November 2002 People & Events

Falwell Comments Spark Rioting In Indian State

Thousands of Muslims in northern India rioted in the streets after word circulated that TV preacher Jerry Falwell had called the Prophet Muhammad a "terrorist" on American television.

Falwell made the comments about the founder of Islam during an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" for a piece about evangelical Christian support for Israel. During the segment, which aired Oct. 6, Falwell told correspondent Bob Simon, "I think Muhammad was a terrorist. He I've read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and, and non-Muslims that he was a, a violent man, a man of war."

The program did not air in the Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir, India's only political subdivision with a Muslim majority, but Falwell's remarks were reported in a local newspaper and began to circulate among the population. As word spread, thousands of protestors spilled into the streets, throwing rocks and screaming anti-American slogans. In Bombay, meanwhile, five people were killed and 47 injured during rioting.

Mohammad Omar Farooq, a prominent Muslim cleric, said Falwell had "no right to outrage the religious sentiments of the second largest religious group in the world. It reflects on his ignorance and bigotry."

At first, Falwell did not apologize for the comments. Days after the show aired, his website, www.falwell.com, contained no mention of his remarks although it did contain a large section criticizing the beliefs of Islam and the life of Mu­hammad.

"I have never said in a sermon or a speech that Muhammad is a terrorist," Falwell told Religion News Service. "I simply answered a question by Bob Simon in the context of Jesus, Moses and Muhammad. It might have been a bad choice of words, but it is what historians say."

In Iran, a hard-line Muslim newspaper called Kayhan urged that Falwell be killed for his comments, along with Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, two other evangelists who have made anti-Islam statements recently.

"In accord with Islam, it is imperative to kill the three priests linked to the Zionists because they have insulted Islam and the prophet," said the paper. The publication added that it hoped that "Muslims oppressed by the powerful United States would have the honor to carry out this act."

Ayatollah Hossein Nuri-Hamedani, a top Shiite cleric in Iran, urged Muslims "not to stay silent" over the insult but stopped short of issuing a fatwa or death decree against Falwell.

On Oct. 12 Falwell finally issued an apology.

"I sincerely apologize that certain statements of mine made during an interview for the Sept. 30 edition of CBS's '60 Minutes' were hurtful to the feelings of many Muslims," he said. "I intended no disrespect to any sincere, law-abiding Muslim."
Falwell's latest venture into interfaith hostility has drawn criticism even from some fellow conservatives.
Washington Times columnist Tony Blankley called Falwell's comments "idiotic and repulsive" and insisted that they would undercut President George Bush's efforts to depict the fight against terrorism as not a fight against Islam.
Blankley said Falwell's claim that he "intended no disrespect" is incredible. "Of course he did," observed the columnist.

Georgia County Approves Policy To Undermine Science Instruction

The Cobb County, Ga., School Board has voted unanimously to approve a new policy that critics say is a religiously motivated effort to undermine the teaching of evolution.

The board voted Sept. 26 to approve a policy stating in part, "Discussion of disputed views of academic subjects is a necessary element of providing a balanced education, including the study of the origin of species."

Board members insisted that the policy is designed to spur "academic freedom," but critics charged that its real purpose is to open the door to instruction about creationism in the schools. Opponents noted that the board has approved other measures to weaken instruction about evolution, including making the study of evolution optional and requiring a disclaimer in science textbooks that calls evolution "a theory, not a fact."

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, criticized the policy, calling it a thinly veiled effort to advance religion in public schools and undermine church-state separation.

"This policy is clearly intended to allow teachers to circumvent the law and promote religion in science classes," Lynn said. "Sunday School lessons masquerading as science have no place in public school classrooms. Cobb County board members have made the wrong call.

"Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident," Lynn continued. "From coast to coast, Religious Right activists have launched a crusade to undermine school neutrality on religion. These fights do nothing but distract attention from the goal of providing students the best education possible."

The new policy was passed at the behest of Religious Right activists who have claimed the change will allow science teachers to teach creationism, a religious account of life's origins based on a fundamentalist reading of the Book of Genesis.

On Aug. 23, the board voted to study the issue for 30 days. During that period, more than 100 university professors from across Georgia contacted board members to oppose the policy. The National Academy of Sciences, a well-respected research body that was chartered by Congress to advise the federal government on scientific matters, also urged the board to reject the proposal.

Americans United's Legal Depart­ment also contacted Cobb County officials about the policy and explained that federal courts have consistently ruled that public schools cannot engage in religious indoctrination.

Board members, however, were not persuaded by scientists and legal experts and instead succumbed to political pressure from groups such as local affiliates of the Christian Coalition and the American Family Association (AFA), both of which lobbied aggressively on behalf of the proposal.

