May 2001 AU Bulletin

Americans Worry About 'Faith-Based' Scheme, Poll Shows

A majority of Americans have deep reservations about core aspects of President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative, according to a new public opinion poll.

The survey, released April 10 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that 68 percent of Americans worry that faith-based programs might lead to too much government involvement with religion, while six out of ten are concerned that publicly funded religious groups would proselytize recipients of social services.

The majority of respondents support public aid for faith-based organizations in concept, but an overwhelming 78 percent of Americans say government-funded religious groups should not be able to hire only people who share their beliefs to staff their programs, a key component of the Bush plan. The response on the employment issue surprised researchers enough to repeat the question three different ways, but the results remained the same.

The poll also found that many Americans do not want government to fund religious minorities. Only 38 percent thought Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples should get aid. A bare majority of 51 percent supported government assistance for Mormon churches.

"Americans don't mind religiously affiliated social services getting some government aid, as long as there are strict safeguards in place," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group spearheading opposition to the Bush initiative. "President Bush wants to do away with the safeguards, and people have no intention of saying amen."

Religious Right Achieves Top Access At White House

After eight years of outsider status at the White House, Religious Right leaders are relishing their new role as allies of President George W. Bush.

Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation and a long-time Religious Right leader who helped create the Moral Majority, is jubilant. "I've been through five Republican administrations, and the effort to communicate with conservatives and to understand our concerns and address our concerns and involve us in the process is the best of any of the Republican administrations, including Ronald Reagan," Weyrich told The New York Times. "In fact, far superior to Ronald Reagan."

Observed Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and an influential right-wing operative, "There isn't an us and them with this administration. They is us. We is them."

In fact, the Bush administration appears to have been going all out to secure a close relationship with its Religious Right kin. At an annual "Washington Briefing" hosted by the Family Research Council in March, the White House sent two cabinet officials, a senior aide and a taped message from the president. When Norquist hosts weekly get-togethers of over 100 conservative groups, the administration has sent at least one representative to every meeting

Religious Right influence has been particularly noteworthy in personnel decisions, culminating in the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general. Meanwhile, Kay Cole James, who served as a dean at TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University, now heads Bush's Office of Personnel Management. A similar influence can be seen at the departments of Interior and Justice, the Office of Management and Budget and the White House counsel's office.

Even James Dobson, head of the Focus on the Family empire, has warmed up to the Bush administration after showing signs of skepticism during the campaign. According to a report in World magazine, Dobson said he is "very encouraged" by Bush after seeing how helpful the White House staff has been in assisting his wife, Shirley Dobson, who organizes the National Day of Prayer.

Christian Science Sanatoria Win Court Battle

Christian Science nursing care facilities may continue to receive Medicare and Medicaid payments after the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear a challenge to the aid.

On April 2, the high court refused to review Children's Health Care is a Legal Duty v. McMullan. The case was brought by a taxpayer group that argued federally funded medical payments to Christian Science-run health centers, known as sanatoria, violate church-state separation because the facilities depend on prayer, not medicine, for treating patients.

Representatives of the church have responded that the public aid pays for secular materials, such as bandages, and not for religion.

In 1996, Children's Health Care is a Legal Duty (CHILD) filed suit challenging the payments because federal law singled out only Christian Science sanatoria for the assistance. After the group won an initial court victory, the Justice Department decided it could not defend the payments and decided not to appeal.

Public support for the facilities began anew, however, when Congress passed a law in 1997 dropping the reference to Christian Science and permitting aid to all "religious nonmedical health care institutions." CHILD once again filed suit to challenge the payments.

Last year, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the group's argument, holding that the arrangement is "sect-neutral," and therefore does not promote religion. The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case allows the 8th Circuit ruling to stand.

Giuliani Touts Decency Panel In New York

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) has created a "decency panel" to review art displayed in publicly funded museums and galleries.

Giuliani was motivated to create the panel, formally known as the Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission, following a series of controversies over religious art the mayor described as anti-Catholic. For example, Giuliani opposed a Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibition last year featuring a painting of the Virgin Mary that included an element of elephant dung. The image was created by Chris Ofili, a Catholic Nigerian artist.

