October 2000 AU Bulletin

Religious Right Lobbies Against 'Hate Crimes' Bill

Despite aggressive lobbying efforts by Religious Right groups, the U.S. House of Representatives has easily passed a measure in support of expanding federal hate-crime legislation.

In June, the Senate approved S. 622, a defense bill with a provision adding homosexuals to the groups protected by federal hate-crime laws. Because the House version of the measure did not include the language, a House-Senate conference committee is working out the details.

On Sept. 13, the House endorsed a motion by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to instruct the committee to include the expanded protections for gays. The final vote was 232-192.

The Religious Right pulled out all of the stops in trying to block the legislation. Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based group headed by James Dobson, described the bill as a threat to "freedom of thought." Jerry Falwell said the law is "aimed directly at throttling the Biblical view on homosexuality." D. James Kennedy and his Center for Reclaiming America said the measure is "cleverly designed to punish citizens...for what they believe." Concerned Women for America wrote to every member of Congress to announce its "disgust" for the effort.

In fact, the measure does not interfere with freedom of religion or thought. Rather, it allows federal law enforcement officials to intervene in some cases where people become victims of violent crime because of their sexual orientation.

The Religious Right's efforts to stop passage of the proposal couldn't persuade a majority of the House, but the groups may have had greater success with someone of critical importance. During a Sept. 13 meeting with President Bill Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said he remains committed to removing the hate-crime provision from the legislation.

New Jersey Bible-In-Schools Decision Narrowly Upheld

A federal appeals court has split evenly on whether a New Jersey elementary school student has a First Amendment right to defy his teacher and read a Bible story aloud to his classmates.

The conflict began in 1996 when Zachary Hood, then a first grader at Haines Elementary School in Medford, N.J., was selected to bring a story from home to read to a class of 5- and 6-year-olds. Hood chose a selection adapted from the Book of Genesis from The Beginner's Bible: Timeless Children's Stories. The teacher, Grace Oliva, asked him not to read it to classmates, fearing that the children in the diverse class might perceive it as a teacher endorsement of Hood's religious beliefs. Instead Hood read it to Oliva privately.

On Aug. 29, all 12 judges on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals voted on C.H. v. Oliva, but split 6-6 over whether to overturn a lower court ruling that supported the decision of the teacher. As a result of the tie vote, the lower court opinion stands.

This was the third federal court ruling issued in this controversy, and each has sided with Oliva. In 1997, a federal district court ruled against the Hood family, declaring that the teacher used her discretion appropriately. A similar ruling was issued last October, when a three-judge panel of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said that the elementary school has no obligation to permit a student to read from a religious text to a captive audience of children.

The Hood family is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative Catholic legal group based in Washington, D.C. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is expected.

Harry Potter Project Rejected By Florida Library

A public library in Florida discontinued a reading promotion based on the popular Harry Potter books when local parents raised concerns that the program was advancing witchcraft.

A branch of the Jacksonville Public Library distributed about 200 "Hogwarts' Certificates of Accomplishment" to children on July 8, coinciding with the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in the popular series by British author J.K. Rowling.

In the series, Potter uses spells and magic learned at the "Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry" to fight against evil. The Jacksonville library planned to distribute the certificates to other young people as they read the best-selling children's novel.

However, John Miesburg, a Jacksonville resident, learned of the library program at his church and began complaining to the library's trustees and Jacksonville's City Council. He also contacted Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group affiliated with TV preacher Jerry Falwell.

"We don't want our children to be exposed to witchcraft," Miesburg, a father of six, told the Associated Press. "If they are going to pass out witchcraft certificates, they should promote the Bible and pass out certificates of righteousness."

Library officials insisted the project was harmless and merely intended to encourage young people to read. But based on the complaints of Miesburg and other like-minded parents, the program was discontinued.

'Moment Of Silence' Begins In Virginia Schools

Students in Virginia public schools may have noticed a little something different during homeroom this fall: a moment of silence.

During its most recent session, the Virginia legislature required every school district to schedule a 60-second moment of silence, during which students may "meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity."

Ten students from a variety of religious traditions are challenging the law with assistance from the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. But federal courts allowed the new policy to proceed while the legal challenge is under way.

