Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and other Republican leaders in Congress have placed the Bush administration\'s "faith-based" initiative near the top of their agenda.
Frist told reporters Jan. 8 that the plan to give churches tax funds to operate social programs was among the topics discussed by GOP senators during a day-long retreat at the Library of Congress. According to news media accounts, Republican leaders see the scheme as a way to reach out to African-Americans in the aftermath of the Trent Lott/Strom Thurmond fiasco.
In last year\'s congressional session, the faith-based initiative stalled when many Democrats and some moderate Republicans became concerned about whether religious institutions that operate federally funded social services should abide by non-discrimination laws.
Social conservatives are now hopeful that with a new Republican leadership in place, Bush\'s faith-based proposals will become law. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the driving force behind the initiative in the Senate, told Congressional Quarterly that he will move quickly to try to enact the scheme.
"It\'s going to be similar to the compromise we developed at the end of last year," Santorum told the publication. That plan, crafted with the support of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), emphasized tax breaks for charitable donations and skipped some of the more controversial aspects of the Bush proposal.
Meanwhile, Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told the National Catholic Register that Congress may also try to pass legislation writing President George W. Bush\'s executive orders on the faith-based initiative into federal law.
Towey told the newspaper the executive orders are "just the beginning." "The president," he said, "wants some changes only Congress can make."
Electioneering by houses of worship is headed for debate in Congress again. A North Carolina congressman has introduced another bill that would permit churches and other religious bodies to campaign for politicians without losing their tax-exempt status.
Last session, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) pushed hard for his "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act," a measure that would have changed federal tax law to allow churches to become actively involved in partisan campaigning without altering their tax-exempt status. The Jones bill received strong support from Religious Right organizations, but was soundly defeated on the House floor this past fall.
As tax law stands now, non-profit groups, including churches and other places of worship, are prohibited from political campaigning. If a church crosses the line into electioneering, it would be in danger of losing its tax-exempt status. Jones\' newbill, which is slightly revised from last year\'s measure, would lift the ban only for religious bodies.
In a Jan. 9 press release posted on the representative\'s website, Jones claims that tax law discriminates against and stifles religious speech. The press release also lists several other House Republicans who are sponsoring the Jones bill, including the new majority leader, Tom DeLay.
The measure, HR 235, is pending in the House Committee on Ways and Means.
Appeals Court Upholds Federal Religious Liberty Law
In a unanimous Dec. 27 ruling, a three-judge panel approved the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a measure passed in 2000 to give additional legal protections to prisoners and religious groups involved in zoning disputes.
RLUIPA threatens to withhold federal funds from states or cities that substantially burden religious practice without proving that a compelling government interest exists to do so.
The recent decision was a victory for several Muslim inmates who sued the California prison system for refusing to allow them to grow beards or attend Friday prayer services in accordance with tenets of the Islamic faith.
California state officials asked a federal court to dismiss the prisoners\' claim, arguing that the federal law exceeded congressional authority and that it subverted the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Attorneys for California also argued that RLUIPA\'s mandate favored religion, thereby contravening the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.
The 9th Circuit judges were unpersuaded, noting that federal court precedent recognizes "that the government may (and sometimes must) accommodate religious practices and that it may do so without violating the Establishment Clause." The court then found that RLUIPA\'s purpose was secular and that its primary effect would not advance religion or "foster excessive entanglement" with religion.
"Protecting religious worship in institutions from substantial and illegitimate burdens does promote the general welfare," wrote Judge Dorothy Nelson in Mayweather v. Newland. "The First Amendment, by prohibiting laws that proscribe the free exercise of religion, demonstrates the great value placed on protecting religious worship from impermissible government intrusion."
A Tennessee county commission that waged a costly, but unsuccessful, court battle to display Ten Commandments plaques in public buildings is seeking to pay its legal bills by auctioning the plaques.
On Jan. 8, the Chattanooga County Commission announced it was seeking bids of at least $2,000 for each of the plaques that a federal judge ordered removed, the Associated Press reported.
In fall 2001, the commission voted, with only one commissioner dissenting, to post the religious symbols throughout the county\'s buildings. The American Civil Liberties Union, representing local citizens, sued the county, arguing that the commission\'s actions ran afoul of the First Amendment.
A U.S. district court ruled in May that the display of the religious documents violates the separation of church and state and ordered their removal.
Some commission members were unrepentant. Said Commissioner Curtis Adams, "We backed up this country as far as our Christian values."
Commission Chairman Richard Casavant, the lone dissenter on displaying the plaques, also voted against auctioning them to pay legal bills. Casavant said the commissioners who supported the display should pay for the legal costs.
Georgia County Tempers Evolution Changes in Classrooms
The new guidelines advise teachers "to promote a sense of scientific inquiry and understanding of scientific methods, and to distinguish between scientific and philosophical or religious issues," the Associated Press reported on Jan. 9.
The action came only months after the local school board voted to allow science teachers to discuss "disputed views" of evolution.
According to the AP, some Cobb County parents were disappointed in the guidelines because they had hoped the school board\'s proposal would open the science classroom to discussion of creationism.
"I\'d like teachers to be encouraged to open discussions," Marjorie Rogers said. "I want it to be opened up so kids can be introduced to other scientific evidence that would disprove evolution."
The American Civil Liberties Union had threatened a lawsuit challenging the school board\'s policy, but announced it would not lodge a suit after seeing the guidelines issued by the school district\'s superintendent.
Catholic Bishops Fight N.Y. Law On Birth Control
In late December, the bishops filed the lawsuit, arguing that the law undermined their constitutionally protected religious liberty.
"We cannot let this unprecedented intrusion on our religious rights go unchallenged," the bishops declared in a statement announcing their lawsuit.
The law does not apply to employers if their main function is religious, the majority of people they serve is religious and most of the employees are religious. That means churches are exempt, but many religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and schools are not.
Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the main sponsor of the health coverage legislation, told The New York Times she is confident the lawsuit would fail, saying the law "balances the rights of individuals to make their personal health care decisions" against the religious liberty rights of the church.
Gov. George Pataki (R), who is Catholic, supports the new law and predicts the bishops\' lawsuit will fail.
"It is an extremely important bill that will provide very important health benefits to women across New York State," Pataki told The Times.
A Maine town\'s proclamation of "Bible Week" has sparked a protest from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In mid November, the Biddeford mayor and city council issued a proclamation naming the last week in November as "Bible Week" and urging citizens to read the Bible.
Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the AU legal team informed Mayor Donna J. Dion and the members of the city council that issuance of the religious proclamation runs afoul of the First Amendment and asked them to refrain from issuing such proclamations in the future.
"By officially designating \'Bible Week,\' and thereby endorsing the specific religious traditions to which the text is sacred," the city\'s actions send the message "to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community," AU attorneys Alex Luchenitser and Kerry Kornblatt Jowers stated in the Jan. 8 letter to Biddeford officials.
The Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that public school officials may not ban books from the classroom on religious grounds.
In a decision handed down in late December, Canada\'s high court concluded that a British Columbia school board could not legally ban the book One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads from use in kindergarten classrooms, Reuters reported. Religious groups opposed use of the book because of its gay theme.
"Religion is an integral aspect of people\'s lives and cannot be left at the [school] boardroom door," the court\'s chief justice wrote for the 7-2 majority. "What secularism does rule out, however, is any attempt to use the religious views of one part of the community to exclude from consideration the values of other members of the community."