May 1999 AU Bulletin

Catholic Church Land Grab At Soldiers' Home Protested

Members of Congress should block a plan to require the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington to sell some of its land to the Roman Catholic Church, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Last October Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) inserted a provision into a Defense Department bill requiring the residential facility for retired military personnel to sell 49 acres to the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington or a related entity, such as Catholic University.

In a statement released in conjunction with a House subcommittee hearing on the controversy, AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said the plan shortchanges the 1,200 veterans who live at the Home while giving the Archdiocese special treatment.

"This is a sweetheart deal," Lynn said. "The Home is being forced to sell this land to the church without the normal competitive bidding procedures or giving any other organization or business an opportunity to bid on it. It smacks of preferential treatment....Congress should drop this entire scheme. Respect for our Constitution demands nothing less."

Religious Right Blasts Clinton Tolerance Proposal

President Bill Clinton has asked Congress to expand existing hate crime laws to include offenses based on sexual orientation, a move that has drawn the ire of some of the Religious Right's largest organizations.

Speaking at an April 6 White House ceremony, Clinton emphasized the need to create a nation where people can "pursue their lives in dignity, free of fear.

"We have to be, in the United States, absolutely resolute about this," Clinton said. "Our diversity is a godsend for us.... The number one security threat to that is the persistence of old, even primitive hatreds."

The president's plan includes a public-private partnership to develop middle-school curricula to combat intolerance.

Robert H. Knight, senior director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council, called the curriculum plan an "invasion...with the homosexual agenda under the guise of 'teaching tolerance.'"

Concerned Women for America also criticized the plan.

Alabama Judge Rejects Brooksville Theocracy Plan

An Alabama judge has rejected a proposal to incorporate the town of Brooksville as a Bible-based local government.

On April 13 Morgan County Probate Judge Bobby Day ruled that he had no choice but to turn down the plan's supporters because they had failed to properly prepare for an incorporation vote under state law. Day did not address the constitutional question of creating a religiously based town.

A local preacher, the Rev. James R. Henderson, led a group of area citizens who wanted to form a government where each of the community's 600 residents would serve on the city council, vote in churches on any disputes that arise and base the city's laws on the Old and New Testaments.

The plan drew criticism from Melvin Duran, mayor of neighboring Priceville, who charged that Brooksville's proposal called for taking part of his town's land. He also questioned why Brooksville residents needed to break off and form a new town of their own.

"One of their big issues is that we won't let them shoot guns off their back porch," said Duran.

Religion Alone Cannot Disqualify Jurors, Conn. Court Says

The Supreme Court of Connecticut has ruled that prospective jurors may not be removed from consideration solely on the basis of their religious beliefs.

In a split decision issued on March 26, the court said an individual juror's faith may lead to that person being unsuitable for a particular case but that religious beliefs are not related to a person's qualifications to serve on a jury in general. This ruling follows previous decisions from the Connecticut court that said race and gender are also not permissible reasons for eliminating jurors.

Attorneys can remove potential jurors from a jury pool by either showing cause for elimination or using a set number of peremptory challenges. However, lawyers must be able to adequately explain what factors led to the use of one of those challenges.

The ruling stemmed from the murder trial of Dennis Hodge, whose lawyers argued that prosecutors had improperly used a peremptory challenge to exclude a Muslim from the jury pool after the man said he would consult with spiritual leaders if he felt his religious beliefs were in conflict with secular law.

Kentucky Court Limits Religious Divorce Counseling

Married couples with children in northern Kentucky will no longer be forced to attend counseling sessions at Catholic Social Services before getting a divorce.

For three years, several local citizens, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, have challenged the constitutionality of judges requiring divorcing couples in Kenton and Campbell counties to attend sessions with the Catholic group. Last year U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman ruled that since Catholic Social Services did not base its advice on church doctrine, the counseling sessions were constitutional.

In March the ACLU agreed to withdraw its appeal as part of a settlement agreement that will offer couples a secular alternative for counseling.

David A. Friedman of the ACLU said that the organization did not protest the course being available at the Catholic center but simply wanted parents to have a secular alternative.

