May 2000 AU Bulletin

House Education Bill Undercuts Separation, Groups Say

A coalition of education and civil liberties groups, including Americans United, has urged the House Education and Workforce Committee to remove provisions from an omnibus education funding bill that undercut church-state separation.

The legislation in question, the Education Options Act (H.R. 4141), is the latest in a series of bills designed to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government's largest aid-to-schools program. Religious Right allies in the House have added language to the measure dealing with school prayer and "charitable choice" subsidies for churches.

"These provisions," said Americans United and its allies, in an April 5 letter to the committee, "would not only fail to enhance the quality of education provided in our nation's schools, but they threaten our First Amendment freedoms."

One section of the bill, dealing with drug prevention for school children, authorizes federal funding of religious organizations. A second provision, originally drafted by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), cuts off federal funding to any public school that "effectively prevents participation in constitutionally protected prayer...by individuals on a voluntary basis." Critics say the measure would subject school administrators to harassment from Religious Right legal groups.

During a committee mark-up April 5, Rep. William L. Clay (D-Mo.) said, "[T]his bill is loaded down with mandates to local schools regarding school prayer and religious expression, a clear sop to the far right." That same day, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley warned that he would recommend a presidential veto if the bill passes in its current form.

Bogus O'Hair Religious Broadcasting Petition Resurfaces

Famous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair has been missing since 1995, but rumors continue to circulate that she is on the verge of convincing the Federal Communications Commission to remove all religious broadcasting from the nation's airwaves.

An e-mail pleading for help to stop O'Hair's fictitious petition is making the rounds. This time there's an added twist: The message asserts that O'Hair is trying to prevent networks from offering TV shows with religious themes, such as "Touched by an Angel."

In reality, there is no O'Hair petition. The rumor got started back in 1974 when two men, Jeremy Lansman and Lorenzo Milam, filed papers before the FCC asking the agency to investigate the practices of religious broadcasters. The FCC denied the request on Aug. 1, 1975. Not long after that, the Lansman-Milam effort somehow got linked to O'Hair and took on a life of its own. Since then, the FCC has been flooded with millions of inquiries about it.

The FCC has posted a denial of the O'Hair rumor and the facts surrounding the original petition on its website. It can be read at: www.fcc.gov/mmb/enf/forms/rm-2493.html.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering a bill that would give religious broadcasters even greater access to the airwaves. The Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act (H.R. 4201), introduced by U.S. Rep. Charles Pickering (R-Miss.), would allow noncommercial educational television stations to consider religious programming as educational in meeting their license obligations. The measure has strong support from the National Religious Broadcasters.

Buddhist Nuns Indicted In Temple Fund-Raising Case

A federal grand jury in Washington has indicted two Buddhist nuns who were at the center of an election fund-raising scandal.

The pair, Venerables Yi Chu and Man Ho, are believed to have fled the country for Taiwan. They had been summoned to testify about an April 29, 1996, fund-raiser for President Bill Clinton that took place at their Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif.

Prosecutors allege that the temple laundered more than $100,000 in illegal contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign and to the campaign of Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-Mass.). A Democratic fund-raiser, Maria Hsia, has already been convicted in the matter for making false statements to the Federal Election Commission in an attempt to cover up the source of the money. She is alleged to have used temple funds to reimburse donors who gave money to the Democratic campaigns.

Vice President Al Gore, who appeared at the temple event, has insisted he was not aware that a fund-raiser was planned when he agreed to attend.

In November of 1996, Americans United asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the matter, asserting that the temple may have violated federal tax law barring partisan activities by tax-exempt groups.

Evangelist Can Pray At U.S. Capitol, Court Says

A federal judge in the District of Columbia has ruled that a Maryland man has the right to pray in the U.S. Capitol and has ordered the Capitol Police to stop restricting people who pray silently in the building.

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman ruled April 3 that the Capitol Police's policy violated the rights of the Rev. Pierre Bynum, who was leading a "prayer tour" through the Capitol in November of 1996 when police ordered him to stop praying.

The police had argued that Bynum's activity was in fact a demonstration. Demonstrations are not permitted in the Capitol; guidelines define demonstrations as "expressive conduct that conveys a message supporting or opposing a point of view or has the...propensity to attract a crowd of onlookers."