In fact, an "action alert" sent by the AFA boldly acknowledged the religious motivation behind the Cobb County proposal. The alert noted that the policy "would allow for scientific classroom discussion on creation as described in the Biblical account of the book of Genesis."

Some science teachers in the district are dismayed. Rex Lybrand, who teaches zoology at Harrison High School, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I'm very disturbed that they want to dilute science education in Cobb County.... They made teaching science very, very difficult. They've made a mockery of science."

At North Cobb High School, biology teacher Michael Petelle said he would continue to teach evolution.

"I don't think it will have any impact whatsoever on my personal teaching," Petelle said. "However, it will make the community look bad. If I were a biotech firm executive looking to move, I'd cross Cobb County off the list. This doesn't make us look scientifically literate at all."

Religious Right Preacher Plots Demise Of National Public Radio

Fans of National Public Radio (NPR) in some parts of the country have been in for a shock lately: Instead of "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition," they're hearing invective from a Mis­sissippi-based Religious Right activist.

The switch comes because of a campaign by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, founder and head of the American Family Association (AFA) in Tupelo, Miss. Over the past few years, Wildmon has undertaken a concerted effort to knock NPR affiliates off the air and replace them with his own American Family Radio.

Wildmon's campaign was described in detail by The New York Times in September. The newspaper reported that Wildmon is taking advantage of a federal law that allows noncommercial broadcasters with licenses to operate full-power stations to push broadcasters with weaker signals off the airwaves.

In southwest Louisiana, Wildmon knocked two NPR affiliates off the air by overpowering their signals. In Lake Charles, NPR fans have mobilized to get public radio back. NPR is also fighting back and is building a $309,000 antenna about 30 miles from Lake Charles. Once completed, it will enable people in the area to pick up signals from the nearest NPR affiliate, KRVS in Lafayette.

Wildmon has been quietly building a radio empire. He owns 194 stations nationwide and is adding more. His staff is unapologetic about what they do to NPR stations.

"NPR people should really be embarrassed," Patrick Vaughn, a lawyer for American Family Radio, told The Times. "They knew for years that we had applied [for noncommercial stations], and they didn't do anything about it. NPR people were drawing money out of the community in the form of pledge support, but they didn't bother to apply for a full-power station. It is not our fault."

Religious broadcasters, the paper reported, are quickly snapping up available noncommercial stations. According to The Times, "In the first two quarters of 2002, there were 14 sales of noncommercial stations. Of those, public radio groups bought only two."

Vaughn denied that Wildmon has deliberately targeted NPR, although he freely admitted to The Times that his boss hates public radio.

"He detests the news that the public gets through NPR and believes it is slanted from a distinctly liberal and secular perspective," Vaughn said.

Ironically, Wildmon's programming does little to serve local communities. His stations play pre-packaged programs beamed in from Wildmon's Tupelo headquarters. There is often no local content. In Lake Charles, the two stations Wildmon owns are overseen by one employee, who works from an empty house that is devoid of transmitting equipment.

Wildmon stations feature programs like "Phyllis Schlafly Report," "Home School Heartbeat" and news from a Religious Right perspective. Wildmon, who is best known for leading a media decency crusade in the 1970s, frequently launches boycotts against companies that advertise on television programs that he does not like.

Scandals Won't Mute Church's Political Voice, Bishop Vows At Red Mass

The Roman Catholic hierarchy will not let the ongoing scandal over child sexual abuse impair its ability to speak out on political issues, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops vowed during Washington, D.C.'s "Red Mass" Oct. 6.

"I would argue most powerfully that those scandals must not silence nor limit the excellent influence that religious voices have in the formation of our governmental and societal policies, whether they be war and peace, the death penalty, stem cell research or questions of poverty," said Bishop Wilton Gregory.

The mass, traditionally held before the start of the Supreme Court's term, is a special service for members of the legal profession. It is so named because of the red vestments worn by the celebrant. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist attended this year's event, along with Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.

Also attending were Attorney General John Ashcroft, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams.

During the homily, Gregory alluded to the sex scandal, telling attendees that he recognized the necessity of a "cleansing needed within our own house." But he insisted that the focus on the scandal would in no way stop the church's lobbying on public policy issues.

"All too often in recent years, it has been a sign of our time that some urge that the role of religion in public life be marginalized and even suppressed," he asserted.

The Catholic hierarchy has often used the Red Mass as a platform to lobby Supreme Court justices on behalf of the church's stands on church and state, religious school vouchers, abortion and other concerns.

Vouchers Fail To Boost Student Achievement, Says Government Report

Students receiving privately funded vouchers to attend non-public schools do not show significant gains in academic performance, a new report from the federal government indicates.

The General Accounting Office examined privately funded voucher programs in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Dayton, Ohio. In Washington it found that voucher students initially did better in math but worse in reading than their public school counterparts. After three years, both groups were performing at the same rate.