"I believe this is an attempt to encourage publicly sponsored school prayer," Patrick Kelly, an Arlington County history teacher, told The Washington Post. "Although I go to church myself and I believe that students should pray if they wish to quietly to themselves...I don't think it's appropriate for the State of Virginia to promote organized silence. It's unconstitutional and unfair."

U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton heard arguments in the Brown v. Gilmore case on Sept. 9. 

Texas Atheists May Distribute Book Covers In School

A Texas-based atheist group, angered by a school district decision to allow distribution of Ten Commandments bookcovers in public schools, has received permission to distribute its own covers to students.

The Metroplex Atheists of Grand Prairie, Tex., received permission from the local school district one week after a local resident made 20,000 bookcovers available promoting the Ten Commandments. The atheist covers feature quotes from Madalyn Murray O'Hair and historical comments from U.S. presidents supporting separation of church and state.

School board President Norris Rideaux said he doesn't approve of the atheists' message, but felt he had to follow district policy allowing all materials that aren't obscene or sexually inappropriate.

"Personally, I don't approve of having atheist book covers in our schools, but I have to accept it because it's in our policy," Rideaux told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Shelly Hattan, a spokesperson for the 15-member Metro­plex Atheists, said she plans to distribute materials in every school in the district.

"Where there's a Ten Commandment book cover, we'll put ours," she said.

Tennessee School Officials Reject Ten Commandments

After weeks of heated debate, one of Tennessee's largest school districts has rejected a proposal to display the Ten Commandments in all public schools.

The Shelby County School Board, which includes the city of Memphis, decided Sept. 1 to permanently table an effort to post the Decalogue after attorneys explained that the district would face a legal fight it was certain to lose.

Board member Joe Clayton, a former private school administrator, introduced the plan in early August, arguing that posting the religious text would "solve a lot of problems." When the board's attorney explained that the move would be unconstitutional, Clayton said he was unsatisfied and wanted a second opinion.

Virginia Harvell, the lone critic of the effort on the board, called Clayton's proposal "legal insanity."

"There are 20 pages in my Yellow Pages of churches," Harvell said. "There are over 2,000 places you can worship. I just don't think we ought to get into this."

Board Chairman David Pickler ultimately came to agree with Harvell after doing additional legal research and the board agreed to end consideration of the matter.

Adventist College Wins State Subsidies In Maryland

A federal district court in Maryland has ruled that the state can legally give direct financial support to a Seventh-day Adventist college.

U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Garbis ruled Aug. 17 that Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Md., is not pervasively religious and can participate in Maryland's Sellinger Program, which distributes about $40 million annually to private colleges and universities.

Columbia Union originally applied for the aid in 1990 and filed a lawsuit in 1996 when it was denied. Garbis initially ruled against the school, but reconsidered when the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to him for additional findings.

Religiously affiliated colleges can only receive government help if the aid is not used for religious activities. "Pervasively sectarian" schools those where secular instruction and faith are inextricably intertwined are ineligible for government assistance because it would inevitably advance religion.

The state argued that Columbia Union qualifies as a pervasively sectarian institution, but Garbis disagreed.

"[T]he evidence does not...establish that it is pervasively sectarian," observed the judge in his Columbia Union College v. Oliver ruling. "The primary goal and function of Columbia Union College is to provide a secular education even though it has a definite and strong secondary goal to teach with a 'Christian vision.'"

Maryland officials say they will appeal.

Dispute Over Islamic Law Splits Nigeria

An effort to institute Islamic law in Nigeria has led to violent clashes between Christians and Muslims.

Since October 1999, eight Nigerian states have adopted Sharia (Islamic law), while others, including Kaduna, are considering doing the same. During that time, hundreds have died in street riots and at least one church has been burned down.

Supporters of the change insist that the Islamic law, which includes harsh penalties such as limb amputations for thieves, will apply only to Muslims.

"We're Muslims, and Muslims must be governed by Sharia," said Sheikh Zubairu Sirajo, who heads the Sharia coordinating committee for Nigeria's Kaduna State. "Christians will be punished according to their own Christian rules. Right now, they don't know what Sharia is all about. Once they do, they will be happy about it."