Friedman declared the regulation "unconstitutionally vague" and too broad. He conceded that the Capitol Police have the right to prevent disruptive conduct in the building but declared that the policy "sweeps too broadly by inviting the Capitol Police to restrict behavior that is in no way disruptive."

Ten Commandments Bill Approved In Kentucky

The Kentucky General Assembly has passed legislation urging the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools and other government buildings. The bill, which Gov. Paul Patton said he is prepared to sign into law, also requires that a 7-foot-high Decalogue monument be placed outside the Capitol near the state's floral clock.

On March 29, the Kentucky Senate voted 33 to 2 to pass S.J.R. 57, a resolution that declares the Ten Commandments to be the foundation for our laws and therefore suitable for posting on state property. The bill claims the purpose of the display "shall not be to advance religion, but to advance the important secular purpose of illustrating how the Bible and the Ten Commandments have influenced the faith, morals, and character of American leaders who, in turn, have shaped American law, public policy, and institutions."

If the bill becomes law, the Commandments will be incorporated into larger displays of other "historic documents."

"God wants the Ten Commandments," said Sen. Albert Robinson (R-London), sponsor of the legislation. "That's where we come from."

Civil liberties groups have already announced that the measure will likely be challenged in court if it becomes law. Kentucky joins Indiana and South Dakota as state legislatures that passed Ten Commandments laws during this legislative session.

'In God We Trust' Posters Headed To Public Schools

A Mississippi-based Religious Right group has developed a new campaign intended to bring a religious message to America's public schools.

The Rev. Donald W. Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, published a column in the March 2000 issue of the AFA Journal asking Religious Right activists accross the country to purchase three 11 x 14-inch posters with the words "In God We Trust" for $10.

"The poster can be framed and displayed in every public building in America," Wildmon said. "And you know what? The ACLU can't do a thing about it. How could it be illegal to post our national motto in any school, courthouse or other public building?

"Students walking down the hall will see and read this motto, and they may even be influenced by it," Wildmon added. "This is something the Supreme Court was afraid would happen when they made posting the Ten Commandments illegal."

Lawyers for Americans United for Separation of Church and State believe Wildmon's plan is of questionable legality. The AFA would have to prove that the poster is intended to serve a secular purpose, which in light of the poster's message and the agenda of the AFA, might be difficult.

'Jesus Saves': Just Another Brick In The Walk?

A class fundraiser at Mexico High School in Oswego County, N.Y., has become a major church-state controversy and appears to be headed to court.

As part of a project started by the Class of 1999, bricks on the school's main walkway were sold for $30, offering buyers an opportunity to inscribe a brief, personal message. However, when bricks started carrying messages such as "Jesus Saves" and "Jesus Christ is the Lord of this School," officials started questioning the wisdom of the endeavor.

Elizabeth Passer, a member of one of the only two Jewish families in the small community, complained that the bricks raised constitutional concerns about school neutrality on religious matters. In February, Passer pushed the district into action by buying a brick inscribed with the phrase, "Keep Abortion Legal."

When Passer's brick message was rejected, Mexico Superintendent Michael Havens, acting on the advice of the school district's attorney, announced the removal of the controversial bricks March 8. The next day, Mexico's school board passed a proposal to prohibit political, religious or profane expressions on bricks.

"To me, the bricks should not have gone in in the first place," the Rev. Stephen Wirkes, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Mexico, told the Syracuse Herald American. "They were meant to be provocative. They were meant to be confrontational. And they were meant to tear this community apart. And they did. And they succeeded."

However, Bob Kiesinger, a Mexico resident who purchased the "Jesus Saves" brick, told the Syracuse Herald-Journal he has contacted the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based Religious Right legal group, about a potential lawsuit.

Russia Extends Religious Registration Deadline

The Russian government has agreed to extend a deadline for religious groups to register with the nation's Justice Ministry.

Under Russian law, religious groups are required to register with the government in order to function as legal entities with the right to enter into contracts, open bank accounts and hire employees.

The new deadline for groups to enlist by the end of calendar year 2000 easily passed both houses of Russia's parliament and was signed by President-elect Vladimir Putin. In addition to extending the cutoff date, the law also includes harsher language that requires local officials to liquidate unregistered faith groups.