catholic group, Santorum told the National Catholic Reporter, "All of us have heard people say, 'I privately am against abortion, homosexual marriage, stem cell research, cloning. But who am I to decide that it's not right for someone else?' But it is the corruption of freedom of conscience."

According to Santorum, Kennedy was not the nation's first Catholic president. That distinction, he said, belongs to George W. Bush, a Methodist.

"From economic issues focusing on the poor and social justice, to issues of human life, George Bush is there," Santorum said. "He has every right to say, 'I'm where you are if you're a believing Catholic.'"

 A group of Religious Right leaders has joined forces to form a new anti-abortion organization that will push for banning all abortions with no exceptions.

The National Congress for the Protection of Human Life holds that life "begins at fertilization, which is conception" and that "no person, no government, no church, no organization, and, certainly, no international or supra-national body can rightly compromise it, destroy it, or make it negotiable."

Howard Phillips, a Christian Reconstructionist who heads the Conservative Caucus, said the new alliance will be "100 percent, no exception pro-life" and will oppose legal abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

Calif. Officials Raid Charter School Linked To Terrorist Network

Law enforcement officials in California have raided an Islamic charter school suspected of having ties to a terrorist organization and carted off 60 computers and 100 boxes of documents.

The GateWay Academy, a so-called "public charter school," was shut down in January and is the focus of an ongoing investigation. State officials said they are looking into allegations of fraud and financial wrongdoing at the school, but anonymous sources told The Washington Times there may be more to the matter.

According to the newspaper, the school is suspected of being tied to a militant U.S.-based black Muslim group called the Muslims of America. That group is in turn believed to be tied to al-Fuqra, a terrorist group linked to fire bombings and murders in the United States and Canada.

"We are not denying the Fuqra connection," Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for the California Attorney General's Office told the newspaper. "But that is not the focus of this. We are looking to allegations of financial fraud."

The GateWay Academy has received public funding since its founding two years ago. It is chartered by the Fresno Unified School District, although the school is located in a rural commune in the Sierra Nevada foothills, several hundred miles away. Officials with the California Justice Department are trying to account for $1.3 million in public funds that are missing.

"They had a $1.3 million deficit when their whole budget was $2.6 million," said Jill Marmolejo, a spokeswoman for the Fresno Unified School District. "An accounting was due Dec. 1, then we gave them an extension and they missed that. They just haven't been forthcoming. And the more we dug, the more we found."

The Washington Times reported that some of the missing money may have been funneled to Sheik Sayyid Mubarik Ali Gilani, founder of Muslims of America. Gilani has been arrested in Pakistan and charged with the kidnapping of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

The Times reported that Gilani left the United States in 1993. He has since been living in Lahore, Pakistan. Before his arrest, he had released a videotape calling on American Muslims to form an international organization and train in guerrilla warfare.

The GateWay school has also been accused of teaching the Koran in class and failing to conduct criminal background checks on its employees, both violations of California's charter school law.

Keep Religion Out Of Science Class, AU Advises Ohio Officials

Attorneys with Americans United have warned education officials in Ohio not to introduce religious dogma into science classes.

Ohio has become the latest battleground in the ongoing dispute over the teaching of evolution. Church-state separation activists in the state became alarmed recently when several members of the state board of education indicated their desire to introduce creationism into Ohio's science standards.

Ohio is currently redrafting its science standards, which serve as guidelines for classes offered in local public schools. The previous guidelines had been criticized by science educators as being vague and not mentioning evolution by name.

Now some Religious Right proponents want to go even further and introduce "intelligent design," the latest name for creationism. Some have also proposed removing references to the four-billion-year-old age of the Earth, since creationists, who base their beliefs on a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, insist that the planet is only about 10,000 years old.

"I don't object to the teaching of evolution," said Michael Cochran, a board member. "But I do think that it is a theory...which means it's not a proven fact about the origin of life. I think alternate theories should be part of the curriculum also."

Advocates of teaching evolution counter that the theory is no longer disputed in the scientific community and is taught without controversy in universities across the country. Intelligent design, they say, is merely an attempt to remove the overt religious references from creationism.