The Dayton voucher students did slightly better in reading, but researchers said the gain was not statistically significant. In New York, black voucher students did slightly better in reading and math than public school students, but Latino voucher students performed at the same rate as those in public schools.

Voucher boosters have claimed for years that allowing students to attend religious and other private schools at taxpayer expense will boost the test scores of low-income students. To date, no objective study has bolstered that claim.

Faced with the academic failure of vouchers, supporters are now claiming that parents of voucher students simply like private schools better. They assert that this increased parental satisfaction will somehow translate into academic success.

Voucher critics are skeptical. They counter that while parental satisfaction is important, it's no substitute for solid academic gains. Colleges, they say, are not likely to take parental satisfaction into account when considering applications from voucher students with low test scores and poor academic performance.

HHS Drops Plan For 'Faith-Based' Set-Aside Program In Zimbabwe

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have dropped plans to limit AIDS education funding in Zimbabwe to "faith-based" groups, after a protest from Americans United.

The CDC in May issued an announcement that the funding was available. In August, the CDC amended the an­nounce­ment to list six priorities under the program. The last is for a "multidimensional faith-based organization that can serve as a lead institution for development of behavior change reinforcement materials and strategies to reach church-based youth groups" in Zim­babwe, a nation in southern Africa.

Under the terms of the program, at least $60,000 would be available exclusively for religious groups. Such religious "set-asides," Americans United warned in an Aug. 30 letter to CDC officials, raises serious church-state concerns.

"Instead of allocating grants on the basis of neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion, the program creates a minimum quota for religious groups," wrote AU Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser to the CDC. "For the grant program to comply with constitutional requirements, religious and non-religious organizations must be allowed to compete for all program funds on a level playing field."

"This administration constantly claims that religious groups are being discriminated against in access to federal grants," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "In fact, the opposite is true. Programs like this show the administration's persistent bias toward government funding of religious organizations."

The Bush administration has been under pressure from religious conservatives to include religious dogma in AIDS prevention programs. The Washington Post reported in mid August that 12 members of Congress wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services to complain about a lack of religious participants at an international conference on AIDS in Barcelona, Spain, in July.

In its letter to the CDC, Americans United noted that it has twice persuaded the Department of Health and Human Services to drop religious set-asides in federal grant programs. The letter requested that the CDC program be amended "so that no religion-related criterion, preference or quota is used to select grant recipients."

On Sept. 27 Americans United received a letter from Dr. Julie Louise Gerberding, director of the CDC in Atlanta, announcing that the faith-based set aside was being dropped.

"After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's review of funding priorities two and three, the agency's Pro­curement and Grants Office has decided not to fund applicants based on this Amendment," Gerberding wrote. "CDC will issue a Federal Register Notice in fiscal year 2003 stating that both faith-based and secular organizations are eligible to apply for funding and applicants will be evaluated on neutral criteria that neither favors nor disfavors religion."

AU Wraps Up Case Against Ala. Ten Commandments Judge

AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan traveled to Alabama in mid October to spearhead Americans United's lawsuit against Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who last year arranged to have the Ten Commandments displayed at the state Judicial Building.

Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama filed suit against Moore in federal court after he secretly arranged to have a two-and-a-half-ton granite sculpture of the Ten Commandments placed in the lobby of the courthouse in Montgomery, the state capital.

Moore has been on a Ten Com­mandments crusade for years. As a circuit judge in Etowah County, he displayed a hand-carved Ten Command­ments plaque and was criticized for opening some sessions with prayer. A lawsuit filed over that display was dismissed on a technicality.

The incident made Moore a hero to the Religious Right, and he used the notoriety he garnered to win election as chief justice in November of 2000. About eight months later, Moore had the Com­mandments placed in the Judicial Building. Moore took the action unilaterally and did not consult with his fellow justices. In fact, he waited until the building was empty and then helped workers bring the monument in.

Moore has several allies in the Religious Right. Florida TV preacher D. James Kennedy, for example, has repeatedly used the lawsuit against Moore to raise money. The ministry even sold videos of Moore placing the monument in the public building. In October Kennedy sent out a mailing asserting that Moore had been badgered by attorneys with AU and the ACLU during "a grueling two-day deposition."

Kennedy begged for contributions, writing, "The stakes are huge in this battle. For if the public display of the Ten Commandments can be banned, then your freedom and mine to express our faith in public is suddenly at terrible risk of being curtailed by the state!"

Other religious leaders take a different view. On Aug. 21, national and state clergy joined forces to file a legal brief, asking the court to declare Moore's display of the Ten Commandments unconstitutional.

A decision in the case, Glassroth v. Moore, is expected soon.