N.J. Town Prays For Budget Deficit Relief

Government officials in Irvington, N.J., have become so troubled by financial difficulties that they have taken to prayer as means of dealing with the town's $7 million budget deficit.

Irvington Mayor Sara Bost organized a gospel-singing vigil on March 25 to pray for help in the budgetary crisis, which is so severe that state officials are considering taking supervision of the town's finances.

"It's no secret that we're having problems," said the mayor's spokeswoman, Jacqueline Andrews. "The mayor felt there's no better way to respond than to invoke God's leadership, whether it be for financial or other help."

But some residents were unimpressed. "We're at an all-time low in this town when the mayor calls a religious event that violates the law," said attorney J. Edward Waller, who lost to Bost in the last mayoral election. "We didn't elect her to lead us in prayer. We elected her to lead us out of this financial crisis."

About 100 of the city's 65,000 residents joined Bost for the vigil at the local Christian Pentecostal Church.

Missouri Legislators Balk At Papal Visit Bill

Pope John Paul II's two-day visit to St. Louis, Mo., led to at least $3.4 million in spending from local, state and federal governments -- and Missouri lawmakers are less than pleased.

Angry that the state legislature was not consulted about the escalating costs, some members want to give the Missouri Division of Tourism about $175,000 less than sought as part of the state's reimbursement costs for the pope's visit. Chris Jennings, director of the tourism board, will be held accountable by the legislature for the budgetary overflow. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the spending was worth the money because it benefited the state's image.

"I can't come close to the public relations we got out of this visit," Jennings said.

Among the expenses for the visit were $84,000 to rent portable toilets for the papal parade routes, $22,000 for lighting and staging equipment at an airport ceremony to welcome the pope and $48,000 to pay for an orchestra to perform at the papal mass. The $3.4 million figure does not include the cost of Secret Service protection and travel expenses for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Catholic Church Fails To Block Drag Easter Event

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a predominantly gay street theater group in San Francisco, was permitted to stage an Easter street festival despite attempts from the Catholic Church to stop the event.

In early March the Catholic Archdiocese criticized the Board of Supervisors for allowing one block of Castro Street to be closed for the Sisters' Easter Sunday celebration. Readers of the Archdiocese's newspaper began contacting the Board to voice their complaints, which led two supervisors, Alicia Beceril and Amos Brown, to propose postponement of the parade until April 11.

Board President Tom Ammiano rejected the request. "Asking for a change in the date of the celebration sidesteps the real issue here, that of the separation of church and state," Ammiano said. "The board's vote is not an endorsement of the sisters. It's an endorsement of the process that allows the sisters or any group to apply for a permit and be granted due process. The fact that the actions of one group are not popular with another group is no reason to deny anyone their rights."

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said his group would ask Catholics not to do business with the city unless the street party was moved to another date.

Swedish Primate Welcomes Church Disestablishment

Sweden is heading toward disestablishing its Lutheran state church, a move a top official of the Church of Sweden says is "inevitable" in advanced Western nations.

The church will break with the government next year and take responsibility for choosing its own leaders and developing its own internal policies. The establishment of the church originated in the 17th century, when the king was declared head of both church and state. Under the old system, the government appointed the church's bishops and cathedral deans.

K.G. Hammar, the Lutheran archbishop, told Ecumenical News International that official establishment has brought "only disadvantages."

While the two institutions will separate next year, the government will continue to collect a compulsory church tax from all church members, though the tax will now be called a "fee." Non-church members, who currently pay 75 percent of the member rate, will not have to pay at all after disestablishment.

Rights Group Says Western Europe Violates Religious Liberty

The International Helsinki Federation, a human rights group, has issued a report criticizing several Western European nations for increasing violations of religious freedom rights.

The report was especially critical of Germany, Belgium, France and Spain for curtailing the activities of small denominations that place emphasis on proselytism, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"There appear to be clear attempts on the part of the European Union and national governments in Western Europe to adopt new legal provisions to 'protect' individuals from 'new religions,'" said the Vienna-based group in a report for the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "While Western governments and human rights groups have typically focused their attention on increasing restrictions (on religious organizations) in the East, little or no attention has been paid to similar developments in Western Europe," read the report.

It continued, "In Western Europe, hundreds of unpopular minority religions are targeted as dangerous and harmful."