"It's not a science," Lynn Elfner, head of the Ohio Academy of Science, told the Dayton Daily News. "I can't say any more than it's not science."

In February attorneys with Americans United wrote to Jennifer L. Sheets, president of the Ohio Board of Education, and warned her that any attempt to teach creationism in Ohio's public schools may spark a lawsuit.

"The proposed changes would hamper the teaching of evolution while encouraging the teaching of creationist beliefs in several ways," observes the AU letter. "First, the proposed changes specifically require the teaching of 'intelligent design.' 'Intelligent design' posits that living things were designed by a purposeful being. The vast majority of the scientific community does not regard 'intelligent design' as a viable scientific theory. In reality, 'intelligent design' is weakly disguised creationism."

Roman Catholic Church Pays $110 Million To Abuse Victims In Ireland

The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has agreed to a one-time payout of $110 million to victims who suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse at "faith-based" schools, in exchange for immunity from future lawsuits.

The agreement, announced in late January, involved 18 Catholic religious orders that ran a network of government-funded homes for children of impoverished families and single mothers. The school network operated from the early 20th century until the 1990s. Recently, thousands of adults who lived in the institutions as children have alleged they were abused while under church care.

Controversy flared in 1999, when the Irish state broadcasting network, RTE, began airing a series of reports about the physical and sexual abuse of children at the so-called "industrial schools." The documentaries asserted that, aside from the abuse, many children were essentially used as slave labor in operations that made money for the church. Instead of being taught to read, they were put to work in sewing operations or tilling fields.

Numerous victims told horrific stories of abuse. Many later filed lawsuits. In an effort to stem the litigation, church officials entered into negotiations with the government. Under the agreement, the church will provide $110 million in cash and property to pay restitution and for counseling for survivors. Any victim who accepts restitution must agree to not initiate legal action against the church or the government.

About 150,000 children passed through the industrial schools over the years. An estimated 20,000 are still alive today, and more than 3,500 have already expressed interest in compensation. Some survivors fear that the $110-million fund will not be enough and that the taxpayers will be left to pick up the rest.

"The church has gotten away very cheaply," John Kelly, a spokesman for a group called Survivors of Child Abuse, told reporters. "The taxpayer should not pick up the bill for abuse committed by members of the religious orders."

Fox's O'Reilly Seems Skeptical Of Church Politicking Bill

Popular Fox News Channel commentator Bill O'Reilly has admitted to being "a little worried" over legislation pending in Congress that would allow houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking.

O'Reilly, host of "The O'Reilly Factor," interviewed Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), the sponsor of the legislation, Feb. 7. Jones' bill would lift provisions of the federal tax code that prohibit houses of worship from intervening in partisan politics. Jones insists his bill is about free speech; O'Reilly did not seem persuaded.

After listening to Jones give a history of the provision, O'Reilly said, "I understand what you're saying.... See, I say this. I go to church, but I don't need to hear priests tell me his political views, because, I mean, I have my own political views. So why do I need the church to do that?"

Jones asserted that under the current IRS provision, clergy may not note that certain candidates favor or oppose legal abortion. He again insisted that his bill would promote free speech in pulpits.

O'Reilly countered, "Yes, but, you know, there's a danger with the, there's a danger, because in 1988, Jesse Jackson went down and started to mobilize and organize black churches to not only support him in the pulpit...but also give him money from the pew. And, and that disturbs me. I just and I could see the same thing happening on the right as well."

Jones replied, "Bill, but the thing is, that is still ongoing."

Still not convinced, O'Reilly, who often sides with the Religious Right on the program, told Jones, "I don't want to get the churches involved in the political process."

Jones' bill has yet to have a hearing in the House but seems to be picking up some media attention. Recently, both The New York Times and The Washington Post have run stories about the proposal.

The Times reported that one church, Second Baptist Church in Houston, was the subject of a four-year investigation by the IRS for its political activities. Americans United reported the church to the federal tax agency in March of 1996 after receiving information about partisan political activity there.