The mayor's panel features 20 appointees, including Raoul Felder, Giuliani's divorce attorney, and Roderick Caesar Sr., pastor of Bethel Gospel Tabernacle in Jamaica, N.Y. Among the panel's chief responsibilities will be recommending decency standards for the city's museums and, according to the mayor, addressing "whether or not there should be a different assessment made when public dollars are being used than when private dollars are being used" for pieces of art in city museums.

Florida Sheriff Ends Inmate Labor At Churches

The new sheriff of Walton County, Fla., has decided to discontinue the 20-year tradition of using jail inmates as labor for local churches.

Former sheriff Quinn McMillian created a policy directing inmates to clean and do chores for churches in the county, located in Florida's panhandle. The American Civil Liberties Union threatened a lawsuit, insisting the practice violated the state and federal constitutions.

Ralph Johnson, just three months after being elected sheriff, was notified by the Florida Sheriffs' Association that the practice would likely lose in court and recommended the church work be halted. Johnson agreed.

"As much as I would like to continue helping the churches, I have an obligation to uphold the law," Johnson said.

Baptist Doctor Loses Anti-Gay Lawsuit In Kentucky

Local ordinances that prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation in a Kentucky county cannot be struck down because they offend someone's religious beliefs, a federal court has ruled.

J. Barrett Hyman, a gynecologist represented by TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, filed suit against the Louisville, Ky., ordinances because they offend the tenets of his Southern Baptist faith.

In an affidavit, Hyman acknowledged he asks about sexual orientation when interviewing job applicants and said his beliefs require him to reject gay applicants and to fire any employee he learns is gay.

"It is purely a choice of behavior that leads to physical and spiritual death," he said. "The only way to stop the AIDS epidemic is to stop sodomy."

Hyman's arguments were unpersuasive in federal court. U.S. District Judge Charles R. Simpson III threw the case out of court without a trial.

Churches and seminaries that accept no public funding are exempt from the ordinances.

Charter Schools Pose Church-State Questions

A Denver-area charter school has come under fire after a series of alleged irregularities, including violating church-state separation.

Jefferson Academy, a six-year-old charter school that teaches more than 700 students, has been accused by the Jefferson County School District of a series of transgressions, including separating 14 students from the general student population to be taught at a nearby church for four weeks. A representative of the academy said the students were sent to the house of worship because they were misbehaving in class.

According to The Denver Post, the same report states that the charter school changed the definition of "evolution" in order for school science instructors to teach creationism.

School district and independent investigations of the academy also led to serious questions surrounding sloppy accounting practices, misuse of power and conflicts of interest. Officials of the Jefferson County School District are working to determine what disciplinary actions might be necessary.

Meanwhile, in Alaska, the Yukon-Koyukuk School Board has been forced to revoke the charter of a school promoting Christianity in its curriculum, the Anchorage Daily News reports.

Wiseman Charter School, which taught only 13 students, became the first Alaskan charter school to loose its charter after Teri Dylhoff, the school's only teacher, instructed students to read passages from the Bible as a class assignment. The district also found that the school failed to keep adequate records of publicly funded programs and violated procedures on proper long-distance telephone use.

Saudi Arabia Cracks Down On Pokemon

The highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia has banned the popular Pokemon cartoon characters from the Middle Eastern country.

The fatwa, or religious edict, was issued March 25 by the Higher Committee for Scientific Research and Islamic Law, which concluded that Pokemon trading cards and video games promote Zionism because they include "the Star of David, which everyone knows is connected to international Zionism and is Israel's national emblem, as well as being the first symbol of the Freemasons."

In addition, the edict accused the game of featuring Christian crosses and symbols of Shintoism, which it described as based on polytheism.

Pokemon began as a Japanese video game three years ago, but it has become a phenomenon for millions of children around the world, generating toys, games and movies. As a result of the fatwa, Saudi authorities announced on March 29 that all Pokemongames in the country are to be taken from store shelves.